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The infamous Count of Cagliostro, in reality the charlatan Giuseppe Balsamo, was an eighteenth century impostor from Palermo who enchanted and deceived half the courts of Europe before dying at the hands of the Holy Inquisition. The Return of Cagliostro (released in Italy as "Il Ritorno di Cagliostro") is a delightful movie about some would-be film producers in late 1940s Sicily trying to earn a fast post-war lira by making a film about Cagliostro. For reasons difficult to fathom, or perhaps best left unexplored, the amazing story of Giuseppe Balsamo has always appealed to a certain esoteric population intrigued by black magic, the occult and secretive freemasonry.
The ambitious La Marca brothers establish Trinacria Films, seeking to make Sicily, and particularly Palermo, a centre of film production to rival Rome. To achieve this they need the support of a Cardinal, a politician and a local aristocrat. The baron, enchanted by the historical Cagliostro, goes bankrupt trying to finance the doomed production. Erroll Douglas, an American actor well past his prime, and well into the grip of alcohol, accepts the title role.
In their attempt to make a great film, the La Marcas encounter all of the typically Palermitan charlatans and would-be actors created in the image of the real Cagliostro. Things get more and more bizarre as the project develops. This is one of the rare motion pictures about making a motion picture that captures the true essence of its subject. It's a parody of a parody.
The Return of Cagliostro is the brain child of the Italian team of Daniele Ciprì and Franco Maresco. The talented American actor Robert Englund, famous for his recurring role as the lethal Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and parts in other popular horror films, plays Errol Douglas. Englund is actually an exceptional character actor. (Americans appear in some interesting settings in Italy; actors like Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Costner, John Travolta and even Sharon Stone have appeared in Italian television commercials.) The charming Margaret Woodhouse, an Englishwoman resident in Palermo for many years, plays Douglas's widow, who recounts the story as a long flashback. The heavily Sicilian supporting cast includes Franco Gaiezza, Pietro Giordano and Davide Marotta. The casting and the premise work well together, though the movie may ruffle the feathers of those (few) overly proud Palermitans who might not feel terribly flattered by the cynical portrayal of the city's charlatan subculture.
One of the subtle messages of this movie seems to be that today's Palermo is not much different from the Palermo of 1947. In many ways, of course, Sicily has changed since 1947. This movie offers some keen social commentary about the Catholic Church, the Italian political establishment and the declining nobility as they then existed and, in a more updated guise, still do. In fact, there are some not-so-subtle references to living Sicilians.
Like many Italian films, this comedy may never make its way into English, and that's unfortunate because it's a fascinating motion picture in the true spirit of Italian cinema.
About the Author: Catania native Michele Parisi, who presently resides in Rome, has written for various magazines and newspapers in Italy, France and the United Kingdom. He has written other articles for Best of Sicily.