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Clay (1965)


Nick (George Dixon) is a killer on the run from the police in rural Victoria. He is saved from capture by Margot (Janina Lebedew), a sculptress living in a remote artists’ colony along with her painter father (Claude Thomas), Mary (Lola Russell) and Mary’s husband, Charles (Robert Clarke). Nick and Margot fall in love, and their romance incites jealousy in Chris (Chris Tsalikis), a rival for Margot’s affections. As the police close in, Chris betrays Nick.

Curator’s notes

One of only two feature films made in Australia in 1965, Clay is the best known work by Giorgio Mangiamele (1926–2001). Born in Catania, Sicily, Mangiamele studied Fine Arts, film production and journalism, and worked in the photographic department of the Rome police force before emigrating to Australia in 1952. He had independently produced a number of 16mm short films on migrant themes (such as Il Contratto, 1953, and The Spag, 1962) and one on 35mm (Ninety Nine Per Cent, 1963) before commencing his first 35mm feature, Clay, in May 1964. With virtually no support for feature production in Australia at this time, Mangiamele raised £11,000 by mortgaging his house and asking eight cast and crew members to contribute £200 each, repayable from box office earnings.

Sadly, very little revenue was forthcoming. Despite being selected for competition in the 1965 Cannes film festival (only the third Australian film to do so, following Jedda in 1955 and Walk Into Paradise in 1956), Clay was unable to secure an Australian distributor. In August 1966, well over a year since its Cannes debut, Clay played only a one-week season at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne, with Mangiamele and his supporters meeting the cost of cinema rental. Apart from the fact that very few local features were made and exhibited in the 1960s, Australia had almost no tradition of art-house films such as Clay.

Opening with images of swamps and bushland processed in black-and-white negative and a dreamy voice-over by central character Margot – ‘why do I feel as though time has become crystalline … past, present, my own being; everything loses meaning’ (see clip one) – Clay has much more in common with European cinema of the time than mainstream English language movies. This is not surprising given Mangiamele’s background. Its gritty study of a fugitive on the run bears the hallmarks of Italian neorealism and the love story recalls the existential French cinema of directors such as Alain Resnais (who directed Last Year at Marienbad, 1962).

Although the script is rather clunky at times and the post-synch dialogue is sometimes noticeably out of alignment (the voice of inexperienced 19-year-old lead actress Janina Lebedew (credited as Janine Lebedew), an office secretary, was supplied by Sheila Florance, who ironically appears as a mute in the film), Clay nonetheless deserves credit for its ambition and contains some striking visual elements. The story of a brief and impossible encounter between a killer and a sensitive young artist, it’s beautifully shot by Mangiamele in moody monochrome at Montsalvat, an artists’ colony on the outskirts of Melbourne. The same location would be used to very different effect in the Aussie vampire movie Thirst (1979), but here it is an other-worldly place where lives, dreams and identities are intersecting.

Margot’s fascination with Nick draws her into much soul-searching; questioning who she is and why this stranger has become such a powerful force in her life. Against these ruminations there is the more basic human trait of jealousy. Chris feels threatened by Nick and faces a deep moral dilemma when he discovers his rival’s true identity. The film’s themes of loneliness, identity and responsibility are beautifully realised in a sequence showing a clergyman paying a visit to Margot’s home. Appearing as a silhouette against a bright sky, the man of God casts a cross-like shadow over Nick as he asks him to talk about his troubles.

Though performance levels of his cast are variable, Mangiamele’s assured grip on tone generates a good deal of tension as Chris considers his next move while the relationship between Margot and Nick intensifies. But it is Mangiamele’s visual poetry that lingers longest in the memory. From his ominous landscapes to imagery of earth and water mixing together as a metaphor for the sexual congress of Nick and Margot, Mangiamele stands as a pioneer of Australian cinema-as-art.

Clay won three prizes at the 1965 Australian Film Awards and was reviewed in the international trade paper Variety on 4 December 1964: ‘Visually it’s frequently a poem brought to life with some breathtakingly poignant and arty shots’. The selection of Clay for inclusion in the competition at the Cannes Film Festival stamps it as an influential and important film, and Clay marks a pivotal moment in the development of art-house cinema in Australia.

Clay was released in Australian cinemas on 25 August 1966. At the 1965 Australian Film Awards, it received a Silver Award in the General category, and a Silver Medallion and Silver Plaque for black-and-white photography in categories sponsored respectively by Kodak and the Australian Cinematographers Society.

A 50-minute version of Clay was broadcast on SBS on 13 November 1999. It also screened at NSW Parliament House on 25 May 2005 at the opening of the first They’re a Weird Mob Film Festival, at the Sguardi Australiani Film Festival in Camogli, Italy in July 2005, and at the second They’re a Weird Mob Film Festival in Sydney in June 2007. Clay also screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on 7 August 2011.

Since his death in 2001, retrospectives of Mangiamele’s films have been held at ACMI in Melbourne organised by the Council of Education, and in 2004–2005 at the Fuoricircuito (cine club) at the contemporary arts centre Zo, at his birthplace in Catania, Sicily.