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Baba Yaga
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BABA YAGA (1973)

Starring: Carroll Baker, Isabelle de Funes, George Eastman, Ely Galleani

Written By: Corrado Farina, Guido Crepax Directed By: Corrado Farina

The Short Version

Naughty Italian comic comes to the screen!

Sapphic and S&M overtones take a back seat to surreal filmmaking.

That doll is creepy.

See Baba Yaga as a trippy museum piece that deserves to be discussed.

Just don’t expect it to either satisfy or make sense.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

GRATED PARMESEAN.

It’s Italian, and it’s definitely cheese.  You can taste that much.  But it’s been grated beyond recognition, so for anything else you just have to take the label’s word for it.  Or not.


Pairs Well With...

MOSCATO.

The cheap wine variety of choice for many a 70s dinner party.  Any other mood altering substances that may be required to figure out what the hell’s going on here I leave for you to determine.

“A friend of yours gets a headache; all of a sudden it’s sorcery and witches!”


Baba Yaga is the sort of movie which, at the end, sparks one to turn to one’s viewing companion (whom I sincerely hope is not one of your parents) and ask, “What the hell was that?”

At which point, Director Corrado Farina has succeeded.  It’s obvious that he wanted Baba Yaga to be a conversation piece, and wow, did he ever get his wish.  Whether you like this movie or hate it, and whether you can make sense of it or not, you’ll definitely be talking about it after you’ve seen it.

Baba Yaga (aka Kiss Me, Kill Me or Devil Witch)draws its basis from Guido Crepax’s ‘adult’ comic “Valentina,” which started up in 1965 and continued on in various forms until Crepax’s death in 2003.  Like the movie it would inspire, “Valentina” resists pigeonhole description.  It’s the radical 1960s.  It’s pop art.  It’s fashion.  It’s urban fantasy.  It’s psychedelic.  It’s surreal.  It’s cinematic.  It’s very, very free love.  It’s bisexual.  It’s erotic.  It’s S&M.  It’s all of these things, but none of them to a great enough extent to be able to pick just one and say “that’s it!”  You’ll get close with “surreal,” but not close enough. 

Valentina herself is an Italian freelance photographer.  Along with being a free spirited and quite uninhibited single young woman during the height of the Sexual Revolution, Valentina is also given to certain flights of fancy.  Like she’ll step onto a commuter train and be in a different comic book.  Or wake up as Bonnie Parker of Bonnie & Clyde fame.  The worlds of dreaming and reality mix for Valentina, and it’s often hard to discern which is which, and what if anything is real.  Author/artist Crepax presents all of this is a visual style less like that of a traditional comic than it is that of a cinema feature.

This is what drew Corrado Farina to make Baba Yaga.  He’d take a comic that looked like a movie and turn it into a movie that plays like a comic, with the artist’s blessing.  Knowing this in advance gives you at least a fighting chance at trying to decipher Farina’s style as the movie unfolds.  Not that he limits himself, mind.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Baba Yaga follows the adventures of Valentina, here played by Isabelle de Funes, who, like many women in this film, looks to be in desperate need of a sandwich.  After a night on the town, she discovers a dog in the middle of the street, though she seems to have failed to notice the occult paraphernalia surrounding it.  While saving the puppy, she’s nearly run over by a car.  The driver stops immediately, and steps out to see if Valentina is all right.  The driver, we will learn, is Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker, whom Farina was lucky enough to land on zero notice when the original actress backed out).  Baba Yaga is so taken by young Valentina that rather than scolding her for daring to interfere with the vehicular animal sacrifice she was trying to perform, she offers her a ride home instead.  Once there, Baba Yaga, being ever so forward, reaches her hand up Valentina’s skirt and snaps off a garter clip.  She needs a personal item, she says, and promises to return it later.  She also remembers to introduce herself before taking off.

Valentina, you’re going to notice throughout this film, in not nearly as bright as everyone else seems to credit her for.  Not only does she fail to recognize the universal red alert sign for “I need this to put a spell on you or some other such thing”, she also doesn’t pick up on the fact that the name “Baba Yaga” is the one traditionally given to a witch in much of Eastern and Central Europe.  (I know those two words sound silly in English, but they’ll scare the hell out little kids in Slavic countries.)  It’s not even clear that she picks up on the other obvious sign that all of her friends point out later, which is that Baba Yaga is probably a cougar on the prowl.

No matter; by now, Valentina’s tired, and besides, it’s time to dream about Nazis! 

Oh, wait.  It gets better. 

In her dream, Valentina is stripped down to her bra and panties, and is marched along by a pair of vaguely disinterested Nazi captors to a clearing.  Across the clearing, we see a Nazi officer seated at a desk, since, of course, the great outdoors is a perfect place to set up an office.  He’s petting a cat, Blofeld style.  Immediately in front of Valentina, there is what we can reasonably intuit to be a bottomless pit.  The officer looks at Valentina expectantly, and, without changing expression, Valentina removes her bra and hops down into the pit.

Did I mention that a lot of psychology students seem to have an interest in this movie?

But, nevermind the Nazis now; don’t worry, they’ll be back later!  Come the morning, Valentina’s got a photo shoot to do, though at least she needn’t go far, since she takes the term “studio apartment” literally.  (I kinda dig her apartment, actually.)  Rock to the 70s groove while we watch Valentina shoot pictures of a model in various states of costume and undress, and then it’s time for Baba Yaga to come back.  Later on, you may wonder why the movie didn’t end right here.  It’s made extremely clear that Baba Yaga would love to jump Valentina, and that despite a queasiness that the latter is trying to pretend at, Baba Yaga could just say “come on over to my place and let’s rock” at this point and it would happen.  Instead, she settles for more cougar innuendo, and makes sure to caress Valentina’s camera before leaving.

It only gets funkier from here, folks.

I’m sure you can guess that Bad Things happen to anyone whose picture is taken by that camera from that point on.  I’m sure you can also guess that even after this, Valentina continues to display slightly less cunning and wit than the average lawn gnome and therefore accepts an invite to Baba Yaga’s house, which is a beautifully dilapidated affair that looks like something straight out of Hammer.  But surprise!  Baba Yaga doesn’t have her way with our undernourished photographer yet.  She doesn’t even try.  Instead, she shows Valentina a doll she calls Annette.  Annette is genuinely creepy.  Annette would be genuinely creepy even if she wasn’t dressed up in studded leather strap open-breasted S&M gear.  And guess what?  Annette is a gift for Valentina.  Annette, Baba Yaga promises, will be Valentina’s guardian angel.

It still gets funkier, folks, but I’ll let you experience this for yourself.  Let’s just say that there are more dreams about Nazis, the doll isn’t just a doll, and – oh yeah – by the time the movie’s over, you get to ask yourself whether or not anything you’ve been watching for the past 83 minutes even happened at all.

Remember what I mentioned earlier about Valentina’s flights of fancy in the comics?

To be clear now, it’s not a cut and dried thing.  That’s part of Corrado Farina’s approach, here.  Just as in the comics, the lines are blurred.  Maybe it’s real; maybe it isn’t.  Watch and decide for yourself.  That part’s probably going to be an easier philosophical play than trying to figure out just what the hell Baba Yaga was up to the whole time.  Farina spells it out in an interview (should be on your disc; watch it after if you’ve got it), but what he comes up with still doesn’t necessarily cover why the middle half of the movie needed to exist.  I can make a few pretty well educated guesses at it myself, but there’s certainly debate to be had.  And that, right there, is the essence of Baba Yaga.

Like I said before, this movie is a conversation piece.  If you’re going to pigeonhole it as anything, pigeonhole it as that.  Baba Yaga was made to be discussed.

Farina makes sure to throw in more talking points than just “what the hell’s my movie about” while he’s at it.  Very much in the spirit of the times, there are a lot of political references here, specific in frame to Italy but farther reaching in scope.  Along with the repeated Nazi imagery, there are protests, discussions of Socialism (the term doesn’t mean to these people what it probably means to most folks reading this), and commentaries on race; there’s a lot packed in here.  (The racial stuff is particularly interesting, including a photo shoot by Valentina depicting a black man and a white woman on the verge of getting intimate, and a commercial being filmed wherein a detergent turns a black person into a white person.)

And then, of course, there’s the sex, and stuff peripheral thereto.  Despite a fair amount of topless skin flashing, there’s actually only one sex scene in the entire movie, along with one of “self indulgence”, and given Farina’s stylistic choice of how to film them (as still frames, some black and a white… much like the panels of a comic), they can’t exactly be counted as such in the traditional vein.  More likely to stir conversation is the whipping sequence in Chapter 18.  (A scene which one could easily argue has no bearing at all on the story, but that bridge was jumped a long time before.  Realistically, it’s there because it fits into the world imagined by Guido Crepax.)  This material leads many to want to classify Baba Yaga as “Eurotrash” along the lines of Vampyros Lesbos and so on, but given everything else that’s going on here, the label doesn’t fit, any more than it does to call Baba Yaga Giallo just because it’s Italian and there are dead people.

In the end, Baba Yaga – for all of its twisted psychology, random imagery, and cougars who dabble in the black arts – is very much its own thing.  It’s also a museum piece, be it for the Mutter Museum or a more traditional museum of film history.  If you want a snapshot of early 1970s Italy, Corrado Farina has made sure to give it to you.  If you want an interesting case study in surrealist filmmaking (I hesitate to call it psychedelic despite the era, simply for lack of drugs in the movie), this is it.  You want 70s “mod” style and funkified music?  Here you go.  And I’m damn sure that some psych student can make a PhD dissertation or three out of this.

Bottom line, Baba Yaga is worth seeing.  Whether you end up liking it or hating it, whether it ends up making sense to you or not, whether or not you decide in the end that there was or wasn’t a point to it all; Baba Yaga is worth seeing because whatever else it is, it is a film that begs to be considered and discussed.  And that, my friends, is a worthy thing.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

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