Plot: in fascist Italy thirty-something Teresa awakens dormant sexual desires.
Giovanni “Tinto” Brass revived classy soft erotica in a time when the genre was considered all but extinct. From somewhere around the mid-sixties up until the late seventies the subgenre survived primarily thanks to the exploitation industry. In Italy erotica had died a protracted and torturous death at the hands of puerile commedia sexy all’Italiana (typically, but not always, featuring Gloria Guida and similar starlets) and just about every stripe of horror. Directors as Joe D’Amato, the Bianchi’s (Mario and Andrea), and Jean Rollin alternated between erotic horror and straight up porn proper. In Spain there was Jesús Franco who had singlehandedly kept erotica afloat - in both the hard and soft format - in the morass of mediocrity that is his 200-plus title repertoire. Brass’ second effort emerged around the time that the Spanish Cine-S was on the way out, and when American moguls as Zalman King reigned supreme on late night cable. After thirty years Italian exploitation had come to an abrupt and grinding halt but Tinto Brass was not just anybody. Brass was no ordinary smut peddler, no base sleaze merchant. Brass was, perhaps before everything else, a master technician.
Just like Hollywood darling Bernardo Bertolucci he too did not start making softcore erotica until working his way through the usual contract work in a variety of genres. Brass started off with a series of avant-garde and arthouse features in the sixties starring the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Anita Sanders, and Tina Aumont. After the il sadiconazista Salon Kitty (1976) Brass did principal photography on the big budget Hollywood peplum Caligula (1979) which infamously was stolen right from under him by Penthouse producer Bob Guccione. Guccione had the gall to add hardcore inserts and re-edit it from a political satire into a sex romp. Understandably both Brass and writer Gore Vidal fiercely disavowed it with a veritable avalanche of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits ensuing in the immediate aftermath. With Caligula (1979) stuck in legal limbo for several years Bruno Corbucci used the expansive (and expensive) sets and filmed the peplum sex comedy Messalina, Messalina! (1977) (with Anneka Di Lorenzo) and Joe D’Amato responded with Caligula: the Untold Story (1982). Tinto worked with Paola Senatore before her infamous descent into hardcore pornography. While there were others The Key (1983) was where, for the first time, all of the hallmark Brass signatures coagulated into their known and beloved form. Brass’ first erotic feature set the gold standard to which all of his works would be measured.
Like any good filmmaker Brass quickly developed his own style and visual quirks. As Radley Metzger and Joseph W. Sarno before him Tinto specialized in languid, hyper-stylized arthouse erotica that pushed the limits of softcore as far as he possibly could, often bordering on hardcore. Bedrooms ostensibly are blue, usually full of mirrors (an oval one above the bed) or other reflective surfaces, and sets will be riddled with phallic symbols (whether that are candlesticks, sculptures, or J&B bottles, to name a few of the most obvious) of just about every kind; there will be a bright-lit dream sequence in a nod to Fellini and Tinto’s camera will often capture his women bending over, changing clothes, or simply urinating and using a bidet; men are an unfortunate but necessary hindrance in life and they usually exist only in two varieties: either they are wanton perverts out to dominate the female lead or the kind of sullen, dopey studious types that were and are part and parcel in Italian comedy. The lead women universally and uniformly are the kind of the scantily clad, sexually insatiable and omnivorous femme fatales existing only in the fevered imagination of the hetero male. An ever-looming presence in the Brass oeuvre is the pushback against the repressive mores imposed by the dictatorial church or state; the constant battle between the mere hollow and mechanical act of intercourse to satisfy the senses, and the gentle act of making love that comes with romantic love. In many of his films the man is typically a repressed moralist or a doofus plain uninterested in his hot-to-trot wife – and she will in turn embark on a liberating journey of serial fornication in which self-discovery and gratification with different men is integral to her self-realization. Sex is both banal in its mundanity and the most magical bond man and woman can share.
Brass had learned from the best (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fernando di Leo, Brunello Rondi) and usually imbued his work with razor-sharp socio-political commentary and criticism. Tinto was vehemently opposed to censorship in whichever form and would combat it whenever possible in whatever way he saw fit. Brass was an iconoclast, a non-conformist, a subversive rebelling against the sacred institutions of church and state. His prime features through the 1980s and early 1990s were adaptations of erotic literature. In case of La Chiave (or The Key in the English world) that was Kagi by Junichiro Tanizaki. And while his best work may be rife with subtext, political and otherwise, he more than anything adored the female form – its shapes and curves. He’s frequently accused of being gynecological, almost medical, in the way he photographed his women. To which we’ll offer a dissenting voice and posit that Brass was a lot of things, but gynecological he was not. That’s strictly Jesús Franco territory and his frantic obsession with documenting every pore of Lina Romay’s nether-regions borders on the pathological. Sex, in the world of Brass, is a means to an end, a tool, a panacea to conserve, maintain, restore, or salvage that most sacred thing of all: marriage. And when Tinto really fires on all cylinders all of the above (or some recombinant thereof) is used to expose the rank hypocrisy of church, state, and society at large.
He also was in the habit of casting semi-forgotten exploitation starlets of yesteryear in supporting roles. Tinto obviously liked women of every sort, but preferred only a certain type: dark haired, doe-eyed, with a milky white complexion and full curves like the Aphrodite of Knidos. Brass sought not to launch the next big sex-crazed starlet but wanted a timeless beauty akin to vintage Italian belles as María Luisa Rolando, Graziella Granata, Rosanna Schiaffino, and imported beauties as Barbara Steele, Helga Liné, and Adriana Ambesi. More importantly, Brass liked his women the way nature had intended them. Unspoiled, unshaven, and not littered with tattoos and/or bodily modifications. Above all else, though, he had only one quintessential requirement: his girls had to have a plump posterior. After all, what’s more Italian than the adulation of ass? Mario Imperoli launched Gloria Guida and her legendary ass to superstardom with Blue Jeans (1975) some ten years before and The Key would do the same for Stefania Sandrelli.
Venice, 1940. Under the repressive nationalist regime of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party Italy is on the brink of entering into World War II. Senior-aged Nino Rolfe (Frank Finlay) is not only a studious (and somewhat stuffy) English professor, the old patriarch also happens to be the director of the Biennale Foundation that organizes The Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) held annually in the Arsenale and Biennale Gardens in the sestieri of Castello. In other words, Rolfe is a busy man. As a result, he’s more preoccupied with his teaching and managerial duties than with the practical matters of his marriage. His much younger trophy wife Teresa (Stefania Sandrelli) operates a small pension in the heart of the city. She’s humble, chaste, and submissive to her husband. After twenty years, the couple find themselves in a romantic - and sexual impasse. The fire in their relationship has is subsided and to that end Nino keeps a diary in which he describes his most lustful desires. One day he deliberately leaves the key to said private drawer on the floor of his study.
Teresa finds the key to the drawer and takes to reading her husband’s secret diary. This in turn inspires her to write her own wherein she confesses to engaging in a steamy, illicit, and passionate affair with Laszlo Apony (Franco Branciaroli), the virile Hungarian boyfriend of her daughter Lisa (Barbara Cupisti). As the couple write diary entries to each other their reciprocal confessions reignite the raging fires of passion in their relationship once more. Nino’s diary has awakened a sexual beast previously dormant in his Teresa. Her unfettered sexuality and headstrong agency even manages to take him by surprise. During one of their more animated sexual games (Teresa orders him to wear her knickers, stockings and bra and make love to her and in another he drugs her into partaking in various kinky bedroom photo shoots) Nino suffers a debilitating stroke that leaves him bedridden and almost paralyzed. Upon reading her mother’s diary entries about her liaison with her boyfriend Laszlo to her dying father Lisa (who’s supportive of Mussolini’s fascist regime and administration), either directly or indirectly, contributes to the swifter passing of her pacifist father. The old professor’s funeral is held on 10 June 1940 around the same time as Mussolini announces Italy’s entry into World War II from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia.
At 37 Stefania Sandrelli was a good ten to fifteen years older than every Brass babe that would follow in her footsteps. At just 14 years old Stefania had starred in Luciano Salce’s The Fascist (1961) as well as Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style (1961) (opposite of Marcello Mastroianni) and Seduced and Abandoned (1963) (with Lando Buzzanca). In the sixties and seventies Sandrelli worked with directors Luigi Comencini, Ettore Scola, Carlo Vanzina, and Sergio Corbucci and on several occasions with Salce and Germi. In France she worked with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claude Chabrol. Almost twenty years after Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (1965) Sandrelli was amidst something of a career revival. In the prior decade she could be seen in the giallo The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), the comedy Alfredo Alfredo (1972) (opposite of Dustin Hoffman), Devil in the Brain (1972), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s legendary epic Novecento (1976). After Brass reinvigorated her career Stefania made appearances in the Bigas Luna romantic comedy Jamón Jamón (1992) (where a young Penélope Cruz exposed her own hams and gams), and then again with Bertolucci for the arthouse drama Stealing Beauty (1996) (back from the days when Liv Tyler was the Aerosmith girl, not the Hollywood A-lister). Sandrelli continues to act in Italy to this day. Winning multiple David di Donatello Awards in 2006 Stefania was given the Nastro d'Argento Lifetime Achievement Award by Sindacato Nazionale dei Giornalisti Cinematografici Italiani (Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists) as well as the Pietro Bianchi Prize at the Venice Film Festival as recent as last year, in 2022, for her contributions to the cinematic arts.
The Key heralded the last decade of the great Italian starlet with Sandrelli in company of illustrious contemporaries as Ania Pieroni, Cinzia Monreale, Eva Grimaldi, and Daniela Doria; Stefania however was in a class all her own. In the form of Serena Grandi and Donatella Damiani as well as lesser goddesses as Pamela Prati, Lara Wendel, Loredana Romito, Luciana Ottaviani, and Angela Cavagna the doe-eyed Italian sex kitten of yore was replaced by sex-crazed hourglass-figured models. Times were changing and Sandrelli was one of the last of her kind. By the time she came to undress in front of Brass’ loving camera Stefania not only was a dyed in the wool veteran of the screen but she was also a good fifteen years older than any of the Brass babes of the future. Sandrelli was already established when she worked with Brass, and she wore his stamp of approval with pride and joy. Brass explicitly wanted her (and nobody else) and he was willing to wait for Sandrelli to age into the role had envisioned for her. Being the consummate professional that she was Stefania never disowned The Key (1983) as erotic pulp from and for the arthouse. As near as we can tell it gave her career a second lease on life and for that reason (and others, in all likelihood) Stefania Sandrelli has always vigorously defended her association with old Tinto, il maestro of erotica. He acknowledged and thanked Sandrelli for her unyielding loyalty remarking that The Key (1983) demonstrated to everyone that, "she too can act with her ass." That might not sound like much but, as far as we can tell, Brass was never the complimentary type so miss Sandrelli getting his stamp of approval was something of a big deal.