There is generally good cause when a filmmaker apologizes for a film and repudiates it. Consider, for instance, Stanley Kubrick, who repudiated A Clockwork Orange (1971) and even took the unprecedented step to suppress it in the only arena where he could muster the clout to do so—at home, in Britain. There is also good reason for Sam Peckinpah’s public apology for Straw Dogs (1971). There is good reason, too, why Gus Van Sant has repudiated his dreadful Good Will Hunting (1997) and redirected his attention to making worthwhile films. And, I suppose, it isn’t without basis that Marco Bellocchio explains, in an interview included in the new DVD of the 1968 omnibus film Amore e rabbia, how his contribution, “Discutiamo, discutiamo,” went wrong. Nevertheless, this short film of Bellocchio’s effortlessly outdistances the contributions to the package made by Bernardo Bertolucci, Carlo Lizzani, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and even Jean-Luc Godard. Bellocchio’s spirited piece has its charms and pizzazz. It may be the lamest thing Bellocchio has done, or ever will do, but the very reason why he now rejects it coincides with why (unlike the other parts of Love and Anger) it still resonates. I’m not without my own reservations; but this is a good movie.
Let me briefly describe the film, its genesis and the basis of Bellocchio’s own current objection to it before making the case for its value and appeal. Bellocchio shot this piece at the University of Rome using actual students, which is to say, non-actors. He himself appears, in his twenties, wearing a patently false beard, as will students also representing authority figures: professors, administrators. The seated college students are plainly bored out of their minds by Professor Bellocchio’s lecture on poetry when in march a band of disruptive student radicals chanting “Ho Chi Minh! Ho Chi Minh!” What ensues is a quick- and sharp-tongued, mostly belligerent, often hilariously dizzying debate between beards and students, and radical students and other students. The bones of contention are the West’s mayhem in Southeast Asia, the purity and accuracy of one’s Marxism and one’s Maoism, the degree to which institutions such as University support and perpetuate entrenched state authority and forces of reaction, and so forth—all the issues hotly debated by radicalized youth at the time. The situation ends with kids being clubbed with loud-whacking though harmless elongated balloons. The sound persists as the final credits roll over a black background.
Originally titled Gospel ’70, the “portmanteau film”—a commercial compound of related short films, then in vogue—was meant to proffer a series of contemporary reflections on different passages of the Bible, each by a different artist. In addition to Bertolucci, Godard, Pasolini and Lizzani, whose (god-awful) contribution spins a contemporary take on the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, Valerio Zurlini was originally one of the artists on board. But his film, which targets European colonialism in Africa, grew too long for the group effort and eventually found release on its own as the full-length feature Seduto alla sua destra (1968)—literally, Seated at His Right, and called Black Jesus in the U.S. (A stark, powerful film, incidentally.) Zurlini, therefore, was dropped from the project’s roster of contributors, and Bellocchio was brought in as a last-minute replacement. Because Bellocchio had no interest whatsoever in pursuing any biblical aspect of experience, his contribution required the deletion of a unifying opening sequence and the change of title. Gospel ’70 became Amore e rabbia—surely one of the most meaningless titles ever concocted for anything.
Although they enter the classroom in orderly military fashion, the young hotheads in “Discutiamo, discutiamo” are portrayed as a chaotic mass of political feeling and protest. To such as these, at the time, Bellocchio seemed out-of-date. In a second “extras” DVD that accompanies the DVD of the film, Bellocchio today explains that the students’ lack of organization was incompatible with his own temperament; by contrast, he became a member of Italy’s highly organized Communist Union. Bellocchio now feels that his film is too divided to make coherent sense. A political film, he asserts, should move in a single direction, clearly taking one side over the other, for the sake of emotional and intellectual clarity.
Bellocchio, of course, is entitled to his opinion. There is a kind of self-divided film for which I have utter contempt: the kind that attempts to appeal to disparate elements in the audience by balancing one set of political, social or cultural beliefs against another. An example of such a film near the same time is Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970), which is cynically calculated to appeal equally to those who consider World War II General George Patton a stirring, righteous hero and those who consider him the kind of self-righteous bully that war in general (no pun intended) tends to unleash. Like political candidates fueled by an appetite for as many votes as possible at the expense of expressing their core convictions (such candidates typically say one thing to one crowd in one place and, contradicting themselves, say something else to another crowd in another place), this kind of cinema is bogus, reprehensible. (A popular example from television is the series All in the Family, whose central figure, the reactionary Archie Bunker, was portrayed by the producers, writers and directors in such a way that he stirred the approval of the right and appeared to the left as a satirical target.) But Bellocchio’s film is nothing like these works; on the contrary, it is highly expressive of Bellocchio’s genuine feelings. It isn’t a piece calculated to appeal to incompatible audience elements; rather, it is a work highly expressive of Bellocchio’s own ambivalence.
I harbor a version of such ambivalence myself. In the late sixties and early seventies, as a student protestor I recoiled in horror when I saw radical leaders manipulate confrontational situations with the police so that young heads would get busted, presumably to advance “the cause.” Indeed, it may be impossible to retain one’s humanity and not feel politically ambivalent in any number of ways, and I, for one, have never found dear Jean-Luc wanting in political complexity and ambivalence, for all his bright posters and sloganeering. For me, “Discutiamo, discutiamo,” viewed in 2005, is a coherent evocation of an incoherent moment, and it just about broke my heart with its liveliness, the generosity of its affection, its love of both genuine ideas and mere slogans as they gloriously bounce off one another in a cauldron of youth. Summing up all this, somehow, is that indelible image of Bellocchio’s unmistakable face—and so young a face then!—in that ridiculous false beard.
To be sure, this is not one of Bellocchio’s great works; it is, perhaps, a slight thing, but by no means is it a trivial one. It embodies “the sixties” like nothing else on film except for a brace of Godard’s masterpieces, including Pierrot le fou (1965) and Weekend (1967). That isn’t a small thing to do. And I must add yet another note of protest against the creator’s feeling he has failed with this film; for Bellocchio has retained his humanity by the depth of his persistent political ambivalence, as shown by his brilliant recent Buongiorno, notte (2003), whose title from Emily Dickinson (“Good morning, Night”) finds him back at the front of the class, minus the comical chin hair, lecturing us afresh about poetry and boring none of us.