NEW YORK — A one-off comic fantasy from neo-realist master Roberto Rossellini, the little-seen The Machine That Kills Bad People has made its way to these shores after being restored by Bologna’s L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory and Cinecittà Luce. Appealing mainly for diehards already well schooled in his landmark titles, it seems likely to make a fest appearance or two before emerging on a boutique home-vid label.
Filmed over a span of four years following the production of Rossellini’s Postwar Trilogy, it shares with the director’s better known work a fascination with authentic settings: Set in a picturesque fishing village on the Amalfi Coast, it makes good use of unstaged footage capturing local festivals. But it also makes sly, ambiguous jabs at that very documentary impulse with a premise connecting photography to witchcraft-enabled murder.
Celestino (Gennaro Pisano), a high-strung portrait photographer, is thrust into the conflict between haves and have-nots when he takes in an old beggar who turns out to be (or is he?) the revered Sant’Andrea. The saint does something odd to Celestino’s camera after a discussion of local bullies, and suddenly all Celestino has to do to eliminate a villain is find a photo of the man and re-photograph it using his own camera.
(The victim dies frozen in whatever pose he took in the original photo, making for some very funny, surrealist-tinged gags.)
Naturally, doing away with a few bad eggs doesn’t solve the village’s problems. When the Lord calls one evildoer home, we’re told, two more replace him. Soon enough we arrive at Rossellini’s moral, stated explicitly via a puppet-show framing device and aimed at those cleaning up after WWII: Judging good from bad is tough work, and meting out punishment is more dangerous still.
Though the farce has some lively moments and Pisano’s expressive performance exudes a crude charm, the picture is uneven as a work of entertainment. Auteurists will welcome the chance to mull it over, but many will find fault with the tech aspects of its restoration: Particularly (but not exclusively) in the first reel, an unusual and distracting twitch afflicts the image, making it look as if it were projected on a piece of flexing tin.
Production Company: Universalia Film
Cast: Gennaro Pisano, Marilyn Buferd, William Tubbs, Giacomo Furia, Carlo Giuffrè, Aldo Giuffrè
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenwriter: Sergio Amidei, Giancarlo Vigorelli, Franco Brusati, Liana Ferri, Roberto Rossellini
Directors of photography: Enrico Betti Berutto, Tino Santoni
Music: Renzo Rossellini
Editor: Jolanda Benvenuti
No rating, 84 minutes.