Tuesday, March 15, 2011
How do seemingly good people fall prey to the seduction of evil movements? Bernardo Bertolucci and Federico Fellini try to address this question with two differing accounts of the rise of fascism in Italy prior to the Second World War. In both accounts, fascism is an intoxicant, capturing the minds and souls of Italians by appealing to their base instincts and susceptibilities. In Bertolucci's account, fascism appeals to perversion and power lust, and emerges in a horrid expression of anger and ressentiment. Fellini paints a different picture, though; one of misguided Italians, intoxicated by the symbols at play into drunkenness akin to religious zeal. It manifests through a people who are childish and immature, unable to see the ramifications of the movement that they’ve fallen capture to.
Bertolucci’s sprawling ‘Novecento’ concerns a small agricultural village in the Emilian countryside. There are two clearly demarcated classes of people: the landowners, the padrones, and the peasants. At the outset of the film, in the year 1900, the two exist in a moderate harmony. Although the padrones live lives of ease at the peasant’s expense, there is a general acceptance of roles and of one’s lot in life. Bertolucci depicts the peasant’s lives lovingly and idyllically; at times, he reproduces pastoral scenes that bring bucolic paintings, like those of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, to life.
Yet a confluence of factors, including the First World War and the increasing industrialization of agriculture, leads to harsher treatment of the peasants combined with less restitution for their labors. Reacting to these changes, the peasants adopt socialism, striking to improve working conditions and to prevent wrongs committed by the increasingly rapacious padrones including arbitrary evictions, sexual abuse, and meager wages.
Imbued with the spirit of socialism, the peasants begin to band together, educating themselves and growing in confidence and power, even managing to repulse cavalry that has been sent by the landowners to forcibly evict them. The padrones become fearful as the balance of power in their world is upended; peasants are supposed to be docile and servile, no more capable of dissent than a field horse. As the present government is unable to help the landowners, the padrones turn willingly to the nascent fascist movement as a way to repress their peasant problem. The blackshirts, the fascist thugs, become overseers with free reign over the peasant class, a role they accept with sadistic abandon.
As fascism gains strength as a movement and political party, it encompasses two groups of people. There are the padrones, who embrace fascism at first as a method of combating the increasingly socialist and uppity peasants. The movement is mainly constituted, though, with sadistic brutes, led in the Emilian town by the appalingly brutal Attila Melanchini (Donald Sutherland, brilliantly psychopathic). Fascism draws these two groups together and unites them, according to Bertolucci, by appealing to the groups’ desires for unlimited power; for the padrones, it’s to oppress the peasants, for the thugs, to unleash their sadistic whims.
For despite its reputation as a movement of intolerance, fascism is wholly tolerant of violence and repression; its absolute permissiveness helps explain its appeal. The padrones and the black-shirt sadists are allowed to do whatever they please, provided they aren’t working against the fascist movement itself and that they couch their acts in the language of nationalism. That fascism tolerates brutality, oppression, and violence only serves to heighten its appeal to its member and deepen their loyalty to it. It creates a moral framework of convenience, aligning directly with its constituent’s goals, furnishing justification for any action, even one that would traditionally be deemed immoral.
Seen in this light, fascism is a vehicle for dominance and power, a movement not motivated by nationalism but justified by it. It’s not a perversion, per se, but permission for perversions. It attracts all those who want to release their evil whims, and like a plague, destroys all those in its path; at times, it turns on those who adhere to it. A key point, though, is that fascism is enabled by its advocates. Without the support it receives by those entranced with it or terrified by it, it wouldn’t exist. Bertolucci wants to be perfectly clear that fascism’s evil doesn’t come just from the ideals of the movement, but from its supporters.
Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’ tells a different tale of fascism. ‘Amarcord’ is the story of a year in the life of a small seaside village, Borgo, based on Fellini’ birthplace of Rimini. The people of Borgo are good Italians: they go to church, they love, they lust, the play, they work hard; in short, they’re representative of Italians in general. Unfortunately, their emotional maturity hasn’t surpassed juvenility. The townspeople are caught in a state of perpetual adolescence, with all the baggage that implies. They are shortsighted, foolish, silly peoples, distracted by bright lights and noises, and unaware of the consequences of their actions.
The town has already fallen under the fascist spell that’s swept Italy. Here it is no violent plague, but a feverish ebullience. Townsfolk parade through the streets welcoming Mussolini and holding fascist banners aloft, but Fellini portrays the parade and its participants not as menacing figures, but as foolish, comedic ones. At a demonstration of the ‘Italian youth’s’ prowess, the boys twirl fake rifles and the girls raise and lower hula-hoops in coordination – essential skills for young fascists, no? In Borgo, a main representative of the town’s fascist committee is not an Attila Melanchini, but Lallo, the protagonist’s uncle, who sponges off of the family and unless dressed in his fascist garb, is seen in an undershirt and hairnet that barely disguises his thin, greasy coiffure.
Lallo represents Borgo’s, and by extension Italy’s, fascists: He is a childish, goofy, layabout who contributes in no way to society. He is nothing but an adolescent in an adult’s body, who tries to bed women by repeating the same tired line, and for whom a carriage full of newly arriving prostitutes is important and worthwhile news. Worst of all, however, he betrays his brother-in-law Aurelio, selling him out to the fascists who torture him by forcing him to ingest castor oil. Why does he even belong to the fascist party, a party that supposedly values the strong, the powerful, the true Italians? It appears that the answer is simply because it is the path of least resistance. All the adults readily belong to or respect the party, apparently just by virtue of the fact that they all belong to it and that it is the biggest kid in town; in short, the same puerile reasons that children offer.
It is these childish tendencies that Fellini wishes to highlight, for he is of the opinion that it is only as a result of this naïveté, selfishness, gullibility and general moral short-sightedness that the people of Italy were able to fall prey to fascism. Fellini emphasizes these characteristics in his wonderfully satirical way. But he makes us well aware of the fact that these people have swallowed a dangerous political philosophy hook, line, and sinker without any reflection. He also highlights the hysterical response, the blind commitment and faith that the people of Borgo display towards fascism and its symbols; it’s nearly identical to the mania that he depicts Italians displaying while under the sway of religion (see ‘Nights of Cabiria’, or ‘La Dolce Vita’). It’s a hope and a prayer that fascism or religion will solve all one’s problems, that it will grant you whatsoever you desire – embodied by the rotund schoolboy Ciccio, whose daydream fantasy involves an enormous Mussolini head, constructed out of roses, marrying him to the girl of his dreams.