There are really three Dario Argentos in Simone Scafidi’s new documentary, Dario Argento Panico, and together they form a kind of Unholy Trinity. There is Dario Argento the artist (Father)––passionate, industrious, destructive; Dario Argento the man (Son)––generous, bookish, vulnerable; and Dario Argento the cinematic style (Holy Spirit)––savage, operatic, phantasmagorical. And perhaps the most enjoyable––and certainly the most novel––part of Scafidi’s film is that he allows these three personas to co-exist, creating a disguised giallo whose central question is not “Who committed the murder?” but “Who is Dario Argento?”

Scafidi’s portrait of Argento the man is, for the most part, sympathetic and in many ways rather ordinary, though there are occasional flashes of insight. We hear about his life in Rome during World War II; about his relationship with his father, the producer Salvatore Argento; and about how he used to sit quietly in his mother’s studio after school, watching as she took pictures of famous models and actresses, noting how she “elevated” her subjects. These sweet, sentimental stories––which in previous documentaries could be dismissed as mere trivia––have a renewed power now that Argento is in his 80s, and elucidate far more about his character than do the stories about his work as a critic for Paese Sera or his celebrity after The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. For the critic and the celebrity have begun to fade, whereas one can still see the shy, sensitive boy in the older Argento––see how the introversion has hardened into a frosty yet playful miserabilism. Which is to say that Panico works best when it eschews biographical convention––the organizing and simplifying of a life––and instead works to create striking (if not poetic) juxtapositions.

This is most apparent in the figure that Scafidi constructs of Argento the artist. To various of his collaborators and admirers, including Michele Soavi and Lamberto Bava, Argento is regarded as a kind of paternal authority whose occasional severity is justified by his art; to many others, he is perverse and demanding; and to Cristina Marsillach, who starred in his film Opera, he is all of these things at once. What emerges from these fragments is a portrait of an artist who is obsessed with, and is to some extent consumed by, his art, the making of which involves, as he describes it, a kind of dialogue between his rational self and a nefarious shadow twin. This is a rather more sophisticated view than the one put forward in Leon Ferguson’s Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror––in which Argento is merely an eccentric who turns his nightmares into screenplays––and when superposed upon the usual stories about Argento’s squabbles with actors, his work with the rock band Goblin, and his complicated relationship with Daria Nicolodi, gives a more complete account of what it is like to work with him.

On the works themselves, however, Panico is slightly lacking in critical insight. It is a shame, for example, that so little is said regarding the full extent of Argento’s influence on world cinema. We hear an awful lot about the immediate effect of his giallo masterpieces––The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red––but relatively little about their influence on directors like Lynch and Cronenberg, and still less about his influence on the horror genre, which in his and George A. Romero’s hands underwent its most significant thematic and formal development since Walter de la Mare. It is disappointing, too, that neither the selected clips nor the analyses by Gaspar Noé, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Guillermo del Toro pay much attention to his extraordinary craftsmanship, or his insistence on rhythm, or the influence of literature and architecture on his work, or the link between his bourgeois upbringing and his passionate assaults on decency.

Nevertheless, this engaging, well-researched documentary––the first on Argento to receive widespread distribution––contains a good deal of new material that ought to be of special interest to fans of Argento’s work, but which also contains enough flying sparks to ignite the curiosity of those unfamiliar with one of cinema’s most unique and most bewildering forces.

Dario Argento Panico arrives on Shudder on Friday, February 2.

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