Sog., Scen.: Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona. F.: Aldo Tonti. M.: Mario Serandrei. Scgf.: Mario Garbuglia. Mus.: Teo Usuelli. Int.: Ugo Tognazzi (Antonio Focaccia), Annie Girardot (Maria), Achille Majeroni (l’impresario Majori), Elvira Paoloni (la cameriera), Filippo Pompa Marcelli (Bruno), Ermelinda De Felice (la suora), Antonio Altoviti (il professore), Jacques Ruet (il medico a Parigi). Prod.: Carlo Ponti per Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, Cocinor, Films Marceau. DCP 4K. Bn.
The origin of this film dates back to the mid-1950s and to Ferreri’s made-in-heaven partnership with the writer Rafael Azcona. They were inspired by the story of Julia Pastrana: a bearded woman born in Mexico in 1834, who performed under the management of her husband in freak shows of different countries. At the age of 26 she gave birth to a (hairy) baby, who died soon afterwards as did Pastrana from postpartum complications; her husband had their bodies mummified and exhibited them in his shows. But this is not the film’s only source. According to Azcona, “at that time in Spain there was a lot of talk about a miracle: a girl in the woods was attacked by some wrongdoers who were going to rape her. Terrified, she called upon the Virgin Mary, and her body was suddenly covered with hair…”. Aside from the fortuitous coincidence (to each his own heaven over the marshes), the episode re-enacts a Christian mythos and brings new life to a hagiographic exemplum. A similar narrative surrounds the 17th-century martyrdom of Saint Wilgefortis: in order to escape her marriage to a pagan prince, the Christian virgin begged God to make her un- desirable; her prayer was answered, and she grew a beard and moustache; her father was enraged and had her crucified. (After all, the body of a bearded martyr had already been venerated by the Ape regina). One more important reference: a painting by Jusepe de Ribera, known as Spagnoletto, titled Magdalena Ventura with Her Husband and Son (1631). A kind of Holy Family, but the woman who breastfeeds the newborn is hirsute (very hirsute). The painting is disconcerting. It must have been a striking experience for Ferreri and Azcona when they saw it in Toledo. A surrealist image. If Pastrana’s story was the foundation of the cruel fable, if the news story captured a popular and religious iconography, the paradoxical painting was an inspirational image. And so the film was born and proliferated through ‘gemmation’, as Ferreri would say. Ribera’s portrait was painted in Naples. For this reason, with no sea and no Vesuvius, the film was shot in Naples.
La donna scimmia received its censorship visa on 8 January 1964. It was first screened at the Metropolitan in Bologna on 29 January. How does the film end? Maria dies in childbirth, shortly after the baby; her husband Antonio sells the two corpses to the Science Museum where they are embalmed; then he changes his mind, reclaims their bodies and exhibits them in a freak show. This is the terrible, logical explicit chosen by Ferreri. However, in some cities, a reworked version was shown: the film ends with Maria’s (sacrificial) death. It is not yet clear who was responsible for the tampering (the producer Carlo Ponti? The distributor?), which only attests to an unsolicited censorial zeal. A seemingly benevolent version of the epilogue was developed (with Ferreri’s agreement) for the foreign market: the ape woman loses her hair during pregnancy and gives birth to a normal hairless child, forcing her husband to get honest work.
Restored in 2017 by Cineteca di Bologna and TF1 Studio in collaboration with Surf Film at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory (Bologna, Paris). Both Italian final sections are preserved by Cineteca di Bologna. The third one of the French version was kindly provided by Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique