The action takes place almost entirely in a luxurious villa outside Rome whose owners, Count Davide (Alain Cuny) and his wife Gilda (Juliette Mayniel) manage a racket of high-class prostitutes for wealthy clients: a sadistic mercenary re-enacts the torture of a helpless victim (Stefania Casini); a stage director (played by director Luciano Salce in one of the film’s funniest scenes) sets up an elaborate staging inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novels, turning the villa’s garden into a tropical island and having the prostitute (Silvia Dionisio) play a native; an ambassador (José Quaglio) has a girl (Ilona Staller) act as the man’s old estranged flame.
The mocking, surreal tone – such as Cuny’s monologue on an exercise bike – recalls Buñuel at times, and once again Rondi’s target is Italian bourgeoisie, while the film’s theme is prevarication (sexual, economical, physical and mental). Lower classes are exploited and corrupted, as shown by the episode of a young naive Southern girl, Linda (Consuelo Ferrara), who is brought to the villa, drugged and forced to serve a client’s desires. The morning after, as she cries in shame and despair, she is coldly given her pay for the day and told that she can either leave or stay in the villa as one of the Counts’ “girls”. Moreover, youth and beauty are exploited and vampirized by the old. “The most expected guest – without offending anyone – has arrived: youth itself. The object of all our anxieties, all our regrets. What we have never been… what we will never be,” Cuny announces when an 18 year old girl (Sonja Jeannine) arrives at the party on a motorbike.
The Count and his wife are worthy descendants of Freda’s elderly countess in I vampiri: if Gianna Maria Canale fed on the blood of young women, here Sonja Jeannine is groped by a bunch of slimy elderly guests who verse champagne and cream on her naked body, as if they want to consume and devour the very essence of her youth. It’s a moment that harks back to the final orgy in La dolce vita, but also recalls the chilling feast that ends Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black. “Do you want my eighteen years? I open my veins and I offer you my blood. I will be your food, eating me you will bring a bit of my youth in you… eat me, drink me, kill me if you like, but do it quickly though because I’m leaving in half an hour!” Jeannine says. As Pasolini stated in Salò, victims are now the accomplices of their torturers, and the film ends with Linda coming back to the villa, now fully aware of her role and hopelessly corrupted.
At the time, few critics noticed Rondi’s discourse, and hastily dismissed the film as pretentious and exploitative, and I prosseneti didn’t perform well at the box office either. However, Rondi’s discourse is today clearer and stronger than ever. As with Ingrid sulla strada, cinema is shown as a medium of power, in a scene featuring an 8mm film juxtaposed to a sexual encounter. And sex itself has become a pantomime, a play (explicitly so in the Salce episode), with all the passion and the joy replaced by a rigid set of rules and roles. As an Italian critic notes in a recent analysis of the film, Rondi’s vision predates “a reality based solely on the image, where woman becomes a bribe and replaces money as an instrument of corruption; meanwhile, finance and sex are tied in an unlikely embrace, giving rise to a plutocratic system where the old feeds with the young.