By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/21/22 – This weekend was the 5th edition of the Locarno in Los Angeles Film Festival, a curated film festival of new and edgy films from the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland (August 2021), hosted by Acropolis Cinema and MUBI at the 2020 Arts & Archive Cultural Center on Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles. One of Locarno’s hidden gems at Locarno was definitely Giovanni Cioni’s From the Planet of the Humans (Dal pianeta degli umani, Italy, 2021), a mesmerizing film-essay in which historical data and biology, real facts and the power of the imagination all converge in a single, grandiose reflection on human destiny and the meaning of our existence. Director Giovanni Cioni chose as the focus of his film a sumptuous, decaying mansion, facing the sea on the heights of Grimaldi de Ventimiglia right on the border between Italy and France, as the starting point for a hypnotic yet highly lucid journey through time. Often called the master of the invisible, Cioni makes history come alive with images that tell a dazzling story. In a luxurious villa perched on a mountain over the Mediterranean, once upon a time in the 1920s, lived an eccentric surgeon named Dr. Voronoff, who grafted ape testicles onto rich old men, in the hope of doubling their lifespan.
Cioni imagines From the Planet of the Humans as a dystopian fairy tale told from a fictional planet – our own – yet everything is very real in his film. The director’s voiceover, commenting on the flow of images with a light musical intonation, weaves a constant dialogue with this singular place, a famous dwelling but also a point of passage to the Passo della Morte (Path of Death), a steep and dangerous path taken even today by people fleeing in the hope of reaching France. Cioni, who has in the past personally tried to help illegal immigrants cross this border, films this pathway with vibrant sensitivity. His slightly blurred and fluid 16 mm images focus on the remains left by the migrants: abandoned clothes, a book, scattered objects, as if they were mute witnesses to an endless tragedy.
Alternatingly, the camera takes off towards the horizon. The blue of the sea, filmed in slow motion, then invades the screen to open up space for other visions from the past. Historical images, archive material, clips from famous films of the 1920s such as King Kong, footage of experiments, animals and home movies all contribute to the film’s impressive epochal fresco.
With a poetic gaze and intellectual rigor, Cioni fashions his very dense narrative material, giving glimpses of Voronoff’s epic life as an amazing universe where the animal kingdom constantly mixes and interacts with the human world, offering ample food for thought on nature, history and the eternal cycle of life and death. The frogs that populated the cisterns of Voronoff’s famous villa in his day are resurrected on the film’s soundtrack, commenting on the foolishness of human acts with their croaking, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. In an increasingly hallucinatory atmosphere, even the monkeys, which the doctor had brought from Africa and bred in large cages in the garden for his operations, emerge from the archive images with prodigious vitality.
Dr Sergei Voronoff was the child of an oppressed Jewish family in Tsarist Russia. The successful surgeon won international fame after World War I: in his 1920 book La Conquete de la Vie (The Conquest of Life), he lamented that “death shocks man with a sense of the cruelest injustice… [My] present work gives the source of the means to restore the energy which fails us at a certain age, and extend the limit of our lives.” That source, according to Dr. Voronoff, was the testicle: the “distributor of energy, which stimulates the immense bee-hive known as our body”, he wrote. “To graft this gland is to participate at first hand in the work of creation.”
He first practiced on sheep and goats. The book – also an ahead-of-its-time treatise arguing for large-scale organ donation – rued the impracticality of harvesting testicles from young men to help out the old. “Fortunately, we have a near relative in the animal world from whom we may borrow what we need with less scruple… the orang-outang, the chimpanzee and the gibbon,” he said. “Men who have reached the age when their intellectual and physical faculties begin to decline, when the memory because unreliable, thought is slow, effort more difficult, fatigue more prompt, when all the ardors of life are blunted and dulled and some are extinguished, may borrow from their young relatives of the virgin forests a new source of vital activity.” Soon he was claiming success in the “rejuvenation” of old men – especially old rich men with much younger wives.
Director Cioni wonders whether the treatment meted out to the indigenous peoples in colonial times was so different from the treatment meted out to the apes, as faded images of a tribe huddled behind a cage-like enclosure appear on the screen. Following the narrative of the film, we gradually discover, scattered between one digression and another, the whole biography of the Russian Jewish Serge Voronoff (1866-1951): he was a controversial scientist and the bearer of an anthropocentric, chauvinist and colonialist vision. We therefore realize how, despite his immense popularity and Mussolini’s admiration, not even he will be saved from the racial laws of the fascist regime and will have to flee, losing everything. Married four times, his third wife was a wealthy American oil heiress.
Voronoff bought that beautiful 19th century Italian villa on the Mediterranean coast, whose windows looked on one side towards Menton in France, and on the other the olive groves of Ventimiglia in Italy. It had a lush garden described by one visitor as an “earthly paradise” where Voronoff set up his ape farm, which at its peak housed about 80 primates.
According to local historian Enzo Barnaba, Voronoff helped refugees cross the border. A path known as the “Path of Death” in the mountains above the official customs gates has long been used to flee west – by Italian anti-fascists, Jews fleeing Mussolini, and more recently those escaping wars in Southeast Europe and Syria. The camera moves silently over items left behind by fleeing populations, wondering on the morality of progress as so many are displaced.
Voronoff “opened up a path to skip the customs”, Barnaba says, letting people in the front door from Italy and out the back into France. What they must have thought of the ape cage is not recorded. Voronoff fled the Nazis – by 1941 he was 74 and married to a 26-year-old, a cousin of a friend of the former King Carol of Romania. His two brothers died at Auschwitz, and Voronoff returned to find his beautiful villa extensively bombed. Soon after he died following a fall from a bathtub. If Voronoff is all but forgotten and his faded image has been swept away by the power of time, his villa still stands there, the vestige of a history that constantly repeats itself, a history made up of wars and oppression, of winners and of losers who will always have to flee in order to survive.
This world-famous Dr. Voronoff fell into disrepute and obscurity as similarly experimental (pseudo)science of the Nazis drove mass atrocities across Europe; by the end of World War II, he was all but forgotten. The transitoriness and repetition of human history is narrated by none other than a chorus of frogs (well, a calm voiceover over hopping, swimming, and sitting close-ups). If nothing else, director Giovanni Cioni has created a cinematic meditation that will not be easily forgotten.