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Documentary Review: 'Panico'

The life and career of director Dario Argento is charted in the new Shudder documentary, 'Panico'

By Sean PatrickPublished about a month ago 6 min read
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Panico (2024)

Directed by Simone Scafidi

Written by Documentary

Starring Dario Argento, Asia Argento, Guillermo Del Toro, Nicholas Winding Refn, Gaspar Noe

Release Date February 2nd, 2024

Published January 29th, 2024

At a particular point in the new documentary Panico, all about the life and work of Dario Argento, actress Cristina Marsillach, star of Argento's 1987 film, Opera, is asked "Who is Dario Argento?" Her response is that she doesn't know. This comes at the end of an interview in which she spoke about working with Argento, enjoying working for him, the struggles of working for a visionary like Argento, and slowly revealing that the two actually rarely talked while on set together. By the end, Marsillach is describing the horror and trauma of working on the film and is in tears by the time she says she doesn't know who Dario Argento really is.

The natural artifice, the controlled storytelling of a documentary film almost betrays itself in this moment. The journey that Marsillach takes us on in this interview begins to take on the feeling of an Argento movie. It begins to feel like she's back on set and that the whole thing is a movie in which Argento was the antagonist, that mysterious man with a black glove and a cleaver. He's the unseen killer and she's the endangered ingénue. Is this what director Simone Scafidi is intending or is this what I am reading into this portion of Panico? I honestly cannot tell you for sure. I know that I believe every word Marsillach said.

Christina Marsillach and Dario Argento in Opera

Marsillach appears remarkably genuine, and her recollections of events mirror the experiences of other actors who have worked with Argento over the past 50-plus years. Argento, though often described as quiet and shy, energetic but also a shrinking violet amid the chaos of his sets, can, in the recollections of his cast and crew, be as cruel in silence as Stanley Kubrick could be cruel in bluster and demonstration. As described in Panico, Argento is in charge of all aspects of his films, every light, camera set up, and sound. But he's also a man who has his assistants tell his actress that he'd like her to remove her bra for the scene and is angry when she refuses though refuses to confront her directly.

Is this perhaps why Argento began working with his daughter, Asia, also featured in the documentary, when she was just old enough to achieve his vision? No one, not Dario, not Asia, or any of his collaborators will say so, but there is a distinct notion that, yes, Dario worked with and directed his daughter so often because they were so alike, but also because she was more apt to take his direction. This includes taking his direction in what Asia herself describes as losing her virginity on camera when she filmed a sex scene for The Stendahl Syndrome.

Argento was roundly criticized in the 90s for filming sex scenes and nude scenes starring his daughter. Asia Argento, in her own words, describes these scenes as playing out, in real life, their own, very personal, Electra Complex. Indeed, Carl Jung, had he not died before Argento began making films, might have appreciated the psychosexual themes and presentations in a Dario Argento movie, particularly Trauma, The Stendahl Complex or Phantom of the Opera, the most notable movies that Argento made with his daughter.

But Panico is not about putting Dario Argento on trial, either directly or indirectly. Rather, this is a documentary celebrating his life and work and with his full participation. The documentarian joined Argento as he traveled to a hotel to write his next film. I can only guess that this was 2022's Dark Glasses, though it's never mentioned in the documentary. Argento enjoys the solitude of a hotel though not the expensive and lavish one that the filmmakers have set him up with in Panico. Nevertheless, a late scene does show Argento packing away what appears to be a fully completed screenplay.

Panico moves in a more or less linear fashion through Argento's career from his childhood spent with Italian movie stars and directors via his famed photographer mother and his producer father, to his brief time in journalism, working as a critic, to his triumphant 1970 debut as a director. A film hailed by none other than Argento's hero, Alfred Hitchcock, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is compared directly with Hitchcock's thrillers and with Michael Powell's all time classic, Peeping Tom. High praise indeed. The film was a huge success and from there, the documentary charts Argento's ups and downs.

Naturally, because this is a documentary, there are times to stop down for talking head interviews and these are some terrific talking heads. Directors Guillermo Del Toro, Gaspar Noe, and Nicholas Winding Refn each sat down for interviews in Panico and their takes on Argento's work and influence are peppered throughout the film. Del Toro is the standout, describing how Argento's films go beyond fear into the realm of something beyond, something that Argento himself describes as panic, a fevered state beyond fear, a feeling that cannot be controlled. That's the feeling he's attempting to instill in his audiences, panico, in Italian.

As a biased American viewer, I naturally assumed that Suspiria would be covered well in Panico. Surprisingly, very little time is dedicated to what is arguably the director's best-known film. The standout observation of Suspiria comes from Asia Argento who speaks in hushed tones of how the film ended the marriage between her mother and father. The film was so much of her mother, Dario Nicolodi, so much her movie, that it became a sticking point in their marriage, one that the couple could not get past. The duo shares credit for the film's screenplay.

I won't go into any more details beyond these observations because I am recommending Panico. I think the documentary is quite valuable in sparking a conversation about Argento and it is a conversation worth having. He's a strong example of the auteur theory, the notion of director as the 'author' of a film. He's also a director of complex and difficult themes regarding sex and violence. He is at once a champion of female characters and a director who has been known to exploit actresses in ways that the actresses have not been entirely comfortable with. Panico has value as an insightful look at a complicated artist with a highly complicated legacy.

Panico debuts on the streaming channel Shudder on Friday, February 2nd, 2024.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and nearly 2000 movie reviews at SeanattheMovies.blogspot.com. Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one time tip. Thanks!

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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