Two Italian First Films
The first shot of Bertolucci's first film
Lately I’ve been renting DVD’s in pairs as a sort of exercise in putting together potentially interesting double bills and seeing what resonances might emerge. Most recently I watched, back to back, two Italian debut films from the sixties: Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Commare Secca (1962) and Marco Bellocchio’s Fists In The Pocket (1965). Both were on Criterion discs and included interviews with Bertolucci that were brief—just ten minutes apiece—but very helpful in understanding socio-cultural and aesthetic context. I must confess that I’ve had some trouble with Bertolucci’s post-Conformist films and so it was heartening to see and hear him in the present day, lucid and down-to-earth, marbles perfectly intact.
To begin with, some quick backstory: Pier Paolo Pasolini made his first film, Accatone, in 1961; Bertolucci served as assistant director. Pasolini then wrote a script called La Commare Secca, but lost interest in it as he became occupied with his second film, Mamma Roma (1962). Bertolucci—just 21—stepped in to direct La Commare Secca. (The title translates as “The Grim Reaper.”) The same year, he won a prestigious award for his first book of poems.
No offense to poets and littérateurs, but La Commare Secca doesn’t feel weighed down by words. (Proposition: In a pinch, cinephiles prefer carefully wrought images to carefully wrought words.) The “poetic effects” in the film (see still photo above) are visual. Bertolucci insightfully says that since the story, character and settings were already handed to him—via Pasolini’s script and its “Pasoliniano genre”—he needed to counter them by bringing something of his own sensibility to the conception of the film. Pasolini was a non-cinephile influenced by early Tuscan painting and its frontality of composition (e.g. Sassetti), evoking the sacred by filming his images as he might an altarpiece. Bertolucci rejects this Renaissance static frontality in favor of flowing and lyrical (and poetic) moving camera shots.
With interlocking flashbacks, the film tracks the last few hours in the lives of a few characters—mostly petty criminals, pimps, and street-wise youths—before the murder of a prostitute; they are all suspects in the crime. The dialogue, far from being “literary” or “poetic” is instead (marvelously) made up of casual and “unimportant” exchanges. When the movie ends, you don’t remember the words but instead the bodies, gestures and clothes of the characters/actors. A big accomplishment: we lose interest in who-dun-it, so de-emphasized is the genre element of the story. When the murder scene is finally shown, Bertolucci seems so distanced from it that he lays soft and meditative finger-picked guitar (!) over this brutal scene. A great touch.
One terrific sign that Bertolucci was already—despite his youth and his literary roots—thinking like a filmmaker: the accounts of the suspects, told in words to the interrogating police detectives, serve as voiceover to the images of those accounts. But the images contradict the words—the suspects are often lying—but it is, intuitively, the images and not the words we end up believing as the "true" account of what happened. Quietly, Bertolucci signals the primacy of image over word.
How’s this for symbolism? In Marco Bellocchio’s Fists In The Pocket, we have a provincial middle-class family raging with ailment and dysfunction: epilepsy, mental illness and incest. And the mother is stricken with blindness. The protagonist is Alessandro (or Ale), the epileptic son played by Swedish-born actor Lou Castel, whom I’ve seen twice before, both times in the role of scuzzy film directors—Fassbinder’s Beware Of The Holy Whore (1970) and Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996). Ale, simply, wants to rid his family of its embarrassment of debilities by means of….collective suicide and murder. Considering the film was made a couple of years before the student revolts of the late sixties, the impulse to “blow up” the sick and ailing bourgeois family unit was surely not coincidental. (Bellocchio even shot the film in his own mother’s house in the provinces!)
“The great advantage of first films,” Bellocchio has said, “is that you’re nobody and have no history, so you have the freedom to risk everything.” Fists In The Pocket is pugnacious (the title is a translation of “I Pugni In Tasca”), full of tonal swerving and shifting. Bertolucci theorizes that the difference between his films and Bellocchio’s might have something to do with their hometowns. Bertolucci is from Parma (elegant, refined, aestheticized) and Bellocchio from Piacenza (hard-edged, enshrouded in grim weather).
This deeply sardonic film appears anti-humanist at first glance but that’s not true at all. Bellocchio constructs Ale not simply as a psycho-sociopath but as a complex character in whom he invests great sympathy. Ale twitches (physically, emotionally, mentally) in constant restlessness with the status quo. Suddenly, the camera might abandon what is happening in a room and plunge to a close-up of his hands running slowly across a table-cloth, caressing it creepily. (Body movements as a chart of psychic perturbations.) Gestures and events erupt unpredictably, making perfect sense in hindsight: At his mother’s wake, he sits by the body, then suddenly swings his legs and stretches them on the coffin, parallel to his mother’s. (Sacrilegious, funny.) Ale and his sister hurl their mother’s furniture and possessions into a bonfire, and the anarchic charge of the scene calls to mind the pillow fight in Vigo’s Zero De Conduite.
Castel’s mercurial performance is central to the movie. He resembles Brando from some angles, and his sister—remember I mentioned the icky undercurrents of incest?—even has a picture of Brando tacked to her bed. Castel’s de-stabilizing performance fits perfectly with Bellocchio’s risk-taking, incendiary tone. In his comments on the film, Bertolucci applies Pasolini's dichotomy of a “cinema of prose” (=Bellocchio) and a “cinema of poetry” (=Bertolucci). But Bertolucci's theory sounds too pat and clean to me. Fists In The Pocket is rough and raw and rancid—and that doesn’t make it any less poetic than the bits of torn newspaper floating preciously in the wind in the opening shot of La Commare Secca. Poetry comes in many flavors, tones and colors; not all of them taste sweet, sound lyrical or look beautiful.