Commentary Magazine


1976 Minus One

By common consent, last year was the worst year for movies within recent memory—that is, unless one remembers the year before, and the year before that. Yet insofar as such impressions can be changed by the appearance of one single, overwhelming new film, I don’t think 1976 had to be so. For I did see one new film last year that seemed to me a stunning achievement. And though just when others will have a chance to see it remains, at this point, an open question, it seems to me nearly unthinkable that a work of such power will stay under wraps for very long.

The name of the film is Victory March, and its director is Marco Bellocchio, whose recent work seems to me more exciting than that of any other director younger than Godard. Bellocchio was born in 1939, a year before his most famous contemporary in the Italian film, Bernardo Bertolucci, and the two men’s careers offer a natural and interesting comparison. Though Bertolucci directed his first film (La Commare Secça) four years before Bellocchio made his, the film often taken to be Bertolucci’s first, Before the Revolution, precedes Bellocchio’s debut by only two years. Like Before the Revolution, Bellocchio’s 1966 Fists in the Pocket seems to have a high autobiographical component, in feeling if not in its fidelity to any actual events, though its claustrophobic depiction of a wealthy family’s brood of monsters—with epilepsy, intimations of incest, and murder thrown in for good measure—seemed also to owe something to Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles and, in its taste for the shockingly blasphemous gesture, to Buñuel.

Both Before the Revolution and Fists in the Pocket confirmed the presence of strongly compelling talents, but, by and large, I much preferred the spacious, grandly romantic gestures of Before the Revolution—once it got past its influences, especially that of Antonioni in its mannered early sections—to the cramped, hothouse atmosphere of the Bellocchio film. But with their succeeding works (Bellocchio’s 1967 China Is Near, Bertolucci’s 1968 Partner), it seemed to be Bertolucci who was courting the fate of inbred esoterica, and Bellocchio who was reaching out to a wider audience. China Is Near (released here before Fists in the Pocket) is again a depiction of a moneyed, monstrous family, but this time seen in the process of interacting with a number of other characters from the world outside, as the family head, a bumbling professor, runs for political office (as a Socialist), his doctrinaire younger brother flirts with Maoism, their sister consumes a succession of lovers, and both the professor and his sister become involved with a working-class couple in a complicated roundelay of the used and the users.

For a director of any age, no less one so young, China Is Near would be an extraordinary achievement, and little in Fists in the Pocket, besides the sense of a genuine talent at work, seemed to me to augur it. To be sure, as in Fists in the Pocket, there’s the concentration on family relationships, but here filled out with political and social concerns extending across a wide spectrum of society; and, indeed, few films since Renoir’s The Rules of the Game have conveyed a richer sense of social density, of capturing a whole society in microcosm. Like The Rules of the Game, China Is Near is constructed with the interlocking precision of a great play, but, unlike the Renoir, with its Beaumarchais-like exuberance, the temperamental affinities of the Bellocchio are with the cool irony and moralistic vision of a Sternheim or Schnitzler.

China Is Near was hailed as a masterpiece, by Pauline Kael among others, when it was released in this country, but it failed to attract an audience. Probably the film is inherently a hard one for audiences to warm to, given how wide a net it casts: one may begin by laughing at the hypocrisy of one or another of the characters as their political masks fall away to reveal their underlying opportunism, but before long one disconcertingly recognizes, and is laughing at, oneself among them. In Italy, despite Bellocchio’s nominal Communist affiliation, China Is Near did, in fact, go down badly with the Left, and it was a while before he next found financial backing. By the time he did, Bertolucci had recovered from the failure of Partner well enough to have scored the coup, in 1970, of making two films chosen for showing at that year’s New York Film Festival. Both of them continued in the vein of visual gorgeousness begun with Partner, but, while The Spider’s Stratagem remained an essentially arid exercise in Borgesian enigma, The Conformist, with its melodramatic excitement, lushly opulent look, and striking political-sexual gestures, at last established its director with a larger audience. Two years later, that audience was enlarged still further, when Bertolucci’s next film, Last Tango in Paris, starred Marlon Brando and provoked an international sensation, though, by this time, the visual bravura was coming suspiciously to resemble windowdressing, and the gestures to verge on posturing.

In 1973, two years after it was made (and shown at the San Francisco Film Festival), Bellocchio’s next film, In the Name of the Father, slipped inconspicuously into American release. Set in a religious boarding school for boys, it was, like the depictions of family life which preceded it, a study of institutions and the rebellion against them, but nothing in the earlier films quite prepared for the explosiveness of this one. If I had a reservation about China Is Near, it was that there seemed something almost too knowing—and implicitly acquiescent—in its pervasive cynicism. But In the Name of the Father, from its opening shot of a father and son pummeling each other through the streets as the former escorts the latter to the school in which he’s enrolled him, is permeated with a spirit of anarchic rebelliousness against authority that’s almost palpable in its intensity. Shot through with a streak of surrealist fantasy, and with the earlier work’s strain of Buñuel-like black humor now fullblown, the film reaches its apogee, roughly two-thirds of the way through, with the performance of a school play whose staging has been usurped by the student rebels: a sequence that’s virtually intoxicating in its sense of the rebellious spirit at once run riot and ritualized theatrically. From that point on, the film seems to shift into thematic overkill and veer out of control, but, anticlimatic and cryptic as the later sections tend to be, the sense which arises from them is unmistakable: out of the chaos he has sown, the rebel leader is seen emerging as a dangerously authoritarian, even fascistic, figure in his own right.

Flaws and all, In the Name of the Father seemed to me the most exciting film I saw from abroad in both the year it was made and the year it was released here—and now there is Victory March.1 Bellocchio’s new film extends his preoccupation with social institutions to the army, under universal conscription, and it opens with a scene of the ritualistic humiliation of a new recruit that’s like The Brig in miniature. The remainder of the film concerns itself with the strange attachment that develops between this wretched conscript and a psychotic captain who first torments and then adopts the young soldier, who, on his part, eventually comes to admire and identify himself with his oppressor (and to become sexually involved with the captain’s wife, on whom he’s asked to spy).

Steeped as it is in the Italian realist tradition, Victory March may lack the allusive richness of In the Name of the Father, though, wildly funny and hair-raising by turns, the new film is incessantly gripping, and features an electrifying performance as the captain by Franco Nero, whom I’d previously thought of as only a dull matinee idol. Yet even if In the Name of the Father is a more complex work, one would be mistaken, I think, to take Victory March simply as an indictment of the inhumanity of the military. Rather, it seems to me another of Bellocchio’s depictions of the way the exercise of power in our social institutions reflects and reinforces our psychological make-up, and a further exploration of that subject to which all his work can be seen to be directed: the psycho-sexual roots of fascism in individual character. In this sense, all of Bellocchio’s films can be seen as intensely political, though in the situating of their politics in the dramatic interaction of rounded characters they are wholly unlike the films of a Costa-Gavras or Francesco Rosi. Again a comparison with Bertolucci, particularly the Bertolucci of The Conformist, suggests itself, but one is struck mainly by the differences—between the repressed-homosexual-into-fascist linkages of The Conformist and Victory March’s disturbing refusal to locate the fascist impulse beyond the range of our “normal” experience, and between the expressionistic flamboyance of The Conformist‘s style and the lean muscularity of Victory March‘s terse realism. Indeed, given the rhetorical inflation of Last Tango in Paris and the five-and-a-half-hour running time of Bertolucci’s unreleased 1900, one might be tempted to wonder if the increasing contrast between the two film-makers might not best be expressed as that of fat versus muscle.

Why hasn’t Victory March opened? Largely because its single showing at last year’s San Francisco Film Festival elicited a pair of newspaper notices (by two reviewers charitably described as incompetent) of a sort seen as major liabilities given the delicate mechanism that is the foreign-language film market. That Victory March, probably the most accessible of Bellocchio’s films with its grippingly dramatic story line and strongly erotic content, will eventually go into release, I have little doubt; though it remains to be seen whether it will get the proper support or be dropped with the kind of apparent death-wish that so often accompanies the American release of foreign-language films. But whenever it may next appear, Victory March was, for me, the film of the year in 1976—and 1976 was memorable chiefly for being the year we didn’t get to see Marco Bellocchio’s new movie.


Footnotes

1 I haven't seen the film Bellocchio made in 1973 between In the Name of the Father and Victory March; intriguingly titled, Slap the Monster on Page One, it was a project Bellocchio stepped into following the illness of the director who began it, and it reportedly deals with topical subject matter involving hippies and the press.

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