The Country Doctor
Genevieve Yue
October 5, 2023

Lorenza Mazzetti: Against All Odds

The story of the recovery of The Country Doctor (1953), a film lost for nearly 70 years, is almost as remarkable as that of its iconoclastic maker, Lorenza Mazzetti. The key moment of its rediscovery occurs on camera, during Brighid Lowe’s documentary Together with Lorenza Mazzetti (2023). Mazzetti, aged though no less impish, tells interviewer Henry K. Miller that the film is lost. “We must find it!” he insists, but gently, in his soft-spoken British way. Mazzetti waves her hand. “I gave it to a producer…a friend of Jonas Mekas…” Miller can hardly contain his excitement: “Is it Amos Vogel?” Mazzetti’s eyes are hazy, then snap into focus. “Amos, Amos… Yes! Him!"

From there Miller and Lowe visited the University of Wisconsin Madison, which holds the papers of Amos Vogel, the founder of the legendary Cinema 16 film series in New York. Under a misspelt version of Mazzetti’s name, they found the print of The Country Doctor in the vault. The librarians in Wisconsin weren’t aware that they’d had it. The film was then restored by the BFI, and, with Lowe’s film, it had its world premiere in 2023.

Mazzetti is a figure who had all but fallen through the cracks of film history. She is perhaps best known not as a filmmaker at all, but as the author of Il cielo cade (The Sky Falls), a semi-fictionalized account of the second world war as told from the perspective of a young girl whose adoptive Jewish family is murdered by Nazis. The book won the esteemed Viareggio Prize and is now considered a classic of Italian literature. Prior to the publication of the novel, Mazzetti rarely spoke about her harrowing past. As a young woman, she had abruptly left Italy for London, and, as she tells it, knocked on the door of the Slade School of Fine Art. There she demanded to see the director, and when asked why, she answered with an assertiveness that would have to be invented if it were not also true: “because I’m a genius!” She was admitted on the spot.

Mazzetti soon joined with Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Karel Reisz to form Free Cinema, a group of filmmakers that shared a common anti-commercial attitude, a rejection of conventional narrative, and an attentiveness to the rhythms of working class life. Mazzetti’s Together (1957), about two deaf-mute dockworkers, screened in the first Free Cinema program, in 1956, and later won recognition at the Cannes Film Festival. But Mazzetti did not follow the path of her Free Cinema comrades, who went on to found the kitchen sink realism school of British feature filmmaking. After her return to Italy in the late 50s, she mostly retreated from filmmaking and concentrated her efforts on writing, painting, and puppetry.

Together is recognizably a work of Free Cinema for its documentary shots of London’s East End. Mazzetti’s eye is particularly drawn to children who play in dusty, littered street. But the film’s darker themes, especially the social alienation experienced by the film’s two protagonists, connects to a different strand of work which is more forcefully expressed in her two earlier films, two shorts made while she was a student at Slade: K (1953) and The Country Doctor. Both were adaptations of stories by Franz Kafka, who was, as Mazzetti states in Lowe’s documentary, “like a prophet” for his ability to “see monsters” amidst an otherwise “normal” life.

Correspondingly, K (which borrows the protagonist’s name of Kafka’s The Trial) adapts “The Metamorphosis” (1915) as a kind of hallucination. Instead of turning into a large insect as he does in Kafka’s tale, the man in K, played by Together lead Michael Andrews, has transformed internally. He stares out listlessly from bed, unresponsive to the entreaties of his family members who bang on his door. He stacks furniture in the corner and climbs atop his makeshift tower; later, he ascends the roof and dances perilously along its edge. Initially concerned, his family members respond with scorn and finally indifference. Mazzetti observed that Kafka anticipated the Nazis’ capacity to turn human beings into animals. By psychologizing this otherwise metaphorical transformation, she troubles the source of the disturbance—is it K who is mentally ill, or is it everyone else?

The outline of The Country Doctor adheres closely to Kafka’s 1917 short story: a doctor is called, at night, to attend to a sick man in a nearby village. A stablehand fixes him with a horse, and just as the doctor is leaving, he sees the stablehand grab hold of his maid and force her inside. Though troubled by this sight, his journey is already underway. Once he arrives at his patient’s bedside, he determines that the young man is, in fact, not sick. The villagers form a stony-faced vigil around them. A man, a priest maybe, conducts a chorus of children who sing an ominous refrain. A sense of expectation—death? deliverance?—hangs in the air. The doctor climbs in bed beside his patient, who chastises him for not even arriving on his own feet. The doctor then revises his prognosis. “Young man,” he says, “you’re most terribly wounded, but as a doctor I cannot help you.” The film ends with him riding away on the horse, the wind swirling around him.

In Kafka’s telling, the sickness in The Country Doctor has a more or less identifiable source: a festering wound on the patient’s hip. Once again Mazzetti erases this concrete sign of alterity, so that we never get visual confirmation of what Kafka calls a “flower.” Her account accentuates and proliferates the story’s sense of moral sickness and atmospheric dread. It begins before the doctor arrives at the village, in his own home, with the violation of his maid. Curiously, Mazzetti deemphasizes this scene of sexual violence that is more explicit in Kafka; meanwhile, she significantly queers the scene of doctor and patient lying shoulder-to-shoulder in bed, which she films in intimate close-ups.

Mazzetti’s interpretations of Kafka are frightening and deeply insightful. They cut against the well-worn cliché of the term “Kafkaesque” to reveal, more than an upside-down and sinister social order, a truly disorienting and dehumanizing world. She was not only one of the first to adapt his works to film, she was also expressly prohibited from doing so. Fortunately, Mazzetti never considered abandoning her projects. Cinephiles will rejoice at the rediscovery of this magnificent film, which is only 10 minutes long. But I suspect it will also leave them wishing for more. What would it have been like if Mazzetti had made more films? If, after that brush of contact at Vogel’s Cinema 16, her work had found company with the surrealist strain of avant-garde filmmaking à la Maya Deren, Luis Buñuel, and Kenneth Anger, or, later, moody existentialists like Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr? Mazzetti’s work prompts this kind of counterfactual speculation: a sure sign of a boundless artist.

Genevieve Yue

Genevieve Yue is Associate Professor of Culture and Media and Director of the Screen Studies programme at Eugene Lang College, The New School. Co-editor of the Cutaways series at Fordham University Press, and her essays and reviews have been published in Reverse Shot, October, Grey Room, The Times Literary Supplement, Film Comment and Film Quarterly. Her book Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality was published in 2020 by Fordham University Press.

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