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Nerosubianco / Black On White

Ranjit Sandhu on the film that Freedom scored

To read this fascinating article (about the Bobby Harrison / Ray Royer film) in its wider context, and to see lots more pictures and the full cast-list and other credits, please visit Ranjit's comprehensive and intriguing Tinto Brass website, from which the following has been extracted by kind permission. If you are able to lay hands on a copy of the 'Black on White' film (by whatever title!) do get in touch by e-mail.

Nerosubianco (aka Attraction / Black On White, 1967–1968)

This is where the creators of MTV got all their ideas. But nothing I've ever seen on MTV comes close to the mastery of this original from the late 1960s.

After Col cuore in gola, producer Dino De Laurentiis offered director Tinto Brass a chance to make his own type of movie again. Brass chose to update a script he had written in early 1964 immediately after completing Chi lavora è perduto. He had apparently become enamored of the avant-garde filmmakers and decided to one-up them all. Shooting began in October 1967 and the result, Nerosubianco, which premiered at the Cannes festival in May 1968, was a carefully-wrought and meticulously-structured orgy of free-association. To help explain what is or isn't going on, disembodied voices occasionally break through saying, in both Italian and English, "Qualcosa come un sogno" – "Something like a dream." A song goes further: "Didn't you know that your misty eyes haven't seen? They've been telling lies in dreams."

The title was originally going to be L'attrazione, and then a tentative working title was Black and White. Soon Brass or someone on his crew came up with a triple entendre masterstroke. The Italian equivalent of "black and white" – as in "Read it for yourself; it's all there in black and white" – is "nero su bianco," which literally means "black on white." The main situation in the film is the unspoken mutual obsession of a black American man and an Italian housewife in London. What could be a more appropriate title? Well, how about running all three words together to reveal a hidden concept in the middle?

Which, if any, of the characters are supposed to be real, and in whose imagination(s) any of this occurs, is open to probably any interpretation. My interpretation is that none of the characters is supposed to be real, and that the entire film is Tinto's stream of consciousness. There is little dialog, and most of the film is accompanied by a rock group called Freedom, who serve as a sort of a Greek chorus.

Again, the pop-art illustrations are by Guido Crepax and the breathtakingly fast editing reveals the six-perf splicing tape. Many of the images are probably too far out to qualify as surreal. Umberto di Grazia's consciousness lab becomes almost a carnival ten-in-one, with subjects' responses measured on an enormous oscilloscope. Husband Paolo is ready to go to sleep when he discovers that his wife Barbara has turned into a cow. A few scenes later, after Barbara compares him to a monkey, Paolo turns into two oranges and a banana. A little old lady machine guns a line-up of hippies. Freedom plays several songs while perched in a tree. The film is filled with negative images, monochrome images, multiple takes, overcranking, undercranking, unexpected sound effects, and nonstop mixing of new film with archive film, cartoon drawings, and billboards.

Brass utilizes some of the war-atrocity footage he had gathered for Ça ira to create a shattering sequence when a ghoulish priest appears in Luna Park's love tunnel, proclaiming that love scenes are forbidden because they're dangerous, but that scenes of war are permitted and will now be shown instead. Yes, the idea is simplistic, but its summary of our Western world's insane disconnect is terrifyingly true and presented so directly and forcefully that it's impossible to put it out of one's mind.

HOMAGES, INSPIRATIONS, OR PLAGIARISMS? At the end of the film we see a mass of people in Hyde Park, some of whom are outlandishly dressed, running from behind the film crew's camera into the distance. This is unquestionably where Monty Python got the idea for their sketch about Ken Russell's Gardening Club. There are also two brief glimpses of the black man's hands folded in front of the white woman's breasts – the same image that Spike Lee used for the poster of Jungle Fever.

Nerosubianco was well received at the Cannes trade festival, but was banned by the Italian censors in December 1968. Producer De Laurentiis couldn't file an appeal because he had just fled the country to escape the clutches of the tax collectors. The Italian Inland Revenue then confiscated the De Laurentiis studio, Dinocittà, and all its holdings, including Nerosubianco. Despite all this, Columbia-Ceiad somehow managed to release the film briefly in Europe in early 1969 to what Variety called "fair returns for a way-out pic." An English-dubbed version with exactly 30 minutes censored out was shown in England briefly in late 1973 under the title Attraction. This was possibly the same version that was shown in Australia. A few years earlier, in October 1969, Radley Metzger released the uncut 89-minute English dub in the US under the title Black on White. It died at the box office. In 1996 or 1997 I happened to meet Metzger at the Syracuse Cinefest. He told me that he thought the film exceptionally fine, and that he was saddened that it had never found its audience. He still owns the US rights to the English-language dub, but he has not released it on video.

The music Brass commissioned from Freedom – and in later films from Fiorenzo Carpi, Pino Donaggio, and Riz Ortolani – is masterfully synched to the emotions and rhythms of the films. I doubt any other filmmaker/composer teams have done such exquisite work in matching sound to image as these teamings.
The original soundtrack LP, which Freedom didn't know had been released

For those who are interested, Freedom consisted of four members, two of whom had just been fired from Procol Harum. Before Freedom had even had time to prove their worth by composing a single measure of music, Brass commissioned them to write fourteen songs for this film. According to enthusiasts of psychedelic rock, these are the only songs by Freedom that were any good – and they are now considered among the cream of the crop of the genre. Freedom, like Brass, led a jinxed existence. Strangely, the group had not known about the existence of the rare Italian LP until circa 1999. By the way, I'm no rock fan, to say the least, but I find these fourteen songs irresistible and have listened to the CD re-issue probably hundreds of times now. Buy the soundtrack CD from Amazon UK

Critics were totally clueless. Howard Thompson of the New York Times (10 October 1969, p. 36) wrote:

Radley Metzger, a tireless promoter of sensationalized sex movies, often with a wisp of artistic camouflage, has scraped a British barrel and come up now with something called Black on White.... As entertainment or art, this Technicolor picture is garbage [actually it was Eastmancolor-RS] .... The rock 'n' roll score, boinged out by some seedy-looking hippies we first see perched in a tree like a bunch of vultures, is terrible ... The exhibitors of Black on White themselves have given the import a rating of "X – persons under 17 cannot be admitted." Younger movie-goers can take that as a compliment. This time that X means excruciating.

"Kent" in Variety (15 October 1969): Pretentious exploiter that fails to deliver enough sex or shock values to score ... The whole thing is punctuated by an utterly forgettable rock score ... The direction is strictly pedestrian.

I give both critics a thumbs down, zero stars. No imagination at all! And I bet they're lousy conversationalists too. With raves like theirs it's little wonder that no one bothered to take a look. Better reviews and a stronger promotion could probably have turned this into a midnight favorite quite easily. Oh well. Modern audiences, after twenty years of Nerosubianco's lame bastard child, MTV, would surely be more attuned to the film's eccentricities. Since this movie was made, the only advance in the music-video genre of which I'm aware can be found at

I have been able to see only an Italian (RAI Tre) broadcast, cropped for TV and with 20 minutes censored out, and with most of the remaining (tasteful) nude scenes nearly obliterated by spinning spirals, moiré patterns, and grids superimposed over the screen. Even in that form it's a magnificent work. (Thank you Jönas for supplying a copy!)

We are offering a bounty for a good-quality, complete video of Nerosubianco (89 minutes at 24fps, 86 minutes at 25fps, 1:85:1 camera matte). If you know where we can get one, write to us at Many thanks! Even if the rights to my copy were available, the quality is so awful that it is uncopyable. Radley Metzger promised that he would some day send me a VHS copy of his English dub, but said that if I copy it or rent it, he'll burn my house down. So when I get it I'll only be able to watch it privately. But I'm almost willing to bet that the original Italian version of this movie is available, legally, somewhere in this wide wide world. Keep your eyes out for it.

MUSINGS: Terry Carter: From Phil Silvers to Tinto Brass? What a jump! Yes, he was in The Phil Silvers Show: You'll Never Get Rich (a.k.a. Sergeant Bilko). And then Battlestar Galactica? What an odd career. And Anita Sanders quickly fell off the map. She was later credited as an assistant director on Fellini's Casanova (1976). I bet there are stories there, and I wish I knew them. After this and L'urlo, Nino Segurini never appeared in another Tinto Brass movie. I guess he got tired of being likened to flea-picking baboons.

REQUEST: There are hundreds of extras in this film. If you can identify any of them, please contact us. Thanks!

WHAT? After it bombed at the US box office, Metzger retitled the film The Artful Penetration of Barbara. Perhaps this was an attempt to see if it would do business at the exploitation cinemas. I'm sure that anyone who put on his raincoat and sunglasses and snuck into a showing ended up being terribly disappointed. And then some sources mention another release under the title Shameful. If this is correct, then whoever retitled the film misunderstood it perfectly.

QUESTION: Why is Vittorio Gelmetto credited with the music tracks for Nerosubianco and L'urlo?

POSTSCRIPT ADDED ON MONDAY, 8 JULY 2002: I just learned that Nick Saxton, production manager on this film, later directed some of the earliest pioneering music videos. See his obituary for more details. Well, I haven't seen his works, but now I know something more about the evolution of this cultural phenomenon. Sounds like he was a fascinating guy! The obituary, written by his longtime friend Bruce Miller, mentions also that Saxton worked on another Tinto Brass movie called Separation. I strongly suspect that something got garbled and that he actually means to refer to a movie by Jane Arden and Jack Bond, which you can learn about here. Thanks to Roland at 'Beyond the Pale' for referring me to this site and probably solving a mystery.

Buy Freedom CDs from Amazon USA
Buy the soundtrack CD from Amazon UK
For more information on Nerosubianco and Freedom, see here, here and here,

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