by Ben Miller
NYU CAS, Class of 2014
The early 1960s were, for Italy as for the rest of the world, a turbulent period. In Italy, a newly resurgent economic boom threatened the country’s values. And Italy’s film industry, prominent both artistically and commercially worldwide during this period, reflected and furthered this turbulent shift in art viewing and art-making. As the Italian “economic miracle” reshaped the landscape of what film could and “should” do, Italian film shifted from the conveyance of a reality located in the external world to the conveyance of a reality as seen by and originating from within the director. Why this shift in subjectivity from the external to the internal? Why the focus on the inner world of the director?
The cultural reconstruction of Italy in the 1950s, embodied by the miraccolo economico, created economically favorable conditions that neutralized many of the impassioned neorealist arguments against dire poverty and the lack of development. Simultaneously, the dishonesty of government and the disastrously uneven patterns of development and growth that characterized the miraccolo eroded much of the sincerity and trust in national character on which the neorealist movement depended. The question for filmmakers was thus: how to make films that expressed a sincere truth within the more cynical cultural context of a post-neorealist Italy? This question led to a shift from an external to an internal filmmaking – Italian directors became auteurs who subjectively directed their films from internal sources, rather than transmitting an external reality in an objective way. Metafilmic techniques used in films of the period allowed directors to place themselves at the centers of their creations, simultaneously explaining and enacting their new, fully modernist focus.
Despite the vital transformation of Italian cinema that propelled the modernist film movement forward, it was neorealism that first brought Italian film to prominence on the world stage. Neorealist film was an attempt to respond to the social, economic and political destruction of Italy by the combined monsters of fascism and war. It filled the perceived need for a poetics that observed the crisis of poverty in war-wracked cities, dealt with human suffering, created political/democratic consciousness, distinguished itself from fascist aesthetics, made the best use of economic circumstances, and stayed ‘modern’ with abstracted conventions of storytelling and its status as that most modern of art forms, film. The combination of French criticism and Italian direction created a realist vocabulary of film that attempted to reexamine the modernist idea after its perceived failure during World War II. The film that defined neorealism on the international stage, following the huge domestic success of Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Città Aperta, was Rossellini’s next film, Paisan. Conceived as an episodic series of newsreels describing the liberation of Italy by the Allied forces (itself a metafilmic concept), the film inhabits an aesthetic that combines the three central concepts of neorealist art: abstraction, convention, and the documentary style. The episodic nature of the film plays into the abstraction inherent in neorealism. The second episode of Paisan, set in Naples, is especially worth examining. Throughout the episode, which tells the story of a child street thief’s relationship with a black American soldier, the camera angles play with the conventions of filmic storytelling, emphasizing the ironic monumentality of the ruined city of Naples. Low angles monumentalize figures, but these low angles show not the Roman gods or renaissance sculptures of Italy’s glory but a common street urchin sitting with an invader on a pile of bombed-out houses.
The whole episode is filmed in a documentary style – the camera walks the streets with the citizens, rather than being locked up in the studio on set, and nonprofessional actors are used, often hired right off the streets being filmed on. Born out of necessity – the major Italian film studios were being used as refugee camps immediately after the War – the open-air, natural-light shooting became a trademark of the neorealist film and served to integrate the film further into the real. And the use of a child actor as the protagonist imbued the film with the central premise of neorealism: that for the film to truly be successful, the viewer needed to not just feel with the protagonists, but feel for them: instead of just empathetic feeling with or for these characters, the audience needs to feel in a way that drives them to take action to change the situation displayed by the film. Most often, these situations that demand change from neorealist audiences involve the corruption of innocence.
In the Naples episode, the plot is simple. The child and the soldier play, and then the child steals the soldier’s shoes. Upon finding the child later, the soldier makes the child take him back to his mother and father to be disciplined. The child leads the soldier into a dark cave where women of all ages, dirt-poor, emerge from the shadows to greet him. It becomes clear that their husbands were killed by war. They bring out children, both their own and the orphans they take care of, and offer the soldier food and kindness; both of which are in short supply. Here again we see the fundamental goodness and innocence of people struggling against the corruption of innocence, a situation that compels the audience to step in and take action. Italy was portrayed in these films as a land full of these innocent characters – these children and people like children struggling against the outside world.
But throughout the 1950s, social conditions slowly eroded both of those principles. The ‘economic miracle,’ a program of development fueled by Italy’s strengths in arts, design, tourism, and film; dramatically raised living standards while simultaneously eroding trust in both government and the private sector. At the beginning of the 1950s, only 7% of households had the combination of electricity, drinking water, and an inside lavatory, and agriculture employed over 40% of the population, rising to almost 60% in the rural south[ii]. Throughout the 1950s, the economy grew at a steady clip. But by 1958, foreign demand had grown tremendously. Neorealist film, and the growing film industry in Italy; fuelled demand in that sector, leading to a “Hollywood on the Tiber” where sword-and-sandal epics were filmed on location, leading to a glamorous, celebrity-obsessed, and superficial ‘society of the spectacle’ in the fashionable districts of Rome. Electric appliance production exploded, as did the production of cars and typewriters. However, the industrial success of Italy did not fundamentally affect the previously existing inequalities between North and South, agricultural and industrial. Many of the new housing projects (constructed to fix the shortages so poignantly discussed in neorealist films) were faulty, leaky, and corrupt.
In 1962, into this new environment of uneven development and corruption of both state and society was launched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s short film La ricotta. Like his other satirical short masterpiece, La Terra Vista Dalla Luna, La ricotta mercilessly skewers the now-established tropes of neorealist filmmaking, the glamorous and superficial Italian high society of the age, and the premise of the economic miracle. Set during a film shoot for a film based on the Passion of the Christ (referencing Pasolini’s film-to-come, The Passion According to St. Matthew), the film emphasizes everything that Pasolini sees as being wrong with Italy through the lens of the film industry and cinematic culture. Here, as in the other works examined in this paper, metafilm represents the director’s simultaneous explanation and enaction of his ideological and imagistic goals.
As the film opens, preparations are being made to shoot the scene of Christ on the cross. Pasolini’s plot comments on the use of nonprofessional actors, suggesting that neorealist film is no longer adequate to the task of discussing an Italy so corrupted by wealth. The central character of the film, named Stracci (literally: rags), is a street hobo hired to play the biblical character of the “good thief”.
He is treated poorly by everyone on set: literally kicked to the ground by characters dressed as saints, and stopped from eating any of the lavish food provided for the professional cast, and even one of the actors’ dogs. Eventually, he steals some of the food – thick ricotta cheese – and eats before being hoisted up on the cross next to Jesus. He dies on set, on the cross, of severe indigestion. The ideological and symbolic implications here are impossible to ignore – the nonprofessional actor has been corrupted and killed by food that was too ‘rich’ for his stomach. The neorealist process of making film is thus no longer adequate to the task of addressing Italy’s poor – in fact, in this case, the film kills him.
Later in the 1960s, Pasolini wrote an essay (entitled “Observations On The Long Take”) that summed up neatly his views on reality and film. In the essay, he muses on the Zapruder film of the death of John F. Kennedy. For Pasolini, each long take – each individual clip of film – is an expression of a vital present-tense reality. As he wrote, “reality speaks only through itself” – for Pasolini, the question of “which film is the most real” is irrelevant[iii], as any given clip of film depicts what was real to the camera (and thus the director) at the moment it was taken. This theory fulfills itself through the use of color and sound in La ricotta.
The scenes in the film that are part of La ricotta itself (that is, the scenes depicting the making of the film-within-the-film) are shot in black and white, however the scenes shot through the director’s camera (that will presumably be part of the Passion-film itself) are in color[iv]. In effect everyone sees the set in black and white except for the director, who sees it in color. The outside world is thus transmuted through the director’s lens, rather than copied authentically. The colors within the image are also carefully selected and stylistically exaggerated to create a mannered and stylized image. Pasolini himself commented on this use of color in interviews with the journalist Oswald Stack. “I like…a Masaccio-like image…there was no difficulty with the color because the only difficult thing about color is selecting out the colors, because there are too many colors in real life.” [v] Again, inherent in this attitude is the idea that the director cannot simply transmit reality – that he must select and even distort it to reflect on camera his view of what should be shown onscreen. [vi]
In a further attack on the conventions of ‘neorealist’ Italian filmmaking, we are allowed to see the line-throwers speaking for the lead actress, who will dub her lines in later. The close-up of the beatific face of the woman whose lips move not with her own voice but with the line-reader’s raspy, clearly masculine voice serves as a viscerally uncomfortable exposé of the process of making these realist films.
But La ricotta does not suggest much in the way of remedies to the deep social and filmic problems it pillories. Rather, it simply concludes with Stracci dead on the cross and then cuts to lighthearted waltz music, leaving the problem of action very much up to the thinking process of the audience. And earlier in the film, when asked about Fellini (at the time the preeminent Italian director by far), even the filmmaker-figure (hilariously played by a deadpan and dubbed Orson Welles) has only this to say: “egli danza” (he just dances)[vii].
Fellini may have “just danced”, but in the film he released one year after La Ricotta, he danced his way into a revolution in Italian filmmaking. Otto e mezzo (1963) is nothing less than a sustained attack on the idea that one has to make a film ‘about something’. It makes its passionate case for a subjective art, fueled by interior crisis and imagination, through telling the story of a clearly Fellini-esque director embroiled in creative crisis, making the film that we are watching onscreen. Andràs Kovàcs, in his book Screening Modernism, explains the revolutionary nature of Fellini’s film. It was the “first film to focus entirely on the modern conception of auteurship in the cinema” during a period where there was an existent cultural debate about filmmaking’s significance as an art form[viii]. Remarkably, not a single story element or scene in the film is not subject to what Kovàcs describes as the film’s “fundamental self-reflexivity” – it is repeatedly made clear that the film we are watching is a film that the character Guido himself has made about his own inability to create.
Why, then, would Fellini, writing well after he made Otto e mezzo, refer to himself as “essentially…a neorealist filmmaker”[ix]? The answer lies in the shifts in subjectivity pointed to by the advances in La Ricotta. Otto e mezzo, at its core, is about a filmmaker who is immobilized in his artistic process by the idea that art has to be about something – that is, it must have a subject and a narrative scope outside the artist’s own inner life and interpretation of his world. The film’s eventual conclusion is that inner dream and fantasy are the sources for art, and that a film (for example, the one the audience is watching) can be “about” nothing at all while still delivering profound emotional impact.
The film enacts this meaning-without-subject throughout, with vivid scenes of dream and fantasy that are undercut by the script but that deliver powerful emotional impact. About his own work, and his relationships with his characters, Fellini once wrote: “Listen, I can’t explain to you [my character] what is going wrong but in any case, I love you, and I will give you a serenade.”[x] But scenes within Otto e mezzo belie this characteristically frustrating statement – his image-based analyses of projection within his characters shows exactly what is going wrong with his beleaguered director (and cipher for himself), Guido. From the first moments of the film, we are embroiled in Guido/Fellini’s dream world: Guido stares out of his cars at the other motorists, who stare back at him – their lives and expressions set in rectilinear car windows that take the shape of film screens. We see almost stock characters — a man and his wife who do not speak, a man and woman (Guido’s mistress) who neck in a car, rows of people in cars staring forwards. As Guido is poisoned by the gas, and frantically bangs on the door of his own car, which is locked, the others merely stare at him impassively as one might stare at a film — some paying rapt attention, some caressing each other. No one moves to help[xi]. Fellini comments here on the essentially static nature of film. The audience cannot truly respond to Guido’s “work,” his “performance,” and the director is literally poisoned by their lack of reaction. In a film fueled by a director’s creative crisis, this is perhaps the ultimate insult. He has failed to project his vision into the minds of others.
This type of dream – or dream-like image – populates the entire film, which, recalling the neorealist abstraction of plot, is merely a loose collection of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Even the sequences that occur within the “main” plot (could we even presume that such a thing exists) are impressionistic and deliberately artificial in feel — the squawk of the studio buzzer and the bright lights of the arc lamp off-camera regularly remind us that what we are watching is a film and not ‘real’. Art and life are meant to be one and the same – Guido’s personal crisis and filmic crisis; Fellini’s film and Guido’s film. For example, even the screen tests Guido is made to choose from later in the film are themselves the screen tests for Fellini’s film. This sequence is hazy and impressionistic. As the camera cuts to the screen (playing different actors who auditioned for Fellini’s film reading lines from their roles that Fellini’s audience has already seen occur in Fellini’s film and Guido’s life) and back to Guido, we lose ourselves – towards the end of the sequence one can no longer discern which is the world of the ‘real’ and which is the world of the hazy, less-accurate flashback. Notably, in this sequence and throughout the film, the camera dips and flows to follow Guido’s every movement – trapping him within the frame, within his own creation. [xii].
Notably, the film criticizes itself at every turn – one character, Daumier, a particularly noxious ideologue (and a Frenchman, as most film critics of the time were, in an interesting commentary on the interrelatedness of criticism and filmmaking inherent in neorealism), undercuts Guido/Fellini’s artistic intentions at every turn. At one point, referring to the script for Guido’s film, he calls it a “series of completely senseless episodes…[which] doesn’t have the advantages of the avant-garde films, although it has all the drawbacks.”[xiii] These were much the same reactions had by the few critics who disliked Otto e mezzo. The film thus anticipates its own criticism – and washes it away with the sheer visual power of its imagery.
That imagery proves not only to be the salvation of the film but of its main character. ]] In a sequence just before the famed ending, with its press conference devolving into madness and then reconstructing itself as a glorious carnival of Guido’s life and work, Guido is driving in a car with his muse, the actress Claudia Cardinale (who for the entire film has been begging him to tell her what her part will be). She insists that Guido’s film is about someone who “does not know how to love”. As they drive on, she asks Guido if he can love. He responds by telling her that his character cannot, that his character is rapacious and wants simply to have everything and everyone. He is his character. She asks him if that is the end, and he says no, that her character (a girl dressed in white at the spa-bath, whom Guido had dreamed of earlier in Fellini’s film) will save him. They park, and the camera cuts from her eyes to the same version of Claudia Guido had envisioned before. She sets the table in the court, smiling, and then the camera cuts back to Claudia’s eyes[xiv]. This is the turning point of Otto e mezzo. Guido has finally succeeded in communicating with the outside world, in transferring his inner projections, his inner dreams, to another. The breakthrough that begins here and propels its way to the intensely moving final sequence is that Guido is able to communicate with others and move them when he stops trying to address the abstractions about which Daumier prattles and confronts his inner world of dream and fantasy as the source of his creation.
The fact that Otto e mezzo is a metafilm means that these metaphors explain themselves in dramatic and immediately noticeable ways. The concept that the breakthrough in Guido’s life and art comes when he turns inward for inspiration is easily applicable to film, to Fellini’s own life and art. Otto e mezzo not only teaches that the director’s internal dreams and struggles are the most powerful source of film, but enacts that by intimately cataloguing Fellini’s inner dreams and struggles, as they apply to a cast of characters and a roster of events who are seen only through their lens. In this way, Otto e mezzo serves not only as a classic film in its own right but as a bold statement from Fellini to the cinematic world. This idea, as Kovàcs puts it, is as follows: “Not having a clear intelligible idea to communicate is not an obstacle to filmmaking as long as the film entirely expresses the auteur’s inner universe, however confused and unclear that might be.”[xv]
Italian metafilms of the 1960s redefined and recreated the Italian style of filmmaking. Working close to the neorealist concepts of abstraction, convention, and the attempt to convey an authentic reality, directors threw out and replaced the stylistic tropes that had become associated with the form and redefined the real to mean the real as seen through the unique inner personal lens of the filmmaker. This shift in subjectivity allowed Italian filmmakers to continue making works that demanded social change without working under the assumption that Italy was essentially an innocent nation. Within only one year after the completion of Otto e mezzo, a younger generation of filmmakers saw this new idea of filmmaking as essential to their creations – they made films that are based on the assumption that films should be more about the director’s subjective view of the world. Bernardo Bertolucci wrote about his film Prima della rivoluzione, released in 1964, “I had…gone back to Parma (Bertolucci’s hometown, where the film was made) to settle the outstanding accounts with a city that I felt to be ‘mine’”[xvi]. Note the personal focus assumed in that statement. Or simply compare two sequences: one from Paisan, and one from Otto e mezzo. In both films, there are scenes in which armies of women take care of children. In Paisan, the women are innocent, loyal mothers battling adversity as they raise children against all odds. In Otto e mezzo, they are Jungian fantasies, motherly wives and mistresses who are whipped by the childlike dreamer who created them in his mind. The first is external, the second, internal. But both are equally real. Both are equally powerful.
[i] Paisan. Dir. Roberto Rossellini. Perf. Carmela Sazio, Robert Van Loon, Benjamin Emanuel. OFI, 1946. DVD.
[ii] Ginsborg, Paul. “The ‘Economic Miracle’, Rural Exodus, and Social Transformation 1958-63.”A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988. London, England: Penguin, 1990. PDF.
[iii] Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Observations On The Long Take. 1967. PDF.
[iv] La Ricotta. Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Perf. Orson Welles. Alfredo Bini, 1962. DVD.
[v] Pasolini, Pier Paolo., and Oswald Stack. Pasolini on Pasolini. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana UP, 1969. PDF.
[vi] La Ricotta, 1962.
[viii] Kovács, András Bálint. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007. Print.
[ix] Fellini, Federico. As cited in Kovàcs.
[xi] Otto E Mezzo. Dir. Federico Fellini. Perf. Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimèe, Claudia Cardinale. Angelo Rizzoli, 1963. DVD.
[xvi] Bertolucci, Bernardo. Bertolucci by Bertolucci. Comp. Enzo Ungari. Trans. Donald Ranvaud. London: Plexus, 1987. PDF.