In a Glass Cage (1987) [5/5]

A Nazi doctor who has a fetish for young boys feels guilt after torturing and murdering his latest victim, and throws himself off a roof in a failed suicide attempt that leaves him paralyzed. Some years later, the doctor, confined to an iron lung with glass sides, accepts as his nurse a boy who secretly witnessed that killing.

I had never seen any of Villaronga's films prior to watching In a Glass Cage, so I really had no idea what to expect aside from having heard that it's one of the most disturbing films ever made. Those who have said so are absolutely correct; I'd place this up withCome and See, Salo, Zero Day, Lilja 4-Ever and Irreversible in terms of uncomfortable cinematic viewing experiences. It's an immensely rough watch, but fortunately as a viewer you understand that right from the first scene, so if you feel like turning it off... you can, right away, before the characters and the narrative pull you in and hold you captive.

In order to avoid talking about the content for as long as possible, I'll begin this review by talking about the direction, which is fantastic. You know those "downward spiral" types of films, and how they have to be paced well in order for the viewer to buy into the events transpiring before them? Well, this film has flawless pacing from the beginning of the film to the very end. So much happens to the characters both internally and externally, though it never feels like the events are being rushed or that they're dragging along. I never for a second disbelieved Angelo's spiral into darkness, into a place that few other films have ever dared to take me. That's a sign of good direction.

The cinematography, lighting and set design were the three aspects of this film that surprised me most. At times, it almost feels like it's being shot like an Italian giallo -- my opinion of that was solidified during a particularly suspenseful and beautifully crafted murder sequence that impressed me even more greatly than anything I've seen yet from Argento, Bava or Fulci. It's probably the film's most memorable and masterfully composed scene. I've read reviews from viewers who have complained about the dark lighting in this film, but I would have to counter those complaints. Aside from the hauntingly dark blue that spans the majority of the film, there are sequences of pure blackness... no attempt at allowing the audience to see clearly what is going on. This 1) placed me in the shoes of the characters more effectively than any other artistic approach could have, and 2) visually encapsulated the obscurity of the characters' actions.

Above all else though, what impressed me most about In a Glass Cage was the fact that it does something better than almost any other film out there do: it portrays the inherent, cyclical nature of violence. It utilizes the notion of a World War as a metaphor for the way in which humans avenge violence with violence, forever extending our brutal tendencies toward death and destruction. But the film is a double-allegory; it could have been a rather straightforward tale of the effects that WWII has on the human psyche, as so many inferior films are (some of them good and some of them bad), but it doesn't stop there. It's not just a tale of a Nazi doctor who, caught in the horrors of war, absorbs a desire to torture and murder; it uses its post-war characters to show the cycle of bloodlust and how it affects others, even younger generations, sucking them into the chaos rooted in human beings’ animalistic instincts.

The harvester of death
becomes the harvested,
becomes the harvester once more.

-Eli Hayes