The Skin (aka La Pelle, Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Liliana Cavani in 1981 from the novel by Curzio Malaparte, is ostensibly a war drama, set during the American liberation of Sicily from the Fascists, but it’s really about the politics and economics of occupation. As the Allied forces (led by Burt Lancaster’s General Mark Clark) roll in, the Americans are as busy with public relations opportunities (Clark wants his Fifth Battalion to get the glory for the liberation) as with local issues, for which they defer to Curzio Malaparte (Marcello Mastroianni), an aristocrat and former Fascist who switched allegiances and fought the Fascists in Spain.
There’s not a lot of grace in Cavani’s direction—she seems occupied simply corralling such an enormous international production—but then it’s not a graceful subject. This isn’t about war, it’s about civilians caught between invading powers and soldiers in their downtime, and Cavani enjoys the chaos of this world in upheaval without letting us lose our way through. She takes us to the streets and apartment houses where the flesh trade cashes in on the new occupying army and to the heart of the Sicilian mafia, which negotiate a ransom for German POWs they’ve kidnapped (they want to get paid by the kilogram and have been stuffing them with pasta to fatten them up). True to form, the gangsters treat American military like just another syndicate.
Mastroianni, a master at playing jaded characters, brings compassion and understanding to Malaparte. He’s a realist who knows how to grease the wheels with the moneyed families (Claudia Cardinale as a vacant princess), the local leaders, and the mob, but he also knows what war does to civilians just trying survive a world where they are constantly occupied, starved, and bombed out of their livelihood, making money and scrounging food any way they can. He’s no longer shocked at what people do to survive and (in contrast to the American officer, many of them lost in their own double standards) doesn’t judge them, but he is tipped over into anger by cruelty and hypocrisy.
Ken Marshall is bland as the American officer who stands in for American morality, a seemingly compassionate guy who is shocked – Shocked! – at what he considers immoral behavior from a girl he loves only as long as she’s an innocent virgin in need of rescue, and Alexandra King cuts a striking figure as a Senator’s wife on her own PR mission, a sleek, headstrong redhead in the sea of Mediterranean faces and dark locks. These are not A-list American performers and it shows. Their characters are more bullet points than personalities and far less interesting than the Italians hustling through almost every scene, everyone looking for an angle before the army moves on. You can feel her admiration for the ingenuity and energy of these survivors, like the garment workers who create an industry making fair-haired merkins for Sicilian hookers to pass as blondes for the American soldiers.
In Italian with English subtitles, with commentary by film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein and four featurettes with interviews with director Liliana Cavani and production designer Dante Ferretti), plus a booklet with cast and credits.