Dual Format BD/DVD
Lorella De Luca
“Il Bidone” is an oft forgotten work in the filmography of Federico Fellini: the middle entry in the director’s ‘Trilogy of Loneliness’, it’s a film routinely eclipsed in critical discussion by its two partners, “La Strada” (1954) and “Nights of Cabiria” (1957), both of which are remembered as dazzling showpieces for the puckish, waif-like persona of Fellini’s theatrically trained actress wife, the frailly beautiful Giulietta Masina, who also stars here in a lesser (though still pivotal) role. It is clearly a transitional film, both in terms of its place in the development of Italy’s postwar film industry, and for the role it also played at the time in suggesting the thematic concerns later to come spectacularly to prominence in Fellini’s breakthrough masterwork, “La Dolce Vita” (1960).
“Il Bidone” was made during a time when the political and social issues which had dominated the cinema of the neorealists for the last decade were on the verge of being superseded. The movement had come to prominence depicting the harsh social reality affecting Italy’s rural and urban poor during the economic turmoil of the postwar years, using real locations, documentary techniques and supplementing casts with non-actors to create a truthful, unvarnished depiction of the kind of deprivations then being suffered by large sections of the working-class populace. The approach of the neorealists had been politically premised on, and motivated by, the perception that there existed a need to react against the artifice of the ‘Telefoni Bianchi’ films of the Mussolini period of rule, back in the 1930s. These were usually escapist romances and comedies about rich characters in glamorous settings; they were frequently subject to fascist authority censorship and tacitly promoted its socially conservative ideology. But by the mid-1950s, a wealthy, consumerist middle-class was starting to emerge as Italy’s postwar capitalist ‘economic miracle’ took hold, and cinema-going audiences now demanded more commercial forms of entertainment which the industry felt compelled to supply in order to compete with the appearance of television.
For many Italian critics and directors, the cinema had become an ideological battleground, and anything which strayed beyond strict neorealist principles of political engagement was liable to be seen as a betrayal of those principles by the old guard. Even Fellini’s previous film, “La Strada”, which projected a mythical, almost fairy-tale eloquence into its portrait of the parched, impoverished landscape it documented on its picaresque journey, was initially poorly received by audiences and critics alike after its premier at the 15th International Venice Film Festival. Though its use of commedia dell’arte and its circus atmospheres went against the orthodox realist principles embodied in Fellini’s earliest films, such as “I Vitelloni”, it hardly typified the frivolous concerns of the popular commercial cinema of the day, either.
“Il Bidone” was Fellini’s follow-up to “La Strada” and appears to represent something of a retreat, in light of that film’s disappointing box office performance, from the more magical realist aspects which had animated the stylistic approach of its predecessor. It takes place in a country divided; depicting a Rome in the midst of transforming itself into a hub for the kind of frothy jet-set decadence that would later come to be documented so memorably in “La Dolce Vita” but which still plays host to some hugely impoverished rural regions on its outskirts, inhabited by families of simple peasant farm workers scraping their meagre livings from the bleached soil; as well as ruined, bombed out suburbs that look like tumbledown third world shanty towns. It’s a tale about the type of people who have come to flourish while dwelling on the cusp of these two worlds in a murky criminal underworld, but who are starting to see their place in it slipping away with changing economic circumstances. The central characters are a trio of small-time swindlers who have become big fish in a small pond during the bad times: ruthlessly clawing their way to the top of the heap, dog eat dog fashion, by exploiting the naive dreams of the most disadvantaged in society with their elaborate and often cruel scams. In the moral vacuum of the aftermath of war, they’ve been able to project an romantic image in which they’ve seen themselves as a jovial brotherhood of itinerant thieves; but during the course of the film, each member is compelled to confront the hollowness of this existence when faced by the giddy excesses of the emerging bourgeois class, whose wealth far exceeds the comparatively paltry gains the gang have been able to amass with their cynically exploitative approach to enterprise.
Moreover, the codes of conduct being established by this emergent class of nouveau riche no longer accept as legitimate the kinds of behaviour the three main characters have routinely indulged in: suddenly they are no longer able automatically to buy respect with their ill-gotten wealth, and former colleagues -- who used to pull exactly the same scams, but who have since graduated to more socially accepted forms of exploitation sanctioned by the new capitalist economy, now look upon them very differently, and with far less of a sense of fraternity.
Just as the film encompasses two starkly different social realities, so also it tends rather to fall between the stools in terms of its stylistic approach to the depiction of them, being neither a traditional neorealist outing, nor particularly indicative of Fellini’s latter move towards the mythical poeticism of “La Strada”, although in retrospect that doesn’t in any way hamper its success as a work of art in its own right, when viewed in isolation from the rest of Fellini’s oeuvre today. On the face of it, the realistic settings and real-life locations, and the heavy use of non-actors to help people the impoverished landscape the main characters traverse during the course of the film, are all indicative of neorealist doctrines; and the movie certainly functions as an expose of some now unimaginably harsh conditions that, at the time, were still being endured by a people whose downcast, weather-beaten faces were indicative of the lives of those well-used to struggle as the only means of keeping some kind of makeshift roof above their heads in difficult circumstances.
Also, the three main protagonists feel quite believable in their characterisation, and their contrasting personalities are reflected in the roles they each play within the carefully prepared scams perpetrated on their hapless victims, resulting in a series of episodic character study ‘sketches’ which add up to the film’s overarching examination of the challenges faced by each member of the group as they struggle to come to terms with the need to admit the truth about their way of life to themselves, as well as to the significant others in their lives, knowing that in doing so they will no longer be able to carry on as they have been in an Italy that is now rapidly modernising and leaving them behind in the process.
There is a lot here that adds up to some pretty bleak subject matter, cast in a form that’s realistically handled within the bounds of a grim realist setting; and the screenplay (by Fellini’s regular script writing collaborators Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli) doesn’t draw back from showing us this unpleasantness, implied mainly in the kind of deeds the three main characters get up to in the process of financing their lifestyles -- heartlessly taking from the most vulnerable without so much as a second glance. Yet the film in no way conforms to the principles of the neorealists, despite making heavy use of some of the movement’s more noticeable methods: instead, cinematographer Otello Martelli continues developing the move away from pure realism begun in “La Strada” with a visual style that brings stark beauty to its representation of the Italian landscape, while the first and last acts of the movie form bookends to a virtuoso twenty minute middle section set at a swish but riotously hedonistic New Year’s Eve party where Fellini’s directorial dynamism, Martelli’s visual flair and some fluid, creative editing – which is divided between Mario Serandrei and Giuseppe Vari -- produces an extended sequence that anticipates much of the glamorous gusto of “La Dolce Vita”, lending further credence to the idea that “Il Bidone” can be viewed as a stepping stone or a transitional work between two differing approaches to cinema.
Nevertheless, there is often still a playful atmosphere evident, even in the midst of the film’s depiction of poverty and social dislocation; the upbeat, circus/carnival rhythms and jazz-inflected melodies of Nino Rota’s score add a layer of ironic counterpoint to on-screen proceedings that often underlines the comedic interplay and banter between the three main stars -- which is, if anything, more pronounced when they are depicted engaging in their elaborate schemes to defraud the innocent. The film starts in just such a way -- with the gang dressing up as senior members of the Roman Catholic clergy supposedly sent from Vatican City, in order to engage in an elaborate fraud aimed at stealing the life savings of some pauper peasants who’ve been led to believe that a hoard of treasure (in reality worthless trinkets pre-planted on their land by an associate) has been left to them in the will of a convicted murderer, and is theirs for the taking so long as they agree to immediately pay for the special prayers that must first be uttered for the dead man’s soul by the priests. This is essentially a more elaborate, theatrically inclined version of those postal and email scams that still operate today, where in old age pensioners are persuaded to part with their savings, supposedly in order to release funds they’re supposed to have won in Lotteries they’ve never actually entered. Here, this version of the scam functions as a satire both on the absurdity of religious doctrines blatantly designed to extract money from often the poorest of followers, and the naivety and superstition that makes such fraudulent schemes possible. Later, the gang pull an even more heartless stunt on the multitude of homeless people still living in rows of impermanent makeshift dwellings on the outskirts of Rome: they pretend to be Government workers collecting down payments for new houses, when, in reality, no such houses exist and they are merely taking the last savings of people who already have next to nothing.
Oscar winning American actor Broderick Crawford plays Augusto, the leader of the group – a big, ageing bear of a man with a brooding face and a heavy frame, who masterminds the trio’s activities. His associates are ‘Picasso’, a wily cherub-faced individual (played by “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” lead actor Richard Basehart, who had also been in “La Strada”) the youngest member, and one who helps gain the trust of the gang’s victims with his boyishly callow persona; and then there’s the platinum-haired matinee idol of the collective, Roberto (Franco Fabrizi): a handsome womaniser who finances his lavish lifestyle through a string of ageing Contessas with bottomless purses. As we follow this gang on their itinerant path from job to job, pitiless scam to pitiless scam, we witness conflicting interests emerge: though he has the flashiest lifestyle of the group, Roberto is content to plumb the moral depths in pursuit of wealth; Picasso wants only to provide for and to impress his wife Iris (Giulietta Masina) and his infant daughter, who both believe him to be a travelling door-to-door salesman. Augusto, meanwhile, tries to act as the experienced elder to the other pair, pointing out the pitfalls of a family life to his increasingly guilt-ridden protégé but finding it harder to reign in the excesses of the ruthless Roberto – for the job is getting more complicated, the lifestyle harder to maintain. A decadent New Year’s Eve party held by an ex-associate of Augusto’s turned-business mogul called Riccardo (Riccardo Garrone), and attended by the rising elite of Roman society as well as its Old Money, becomes a decisive turning point for all three small-time crooks when Roberto’s ill-advised theft of a gold cigarette case belonging to one of Riccardo’s wealthiest female patrons exposes the emergence of a new societal structure that cloaks its criminality in outwardly respectable trappings. Roberto is made to look like the common thief he actually is among people who once acted in just the same way, when his theft is publically exposed; Picasso’s marriage comes under strain with Iris’s discovery under the most humiliating of circumstances of just what it is that her husband does in order to provide for his family; and Augusto starts to realise that his day has come and gone -- and that he no longer commands the respect of his hard-faced peers in the new cut-and-thrust atmosphere of an increasingly go getting economy.
The final third of the film concentrates on Augusto’s fall from grace and has almost attained the level of a Biblical allegory by its final frames, in a narrative where the presence of children is always felt throughout as a symbolic motif of innocence and purity, and is especially in evidence amid the most heinously amoral acts of theft carried out by the group. Calamitous events are precipitated by a chance meeting between Augusto and his college-aged daughter Patrizia (Lorella De Luca) in the street: a poor girl from a relationship long left behind, now attempting to make her own way in a new world. After having his criminal lifestyle exposed in front of her at the hands of a former victim, chanced upon outside a city picture house (an even more shameful and humiliating episode than that which Picasso experienced in front of his wife), the ageing career criminal decides to make amends to his offspring, but first must fulfil one last job which again involves him taking part in another instance of the earlier seen ‘Vatican Treasure’ scam, this time working with some new associates. But some choices are made during the course of this venture that will have life-changing consequences …
Crawford’s alcoholism apparently caused much disruption on set during the shoot, but he is profoundly convincing as the emotionally bruised, sad-eyed hulk we see perambulating, with increasing reservation and confusion, through gaudy Rome streets, frequenting jazz clubs and cafes made-over increasingly as display cases for the conspicuous consumption of a new breed of Mafioso that come out to play in the cool air of a city evening, a class set eventually to replace Augusto and his kind for good. The final moments of the film attain an exalted pathos of sorts, in which a standard redemption narrative is coolly turned on its head and the division between the honest realism we see in the faces of the non-actors and the emotionally convincing performances of the professionals in the cast, is given its most surprising twist in the final moments of an unexpected narrative fillip. “Il Bidone” cannot be placed in the top rank of Fellini’s work, it’s true -- but this is still an engaging, poetic encounter with Italy’s postwar milieu and this dual-disc Blu-ray & DVD set offers a fine HD restoration print. A trailer and an excellent interview with Fellini’s assistant director at the time, Dominique Delouche, for Geoffrey Newell-Smith, provides a stimulating overview covering Delouche’s first meeting with Fellini after the disastrous premier of “La Strada” and his recollections from the making of “Il Bidone”. A 36-page booklet with a selection of writings by Fellini, together with rare archive stills, rounds off this worthwhile Masters of Cinema release of a little known film that's still set to intrigue all Fellini fans … Now let’s have Blu-ray releases of “La Strada”, “Nights of Cabiria” and “La Dolce Vita”, please!
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!