“It Sounds Exactly Like Science Fiction” — the Perplexing Power of Le Orme

A while ago, someone I follow on Twitter asked, “When’s the last time you saw a film where it felt like you were watching something utterly alien?”

Instantly, the title that came to mind was Luigi Bazzoni’s mesmeric 1975 oddity, Footprints on the Moon (Italian: Le orme). Have you ever seen a piece of cinema that worked its way so indelibly into your brain that weeks, months or even years afterwards, details from it — images, sounds — still permeate your thoughts? Like a dream that you can’t shake off.

For me, Footprints is that film.

Slow, propulsive drumming; the intrusive blare! of a church organ; the soothing strings of an acoustic guitar. As Nicola Piovani’s music resonates, a lunar spacecraft touches down . . . Cut to: an astronaut, motionless, hauled from the craft by a fellow spaceman and dumped onto the gravelled surface of the moon. He stirs, then awakes — alone — and glares in startled disbelief as the craft takes flight, drifting steadily away into the pitch-black. The astronaut is stranded. We, the audience, are transfixed.

Alice has lost three days of her life. Literally. She has no recollection of what happened during those 72 hours; nothing to do with drugs or alcohol, but everything, it would appear, to do with a quaint seaside town called Garma — a place she feels drawn to despite never having been there. Or has she? With each clue that she uncovers, a different, darker facet of Alice’s persona comes to light: she’s a coiled spring of emotions, and the magnetic Florinda Balkan plays her beautifully.

How to define Le orme? It has the basic trappings of a giallo, though you won’t find any black-gloved murderers or sexualised violence. It’s a horror-thriller (sort of), with the crux of a character study and the paranoid air of a conspiracy movie — a whodunwhat rather than a whodunit. There’s even a sprinkling of sci-fi for good measure. Defying both convention and categorisation, Footprints builds an illusive world in which nothing is as it seems. Is Alice in danger? Does Garma really exist? And why are the spacemen significant? In its guileful dissection of déjà vu — time, place, memory — the film evokes the equivocal nature of 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad, a similarly entrancing concoction.

The undoubted jewel in the crown is Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which captures the baroque allure of Italian architecture with ravishing finesse; his compositions are impeccable, and his use of colour — glacial grey-whites at first, then a palette of greens, blues and yellows — is effective in its restraint. Coupled with Piovani’s stirring soundtrack, Storaro’s work lends the movie a strange, haunting melancholy that’s easily felt, but hard to fathom.

Footprints isn’t perfect. Few films are. Still, many years ago I found myself falling under its potent spell. To this day, the magic still lingers.

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