The Machine that Kills Bad People
The motif of a genie, or djinn if you prefer, granting the lucky owner of some mcguffin or other a series of wishes is one that runs wild through world culture. What makes these tales all the more interesting is when there is a price to pay or the small print on the deal is not read until it’s too late. Such is the case in The Machine that Kills Bad People, an early film from Roberto Rossellini that sees Celestino, a photographer in a poor province in Southern Italy visited by the town’s patron saint who grants his camera the malign power to kill whomever the owner takes a picture of.
Now Celestino is a gentle, pious soul and this is a sleepy Neopolitan hamlet so it’s not unreasonable to wonder how much killing needs to take place. As the story progresses, and the narrative exposes more and more of the dark underbelly of this part of the Amalfi Coast we realise quite a lot. There’s the town’s martinet policeman (and only partially reconstructed fascist), the bickering politicians, the exploiting boss class, the town loanshark, a trio of petty thieves…
Celestino starts out with the best of intentions, appalled by the selfishness and depravity of his fellow citizens and uses the camera to improve things. But of course, as with most utopia, the destination turns out to be hell paved with good intentions. The photographer, after a fashion, proves Lord Acton’s adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely as it’s not long before he starts to see bad people everywhere he looks, beginning a killing spree that would be tragic were it not for the comedy it dragged in its wake.
This is definitely a much more slight film than the director’s later works and the fact that Rossellini left it unfinished on the shelf for four years is perhaps testament to his his vague embarrassment at the lightness of tone. His films both immediately before and after this one (Paisa; Rome, Open City; Stromboli) are fully of the neo-realist school and so, to a large extent, is this but it retains a very comedic strain throughout and delivers the laughs without sacrificing the authentic feel.
Despite a slight unevenness the social message works and is delivered with enough subtlety, though the sly digs at the band of American investors seem incredibly churlish for a film made a mere four years after liberation, an operation which cost an enormous amount of American blood and treasure. But let’s leave that because if we’re going to go into the hypocrisies of the socialists we’ll be here all day.
La macchina ammazzacattivi aka The Machine that Kills Bad People – directed by Roberto Rossellini (1952)
The only decent man left in a poor southern Italian village is gifted supernatural powers to take the lives of local evildoers.