Italian popular cinema tended to work in genres: comedies, thrillers, horror, gangster films etc. The Nude Princess unites several of these box office staples into one unique whole. It includes elements of comedy, drama, sexploitation and mondo movie; but essentially, it’s a political satire. Italian press and TV, then as now, love a good scandal. And a scandal involving politicians is the best. What’s unusual about The Nude Princess is that it takes a decidedly left wing / anti-colonialist stand. Or maybe that isn’t so unusual. Italy did after all have the largest communist party in Europe at the time and there were many out and out Marxists in the film business. Which is not to claim the film is a radical work of propaganda: its exploitation elements are far too obvious to support such a wild assertion. However, it could at least claim to present a point of view that is “equal opportunities cynical”. An attitude that probably reflects that of the average middle class Italian viewer. Buffered between a reactionary church and a corrupt state – who is there left to believe in?
Well, why not a black transsexual playing the part of a fictional African minister pretending to be…?
But let’s start at the beginning. The jumping off point for the film is an episode in the life of African dictator Idi Amin Dada. Although largely forgotten, Amin, who today lives in quiet exile in Saudi Arabia, was a former army boxing champion who rose to be one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century. He took power in Uganda in 1971 via a military coup while the current Head of State was overseas. Although welcomed at first as a liberator, Amin’s eight year rule was characterised by torture, bloodshed and supression of all political opposition. It is estimated that over 300,000 people were killed by the Amin regime. He became notorious for his outrageous pronouncements – including the statement (dramatised in the film) that the only white man he admired was Hitler. In homage to his idol, he went on to confiscate all the property of Uganda’s large Asian population and gave them a deadline to leave the country or be killed. Anyone who disagreed with Amin was likely to find themselves on the receiving end of a bullet or a bomb. Amongst those who crossed him was one of his own ministers, a Ugandan woman – a real life princess – who had studied law in England and worked in the USA as a model and actress. She had been summoned back to Africa by Amin who offered her a position as his overseas representative. Of course, that wasn’t the only position he wanted her to ocuppy. She was also expected to be Amin’s mistress. When she refused, her life was threatened and she fled the country. In revenge, Amin cooked up a fake story about her supposed sexual exploits in Orly airport whilst on an overseas delegation. He had these outrageous lies published on the front page of the Ugandan Times, together with doctored nude photographs purported to be of the princess. Of course, the allegations were entirely false. However, such a juicy story was too good for the western tabloid newspapers to resist; and the Italian movie industry – being at times not much more than an off-shoot of the yellow press – followed suit with the highly fictionalised account of The Nude Princess.
Amin was the subject of at least two othe films. Both worth seeking out. Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 film General Idi Amin Dada is a documentary, apparently made with Amin’s co-operation, that goes beyond the surreal. Sharad Patel’s Amin: the Rise and Fall (1981) is a fictionalised account, but still highly entertaining in a “jaw dropping awful” kind of way.
La Principessa nuda exhibits all the virtues and most of the vices of this subgenre of Italian cinema. While the fantasies it indulges in about black life may not all be positive, at least the black characters in the film are allowed a degree of dignity that is denied to most of the venal, back stabbing white politicians. Nor should we try to damn the film’s faults (or excuse them) as merely products of its time. The notion of the wise, older black man (as played here by Jho Jenkins) was already a long standing cliche of Hollywood films. Likewise, the notion of sexually rapacious black women is still very much a staple of rap songs and dance music videos. La principessa nuda was made long before “political correctness”, but maybe reflects a series of assumptions that are even harder to dislodge than we might care to admit..