Cult Filmmakers You Should Know #19: ASIA ARGENTO

By Michael Varrati

Stepping out of the shadows of the previous generation can be a process for anybody, but when your parents are two of cinema’s most notorious luminaries, there’s bound to be an extra measure of complication.

For Italian actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, contending with famous parents has always been a fact of life. Her mother, noted actress and screenwriter Daria Nicolodi (Suspira, Deep Red), blazed a bloody trail for the women of Italian horror throughout the 1970s and beyond. Similarly, her father, the hugely celebrated filmmaker Dario Argento, literally changed the face of genre cinema forever.

With two titans of terror as parents and various other relatives in the business, Asia’s childhood was one ruled by the movies. By her own confession, she initially turned to acting not to establish her own identity, but because she sought her father’s attention.

In the Februrary 2008 issue of Filmmaker Magazine, Argento revealed the desperation that drove her to follow in her parent’s footsteps:

“I never acted out of ambition; I acted to gain my father’s attention. It took a long time for him to notice me – I started when I was nine, and he only cast me when I was 16. And he only became my father when he was my director.”

Although her initial forays into the film world were motivated more by a sense of belonging than performance, the young actress showed incredible aptitude, scoring small roles in projects by Italian masters like Sergio Citti and Michele Soavi (director of Cemetery Man).

Then, in 1993, as mentioned by Argento herself, her increasing skill caught the attention of her famous father. Casting her in the role of a young woman suffering from anorexia in his then-current project, Trauma, Dario ferociously introduced his daughter to the fright world at large.

Notorious for his detached treatment of his performers, Dario Argento made it very clear that his daughter was receiving no special treatment on his sets. Indeed, as the father/daughter team worked together on subsequent films such as The Stendahl Syndrome and The Phantom of the Opera, it seemed that Asia’s father pushed her even harder than most. Often the characters portrayed by Asia in Dario’s films were the victims of savage sexuality and horribly violence. Incredible feats of performance perpetrated by the actress were pushed into the realm of avant-garde when the audience wrapped its mind around the fact that it was her own father envisioning her in these roles.

It was sick, it was twisted, and it was legendary.

Horror fans couldn’t get enough of Team Argento and their brand of disturbing familial discord.

Even as Asia and her father were redefining the Argento horror legacy, the actress continued to hone her craft on other projects. Asia appeared in the French period piece La Reine Margot and had a defining role in cult legend Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel. During this era, Argento’s work was so diverse and accomplished, she was nominated twice for the Italian equivalent of the Academy Award (the David Di Donatello Award) and won both times.

From a little girl fighting to get out of her father’s shadow, Asia had emerged to become an artist in her own right. An award-winning, beloved actress, Asia Argento had created an original voice in cinema both with, and in spite of, her famous parents.

Yet, for this driven artist, such accomplishments were not nearly enough. Having already proven herself in front of the camera, Asia had aspirations to helm movies of her own.

Taking small steps at first, Asia dabbled in short films before directing a documentary on her father in 1996, following it shortly thereafter with a documentary on Ferrara in 1998. By making films about the men who had made her films, Asia was studying the art of directing in her own unique way. Yet, these were far from pet projects. When her documentary on Ferrara (titled Abel/Asia) debuted at film festivals in Europe, it was heralded by critics and received several awards. In turning the camera around on her directors, Asia had become their equal, and a new facet of her creative self was born.

In 2000, Argento took on the task of writing and directing her first full-feature. Titled Scarlet Diva, the film served as a semi-autobiographical piece concerning an actress and her destructive path of sex, drugs, and violence. A tale of redemption and identity, Scarlet Diva served as Asia’s own crude catharsis of a damaging life lived under the spotlight of fame. Rough and wild, the film revealed a fierce sensibility that made audiences of the world sit up and take note.

Of course, the savage beauty of Scarlet Diva served merely as a primer for what was to come next.

Explosively brutal, 2004’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things revealed to the world that Argento wasn’t only a talented artist, but an unapologetic and powerful presence. The film, based on the controversial JT Leroy novel of the same name, portrayed a horrific American landscape of crushed innocence, sexual misconduct, and crushing emotional dissonance. Telling the story of young Jeremiah (Cole & Dylan Sprouse…bet you never knew the kids from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody had such street cred), a boy at the mercy of his whoring, drug-addled mother (Argento), the film is an uncomfortable testament to our lack of identity in the modern age. Featuring a stellar indie cast that included the likes of Michael Pitt, Peter Fonda, Marilyn Manson, and Jeremy Renner, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is at once a commentary on the broken American dream, and I imagine, a revealing look at Argento’s own struggle with the parent/child divide.

Although The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things remains as Argento’s largest directorial effort to date, the Italian phenomenon stays busy. She continues to experiment with filmmaking in the short form, including directing music videos for shock performers like the aforementioned Manson. Furthermore, Argento has continued to act, appearing in big Hollywood blockbusters like xXx, and staying true to her roots by popping up in a variety of horror projects.

Most recently, Asia reunited with her father to star in his forthcoming adaptation of Dracula. For the horror community at large, anytime the father and daughter reunite, there is some sense of coming home. After all, via their screen union, a whole generation was reared on depraved delights crafted by this family of fright. However, for those of us who also recognize Asia as a strong, powerful artist independent of her father’s legacy, to see Dario and his daughter reunited is merely icing on the cake.

Though it may seem like “coming home,” we also know that Asia has built her own house. With a fierce, uncompromising vision, Asia Argento has laid the foundation for a legacy all her own. A brilliant writer, fearless performer, and an unapologetic filmmaker, Asia Argento is not merely the daughter of a horror icon, she’s a legend in her own right.

For finding her own voice and screaming it loudly, Asia Argento is truly a cult filmmaker you should know.

Until next time.

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