Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Storie di vita e malavita/The Teenage Prostitution Racket - Carlo Lizzani's overlooked masterpiece


Storie di vita e malavita/The Teenage Prostitution Racket
1975
Italy
Director: Carlo Lizzani






Amongst the backdrop of a grey, smoggy and relentlessly ugly Milan – the absolute antithesis of the glitter and glamour most associate with the fashion capital – a weathered looking woman hitchhikes with her 13 year old granddaughter on rubbish strewn industrial roads. But, to the surprise of the male drivers who offer them a lift, the pair are not just after a ride into town. The young girl is being offered to men for sexual services by her own grandmother – and unfortunately there’s no shortage of willing motorists. As they flit from vehicle to vehicle, a group of angry pimps are in hot pursuit, enraged that the duo are intruding on their turf.


Interwoven with this scenario are a series of documentary-like vignettes, each involving a teenage girl and how - often nightmarish – life circumstances led them to become entrapped in the horrific world of underage prostitution.  Innocent, naive Rosina travels from Sardinia to find work in Milan – her improvised mother has five other children to support and wanted to marry the sixteen year old off to a family friend several decades her senior. Rosina meets Salvatore at a disco – he sweeps her off her feet with silver tongued declarations of love and plays the devoutly religious nice boy, when the truth is that he’s a slimy pimp involved in the racket, looking for ‘fresh meat’ to recruit. Salvatore quickly proposes to Rosina and manipulates her into selling her body with poor me tales of being penniless and sickly sugar-coated promises, that the customers won’t hurt her, blah blah blah...After endless abuse from clients, including one who dips bread rolls into dirty toilet water and forces her to eat them, and a number of failed escape attempts, Rosina resigns to her fate and has transformed into a jaded, hardened, coarse streetwalker. As they drive into the night, Salvatore asks her “When are you going to introduce me to that little friend of yours?”

Lonely Gisela desperately wants friends her own age. Her stiflingly strict, God-fearing mother forbids her to even look at boys (“none of them EVER just want to be ‘friends’!!!), and her father is too busy working to pay for the latest ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ consumer goods to notice his daughter. Much to Gisela’s horror, her mother hopes to pair her off with the local priest’s nephew, a painfully dull middle-aged lawyer. So when a schoolfriend invites Gisela to a party her older sister is hosting, she happily goes along. But it’s not the kind of party Gisela is expecting. The older sister is part of the sex ring, and  lecherous pigs take photos of Gisela and other girls in compromising positions, then using the photos to blackmail them into attending more of the ‘parties’. Though initially fearful, Gisela becomes accustomed to the sordid lifestyle, as to her she is receiving the attention and companionship lacking at home. But when Gisela goes to live with her female pimp, she has no idea that she will be just as restricted as when she was living with her parents, as she is now ‘owned’ by the sex gang.   
Precocious, educated, upper-middle class Daniela entered the world of prostitution voluntarily as a sixteen year old to rebel against her parents. Sickened when she hears her father recommending to a friend the underage girls he frequents, and knowing that her mother never even wanted her (“she didn’t want her body to fall apart”), Daniela considers this the ultimate act of revenge. Daniela’s parents’ hypocrisy – keeping up appearances as the ‘perfect bourgeois family unit’ to the outside world, while underneath the genteel veneer her father is a deviant paedophile and mother pathetically shallow and vain – revolts her. Her final ‘Fuck You’ to her parents is when she blackmails them to pay her pimps 10 million lire to ‘free’ her from them.

Pregnant fifteen year old Antonietta flees her miserable, poverty entrenched existence when the glamorous Tina returns from the big city to visit their provincial village. Antonietta, relentlessly harangued by her mother who screams that she has brought shame to the family (if only the mother knew that it was her own HUSBAND who impregnated the poor girl), begs Tina to let her work at her ‘hairdressing salon’. Tina agrees and of course the ‘salon’ turns out to be a front for the racket. But Antonietta is just happy to have escaped her hellish family life. Due to her advanced condition, she is only offered to clients with pregnancy fetishes. After a particularly traumatic birth where she refuses to keep the child, she continues to sell herself, her self-worth completely diminished. After she is arrested for soliciting, she suffers a complete mental breakdown and is institutionalised.

Albertina, a prostitute from a poor Catholic family of ten brothers and sisters (do we sense a pattern here?), is arrested and sent to live in a convent. Albertina was originally a nun herself, but turned to a life on the streets after being raped by a male employee. At the convent she meets Laura, whose background is equally tragic. Laura, again from a destitute family from the South, had hoped to attend university. But her thuggish, wife-beating peasant father mocks her ambitions, declaring that “studying is for boys” and that women’s purpose in life is to become housewives and menial factory workers. Still, she tries to study to become a secretary. But things only go from bad to worse for Laura when her mother, the sole breadwinner, becomes ill and Laura can’t afford to complete her course. The first boy she dates is a creep who breaks her heart by just using her for sex, then dumping her soon after. Laura then signs up to a job agency which turns out to be a front for an escort agency. Scarred and repulsed by all men, she becomes a prostitute as her way of getting back at them – she humiliates and rips off her clients. The love-starved Laura falls for Albertina, and the pair abscond from the convent and go on the game together. Laura has finally found some happiness, but one day Albertina unexpectedly leaves her when she goes to live with a wealthy client. The shattered Laura is completely pushed over the edge when she finds her beloved pet dog – now her only friend - killed by the same disgruntled pimps who are chasing the grandmother and her 13-year-old charge, and the defeated girl takes her own life.

Needless to say, if you’re looking for a titillating sex romp, you’re best looking far FAR away from Carlo Lizzani’s devastating masterpiece, because, despite the lurid English re-titling, The Teenage Prostitution Racket was never intended to be that. Thankfully, the version I viewed is without the jarring softcore and hardcore footage which detracts from the film’s disturbing, powerful realism. In regards to the sex inserts, Lizzani had permitted assistant director Mino Giarda to shoot the softcore sequences for foreign markets, but had no knowledge of the additional hardcore scenes, which he was less that happy with.
Some critics see The Teenage Prostitution Racket as another run-of-the-mill slice of sexploitation with some social commentary thrown in as a pretext (I am assuming most of these critics saw the ‘foreign market’ version). But there is much more to ...Racket – it’s much closer than the bleak grittiness of Christiane F or Lilya-4-Ever than some Schulmadchen Report fluff. Aside from the film’s series of documentary-style reconstructions (each based on co-writer Marisa Rusconi's research on real-life case studies), Lizzani has a few points he wants to make and he sure as hell means to get his messages across in as uncompromising and  as harsh a way as possible. Aside from his obvious disgust at the vile underage prostitution rings, Lizzani takes unsubtle aims at the Catholic church (the parents of the impoverished  girls featured all blindly follow this religion, thus avoiding contraception and worsening their situation by creating more and more mouths to feed; Gisele’s devoutly religious mother alienates her to such an extent that she turns to the world of underage prostitution for acceptance and ‘love’);  the hypocritical bourgeoisie who disguise themselves under a veneer of respectability, yet in some cases are just as depraved as the pimps themselves; and boorish, sexist males in general (just about every man in the film is corrupt, depraved, sleazy or violent – often all four of these). A combination of poverty, lack of education and employment prospects leads many of the girls from the often maligned South of Italy to the more ‘urbane, educated’ North hoping for a better life; yet they find themselves enslaved by human garbage that should be drowned in the infinite gallons of lethally toxic waste dotted around the foot of the country.  

It should be noted that in no way does the movie glamorise the lifestyles of the teenage girls, their pimps and clients. Everything is ruthlessly realistic and ugly – the tears, exhaustion and overwhelming depression of the young women, the abuse they endure from their Neanderthal-like keepers, the repulsive and pathetic clients. While The Teenage Prostitution Racket is certainly a passionate film, it avoids over the top melodrama and Lizzani wisely avoids passing judgement. 
Finally, mention must be given to the location settings of mid-1970’s Milan; like other major Italian cities it was under the stranglehold of terrorist attacks, corruption, high crime and unemployment at the time. This downbeat reality makes for the perfect setting, providing the film’s hard-edged, jaded, grungy look. The Teenage Prostitution Racket presents a ruthlessly, brutally honest treatment of its subject matter. Highly recommended – but be warned, this is grim stuff that is light years away from, say, the ludicrousness of Rino Di Silvestro’s brain-fryer Red Light Girls.



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