An Introduction to Marco Ferreri by Miljenko Skoknic
Marco Ferreri's dark, satirical and often surreal films embody a unique vision of humanity, one that is borne of exasperation and nihilism, suspending any escape that is not met without the demise -or at least a reconstruction- of modern man. His bleak outlook of humanity's future, portraying the dissolution of the family tie between men, women and children, results, in Ferreri's works, in a world devoid of sense. Dealing mostly in a very loose sense of black comedy, a genre which Ferreri often took to its last consequences, we see recurring archetype of characters who are at the fringes, perpetually exiled from their psyche and with no horizon of purpose other than survival. Left to their own devices, usually in a contemporary environment, Ferreri's humans are always physically and mentally frayed while they oscillate between the tensions of death and sexuality, Thanatos and Eros.
Ferreri was never a director who aimed to please, and although he never say himself as a provocateur, most of his work operates as an apocalyptic mirror of contemporary times. While his origins and affiliations were tied to Italian Neorrealism, he gradually crafted a fiercely contemporary cinematic language of his own; his desire to delve deep into the alienating logic of the everyday generated films set in a timeless modernity of sorts. His insistence on this customized time frame, never looking at the past, and always on the fringe of futurism, established his singular sense of time: one that, in his words, he would call "elsewhere". In an interview with English film scholar RT Witcombe, he would add that it's a reality that "merely survives itself, or has already becomes obsolete" (Witcombe, 1982). This estranged sense of everyday reality shrouded his characters and their lives like a cloak: The men and women in Ferreri's works are never separated from their surroundings, and they way in which it affected their sense of action and purpose constitutes one of the main axis of his aesthetics.
Originally interested in veterinary, we could say he relished in occupying himself with the animal that is humanity. This essential approach in Ferreri can explain, in part, the curious behaviour of the characters in all the grand majority of his films: never reacting as expected to their circumstances, as if detached from any sense of plausible behaviour. Critics would dismiss his particular choice for tone by deeming them as films that "look realistic but (...) are essentially lunatic cartoons, meant to be deadly serious." But it's more like human who are acting slightly abnormally, not because of a stiff script or blocking, or any formal cinematic regulation for that matter, but rather that they characters are always placed is a space of withdrawal: sensual as well as mental. It's almost as if Ferreri placed the humans that parade through his visions into a space of confinement, for further study through the aberrant perspective of his nightmarish yet silently hopeful vision.
Ferreri's available works in English are scarce and out of print, which limits the films covered in this essay to 13 out of his total of 33. However, his main works, excluding short documentaries and TV films are, approximately 24. I regret, at the time of this writing, of not being able to view two of his more notable works: L'uomo dei cinque palloni (1965), and La Derniere Femme (1976). The present essay will focus only selected works from his output from 1958 until 1979. I believe that Ferreri's most consistent work was produced between El Pisito and Chiedo Asilo. His later works delve into repetitions of the main themes of male alienation, fear of reproduction and various aesthetic portrayals of the Apocalypse.
Born in Milan in 1928, he was a college dropout with an interest in Veterinary, later working as a motion picture lens salesman and as a production assistant in Italian films of the early 50s. His trade brought him to Spain, where he sought the Spanish writer Rafael Azcona, who at the time writing in a satirical magazine called La Codorniz. After many attempts to raise money to produce a film, and at Azcona's suggestion, Ferreri decided to turn to directing. His perseverance paid off: he managed to raise the sufficient funds to shoot his first feature, El Pisito (1958). The film was not a success. However, it earned enough critical acclaim that it allowed him to direct Los Chicos in 1959 and, more importantly, his breakthrough film El Cochecito in 1960.
El Pisito (1958); El Cochecito (1960): Urban Claustrophobia
Both these films are set in Madrid, Spain, under Francisco Franco's regime. El Pisito portrays a couple in their mid thirties, living with numerous other families in a little flat, a living situation that has frayed their relationship, because of their uncomfortable living situation. He ends up marrying the flat's octogenarian landlord, in order to inherit her estate, so that we may move in with his wife. The tone of the film is quite simple, and I was surprised at Ferreri's elegant direction, full of generous tracking shots and a vert careful and classic sense of framing. What we see, however, is directly opposite of what this style would suggest: the film is noisy, a sonic chaos of with several overlapping voices, most of them shouting with idiosyncratic Spanish vehemence. Complaints, frustrations, favour upon favours, and insults make up most of the ambient in El Pisito, effectively conveying the claustrophobic real estate squeeze that has taken a hold of postwar Spain. Thoroughly enjoyable, El Pisito is far from the type of film Ferreri's international audiences are familiar with. El Pisito's boisterous comedic rhythm would be a style that Ferreri would hone in El cochecito, and well into his early 60s comedies, gradually appropriating a more static, contemplative style, while retaining his improvisational, almost disheveled cinematic style.
El cochecito, follows the story of Don Anselmo, a widowed elderly man who lives with his son and family. The plot of the film revolves around him attempting to obtain enough money to finance a motorized scooter, in which all his elderly friends ride about town. His only problem is that he is still able to walk, so Don Narciso goes through every trick in the book to convince his son to finance his scooter. As he doesn't get the vehicle, his plan get hilariously murderous, and as Don Anselmo finally makes his slow getaway, he is arrested by the police in the border. As negative it is in the portrayal of Don Anselmo, the film is nevertheless a critique of how isolated older people become in modern societies; ignored to the point where almost the whole family pretends he does not exist: Ferreri's film is the unlikely revenge of this would-be antihero.
La Donna Scimia (1964); L'Harem (1967)
La Donna Scimia is in my opinion, one of Ferreri's harshest works, at least in the version he envisioned it. It's probably one of his first films where a misogynist streak can be detected; but this is a facile dismissal, for Ferreri was always interested more in portraying how men's behaviour towards women bring to relief the symptoms of crisis of contemporary man. In its desperate attempt to retain its hegemony as the dominant sex, the male protagonist is always of La Donna Scimia, Ugo, is a truculent bum who comes across Anne Girardot, a woman who is covered with hair. After cynically courting her, he convinces her to perform as a circus, which she resigns to do, not without protest regarding his treatment of her, she begins to suspect that behind his apparent desire to marry her lies a commercial interest. She dies at childbirth, so Ugo decides to display her deceased body next to the newborn, in his traveling carnival show.
One of Ferreri's most interesting abilities is his knack to stretching a small anecdote, extending it into a full fledged feature film, as was the case of L'Harem (1967). It was in this film that his comedic style began to veer towards something more akin to tragedy, and where his characters grow continually more detached from the mimetic pact that cinematic realism espouses. Playing most of his previous films in a more jovial, noisy and humorous approach, in L'Harem, he strips the story of any irony and decided during the editing that a humourless approach was more consistent. The films ends with the four men of her harem throwing her off a cliff, and the film cutting abruptly to its end credits. This blunt and absurdist sense of montage would continue to grow on his later films, as temporal and spatial cuts rely less and less in keeping the action fluid, and instead function as a cut that is always jarring, distancing and disturbing.
Dillinger é Morto (1969)
In 1969, Ferreri completed Dillinger e Morto, his first major work, and what is widely regarded as his masterpiece. It tells the story of Glauco, and industrial designer, working on a new design for gas masks, who upon returning home, finds his wife (Anita Pallenberg) nursing a headache. He heads downstairs to find his meal already gone cold. He dons an apron and begins to cook himself a meal. Looking for ingredients, he stumbles upon an old, rusty gun wrapped in an old newspaper, with a headline that reads "Dillinger is dead". Glauco then proceeds to take the gun apart, oils it, and upon reassembling it, paints it red and finished the decoration by painting white polka dots. Meanwhile, he proceeds to walk upstairs to the maid's room, where he flirts with her a little. Walking around his house at dawn, he plays old home movies on the projector while constantly checking on his gun. Once it's dry, he goes to his wife's room, and while rehearsing to shoot himself on the head with the gun, he goes over to the bed, and puts a few pillows on his wife's head, and proceeds to shoot her. This shocking climax is nothing but the surreal conclusion of this mental implosion, and a fierce critique of the alleged plenitude that the modern bourgeoisie man reaches when he has "made it"; supposedly has everything he needs to make his life a satisfying one. The film concludes with Glauco simply leaving his house at dawn, driving towards the sea, and swimming towards a yacht headed to Tahiti, obtaining is situ a job as a cook. The ship sails towards the horizon.
Reacting to the May 68 cultural upheaval, Michel Piccoli's character is meant to function as a magnyfing glass held up up to a specific man, whose individual relationship to the objects that surround him is perfunctory and unsatisfactory. Yet he keeps himself oddly amused by all the small luxuries in his home, such as the TV, a film projector (which symbolizes cinema), and radio, which softly plays the hits of the day. In Dillinger, we see Ferreri's aesthetics moving away from a de facto realism, slipping gradually into a less realistic and more stylish and abstract idea of cinema. Maintaining the narrative conventions, the almost ritualistic manner in which Glauco carries his being throughout the film implies a crisis of contemporary man in relation with the objects that govern his existence: killing time, in relation to "working" time (busi-ness) is now the most dangerous discovery.
La Cagna (1972)
La Cagna marks another exploration into the isolated worlds that marks the environment of the typical homo ferrensis; Marcello Matroianni plays Giorgio, a kind of Robinson Crusoe, alone in a seemingly desert island, with no companion except for his dog, Melampo. A nearby yacht -citing his previous Dillinger is Dead- containing a group of indolent rich people, expel Liza (Catherine Deneuve), who is then stranded in the island. Upon meeting Marcello, a relationship forms. Catherine grows increasingly jealous by Marcello's friendship with Melampo, so she decides to kill him. After Giorgio buries Melampo, Liza instantly begins to replace the dog's actions, fetching sticks and wearing a collar. A rumination on the nature of relationships is one way of interpreting the film. Yet, for all its boisterous premise, the film is incredibly delicate, with the exception, of course, of the scenes where Liza walks on all fours wearing a leash. This is one of Ferreri's films in which I had a fearful anticipation of what the film would be like, judging from the plot synopsis. Yet, as mentioned, the woman-dog premise is so extremely downplayed, that it never is a main element in the film. Eschewing the film's basic scandalous premise, we are left with a study into human relationships, and how they grow dependent, and how most relationships, in many way, constitute an escape from the grim typesetting of identity and purpose that is civilization, of at least in the dirge perspective that Ferreri believes in.
Chiao Maschio (1977); Chiedo Asilo (1979)
Ferreri's subsequent works begun to incoprorate issues dealing with female identity. As he saw it, the female of the species had a greater resistance and inclination towards survival, whether the male gradually regresses into a self destruction. Gerard Depardieu plays Lafayette, a brutish yet boyish man who works as a lighting director for a feminist theater troupe.
In Chiedo Asilo, Ferreri manages to find a perfect balance between urban space, and its small heterotopias that dwell in the cities. From factories, to nursery homes in factories, to small churches in the country, Ferreri places a group of children who get a visit from a very non- orthodox kindergarten teacher, played by a young Benigni. He does everything but teach them "things". Instead of investing in them small lectures of activities to keep them busy till their parents pick them up, he instead opts for bringing animals in the classroom, unleashed, so they can experience contact directly; he takes the kids on an improvised field trip to see their parents who work at factories. Alas, for all the edifying activities he presents them, Benigni can't seem to behave himself as a responsible adult: His has many girlfriends, some of which are his pupil's parents.
As he zigzags in between all these situations, he applies a pedagogical treatment with his little students that little has to do with the expectations of kindergarten. He sees preschool as an a refugee, where kids can just be kids, where their sense of language and exploration can be organic, unorganized and free-floating, before moving on a educational system (school) that just feeds them data, and stimulates mindless competition. As Benigni's character sees it, that little preschool in the middle of the factory and housing complexes is a small oasis, it's an alternative space, unregulated by the long arm of education, discipline and "survivial of the fittest" ideology. One of Ferreri's film that touches an emotional fiber, and yet manages to retain all the absurdist gestures that make up his more extreme and radical work. A diamond in the rough, that needs no polishing, because its crystallized narrative roughness and pacing is part of what makes this film a classic "film with children." like Zero in Conduct, 400 Blows, or the Red Balloon, by Lamorisse.
Ferreri was never a director who aimed to please, and although he never say himself as a provocateur, most of his work operates as an apocalyptic mirror of contemporary times. While his origins and affiliations were tied to Italian Neorrealism, he gradually crafted a fiercely contemporary cinematic language of his own; his desire to delve deep into the alienating logic of the everyday generated films set in a timeless modernity of sorts. His insistence on this customized time frame, never looking at the past, and always on the fringe of futurism, established his singular sense of time: one that, in his words, he would call "elsewhere". He would add that it's a reality that "merely survives itself, or has already becomes obsolete." This estranged sense of everyday reality shrouded his characters and their lives like a cloak: The men and women in Ferreri's works are never separated from their surroundings, and they way in which it affected their sense of action and purpose constitutes one of the main axis of his aesthetics.
Riambau, Esteve. Antes del Apocalipsis. Barcelona: Ed. Catedra, 1993
Witcombe, R.T. The New Italian Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Haskell, Molly. The Excess of Two Films that Aren't. Village Voice (July, 1976): 41.
Web Sites Cited :
Carpio, Maite (dir.). Irriverente Ferreri, La Storia Siamo Moi.it, http://www.lastoriasiamonoi.rai.it/pop/schedaVideo640480.aspx?id=401 (Accessed December 7, 2007).
Institut Francais, UK. Ferreri Retrospective. http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/ferreri (Accessed December 12, 2007).