“It Sounds Exactly Like Science Fiction” — The Perplexing Power of ‘Le orme’

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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 sprang to mind was Luigi Bazzoni’s mesmeric oddity, Footprints on the Moon (Italian: Le orme, 1975). Have you ever seen a piece of cinema that worked its way so indelibly into your brain that weeks, months, or even years afterward, 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, followed by the soothing strings of an acoustic guitar. As Nicola Piovani’s music reverberates, a lunar spacecraft touches down. Cut to: an astronaut, motionless, being hauled from the craft by a comrade and dumped like garbage 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 discernible recollection of what happened during those 72 hours; nothing to do with opiates 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 new 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 maniacs 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 so significant? In its guileful dissection of déjà vu—place, time, memory—the film evokes the equivocal nature of 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad, a similarly entrancing concoction.

The unquestionable jewel in the crown is Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which captures the baroque allure of neoclassical architecture with mouthwatering finesse: his compositions are immaculate, and his use of colour—glacial grey-whites at first, then a palette of greens, blues and yellows—is robust in its purposeful restraint. Coupled with Piovani’s stirring soundtrack, Storaro’s work lends the picture a strange, haunting melancholy that is easily felt, but hard to fathom.

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

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