Rosemary Dexter is perhaps best known, though never talked about, for her role as Colonel Mortimer’s sister in 1965’s For a Few Dollars More. While uncredited, and with nary a line of dialogue, she provides the film and the Lee van Cleef character with a personal, forceful motivation other than bounty killing (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Dexter (who passed away in 2010) had a natural charm and talent for acting, and it doesn’t hurt any that she was a breathtaking beauty who was willing to doff her clothes onscreen. The slyly wounded quality she brings to Mario Caiano’s Eye in the Labyrinth elevates the film beyond the more arch portrayals that are given by (and expected from) her co-stars, which include Adolfo Celi and Alida Valli. In fact, the film is more measured and understated on the whole than a great many of the films that can be classified as gialli.
In a visually imposing opening, Lucas (Horst Frank) is pursued, bloodied and haggard, through an architectural nightmare of blank studies in geometry (like, say, a labyrinth). A knife to the back finally does him in, just as Julie (Dexter) wakes, shouting Lucas’ name. It seems the man, who is both Julie’s shrink and her beau, is missing. One deliriously hot tip from an inmate at Lucas’ clinic sends Julie to the fictional town of Maracudi. The place is bucolically rundown, equal parts inviting and forbidding. It recalls the island from Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child, just replacing the children with artists for its creep factor.
Art is a massive element in the film, relating both to the theme of alienation as well as the ultimate truth of the film’s central mystery. Gerda’s (Valli) villa is an isolated spot on the coast, and it’s loaded with artsy weirdos. There are a couple of actors, a man and a woman, who constantly bicker while they perform overwrought melodramas. There is a composer who only uses natural sounds in his music. He walks around with a microphone recording everything, including conversations. There is a photographer who takes pictures of parts of people (feet, hands, et cetera, with nary a head in sight). Gerda has a kept man half her age, and he’s a dope fiend. Of them all, this guy, Louis (Michael Maien), is the least artistic, being a strung out boy toy for the villa’s patroness. All of these people hold dark secrets, the implication being that their art is an expression of their inner damage (isn’t that always the case?), a pathway toward their inner truth.
Yet, the artists are also lazy. They are perpetually lolling about the grounds with blinders over their eyes and earplugs in their ears (with the exception of Louis, who is still indolent but not as willfully ignorant). They are not only removed from reality, but they also want nothing to do with it. The vacuum of the social commune is all they seek, like the womb most of them would love to crawl back into and sew tightly shut. Local orphan Saro (Benjamin Lev) is also a painter, but being literal in every way, his art is not an expression of his inner being, per se. It is, instead, a truth of the external world (and double-sided, at that). The film’s title refers to a piece of art, though it too reflects the mystery of the film’s plot and the confusion that Julie experiences. To reach the eye in the figurative labyrinth is to discover the truth, and like King Minos’ Minotaur, it’s a liberating and fearsome knowledge to encounter.
Julie’s isolation is further reinforced by her treatment from the moment she reaches Maracudi. Everyone who meets her stares at her in anxious disdain (with the exception of Saro, who stares at Julie’s naked breasts with unadulterated lust). Consequently, none of what she’s told can be trusted, and this builds the film’s sense of unease. After all, if none of the other characters can be taken at face value, can Julie? The first person Julie encounters is Antonio, a henchman in every respect, right down to his false eye. Immediately after telling Julie that he’s never seen Lucas before, he goes to a phone to let someone know she’s in town. This leads to Julie’s meet up with Frank (Celi), the most deceptive character in the film. Outwardly, he’s Julie’s savior and compatriot, rescuing her from harm, putting her up at the local orphanage (a building which he used to own, along with Gerda’s villa), and delving into the odd goings on like a private dick. Ultimately, he desires Julie for himself, and he makes forceful advances on her at the most inappropriate times. Not even Louis, who Julie begins an open affair with (to the chagrin of Gerda) can do much for her, being weak and drug-addled. Julie is truly alone, and her efforts to have contact with other people are always damned.
Julie’s journey from Milan to Maracudi sticks to the underlying principle of every Road Movie ever made: transformation. As the film begins, Julie seems like a normal (if nightmare-riddled) woman. Each step she takes toward Gerda’s villa is a step toward realizing who she is. As she enters Maracudi, she’s innocent, trusting, naïve. That she follows Antonio alone to an abandoned house is testament to this. Meeting Frank and Saro, she is exposed to the power of her allure as well as the power that The Male Gaze holds over her, and she reacts to this. Coming upon a stretch of beach before the villa, Julie decides to go for a little skinny dip. When a trio of crass youths snatch her clothes and taunt her, she doesn’t get worked up. Instead, she swims the rest of the way to Gerda’s. She doesn’t bat an eye about having to do this (by the way, there is a road that leads to the same destination), the first true step to the truth she seeks, about Lucas and herself. The water is the magical portal which transports Julie from (mostly) normal life into the deranged/debauched/destitute world of the artist’s commune, like the tornado that whisked Dorothy off to Oz (just with a few more sidestrokes). Each person she meets, every time an attempt is made on her life, every time someone stares daggers or erections at her, Julie moves that much closer to her self-realization. This is when things turn inward, and the film becomes much more about Julie’s mind. The ordeals she undergoes (physical, mental, and emotional) push her further and further through the labyrinth in her mind, until she reaches the fateful center.
It would be easy to dismiss Caiano as solely a hack, if all one does is look at his filmography. This is, after all, the man who brought the world Nazi Love Camp 27 (the proverbial sore thumb that sticks out in the lot). However, simply because a person does what they have to do for employment in no way means that they necessarily half-ass it (most of the time). With Eye in the Labyrinth, Caiano demonstrates a sure hand in orchestrating his players, staging the action in striking tableaux, and allowing his creative muscles to stretch. For example, every flashback in the film is shown to us without diegetic sound. If is the audience hears anything, it’s a character narrating events which the viewer is currently witnessing. Doing this gives power to the flashbacks as moments remembered, moments which deeply affected those involved. But the use of offscreen narration in conjunction with the tomb-silence of the images creates a certain level of untrustworthiness. The audience is not given the full information that goes with these memories (actual order of events, dialogue, et cetera). All a viewer has to go on is what the narrator says happened, and the visuals reinforce this, because they are being transmuted from spoken words to physical pictures. Hence, reality is created (and it may even be factual truth), but that doesn’t mean it’s honest.
It’s a gutsy move to open one’s movie with a quote, but Caiano does just that. After the credits, it appears over the scratchy cement background: “Un labirinto è costruito per confondere la mente degli uomini. La sua architettura, ricca di simmetrie, è subordinata a tal fine.” This translates to, “A maze is a structure compounded to confuse men. Its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end.” The quote comes from Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Immortal,” the tale of a man who finds out that eternal life sounds better in theory than in practice. Specifically, this quote appears in the portion of the story where the man explores the city/palace of the gods he sought. Realizing that none of it makes sense, that logic doesn’t exist there, he decides that, “The gods who built it were mad.” Amazingly, and unlike so many films that litter the landscape of European genre cinema, the citation actually fits Eye in the Labyrinth fairly well. Not because there’s anything supernatural going on in the film, or because both fiction and film feature a body of water (a stream in the prose) which the main character has to cross in order to enter another world, but because Julie finds herself in the center of a metaphorical labyrinth, and she may not actually want to solve the puzzle (be careful what you wish for). Caiano sticks to this metaphor throughout the film (the interior of the villa is shot as if it were a maze), even over the areas of the narrative that play as heightened melodrama. Eye in the Labyrinth is a focused, involving giallo, the antithesis of the majority of the genre which give up on sense in favor of style and sleaze. But it has enough of those, as well.