by Jean-Andre Fieschi
Original article: ‘Néo-néo-réalisme’, Cahiers du Cinéma 141, March 1963
No one could be more pleased than we are that American cinema has on the whole won the war that history said it had to win (and not just by winning over the critics). We don’t deny that there is still work to be done in this field, for example a true assessment of the great achievements of Mankiewicz or the often underestimated qualities of film-makers like Allan Dwan, Jacques Tourneur, Douglas Sirk, etc., directors who have been unjustly kept out of the limelight.1
Even so, as things stand, a reflection on aesthetics based solely on American cinema runs the risk of falling into a new academicism: liking Preminger or Fuller is all very well, liking only them or the cinema they represent just leads us back into the dead-end many critics are already trapped in. The point is not to replace one tradition based on quality by another, even one that has excellent credentials, but to create the conditions in which cinema can thrive on its contradictions without getting bogged down in a caste-based security which would sap its vitality.
And, just as a few years ago the postulates of new criticism were partly based on the confrontation of convergent qualities (yes indeed) of the young generation of American directors and neo-realism (the links between Ray and Rossellini for example2), we now have to establish new connections with the intention of forecasting, on the evidence of recent trends (it is too early to say whether this will be successful or not), what the probable or desirable evolution of modern cinema will be.
What are these trends? If you will permit a totally subjective response, I won’t hesitate to affirm that the markers that can guide our reflections are, on the one hand, the work of Jean Rouch, the most open of all current work, and on the other the ultimate achievements of those two great directors who are still in the avant-garde, Renoir and Rossellini (especially in Le Testament du Dr Cordelier and in Viva l’ltalia). And also those two young cinemas’ that are still from time to time dismissed as terrible twins but that I think of as exemplifications of an essential complementarity: I am referring to the young French cinema and the young Italian cinema.
This complementarity derives from a different attitude on the part of their authors with regard to the notion of realism. It is axiomatic that every good film, whatever its point of departure, encounters along its way both realism and the fantastic3 (by which I mean the sense of mystery inherent in all things when they are looked at in a particular way), since it is in the very essence of cinema to spark off that synthesis that the other arts could by their very nature only aspire to with no hope of succeeding. And yet it is a fact that while they often showed a sensitivity to the real and even to the mundane that is, all in all, quite new, the young French directors nevertheless constructed in their best films – as if to prove their right to be considered as auteurs – what could be called personal mythologies. Godard is the ultimate consecration of a romantic and profoundly individualist mythology. After his two confessional films, Truffaut has been seduced by an essentially poetic mythology (Demy too, though he has particular qualities of his own): the exploitation of the fantasies of the gangster novel in Tirez sur le pianiste, the attractions of the magic of the past in ]ules et Jim and of the future in Bradbury.4 As for Rivette, his meticulousness allows him to create in Paris nous appartient a mythology that is abstract. In spite of his obsession with the event shown in all its ludicrous pettiness, Rohmer invites us to unravel the meanings of a moral parable.5 And there is Chabrol, who gives us the key to his fascinating world of refracting prisms in Ophelia . . .
It is, then, precisely when our auteurs seem to be the most realist that they are in fact the furthest away from realism, and you would be wrong to take as a criticism of the nouvelle vague what I consider to be its most original aspect. After all, the interiorized realism displayed is at least as important as the other kind. (Besides, these are creations which are still too close to their point of origin and the way they will develop will certainly take us by surprise.)
Perhaps because they attach more importance to their screenplays (probably following Zavattini’s example), the best of the young Italian directors are on the other hand more able to integrate their personal views into an objective realist framework, whether this realism is historical (Francesco Rosi in Salvatore Giuliano), poetic (Valerio Zurlini in Cronaca familiare) or documentary: De Seta in his Banditi a Orgosolo, which I am at last going to discuss after a digression which must seem very long. If the terms realism and objectivity seem vague, it should be added that the principal characteristic of the young Italians as opposed to the young Frenchmen is didacticism. How does Banditi a Orgosolo illustrate this didactic quality and what are its characteristics?
De Seta’s first intuition was to recognize that the most particularized of geographical locations (the mountains of central Sardinia) would not detract from the universal and exemplary nature of the film: the beauty of a rock is the beauty of all rocks, just as the need to reach a social awareness is the same as that of any other awareness; and to realize that austerity would increase the force of his message rather than detract from it. Thus the formal elements of the film (a man, a child, sheep and mountains) and the plot (a shepherd is accidentally implicated in a murder, has to go into hiding, and is forced to play out the role imposed on him) are reduced to basics. As a result De Seta can make the generality of his point and the particularity of his illustration exactly coincide.
Certainly the film is linked to a profoundly Italian cinematic tradition whose specificity it would not be useful to examine here. What matters is how it goes beyond that tradition by realizing its full potential. Banditi a Orgosolo does in fact succeed in bringing together the preoccupations that to an extent underpin Visconti’s La terra trema on the one hand and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves on the other. But these two films couldn’t avoid the traps into which the personalities of their auteurs lured them: Visconti allowed himself to be seduced by the theatricality of the real and, magnifying his historical document by recourse to sumptuous composition and framing, he couldn’t resist the temptations of a social opera, whereas De Sica remained faithful to his demagogic tendencies (whether they are sincere or not is not at issue) and wallowed in the mawkish, lachrymose paternalism that is characteristic of his films. The desire to show people reaching an awareness of unacceptable social realities and then to transfer this awareness from the characters in the film to the spectator was thus compromised by their formalism, plastic in one instance, moral in the other. If the documentary – the neo-realist idea of the document as spectacle of everyday life offered to the senses and to reflection – can conjure up the real as enchantment and transform the banal into lyrical fact, this lyricism must even so be the result of a hidden metamorphosis that is imperceptible to the eye and yet does not pre-exist the look. The lyrical (if you like, the sense of the immediate beauty of the real) has then to be integrated into an analysis. De Seta’s film is analytical on the level of its apparent progression (the real is not immediately available in its totality but is gradually revealed piece by piece, a revelation that is emphasized by editing which is both particularly effective and dictated by the logic of the characters themselves – contrary to Flaherty’s practice, it is subordinated to and doesn’t exert a tyrannical hold over the significance of the action), and synthetic on a second level, that of the spectator called upon to pass his own judgment on a case with all the evidence at his disposal and thus obliged to abandon his passivity in order to bring about the ultimate transformation, conferring on the film a full and complete existence. You have to go back to Donskoi’s Mother to find such a clear and consistently dialectical expression of a theme so dear to film-makers of the Left.
I readily concede that this is not in itself enough to guarantee the beauty of the work but, before going on, it is worth stressing at this point that at least the primary objective has been realized. But it is the way De Seta effects a shift from an initial didacticism (critical realism) to an aesthetic sublimation of this (poetic realism) that makes him interesting: in short, how his mise en scene, as vehicle for the Idea, becomes a form that appeals to the emotions.
The feeling of injustice in Banditi a Orgosolo arises from the shepherds being prevented by an almost abstract force from finding, in spite of the hostility of their natural habitat, an inner peace whose radiance would be strong enough to restore it to a Virgilian serenity: when the warm breath of the sheep sends the child off to sleep, the harmony of the shot proves how powerful this peace is. The shadow of the Carabinieri on the child’s face in the next shot is enough to destroy it: an indiscreet and outrageous intruder, the shadow disturbs a natural order of things in the moment of its fulfilment.
De Seta’s talent as film-maker shows itself in the balance he establishes between the art of narration and the sense of looking: the narrative never interrupts the continuity of the gaze, the gaze never obstructs the rigorous development of the action.
The gaze is first and foremost an extreme sensitivity to objects as well as to people, to their physical presence which the barrenness of the setting shows up in all the splendour of its simplicity. The film thus becomes a lucid poem imbued with a restrained benevolence, a poem that gives us an intimate glimpse of men’s faces frozen as they lie in wait or pearled with sweat after the chase, of convivial attitudes when it is time for sleep, of the dogs rummaging around in the ferns; a poem that reveals to us the beauty of a tree stump, of the meagre, scattered bushes of the maquis, of the mattness of the sky, of the flickering flames, of the coarsely woven velvet of the men’s jackets, above all of the obsessive presence of the rocks made blinding by the sunlight and darkened by the coming of night.
This is indeed a cinema of total knowledge in which the love of people merges with the intuitive apprehension of things. It makes you understand the vanity of all recourse to gushing sentimentalism or to rhetoric. Left to itself, the art of showing is restored to its original dignity. It is from being distanced enough to avoid the trap of a mawkish complicity which would detract from the clinical nature of his analysis that De Seta’s look derives its force. Yet he doesn’t sink into the frigidity of a third-person psychology that tries to objectify what cannot be objectified.
I can then, in conclusion, return to my point of departure and reaffirm that cinema has everything to gain from contact with and development of this return to origins since, just like romanticism and surrealism in literature, neo-realism is not a school (for all Zavattini’s doctrinal extremism) but a tendency, a force that is still active in cinema; we need it as much today, if only as a stimulus, as at the moment of its official recognition. For all the classicism of their writing, the young generation of Italian film-makers which has learned from it continues to innovate. I hardly need stress that Banditi a Orgosolo is truly the work of a cinematic auteur, although it uses approaches that are quite different from those of young French directors. That is what I was calling the complementarity of the two cinemas. Will they be able to consolidate the points they have in common? It is perhaps from this synthesis that the next new wave will emerge.
Translated by Norman King
1 In the mid-1960s some amends were made for the critical neglect of such American directors: interview and other material was published on Mankiewicz (Cahiers 178, May 1966, translated in Cahiers du Cinéma in English, no. 8, February 1967), Tourneur (Cahiers 181, August 1966) and Sirk (Cahiers 189, April 1967), among others.
2 See Volume 1, Parts 2 and 3.
3 Cf. Fereydoun Hoveyda, ‘Cinema verite ou realisme fantastique’, Cahiers 125, November 1961, translated as ‘Cinema verite, or Fantastic Realism’ in this volume, Ch. 24.
4 The reference is to Truffaut’s project of filming Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, realized in 1966.
5 The reference is presumably to Rohmer’s Le Signe du Lion, 1959, but Fieschi’s emphasis on the moral parable side of Rohmer reminds us that Rohmer had in fact also just begun his contes moraux cycle, with La Boulangère de Monceau, 1962, and La Carrière de Suzanne, 1963.