Generally speaking, children in cinema (mostly mainstream Hollywood fare) tend to fall into one of three categories. Rarely are they portrayed as fully formed people, more often than not being written as little adults. They talk and behave like worldly people, wise beyond their years and difficult to take seriously, even though they seldom are meant to be taken that way (Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone). Alternately, kids are depicted as caricatures of kids, their eccentricities amplified to unreal degrees, their soul-shattering tweeness causing little more than head shakes and eye rolls (Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire encompasses both of the aforementioned types while trying to be neither). The third variety of cinematic youth is the diabolical child, the most well-known example of which would be Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. Sometimes, however, this class of child plays as a soulless mass, emphasizing the pure monstrosity of a dehumanized group to instill fear in adults who can’t quite wrap their heads around the child mentality (Who Can Kill a Child?, The Children, etcetera). Naturally, there are times when filmmakers get it right with kids (Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal in The Sixth Sense manages to imbue his character with both childlike fear and bravery), but this doesn’t happen very often, to be frank.
Ricky (Renato Cestie) in Sergio Sollima’s Devil in the Brain is initially set up in this third category, a la Mario Bava’s tykes from Bay of Blood, but it soon becomes apparent that he symbolizes a niche fourth category in which the giallo truly specializes; the repressed victim. Unlike children who are born bad, the repressed victim becomes desensitized because of the immorality and flagitiousness of the adults around them (many times their primary caregivers), and this is what twists them into what they become (catatonic or malevolent). Two of the best examples of this both come from Dario Argento. In Tenebre, a young male character is punished for being sexually attracted to a woman, and the resulting humiliation (physical and emotional) causes his psychotic break. In Deep Red, a child witnesses a family member’s murder, and this, in part, makes him the damaged person he is in the present, unable to deal with the feelings at war inside himself.
Devil in the Brain‘s Ricky has been sent off to a special school for difficult children after having ostensibly killed both a vagabond and his own father. He stares at a spider which falls out of the bouquet he is carrying to his father’s grave, a symbol of corruption inside the seemingly innocent. He focuses on his foot crushing the dead flowers he removes from said grave. He shoots his mother’s dolls with a spear gun. Above all else, he is jealous of his mother Sandra’s (Stefania Sandrelli) relationship with his father, Fabrizio (Maurice Ronet). This adds an Oedipal layer to their relationship, as Ricky waltzes up to his parents while they’re getting hot and heavy, and, after stomping on his dad’s libido, proceeds to tell his mother that he’s happiest with her when Fabrizio’s not around (this is after sullenly watching a home movie of her breast feeding him with Fabrizio groping her boob, essentially denying Ricky that which he needs/wants most). Every sign points to Ricky as a demon in training, but its origin is close to home.
With this in mind, Devil in the Brain plays more along the lines of a psychological thriller than a giallo. Aside from Ricky and his dead-eyed gaze, Sandra has also had a breakdown following Fabrizio’s death. Hers takes the form of a regression to a childhood she may or may not have ever had. She forgets all about Fabrizio, and doesn’t recall that Ricky is her son. She has become the repressed child that Ricky is supposed to be. In a way, this retrogression makes Sandra an equal to Ricky, and one would think that this is exactly what Ricky wanted all along. But the boy handles things better than his mother, and he never takes advantage (or maybe just never has the opportunity to take advantage) of this situation. Fearing for her daughter’s safety (and, to be sure, her own social status), the Contessa D’Blanc (Micheline Presle) keeps Sandra walled up inside her estate. By the Contessa’s thinking, the outside world would be too much for Sandra, and this is all for her own good. Sandra now enjoys walking the grounds and working on her designs. Nevertheless, she has slipped so far in her mental state that her art is nothing more than circles repeated over and over again. Unlike the famous and literal circle of The Hudsucker Proxy, Sandra’s circles are a dual metaphor not only for the circularity that her psyche has undergone (back toward the beginning to start the circle of life again) but also for the barrel of the gun which killed her husband.
In this same way, Devil in the Brain deals with rationalization and denial. Sandra, in her infantilized state, denies anything is wrong, that she has any family aside from her mother, and that everything is just hunky dory. The Contessa denies that this situation is something she can’t handle. Further, she denies to herself that the killer could have been anyone other than little Ricky. She rationalizes that sending Ricky away is a great solution to this problem, as was covering up not one but two murders. Oscar (Keir Dullea) plays the old friend who returns from Venezuela to find the unrequited love of his life a devastated mess and his best friend dead. He rationalizes that developing a romantic relationship with Sandra at this moment in time is okay, because this is his big opportunity to start over with her (some would call this manipulation, but there you have it).
He also denies every explanation that his friend Dr. Emilio Buontempi (Tino Buazzelli) gives for what’s actually going on. This is despite the fact that Oscar called Emilio specifically to help him figure everything out. Oscar doesn’t actually want the truth. He wants this fantasy that he can control, even though, as he eventually finds out (and characters in situations like this always find out), the truth is something which can’t be contained. Emilio and Ricky are the only two characters in the film who are actively interested in the truth (of course, the film, as with all gialli, plays it a bit fast and loose with actual psychological theories), who don’t wear blinders like the others, although the two are also opposites in that Emilio is vocal about it and Ricky keeps it all locked up inside himself.
An element of classism creeps in around the edges of the film. Naturally, the Contessa and her family are the elite. They remain removed from the plebes of society within a walled world. The Contessa thinks that she can contain her life and that of her daughter, but the very act of constraining it, it can be argued, is what forces it to blow up. In her mind, the rich can get away with murder, not just because they’re rich but also because they have other people to do the dirty work of covering it up for them. Oscar, from the film’s outset, appears like a rich gadabout. As he plows through town in his De Tomaso Mangusta, the focus becomes not that he’s driving a hot European sports car like an entitled jerk but that said car is not in the best of shape. So, either he doesn’t care about the condition of his vehicle because he can just get another one any old time or he was able to buy this particular car because of its neglected state. We come to learn that Oscar has earned his money. He is not like the D’Blancs, though that is his ultimate aspiration (something which can never happen, because he wasn’t born into riches). Being on par with them will give him access to their world, especially Sandra. He is trying to buy his way into the upper crust. To Oscar, this is a worthy goal and will all work out a treat, another level to his denial.
Sollima didn’t direct very many films. His career is split fairly evenly between theatrical and televised fare. Devil in the Brain is not what anyone would consider a technically outstanding movie, but it is solid in its craftsmanship. Where the film stands out is in its story, not its style. It’s difficult to even consider it a giallo, because it doesn’t wallow in the genre’s typical stocks in trade. There is no black-gloved killer careening through the cast of characters (in fact, there are only two murders in the film, only one of which the audience gets to see, and it isn’t gratuitously violent or stabby). There is no real sleaze to speak of. What nudity there is doesn’t feel immoderate. Instead, this is a well-written, well-thought-out story about repression and obsession and the consequences of both. It’s a film about characters and the self-destructive desires they have to cling to in order to give their lives meaning. Because without these things, ultimately, they have nothing (or, at least, they believe they have nothing).