I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Film as Canvas: The Whip and the Body

by Sakunthala Panditharatne
Aug. 25, 2011
Mario Bava’s most risque piece, The Whip and the Body, is a Gothic melodrama about a twisted, sadomasochistic romance. Set to a haunting, majestic piano score, the film tells the story of lovers Kurt and Nevanka, in 19th century Italy. The film never received much attention, partly due to heavy censorship, despite the fact that if it were released now it would probably be rated PG. Even amongst those who saw the uncut version, many dismissed the film as a B-movie, party due to a kitschy script. However, its stunning cinematography has made the film a favourite classic amongst horror and giallo fans.

Mario Bava’s father was a renowned cameramen and a pioneer of special effects photography. After failing to become a painter, Mario went into his father's business, eventually becoming a director. In no film is his artistic background more evident than in The Whip and the Body. Every shot resembles a Chiaroscuro painting: bold strokes of deep, rich colours, accented with sharp tones of light and dark. Many filmmakers have called Bava’s lighting a technical marvel. Kurt and Nevanka could be figures in a Renaissance masterpiece.

Bava had no part in writing the script, which might be why so much of the film’s character development is through visuals. Some films use theme music for each character; Bava uses theme colors. Kurt, when alive, is associated with blood red, but Kurt’s ghost is tinted a light blue. Nevanka is a Gothic heroine, with thick black hair and huge dark eyes. The colours are used most obviously in a recurring shot of a beach at sunset. Before Kurt’s death, the sky is a bright red, and afterwards, a pale blue. This blue also appears when Kurt’s coffin is opened, and the red when he reappears from the dead. Images of death are usually black or gray, but not for Mario Bava, The graves’ golden candlelight, the monks’ crimson-robes, and the green glow of the crypt make even the most morbid imagery lush and majestic.

Unsurprisingly The Whip and the Body caused much controversy when it was released in 1963. Sadomasochism was classified as a mental disorder until as recently as 1994. The relationship between Kurt and Nevaka led to moral outrage and harsh censorship. The film was so heavily cut that the international releases of the film made no sense to foreign audiences. "[The Whip and the Body’s] accomplishments went unappreciated for quite a long time, while Luis Bunuel's 'Belle de jour', made four years later, was universally acclaimed," says critic Tim Lucas.

Sakunthala Panditharatne is a maths student and pseudo-Bohemian loser. She spends maybe 80-90% of her time programming, writing and starting awesome projects, like her tumblr, theimaginaryhackathon.tumblr.com . The rest of the time she spends watching Malcolm in the Middle. She likes long, complicated novels and believes in the power of self-organization. Dave Eggers used to be her hero, but she’s kind of past that phase now.