Volume 21, Issue 8 / August 2017
Europe and a Cinema of Decadence
In this issue
Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome
The Great Beauty, an exceptional film by Paolo Sorrentino, starring Toni Servillo
The sublime is the beauty, order, and reason suffusing existence, the purpose of existence
Il Conformista: A Study in Contrast of Two Frames
The Gaps and Detours in Madame de… Part 1: The Enigmatic Body
Cinema as a revealing and dangerous disease: The virus of the desire for “something else”
The Gaps and Detours in Madame de… Part 2: Three Scenes
Cinema as a revealing and dangerous disease: that something else
Though not a genre per se there are many films that set their sights on the notion of a fallen glory, or a bounty of goodness gone too far. These films often focus on a lifestyle or class (usually upper) that exhibits both cultural and aesthetic elements of decadence. Often found in art cinema, even Hollywood had its master of decadence, with Josef von Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress giving cinema some of its greatest decadent imagery. A film that set the template for a whole generation of Italian Upper Class (or late Fascist) decadence was La Dolce Vita (1959), which holds court in our special issue. Fellini’s first true post neo-realist masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, was a film that gave a harsh identity to a jet set lifestyle that was the flipside of the Economic Miracle of the 1950s. The film gave birth to two words now part of our lexicon: paparazzi and la dolce vita (the sweet life). Elaine Lennon reviews a recent book by Shawn Levy entitled Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome which seeks to explain this tumultuous time in mid-20th century Italy. Elaine Lennon does a wonderful job of transmitting the joyous writing by which Shawn Levy captures that particular moment in time immortalized by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It is a great complement to Levy that his writing is able to capture that moment singular in its time, 1958, but timeless in its full cultural impact. A recent Italian film which is smartly aware of the tradition of grand Italian art cinema is La grande bellezza/The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino (2013), a film that harks back in a conscious way to the great European art cinema of the late 1950s, early 1960s. One film in particular that serves as a template is Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Even though La Grande Bellezza is a more joyous film, it shares an episodic structure and a singular character Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, older in age than Fellini’s Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who has settled for less and is content to float through life enjoying its delicate offerings, while remaining emotionally distant and critical of the lifestyle they have grudgingly adopted. Both Marcello and Jep are writers who forego the more arduous path of literature in favor of journalism. The form of their life, their style, risks becoming more important than the content of their life (although as any good critic will ask, can you really separate the two?). Both Fellini and Sorrentino offer a view of a culture gone a little mad, a little self-absorbed. They offer films of great style, and great beauty, and great characters we can’t help but admire, faults and all. Daniel Garrett examines the many sided attractions of La grande bellezza, suggesting that it very well may be a great film. A subject across Italian cinema that is often used to examine and portray an aesthetic of decadence is the period of Fascism. From its politics to its art, Italian directors have often revisited the period of Fascism exploring aspects of power, style, sexuality, religion, and art (Rome Open City, The Night Porter, The Garden of the Fitzi-Continis, Seven Beauties, 120 Days of Sodom, to name only the most obvious). One of the greatest of such films is Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista (1970). Indeed, the early scene where Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) goes to visit his mother at their once glorious villa, and then the mad father at a sanitarium, is the final word on Italian Fascist Decadence. In my essay I analyze the film’s transition between pre and post Fascist Italy by comparing two frames taken from the same narrative space across narrative time. Two director’s Bertolucci consciously borrowed from to model his own depiction of decadence in Il conformista were Josef von Sternberg and Max Ophüls. Josef von Sternberg for the performance style, art direction, and portrayals of sadism/masochism, and Ophüls for his camera movement, set design and themes of fatalism. The seductive nature of Ophüls forms the subject of the last two-part essay in this issue, by first time Offscreen writer Rita Quelhas, a native Portuguese writing in English. Max Ophüls is a director whose opulent aesthetics redolent with a fluidity of movement and mannered mise en scene has led many to refer to his cinema as being decadent, but in the good sense, of offering up an “unhealthy” dose of beauty. This notion of “unhealthy” beauty has an interesting link to Rita Quelhas’ (two-part) essay because she treats Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) as a “diseased” cinema; a cinema which runs the risk for the viewer of being too powerful of an experience. Quelhas’ poetic formalism begins with Schefer’s cinematic theories of the “enigmatic body”, which sees cinema as a mirroring device which allows the viewer to self-discover their own “hidden self”. Cinema begins as a place where the viewer can engage profoundly with their own memories because, for Schefer, cinema has a “peculiar power to produce effects of memory” (Jean Louis Schefer, The Enigmatic Body: Essays on the Arts, edited and translated by Paul Smith, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 111). For Rita Quelhas The Earrings of Madame de…, Ophüls’ richly textured tragic love triangle, is a place where her own finely tuned attention to its formal charms rewards her with a very powerful emotional experience. As she attempts to learn what makes Ophüls’ characters tick, she gains self-knowledge. The powerful pulls and twists afforded by a cinema as seductive as Ophüls’ amounts to a form of “disease” where we risk being so powerfully engaged with the on-screen pain and emotional suffering that we suffer from a sort of “withdrawal’. In the first part of her essay Quelhas lays out the theoretical template, part cognitivism, part psychoanalysis, based largely on the work of French writer, philosopher, and film critic Jean Louis Schefer; and in the second part she applies the theory to a deliciously nuanced, at times personally revealing, and admittedly speculative close study of three key scenes from The Earrings of Madame de… . Quelhas gives a deeper shading to the often stated fatalistic nature of Ophüls’ forever moving crane and tracking camera shots which do not so much follow the characters to their destiny, but lead them to it. I am happy to present Quelhas’ work on Offscreen, whose mandate includes giving space to creative forms of film criticism and giving chance to new voices and new forms of critical expression. Quelhas’ writing is a demonstration of how engrossing and insightful descriptive prose in film analysis can be. Descriptive formal analysis does not have to be dull and flavorless. Quelhas’ essay proves this. One of my mentors, the late V.F. Perkins (1936-2016), who argued for the interpretive values of description in his seminal essay, “Must We Say What They Mean? Film Criticism and Interpretation” (Movie nos. 34-35, 1-6) —and also loved Max Ophüls— would have —I believe— appreciated this essay. (Donato Totaro, ed.)
Bernardo Bertolucci's expressionist masterpiece of 1970, The Conformist, is the movie that plugs postwar Italian cinema firmly and directly into the emerging 1970s renaissance in Hollywood film-making. Its account of the neuroses and self-loathing of a sexually confused would-be fascist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) aching to fit in in 1938 Rome, who is despatched to Paris to murder his former, anti-fascist college professor, was deemed an instant classic on release.
It was, and is, a highly self-conscious and stylistically venturesome pinnacle of late modernism, drawing from the full range of recent Italian movie history: a little neo-neorealism, a lot of stark and blinding Antonioni-style mise-en-scène, some moments redolent of Fellini. And it was all framed within an evocation of the frivolous fascist-era film-making style derided by Bertolucci's generation as "white telephone" cinema. Add a dose of unhealthy sexual confusion and it's hardly surprising that it was one of the international hits of the year. It also offered the blueprint for the new wave of Hollywood film-makers to a different kind of cinema and a roadmap of new formal possibilities – not merely for those of Italian descent such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
To be sure, Coppola's The Godfather, with its operatic qualities, seems on the surface to have more in common with Visconti's mature work (while the paranoid-realist spirit of Francesco Rosi hovers ever near), but Bertolucci became friends with Coppola, and his influence is palpably discernible in the formally adventurous The Godfather: Part II. Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in Coppola's The Conversation is a repressed Catholic and professional paranoid who has plenty in common with Trintignant's agonised Marcello Clerici. Meanwhile, Bertolucci's cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – who shot both The Conformist and Bertolucci's other 1970 masterpiece The Spider's Stratagem – made his American debut on Apocalypse Now, and has worked with Coppola several times since, as well as remaining Bertolucci's DP (while also working fitfully for Warren Beatty).
There are other links. Marlon Brando, after completing work on The Godfather – something that reinvigorated his career and sealed his image as actorly padre padrone to the young ethnic method players who emerged from the set of that film and thereafter dominated serious American cinema of the 1970s – went straight to work on Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris.
Whereas The Godfather's producers had been fearful of Brando's reputation for destroying big-budget movies with his sheer unmanageability, and had reined him in accordingly, Bertolucci was the first director successfully to accord Brando the privilege of near co-authorship: he knew that a creative Brando inside the Bertolucci tent was better than a destructive one outside. Brando's on-screen successor in the role of Vito Corleone, Robert De Niro, would follow in Brando's transatlantic footsteps to play the lead in Bertolucci's socialist-realist melodrama 1900 (Novecento), in 1976. Another memorable exchange was the actor Gastone Moschin; having played the fascist operative Mangianello in The Conformist, he was later cast as Don Fanucci, the comic-opera kingpin of the Black Hand in The Godfather: Part II, a growlingly menacing portrayal straight out of silent melodrama.
Some aspects of Bertolucci travelled less well. Some of his formal ideas were greedily consumed by American film-makers, while the radical politics and pointedly Brechtian alienation techniques were largely discarded. Thus the emotionally expressive colour scheme of The Conformist – principally evident in the honeymoon train-ride of Clerici and his blousy new bride, during which insanely unrealistic rear-projection and alternating blue and gold filters throw into doubt the dependability of Clerici's perceptions – are partially replicated in the colour-scheme of the two sections – past and present – of The Godfather: Part II. Its flashback sections are shot in ridiculously warm and nostalgic golds and sepias (the consoling colours of infantile memory and adult self-delusion) while the late 1950s present-day is rendered in icily comfortless blues and greys. Similarly, Taxi Driver's heavy reliance on the perceptions of Travis Bickle, the least reliable narrator in 1970s cinema, is evoked using many powerful expressionist effects that Bertolucci had made his own – but, again, with no concomitant importation of his political radicalism.
And Bertolucci, it turned out, would suffer a similar fate to all his contemporaries in the "new Hollywood". 1900 brought him closer to the fretful world of international co-production dictated by the new Italian film-financing laws enacted at the start of the 70s and – interesting though it remains – it stands as Bertolucci's equivalent to the movie brats' big-budget disasters, the films that knocked them off-course: Steven Spielberg's 1941, Scorsese's New York New York, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, even Coppola's Apocalypse Now. And, as happened with Coppola, Bertolucci's work was never again as interesting or as pioneering afterwards.
The Conformist is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 27 February.
• This article was amended on 15 July 2015 to correct the reigned/reined homophone.