Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fellini & Fascism

After Federico Fellini's early realist films, among them widely-acknowledged masterworks including I Vitelloni and La Strada, he turned decisively to a cinematic style that was surreal in the true sense of the term: certainly it was visually dazzling and full of nearly unbelievable images and scenarios, but it was also deeply personal in the sense of reflexive psychoanalytical introspection that the charter Surrealists (Dalí, Cocteau, Buñuel, et al) sought to expose. The automatic processes, the irrational visuals, the primacy given to the unconscious in the work of such figures were intended to demonstrate and develop much more than what Ben Watson refers to as "the warm shower of imageoiserie" (and given the source, we can assume the cloaco-sexual suggestion is entirely intentional) of postmodern would-be neosurrealists in the vein of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Tarsem Singh who, despite having produced some admittedly dazzling and memorable settings and atmospheres, nonetheless fail to produce films with the rich detail or multivalent suggestibility of truly great compositions.

As such, the content of Fellini's great surreal features (La Dolce Vita, 8 1⁄2, Giulietta degli Spiriti, Satyricon) is primarily discussed either in terms of pure visual composition or in relation to what they elucidate in his own emotions and intellect, and while both these approaches are instructive, they miss the implicit political critique of Fellini's films. Admittedly, this critique is subtle almost to the point of absence: though social criticism looms large in all the films listed above, a clear political gesture from Fellini is a rare bird, particularly in terms of literal plotting or event. However, Fellini's films are so enduring and powerful in part because they reveal themselves through so many conduits besides simple plot, because so much of their content works on more figurative levels that, in this age in which what a film "is" tends to be defined strictly and simplistically by the events it contains, are ultimately more exciting and are cast out farther and deeper into the vague, shadowy realms of possibility.

One such film is 1972's Roma, which like much of the maestro's work proceeds from basic autobiographical facts into a surreal realm that is ultimately both fascinatingly fantastical and incisively relevant. Fellini himself begins the film with a voiceover in which he admits that it essentially has no plot, no continuous narrative, no characters except "Rome herself" (which is, as ever, a bit disingenuous, as he himself is clearly the male lead to the city's heroine), and loosely chronicles the roots of his interest in the city with his school trip there in the mid-'20s, his immigration as an 18-year old at the very outbreak of World War II ("They won't bomb us because they're afraid of hitting the Vatican," as one Roman denizen memorably observes), and, in a characteristic upsetting of the subject/object binary, the actual process of filming the early '70s portion of Roma itself. As befits history, much of the film takes place during the rise, reign, and fall of Mussolini, and his looming presence is hardly tiptoed around: when the young Fellini meets the Roman family with whom he will be staying on his 1938 sojourn, an older male relative introduces himself by bounding out of a bathroom and doing his best Benito, and when an air raid takes place during an early '40s visit to a vaudeville show, one of the trapped theater-goers declares, to the lukewarm approval of the crowd, that "only Mussolini and fascism will save us."

While Fellini's narrative voice-over makes no explicit comment on the pro- or anti-Mussolini sentiments expressed by various characters throughout the film (though, naturally, there is a crack about trains running on time), the very material of his cinematic technique is a pungent rebuke of the ideology of fascism. As Dr. Marshall Armintor has remarked in conversation with the author, "There is no fascism without uniforms": despotic totalitarian politics rely completely on the spectacle, the appearance of solidity, strength, and homogeneity to mask the inequality, oppression, and violence beneath. It is always a sign of imminent danger when a nation begins holding displays of its athletic, intellectual, even spiritual prowess, for such a display is nearly always the corollary for an act of imperialist-style violence, the justification for the subjugation of a people who fail to meet the lofty standards demonstrated. Roma contains one such display in a scene in which Fellini-as-a-boy and his parents visit a movie theater and watch a pro-fascist film strip among the crowd's jostling for seats, and while the juxtaposition of the false regality and fraudulent grandeur of the Italy on screen with the petty bickering of the Italy represented by its citizens is a clear critical gesture, there is greater deconstructive substance to be found in the actual techniques Fellini uses to construct his films. This is the specific political power of Roma: it presents Fellini's filmmaking for the first time in the specific context of sociopolitical repression and demonstrates by such presentation the power of his work to beggar the totalitarian myth.

Like the fascists, Fellini returns again and again to spectacle, to overwhelmingly massive crowd scenes and vast, dazzling panoramas, but he employs them to precisely the opposite effect. Totalitarianism desires to present a unified front, a stoic, "dignified," hard line of state-sponsored rigidity and strength; Fellini presents crowd scenes in all their actual circus-like surreality and diverse grotesquerie, a move that powerfully gives the lie to the cheap appearance of monolithic splendor that is the very lifeblood of fascism. Mussolini, like Hitler, was careful to present images containing only lean young men of the most ethincally "purified" sort (which naturally suggests questions regarding the relationship between the fascist ideal and homosocial or homosexual desire, a topic for another discussion) performing feats of physical strength or arranged in unyielding formations of marching and saluting troops; Fellini not only includes outcasts, "degenerates," Frank Zappa's "left-behinds of the Great Society" (let's hear it for another great Italian . . . ) but makes them part of the focus of his visual and ideological structures. He does so not in an exploitative or condescending manner but with the intrigue and sympathy of one who understands that "freaks" explode the boundaries of normalcy, push at the limits of what is to be considered "real" or "average," and most importantly call into question the behaviors of the "normal"--for as often as Fellini depicts obviously outcast characters ("homosexuals and my usual enormous whores," as he laughingly puts it during one of the scenes of Roma's filming), he also puts forth characters whose behaviors have been ratified by society but are clearly conducting themselves in brutal, thoughtless, even bloodthirsty ways (for example, the ritualistic-sacrifical air of Anita Ekberg's famous dancing scene in La Dolce Vita, especially Alain Dijon's wonderfully twisted facial expressions). In the same manner that Watson so enthusiastically applauds in Zappa's oeuvre, Fellini gleefully thrusts into focus the people and situations that shatter the violent and destructive myths of fascism.

More on this later . . .