(This article was originally published on Cinema Scope)
“I make physiological cinema”—Marco Ferreri (1928–1997)
The 20th anniversary of Marco Ferreri’s death failed to elicit much attention, the exception being Anselma Dell’Olio’s valuable documentary, presented at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Marco Ferreri: Dangerous But Necessary. Eschewing biographical linearity, the documentary explores the prescient significance of Ferreri’s work rather than dwelling on personal anecdotes about his life, either personal or artistic. The documentary implicitly proves that Ferreri’s authorial mark was self-effacing, as his films are more prominent and memorable than the director himself. Yet Ferreri’s films remain unfit for celebratory sanctimony, too uncomfortably relevant to our current predicament to be canonized—and even prophetic, had this term not been abused to the point of insignificance. Almost 30 years before Spike Jonze made Her (2013), Ferreri cast Christopher Lambert in I Love You (1986), the story of a man who falls in love with an electronic keyring. Shaped in the face of a woman, the keyring electronically squawks, “I love you” every time the alienated protagonist whistles, providing all necessary warmth and care.
In the Year Zero AW (After Weinstein), Ferreri’s cinema constitutes a confrontational reckoning with the long and tortuous river of gender asymmetry that has finally cracked the dam of patriarchy. He had diagnosed the early symptoms of the alpha male’s violent demise in iconic films like Bye Bye Monkey (1978). Set against the phallocratic skyline of Manhattan, the film sees Marcello Mastroianni and Gérard Depardieu rescuing the son of King Kong, the ultimate symbol of bestial masculinity, whose corpse lies on the shores of a post-apocalyptic, rat-infested Manhattan. Depardieu plays a lightning technician who works in an off-Broadway theatre and in a wax museum dedicated to ancient Rome that burns down in the climactic finale. One day after spraying a troupe of feminist actresses with a bottle of Coca-Cola, the semen of consumerism, he’s raped by them. Even more graphic is the end of 1976’s claustrophobic La dernière femme—the protagonist (Depardieu again), after failing to manage his urges, castrates himself with an electric knife. The irreversible and politically incorrect realization that patriarchy was already sleepwalking towards historical impotence was an intrinsic part of Ferreri’s perceptive vision. Through the prism of his cinema, our social agony is refracted in ways that, though seemingly absurd, lay bare the existential inadequacy contemporary men and women are still experiencing.
Ferreri was born in Milan in 1928 and little is known about his early years or his personal life in general. He studied veterinary medicine “because I liked animals and wanted to be of assistance to them,” but, after dropping out of university, he decided to make movies, “because I liked humans too.” After working as an assistant director for Michelangelo Antonioni and Cesare Zavattini, and as a unit producer and film equipment sales agent, Ferreri found the freedom and funds for his directorial debut in the most unlikely place: Franco’s Spain. Paradoxically and yet somehow fittingly, the Italian director honed his subversive cynicism under the nose of a fascist regime, and in 1960 he reached his poetic maturity with his third feature, El cochecito, the story of a perfectly retired priest who nonetheless wants a motorized wheelchair like the one his invalid friends drive; when his family refuses to comply with his bizarre request, the cheerful old man poisons them all. This vitriolic black comedy stands as a counterpoint to the preposterous pietism of, say, De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952). In Spain, Ferreri befriended Rafael Azcona, the satirist and screenwriter with whom he collaborated on most of his films. Together they moved to Rome, and Ferreri went on to inject a reinvigorating dose of irreverence into the body of Italian cinema, which had been narcotized by the reconciliatory lies of neorealism.
For Ferreri, the relation between man and woman, often reduced to a mere narrative trope passively mirroring the dominant value system, becomes a field of dramatic action, the stage on which societal anxieties, aggressive inequalities, and obsessions take place and shape. In The Conjugal Bed (1963), Ugo Tognazzi, Ferreri’s unflattering alter ego for a good part of his artistic life, plays Alfonso, a wealthy 40-year-old bachelor desperately looking for a virgin to marry. He finally finds her and fulfills his Catholic duty; then his wife, Regina, overeager to have a child, literally screws him to death and, aided by a priest, inherits her husband’s business. (First banned and then released in an edited version, the film inaugurated Ferreri’s life-long dispute with Italian censors.) Roles were reversed in The Ape Woman (1964), with Tognazzi once again playing an unscrupulous impresario who marries a very hairy woman (Annie Girardot) living in a monastery and turns her into a circus performer. “I married her, she now belongs to me,” he tells those who object to the inhuman treatment to which he subjects his wife, forcing her to play an ape while he impersonates a colonial explorer. The holy sacrament of marriage was blasphemously catechized again in The Wedding March (1966), possibly the first film ever to feature an inflatable sex doll in its cast.
As the ’60s reached their revolutionary peak, Ferreri apocalyptically anticipated the postmodern end of grand, ideological narratives, to even more controversy. After Her Harem (1967), which inverts the traditional concept of the harem, with a woman having four men at her disposal, and The Seed of Man (1969), in which the cultural infertility of man is told through the end of civilization, Ferreri made one of his most enigmatic films. Starring Michel Piccoli, Dillinger Is Dead (1969) disintegrates narrative propulsion by concentrating all the action into one single night, all myths and icons into one-dimensional images. It’s a film with barely any dialogue and with hardly any pathos, even if a murder eventually happens; it’s the sublimation of bourgeois boredom and the repressed longing for a romantic action that will never take place, since everything has already been mythologized by fiction. The same feeling of helplessness is experienced in Papal Audience (1971), an adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle wherein a man unsuccessfully tries to get a private meeting with the Pope. Ferreri was booed off the stage in 1972 when La Cagna (literally “The Bitch”) premiered in Paris; the sight of a bohemian comics writer (Marcello Mastroianni) swapping his middle-class life for an exotic island, only to enslave a bored tourist (Catherine Deneuve) and treat her like a dog, proved too much for the audience’s complacent expectations.
But it was in Cannes with La grande bouffe (1973) that Ferreri was almost lynched. Both Bergmans (Ingrid, who was then the jury president, and Ingmar, who was presenting Cries and Whispers out of competition) walked out of the premiere, and angry spectators insulted a smiling Ferreri, who blew them kisses in return. All this just because his film told of four men (Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, Tognazzi, and Piccoli) who lock themselves up in a Parisian villa for a mournful feast of sex and food that will eventually kill them. (“The French couldn’t stand having their national icon [Piccoli] farting his way to the grave,” Ferreri sarcastically quipped in retaliation.) Though Ferreri vehemently denied any political intention, it’s hard not to see La grande bouffe as a caustic commentary on consumerism and the commodification of just about everything (Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society had been published only three years earlier). It’s on this occasion that Ferreri coined the expression “physiological cinema”—a term that retrospectively describes his films rather accurately, based as they are on a corporeal rather than intellectual conception of moving images. His cinema illuminates the most painful contradictions without ever resorting to intellectual verbosity, favouring startling narrative expedients over ideological proclamations. Though he was often accused of formal slovenliness, Ferreri’s erudite relation to the grammar of cinema was always unhindered and instinctual. Memorable in this regard is his appropriation of the Western, whose ideological and visual codes Ferreri adapted for the new urban frontier of gentrification in Touche pas à la femme blanche (1974), which takes place in the heart of Paris, where a huge hole was dug to replace the old market of Les Halles with the current underground station/shopping mall; inside the canyon-like crater, Ferreri re-enacted the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Around this time, Ferreri presciently sensed the lifeless fate awaiting European city centres and started to film in their featureless outskirts, where a new suburban humanity lived in alienated silence. Such is the setting of one of his most unfettered creations, Seeking Asylum (1979), shot in a peripheral neighbourhood of Bologna that Ferreri metaphysically transfigures. The film takes place during the occupation of a kindergarten by children, their teacher, and parents. The occupied kindergarten grants asylum to a little orphan (asilo in Italian means both political asylum and kindergarten), while the teacher (Roberto Benigni) gets pregnant. Evicted by the police, the resisters move to a remote location in Sardinia to continue their (doomed) anti-authoritarian pedagogical experiments.
The lunar landscape of the Italian ’80s serves as the hallucinated backdrop of Ferreri’s “feminist” diptych The Story of Piera (1983) and The Future Is Woman (1984). The former, starring Hanna Schygulla and Isabelle Huppert as mother and daughter, centres on their incestuous relationship, while the latter prefigures a fatherless family. Both inscribe the melancholic impotence of men onto a suburban landscape where traditional roles no longer apply, and where only women seem able to pull through. Love survives in the hospice of The House of Smiles (1991), where a couple of elderly guests live their carnal passion in a watermelon-shaped trailer parked in a camp alongside African immigrants (and with whom the female protagonist, played by Ingrid Thulin, will eventually escape). Awarded the Golden Bear in Berlin, it’s one of Ferreri’s greatest films, an ode to disinterested love and, along with Tokyo Story (1953) and Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a lucid indictment of how capitalism disposes of those who are no longer useful and productive.
Ferreri was one of the few European directors never to surrender to either Orientalism or white guilt when dealing with the Other, instead poking fun at the superiority complex of Western civilization. In 1988 he directed what remains the greatest film ever made about the business of humanitarian aid, its neocolonial function and patronizing arrogance. Ya bon les blancs follows a group of volunteers stranded in sub-Saharan Africa during a humanitarian mission; devoured by their own greed, lust for power, and idiocy, they are eventually eaten alive by the locals, who are very happy to do without their charitable “help.” Cannibalism is also how the most peculiar love story in The Flesh (1991) comes to an end after she (Francesca Dellera) casts a spell on him (Sergio Castellitto), causing his penis to be constantly erect and at her pleasurable disposal.
Shortly before dying, Ferreri paid homage to a cinema intended as a physical place where people meet, warm up, eat, make love, and, while at it, watch a movie. Nitrate Base (1996) was made to celebrate the first 100 years of cinema; its working title was Poor People’s House, as in it the history of cinema is seen from the audience’s perspective—what is celebrated is the life unfolding both on and in front of the screen. It’s a love letter written to a lover that was already changing beyond recognition, and yet there is not a glimmer of nostalgia to be found in it.
Stylistically, Ferreri never composed images to articulate his aesthetic or ideological convictions: he merely focused on those aspects that appeared featureless but that, through his lens, leapt out as emblematic. The metaphysical glimpses his films conjured were the effigies of a latent social disquiet, which is why interpretation of them can never be definitive even as their significance is always palpable. A dead King Kong by the Hudson, the enlarged head of Marlene Dietrich in a shopping mall, cowboys and Indians in the heart of Paris, a giant Mazinger Z parading in deserted streets, a couple making out under a towering, uprooted tree being transported in the back of a truck…The symbolic elevation of these unforgettable images exemplifies the essence of Ferreri’s cinema: the difficulty of the male specimen to find harmony in a world that no longer acknowledges his alleged superiority. Which is why Ferreri’s voyeuristic corrosion and grotesque provocations feel almost naturalistic—even though they may appear outlandish, they effectively tap into our innermost sentiments and fears. That his films have not been consecrated is both a pity and a positive sign. Ferreri’s oeuvre belongs to the present of cinema rather than its history: his films illuminate the challenges that we’re now facing with an urgent clarity that’s hard to come by. But, then again, maybe his films really are destined to remain a marginal oddity rather than a guiding light, for he never deluded himself that cinema could ever change anything, let alone the world. Once asked how he would like to be remembered, Ferreri drily replied, with a bittersweet grin on his lips: “I couldn’t care less!”