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You can find a few of the usual frustrating things about maverick artist profile docs in “Dario Argento Panico,” an affectionate tribute to the Italian horror filmmaker. That doesn’t really matter, thankfully, given the unusual richness of the movie’s talking head interviews. Director Simone Scafidi doesn’t ask enough follow-up questions, but he does ask enough leading ones to get his interview subjects to thoughtfully describe Argento, detailing everything from his current status as a stylistic progenitor to the real and often familial influences on his style.
Scafidi doesn’t often challenge his ensemble of interviewees, and there are a few too many drab-looking and un-insightful interview clips with celebrity filmmakers Gaspar Noe and Nicolas Winding Refn, among others. It’s also hard to care given the wealth of other featured analyses, particularly from Argento’s family members, like his sister Floriana and his daughters Asia and Fiore, as well as long-time collaborators Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi.
Scafidi starts by making connections that he ultimately either doesn’t follow through on or doesn’t consider at length. Argento and some relatives talk about his mother, photographer Elda Luxardo; they suggest that watching Luxardo work must have been a formative influence.
Asia has the most pointed comments here and most other times that Scafidi draws parallels between Argento’s personal life and his lurid modernist shockers. She suggests that Luxardo might have repressed her feelings of sadness after she gave up photography to care for her children. Asia illustrates her point by recalling that her grandmother refused to take the family’s photos, even when they asked her to. Argento also claims to have been inspired by his mother’s fascination and attention to the female figure. But that’s about as close as Scafidi gets to connecting the first woman in Argento’s life with his life’s work.
Like a lot of recent genre and genre-related paracinema, “Dario Argento Panico” is mainly pitched at initiated cinephiles. Why would anyone else care that Refn was inspired by Argento’s use of electronic music in his icy ‘80s “giallo” murder-mystery “Tenebrae”? And good luck if you can understand what Noe means when he says that Argento thrills viewers in a “neither nonsexual nor necessarily sexual” way. That last line only kind of, sort of makes sense if you’ve seen Argento’s movies. The makers of “Dario Argento Panico” seem to assume that you have.
There’s a few too many implied connections uniting the key moments in Argento’s creative life. That might be the most Argento-esque quality of this doc. Like Argento’s best—and some of his worst—“Dario Argento Panico” triumphs by creating a billowy web of insinuations. The topics of Scafidi’s on-camera discussions range from Argento’s collaboration with his ex-partner Daria Nicolodi to the presumed creative dip that occurred, according to the interviewees, right after 1987, when he made “Opera.” I disagree, but I’m somewhat biased. (In addition to writing the program notes for Lincoln Center’s 2022 Dario Argento retrospective, I also interviewed Argento here)
Scafidi’s movie appropriately reflects its director’s neurotic need to show all the different ways you can think about Argento and his art. He covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time and rarely overtaxes viewers’ interest by use of short, punchy soundbites, as well as some entertaining archival footage of Argento, whose celebrity as a horror filmmaker is brought up and then mostly assumed.
“Dario Argento Panico” surpasses expectations as a retrospective docu-appraisal given Scafidi’s uncommon investment in his subjects. He pays tribute to Argento by collecting various personalities and letting their unique points-of-view buffet viewers from one story beat to the next. Like Argento, Scafidi really seems to love his characters as such; he foregrounds their own experiences as a way of enhancing our understanding of who’s talking and what they’re saying.
Scafidi’s movie is most compelling whenever he encourages his interviewees to unpack their varying perspectives, especially in conversation with Asia. It’s a pleasure to see her talk at some length about her father’s movies and not just the ones that she’s in. It’s also hard to imagine “Dario Argento Panico” finding much of an audience beyond the Argento faithful, especially given how much emphasis is put on prevailing theories and ideas of Argento, instead of, say, a more direct look at his movies.
It’s still refreshing to see Scafidi focus so much on testimonials that could have easily been reduced to their quippier highlights. He runs up against the limits of what you can do with the resources available to him. Scafidi also takes full advantage of how much he can do simply by winding up Argento and his loved ones and letting them go for as long as they feel like. The rest is left for viewers to decide.
On Shudder now.
Dario Argento as Sé stesso
Fiore Argento as Sé stessa
Vittorio Cecchi Gori as Sé stesso
Guillermo Del Toro as Sé stesso
Cristina Marsillach as Sé stessa
Gaspar Noé as Sé stesso
Claudio Simonetti as Sé stesso
Michele Soavi as Sé stesso
Nicolas Winding Refn as Sé stesso