By Robert Kenneth Dator.
As with any truly influential director, Federico Fellini—simply, Fellini—has been talked to death. However, with so much talk generated through so much derivative thought, it is possible to perpetuate precept rather than forge original observation. So, let us come out from behind all the humanism, neo-realism, absurdist, satirical, comedia negro, autobiographical, indulgent, new wave, groundbreaking, symbolic, narrative, surrealist diatribe and take Fellini on his own terms.
Fellini is modern cinema for what he accomplished in the product of his camera—in front of and behind it—from artist to storyteller to magician-huckster and entrepreneur concerned with the business of making pictures. Bold, inventive, funny, dangerous, and always as unrepentant as insightful, Fellini created a wave the film world has been paddling behind, mindful or not, for nearly seventy years. As much idiom as icon of cinema, his name has run the risk of being trivialized. Adored, maligned, lampooned, respected, Fellini, ever green, cannot be adjudged in terms of which among his films are better or best, but only by the degree to which they are accessible to any given viewer.
Fellini’s brand of narrative storytelling began during his collaboration with Roberto Rossellini, co-writing the neo-realist classic Rome, Open City (1946). This new realism was a term coined by contemporaneous critics looking for an antecedent to the so-called “white telephone” dramas of the privileged classes of the era. Then, as now, neo-realism stands for a bare-knuckled approach to filmmaking that rolled up its sleeves and got its hands and face dirty, accurately depicting the lives of everyday Italians struggling to survive. Nowhere is the genre more exemplified than in Vittorio Di Sica’s masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves (1948), which may be the greatest film ever made—but more on that at a later date—and though this critique regards the great Fellini, Di Sica and he were contemporaries as well as friends with an abiding impact on the work of one another until Fellini’s ascent into super stardom with La Dolce Vita (1960). For the time being, Il Bidone is much more than “Fellini’s gangster film.” Il Bidone is an expression of a certain restless desperation peculiar to Fellini’s themes of loss and loneliness, and more, abandonment and self-exile. It isn’t just that his characters (in this instance): Augusto, Roberto, and “Picasso” are lost in heart and soul, they are lost in time and space, adrift in a boundless purgatory that they remake every day like degenerate addicts held in the vice grip of moral inertia.
I can think of no other director who can portray such yawning emptiness to such a palpable degree. On an antithetical balance scale, Fellini masters hopelessness in equal measure as De Sica masters hope. But let us not imagine that Fellini’s characters—however much empathy he wrings out of us for them—absolves these depraved thieves of their heinous deeds. For these are not your garden-variety con men preying upon the greed of the wealthy. No, these are heartless and hardened career swindlers who prey upon the very weakest and most destitute among the rural populace as affectionately as rats. Il Bidone are reprehensible and almost unforgivable as they gorge on hope as well as faith, leaving their mark with absolutely nothing. Indeed, one is not likely anxious to contemplate the aftermath of their ravages.
Moreover, Il Bidone affords a glimpse of the signature Fellini party scene (expanded and focused upon in La Dolce Vita): an extravagant event in which revelry always looks very much like Sartre’s brand of hell. Also take note of the agonizing use of meaningless laughter, particularly and tellingly, from the Baron Vargas, and Roberto. But when the party is over, Fellini ramps the decline of Augusto as gently as Dante’s unwitting stroll into hell. Through scenes of the emptiness of dawn in a new year, walking through cobbled streets and piazza’s strewn with the trash and waste of last night’s party now dead and gone with the old year that looks like all the others: empty, wasted and misspent, and the unshaven Augusto is the last man standing with no purpose. When later, a bedraggled and bewildered Augusto has a chance collision with his daughter, Patrizia, walking with schoolmates, poignant expressions of regret master images of a disheveled and beaten father, played counterpoint to the fresh beauty of a girl growing into womanhood who will share in her father’s final humiliation. Il Bidone will surely stand as Broderick Crawford’s finest performance.
In the end, these are not just swindlers but bottom feeders, and yet, Fellini imbues them with pathos: “Picasso,” in spite of his Homeric weakness; Roberto, his idiot cavalier depravity; and, Augusto, for the naked desperation he suffers at the certain-sure knowledge of the abject failure he is, doomed by the curse of a pitiless self-awareness that colors his world relentlessly ugly.
Actor, writer and director, Robert Kenneth Dator, worked in feature film and television in the United States and Australia before teaching and attending Graduate School. Rob and family live in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he is hard at work on several projects including the academic film website Cinepsyche.
Eureka Entertainment, as part of their Masters of Cinema series, has released Il Bidone in a dual format Blu-ray-DVD edition loaded with extras.