Paprika (1991)

Stylish, erotically fixated Italian maestro Tinto Brass1 was at the top of his game when he made this biting erotic social comedy on the heels of a hot streak including The Key, Miranda, Snack Bar Budapest, and the lesser seen Capriccio. Here he continues enters the ’90s in high style with Paprika, a film that pushes the limits of mainstream screen sexuality for Italian cinema even further than before, a daring harbinger of the direction he would take for the rest of the decade.

When her boyfriend finds himself coming up short on cash, a demure provincial girl named Mimma (Caprioglio) ends up working a two-week stint at the local brothel run by Pekingese-loving Madame Collette (Eyeball’s Brochard). There the new arrival is given a new professional name, Paprika, and given a thorough physical exam and erotic training at the hands of her boss. Paprika immediately falls for her first client, the handsome Franco (Bonnet), who dreams of becoming a naval captain. Even worse, Paprika breaks one of the main house rules and reaches a sexual climax, which happens again and again when she and Franco continue to meet. However, fate conspires to extend the two-week job indefinitely as Paprika is bounced around through a colorful array of brothels and clients until the threat of brothel closures across Italy forces her to find a new plan for her future.

The 1950s setting of Paprika is a fascinating choice as it mirrors the real-life legislation against brothels that swept through Italy at the time due to a crusade by an Italian senator, Lina Merlin, who’s name checked in the story here. The depiction of prostitution is fascinating here as it starts as a Paprikadisreputable but not unbearable financial opportunity in an environment where women unequivocally call the shots. However, things become far more tangled along the way as Paprika becomes entangled in several demeaning, unpleasant scenarios, with Caprioglio (who’s perfectly cast) radically changing her appearance with guises including a platinum-blonde Marilyn type, a classy high society member, and a used, wild-haired wreck, not necessarily in that order. Italian cinema staple Brochard has great fun with her role and carries most of the emotional weight in the film’s penultimate scene, a memorable housecleaning unlike any other. Also notable among the cast is Brass regular John Steiner (Tenebrae) in his final acting role before he switched careers and moved to Los Angeles. Their past collaborations including Salon Kitty, Caligula, and Action were certainly memorable, but he outdoes himself here in what amounts to an extended, frenetic guest appearance as a Roman prince whose coke-fueled dinner party culminates a startling golden shower celebration cut from many release prints.

A substantial box office hit in Italy, Paprika helped solidify Brass’s reputation as the country’s most accomplished erotic filmmaker. His cheerful sensibility is still present here but tempered by some very dark undertones; the fact that he casts himself in a cameo as an abortion doctor should be a hint that this isn’t quite business as usual. Oddly enough, the film was originally intended as a direct adaptation of the novel Fanny Hill (previously filmed several times including one version by Russ Meyer); instead he and co-scenarist Bernardo Zapponi (Deep Red, Fellini Satyricon) lifted the plotline and simply transposed it to the ’50s with a heavy dash of autobiographical memories thrown into the mix. The end result is a fascinating and beautifully lensed film that finds Brass and company firing on all cylinders with his regular cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti and famed composer Riz Ortolani shining in particular behind the camera.