Cage (Malta, 1971)

Filmed by Mario Azzopardi in 1971 while he was still a film student, Cage was not commercially released until 2007. It tells the story of a young Maltese man living at the cusp of independence, both his own and that of Malta from the United Kingdom.

Family Matters

In the opening scene, a pair of lovers (Fred and Roza) are cavorting in the meadow before being interrupted by the arrival of Fred’s boss, the parish priest. When he returns home, his mother demands of him: “Who were you with? With that slut? Don’t be a fool my son. Don’t have anything to do with her. Leave her.” Fred looks toward her as thunder booms and lightning flashes through the window (comical, but probably unintentionally so). According to Fred’s mother, Rosa is from an infamously bad family, and since Malta is such a small country, everyone knows it. But for our benefit, she explains their sins anyway: “Are you aware of their political beliefs? They are all enemies of the Church! They have rebelled against God!” Not to mention, they have nothing to offer for a dowry.

The townsfolk are debating whether the parish priest should be allowed to run for office and meddle in politics; this is a major issue in the turbulent and contentious climate of Malta in the late 1960s. Fred’s parents are staunch supporters of the parish priest’s political endeavors. When the election comes, the Nationalists achieve a plurality of the votes. Independence is on the horizon. And yet Fred is still imprisoned in his parents’ (and the church’s) “cage.” (Get it?) At night, a ghostly voice calls out to him: “Beware of death! You will be eternally damned. Death will come and you’ll burn in Hell!” The priest stands outside the window, clad in a hooded black cloak, Seventh Seal-style.

Generational Conflict

At the humorless family dinner the next day, Fred’s sister Filumen is dressed much too immodestly for their mother’s liking. But, Mom says, shouldn’t Filumen’s husband Karmenu be the one correcting her? So why doesn’t he? Doesn’t he know he’s only inviting scandal by allowing his wife to dress in such a manner? Fred’s father is perhaps not as unabashedly hard-nosed as his mother, but he does give Fred the ultimatum: Do as his mother says, or leave. So, Fred goes to see Roza. She gives him the lavender sweater that she knit for him. But Fred, tortured soul that he is, tells her they cannot meet anymore. Roza is shocked that he is treating her “as if I were a slut.” So they split up. But he takes the sweater. He’s really sending mixed signals…

Shortly thereafter, Fred’s mother is taken ill with angina. Veffa, a maid, is tasked with looking after her. Fred starts getting really handsy with Veffa; by this point, I’m realizing that he has this mildly creepy Anthony Quinn vibe to him. “It’s better if we control our own future,” Veffa opines to Fred as they … discuss the election results in the backseat of his car. Later, Fred’s father tells him “I know that you had fancied that girl [Roza]. I hope you now realize why we were against your relationship. She comes from a low class family.” But Veffa, on the other hand—she’s a real catch, his father says. Little does he know that Fred is already way ahead of him; Veffa is currently pregnant with Fred’s child.

Moving On

When both of Fred’s parents die, his sister and brother-in-law invite him to stay with them in Sliema. (Fred packs the lavender sweater.) As he prepares to leave, religious and political processions have him surrounded. Seems like pretty standard film student symbolism. Nothing out of the ordinary here. In Sliema, Fred gets a job as a typist. Sliema is very different from Fred’s hometown; his coworkers speak English peppered with Maltese, true to form for Sliema residents. When Veffa marries his boss, she leaves him a note: “If you have some decency in you, just leave and find another job. If you stay I’ll make your life hell, the same hell you made me go through. You have two weeks.” This ultimatum inspires in Fred a paroxysm of regret at leaving Roza, just as the Union Jack descends and the Flag of Malta replaces it.

All things considered, Cage is pretty impressive for a film school thesis. But something weird happens in the final scene, and I’m not sure whether or not it was intentional. We see the crew, lights, camera, etc., as the actor playing Fred (Ray Camilleri) stands, out of character, receiving last minute instructions for the upcoming scene. The guy with the clapperboard comes forward and says “171 take 4,” then the scene commences. Is this a narrative tactic, functioning as some kind of forceful reminder that we’re watching a film? Is it film student symbolism? Sloppy editing? Who knows.

Up Next…

The Wind (Mali, 1982)

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