SFIFF: Blood ties

Asia and Dario Argento go go for a SFIFF trifecta
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Asia looks aghast

cheryl@sfbg.com

You can keep those classy, highbrow Coppolas. I'll play the low card with the Argentos any day. This year's San Francisco International Film Festival is a feast for fans of the father-daughter team: Dario directs Asia in Mother of Tears, his long-awaited final entry in the cultishly beloved "Three Mothers" series, which includes 1977's Suspiria and 1980's Inferno. Asia also stars in Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, as well as the fest's opening-night film, Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress.

I first encountered the duo under the least relaxing of circumstances at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival. Press interviews for Mother of Tears were held in a hectically crowded hotel restaurant. Waiting for my turn, I watched as team Argento chowed down a quick lunch, chattering together in Italian about who knows what (witches, ancient artifacts, the weather?). I clutched my tape recorder, feeling possibly the same mixture of fear, awe, and excitement that filled Suspiria's Suzy Bannion when she arrived at a certain cursed ballet school.

Fortunately, my chat with the pair was devoid of ceiling maggots, underwater zombies, or — as featured in Mother of Tears — demonic monkeys. Probably the most frequent question Dario Argento has had to answer is the most obvious: why did he decide to finish the trilogy now, nearly three decades post- Inferno? "We have a time for everything," he told me, because of course that's exactly what I asked him first off. "You wait until the idea comes."

There's no doubt Mother of Tears sprang from Argento's brain; his signature occult themes, glorious violence, and attention to style (instead of, say, plot) are all accounted for. He cowrote the film's script with a pair of Americans he met while working on Showtime's Masters of Horror series, Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch (Simona Simonetti and Mother of Tears editor Walter Fasano are also cocredited). The film, which opens theatrically in San Francisco in June, received mixed reviews on the festival circuit. Variety critic Dennis Harvey, who also writes for the Guardian, called it a "hectic pileup of supernatural nonsense." True enough, but I would argue that while Mother of Tears is flawed, it's enjoyably flawed.

The story revolves around a museum worker named Sarah (Asia Argento) who must summon previously dormant spiritual powers (inherited from her late mother, played by Asia's real-life mother and Dario's former partner, Inferno star Daria Nicolodi) to defeat an evil witch's plot to take over Rome and eventually the world. Eyes are gouged out. Cleavers make short work of necks. Underground pools of muck must be navigated. Udo Kier, playing an exorcist, very nearly reprises his Suspiria role as Exposition Guy. Characters, including witches, take the time to use public transportation. Silly? Yeah, a bit.

Waiting to make Mother of Tears enabled Argento to take advantage of CG, one of his favorite cinematic inventions. His 1996 film The Stendhal Syndrome (which also starred Asia) was reportedly the first Italian release that used CG. In Toronto, Argento told me the film has more than 180 visual effects — including a church on fire — which were created in conjunction with Lee Wilson, another Masters of Horror veteran.

The freedom Argento has enjoyed with CG (now, he says, "it's possible to fly high!") is matched by another door that has opened since the releases of Suspiria and Inferno: the censorship that plagued his early career is less of an issue in these accustomed-to-gore times.

"I hate censors," Argento assured me in our second interview, conducted over the phone in late March.

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