Fistful of Flies

(Monica Pellizzari, Australia, 1996)


Although it is too little recognised and acknowledged, Australian cinema has a strong, subterranean tradition of the Gothic and grotesque. This tradition captures the national pastime of self-loathing at its most intense and feverishly inventive – all those shorts and features in which suburbia deadens, nuclear families are sick, sexual congress is disgusting, and even the youngest, firmest body is seized by spectacular decay.


Monica Pellizzari’s Fistful of Flies may be the last word in Australian grotesquerie. At least, one hopes so. The film certainly has the courage of its dark convictions. It is bold, strident, exhibitionistic, hyper-stylised. Every image is shot like a horror story and scored like a melodrama. Visual metaphors – particularly those pesky bugs of the title – proliferate in florid inserts and expressionistic dream-images. The net result overloads and short-circuits badly. It seems also to have spelt the end for Pellizzari’s career in cinema and TV, when she had scarcely reached her mid 30s. (Note for the historical record: one subsequent academic thesis declared that the film received “heated criticism from male critics”; and another account suggests that, while “European audiences have responded well to this film, Australian reviewers have been negative”. Australian male film critic, hello!)


Fistful of Flies presents a curious mixture: a pronounced taste for the film medium’s histrionic genres (horror and melodrama – it isn’t surprising that the film premiered at Spain’s Gijón festival of the fantastique), combined with an evident aspiration to art cinema. And all that wrapped up in some very banal, static and underdeveloped diagrams of character interaction.


Mars (Tasma Walton) is a teenager caught in a stultifying country town and a horrifying family environment. Her father, Joe (John Lucantonio), is Patriarchy incarnate: violent, bullish, sexually rapacious. Her mother, Grace (Dina Panozzo), is a twitching, repressed neurotic who takes out her frustrations on the children. Every aspect of Mars’ world – down to the last, garish lawn statue – reinforces her and our sense of its apocalyptic awfulness.


The film’s minimal plot details Mars’ inaugural attempts to carve a free space for herself in this hellish milieu. In its unending carnival of nightmares, Fistful of Flies resembles the loud, histrionic Italian comedies of the 1960s (such as Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned [1964]) – except that Pellizzari’s overt stabs at humour (as when a Catholic priest places racing bets on his mobile phone while hearing confessional) are the very weakest scenes.


The film is full of flagrant absurdities that travel under the dim alibi of anti-realism. When the young Mars is fascinated by the sight of dogs copulating, Grace places a sack over her head, rather than simply distracting her attention. When the teenage Mars shocks her family by wearing tampons for earrings at a family gathering, no one present even orders her to remove them. And when Grace finally rebels against her evil husband, her speech takes on a ribald dimension that is completely out-of-character.


Through her acclaimed shorts Rabbit on the Moon (1987), No No Nonno (1990) and Just Desserts (1993), Pellizzari garnered ongoing attention as a progressive, feminist, multicultural artist. But how progressive is a film that appears to despise almost every aspect of the human condition, including the Italo-Australian culture (the director’s own background) it so extravagantly satirises? Pellizzari’s vision is clearly fuelled by righteous rage and indignation – which has undoubtedly been, in other hands, the source of some great cinema.


But the ultimate undoing of this project comes when Pellizzari tries to affirm something positive amid all the relentless negativity. The film hands out brownie points to lesbianism, female masturbation, inter-generational sisterhood and wishy-washy, New Age ego-stroking – but the images that embody such glowing rapture are dead, the least original and imaginative of the entire movie.


Fistful of Flies is at its most passionate when it is hard and cruel: that is its mean distinction.

© Adrian Martin June/July 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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