The 1975 giallo thriller Le orme or Footprints on the Moon leaves you in the hands of a somewhat lost protagonist, Alice Cespi (a very Baryshnikov looking Florinda Bolkin), who awakes to discover that she cannot account for the prior three days. This absence goes on to cost her her job and to open a pandora’s box of questions concerning her identity, where she has been on the previous days and possibly her sanity.
During the film’s opening sequence, we experience one of Alice’s dreams. She explains that they are scenes from a movie entitled Footprints on the Moon which she was forced to watch and had disturbed her a great deal. This film within the film concerns an astronaut being abandoned on the moon as part of a sinister experiment led by a Professor Blackmann (Klaus Kinski). While there there are less than five minutes of Blackmann and moon scenes scattered throughout the film, they have a great sci-fi look to them and gain relevance as the story begins to crawl out of its moody hole.
The only vague clues as to where Alice may have been for the unaccounted days are a lost earring, a bloodstained dress, and a torn postcard which shows a hotel in a place called Garma. A conversation with a friend causes Alice to recall the last incident/memory prior to her lost days, when she suffered a mysterious meltdown at what appears to be an international, multilingual conference where she was an interpreter (On a related note: don’t be too bothered by the occasional scene that is spoken in Italian with no subtitles. There are a few but they are short).
Having lost her job and being at a complete loss as to where she has been the preceding days, she decides to go with the only vague clue she has and travels to Garma.
Things don’t become much clearer for Alice once she arrives in Garma. People give her ambiguous answers to questions and some people claim to recognize her from only a few days prior- or a version of her. She meets a young girl named Paula (played by Nicoletta Elmi, a familiar child actress from Argento and Bava films of the era) who is equally frightened and charmed by Alice- who the little girl believes to be an unkind woman named Nicole.
She meets a pleasant gentleman named Harry who seems unremarkable enough but gains significance as they get to know each other.
We don’t see too much of the haunting moon scenes and visions for a while. When they are reintroduced, they parallel the tension, drama, and revelations of Alice’s confusing little world as more information is slowly revealed.
A viewing analogy might be: sometimes you are forced to make friends with the wrong kid on the first day of school. Due to the lack of reliability in our protagonist, we start to question everything once the story is set into motion and we understand that all is not what it may seem from our host's perspective. A viewer isn’t sure if facts are genuine facts, or if Alice is under a misapprehension the entire time. Or some of the time. Or maybe she’s just plain nuts? Or perhaps there’s a complex conspiracy against her, engineered to confuse and mislead her? Ultimately, this device amps up the suspense and every bit of action and scenery takes on a different shape as we watch her attempt to unravel the mysteries that surround every bit of her existence. We are haunted by the scenes on the moon and find a very similar starkness in the city in which Alice lives; one that seems a particularly desolate, cold and antiseptic slice of modernity. Even after she relocates to Garma we still feel like she leads a very lonely existence on a nearly deserted island...or planet?
It is the slowest of burns once Alice arrives in Garma for- what one expects to be- a series of discoveries. Yet, revelations are hard-won and cryptic, at best. There are dead-ends, red herrings, and flat out articles of confusion inserted in a sometimes convoluted fashion.
Le orme has a great strength in the fact that it never allows you to gain any traction or an equilibrium in knowing ANYTHING for sure. It traps you in a frustrating box where elements are entirely out of control and beyond full comprehension. We’re slaves to invisible forces and can only sit with bound hands, suffering the fallout.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that he felt that his 1950 film Stage Fright suffered from the unreliable (or dishonest) backstory provided by Jonathan Cooper’s character, Richard Todd. Todd’s account of what happened is revealed to be a lie.1 This device seemed to throw audiences of the time: they just didn’t like that. By and large, the typical or accepted narrative is customarily handled by a person who is either in control or at least able to remedy any wrong-doing.
In the past couple of decades, variations of this “unreliable” method of storytelling has enjoyed success with movies such as Memento, The Sixth Sense and A Beautiful Mind- though, those films result in a much more obvious slap-you-across-the-face explanation with a tidy bow on top. Le orme doesn’t necessarily lie to the audience but it does put you in “incapable” hands in a similar spirit.
Le orme is a strangely beautiful thriller, gorgeously shot by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor). Often, the scenery does a lot of the acting with great and wide shots to skew our perception. Some of the shots are genuinely amazing, really allowing the viewer to consume the scenery, making this world much more interesting than a pedestrian use of the camera would normally permit. The contrasts between this gray world and the occasional pop of color appear at crucial times and reacquaint the viewer with “civilian” existence outside of this stifled world that Alice has brought us into.
It is fairly obvious that a story as strange and complex as this is a film that might make more sense or even benefit upon a second viewing. Still, this style of storytelling leaves an unmistakable mark.
1The DVD of Stage Fright has an interesting and informational bonus feature about Hitch’s feelings on this, which he considered his biggest mistake (I’m sure there were bigger mistakes than that). As a related note, there is a familiar Hitchcock/Vertigo-esque thread running through Le orme though it is a tattered one. Alice’s identity is questioned by the mentions of a “Nicole with long hair”: a wig, to be precise.