Marco Ferreri was the wild man of Italian cinema, a figure just sporadically appreciated during his career, and one who left many films in need of rediscovery (or simply discovery) since his death in 1997. A handful found their way to international release, some stirring considerable controversy. Yet others that sound just as arresting in description were little-seen then, and seem impossible to find now.
One of the latter, until recently, was his 1969 Dillinger Is Dead. Unreleased in the U.S. originally, it’s finally getting exposure here four decades later via DVD issue and some big-screen dates, including four showings this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Dillinger is both atypical and archetypal Ferreri. Its conceptional outrageousness this time comes packaged in a minimalist, day-in-the-life narrative unfolding in real time, more or less. (Using that form to critique the emptiness of a bourgeois lifestyle anticipates Chantal Akerman’s famous 1975 Jeanne Dielman, which by semi-coincidence plays YBCA next week.) The impatient viewer might rebel at its "nothing happening" progress, and/or wonder just what the hell that was about when things suddenly do happen—ambiguously, almost arbitrarily—just before The End.
Like Antonioni and Fellini, Ferreri’s great subject was modern man’s dislocation from the "push-button" modern world, his attempt to find meaning and his own relevancy in it. But while those masters conveyed their point primarily through highly evolved filmmaking styles, Ferreri—while a confident stylist—got the job done via outre content.
Here, Michel Piccoli plays an industrial designer whose lab is doing some sort of experiment in (what else but) consumer depersonalization. He comes home to his expansive home, where everything money can buy is at hand—albeit unfulfillingly so, particularly the gorgeous younger wife who does nothing but stay in bed, complain of a headache, and sleep. (Since she’s played by Keith Richards’ then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, one inevitably wonders if it’s something else that keeps her nodding off.)
After seeing a newspaper article about legendary 1930s gangster John Dillinger, our hero finds a gun hidden away on the premises. He meticulously cleans it—while making his own dinner—then whimsically paints it. Mostly he simply passes time, messing around with the couple’s sexy maid (Annie Girardot, like Piccoli a Ferreri regular), watching home movies taken on vacation, poking a snake puppet about his zonked-out wife’s nakedness (no missing the symbolism there), listening to banal pop music, et cetera.
When matters abruptly take a violent course, that turn appears just as casual and free from forethought as everything prior. Yet chaos has been restored to the world and to our protagonist, who’d no doubt approve as a life philosophy the director’s later statement "My way of making movies is anarchy….I always take things to the limit."
A Milanese college drop-out who drifted through various occupations before finding the movies, Marco Ferreri started directing features in late 1950s Spain, getting away with as much social criticism as he could within Franco’s dictatorship.
Soon he was back in Italy, then eventually dividing his time between there and France, making unlikely international co-productions whose polyglot nature was underlined by the presence of stars like Gerard Depardieu, Irene Papas, Ingrid Thulin, Christopher Lambert, Ornella Muti, Hanna Schygulla, Roberto Begnini, Ben Gazarra, Isabelle Huppert, Claudia Cardinale, Marcello Mastroianni and Ugo Tognazzi, the latter two major Ferreri staples.
Accused of being over-dependent on shock value, he shrugged "The shock I show is no bigger than the shock we see in daily living." Nevertheless, Ferreri’s films were by nature guaranteed to raise hackles. The Harem (1967) had expat U.S. sexpot Carroll Baker as a woman calling all the shots in her sexual relations with three men. 1964’s The Ape Woman was a parable with Girardot as the titular hairy freak.
Post-apocalyptic sci-fi The Seed of Man (1969) questioned whether propagating the species was worthwhile under the shadow of global annihilation; The Audience (1971) turned the Vatican into a Kafkaesque institutional nightmare. The next year’s Liza anticipated Lina Wertmuller’s "Swept Away…" (and Madonna’s later remake) by having Deneuve and Mastroianni duke out their battle of the sexes while stranded on a desert isle.
Ferreri’s most notorious sucess de scandale was 1973’s Le grande bouffe, about four men (Tognazzi, Piccoli, Mastroiani, Philippe Noiret) who take up residence at a country villa with prostitutes and chefs in order to literally fuck and eat themselves to death—the last word in consumerist excess.
After parodying colonialism in Don’t Touch the White Woman!, he went one step even further with The Last Woman, in which the symbolic emasculation by modern society of Depardieu’s macho hero is made literal by his own application of an electric carving knife. The New York Times thought this "easier to talk about than to watch, especially on a full stomach…(yet) full of brilliance….(Ferreri) may be the most passionately wicked satirist since Jonathan Swift."
The director then made two English-language excursions, 1978’s beyond-bizarre Bye Bye Monkey and 1981’s Tales of Ordinary Madness, the latter an adaptation of Charles Bukowski with some unforgettably grotesque scenes (even if Bukowski hated it).
His later films became increasingly difficult to see, and one suspects there were plenty more projects Ferreri could never secure the funding for.
Ferreri’s sensibility was antic, acidic, surreal and boisterously sexual. As a filmmaker both inextricably part of and eccentrically separate from his native country’s industry, he belongs in the rarefied company of Japan’s Oshima, France’s Blier, and former Yugoslavia’s Makavejev—semi-mainstream, variably daft visionaries wandering through the wilderness of modernity, wondering where Man fits and whether Woman will let him.
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