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  • Ravi Swami

"Il Bidone"- with commentary, Dir:Federico Fellini, 1955

I generally avoid films accompanied by a commentary of the type included as extras in DVD and BluRay releases - they smack of critics' concern that the average viewer may not understand the film and therefore require a detailed interpretation of nuance and meaning that may or may not have been the director's intention and therefore feel slightly condescending, besides which, who wants to see a film where someone is trying to explain the film to you at the same time ? - annoying in both the environment of the cinema or at home.

It also suggests a fear that critics may have that some new interpretation might challenge their own, and in turn their validity and authority as film critics.

That said, I watched "Il Bidone" - a film that could best be described as the least "Fellini-esque" of his work before the whimsicality and surrealist qualities of films like "Juliette of The Spirits" set in and that he is most well-known for in people's minds - on Criterion Channel, with a commentary.

I'd actually started watching it a while ago but clearly the combination of fatigue and the continuous commentary for the duration of the film got the better of me and I must have fallen asleep, so seeing it listed as "continue to watch" became a detour from seeking out more of Éric Rohmer's films', having almost exhausted what is available on Apple+ TV and having recently watched "Full Moon In Paris".

Richard Basehart is fixed forever in my mind as "Admiral Nelson" in the TV series spin-off of Irwin Allen's "Voyage To The Bottom of The Sea", and as a stalwart of 60's and 70's American TV series - a good actor but not a great one - so as with his astonishing performance in Fellini's earlier film "La Strada", it was a surprise to see him crop up again in "Il Bidone", suggesting that he had favoured status as far as Fellini was concerned - this connection was rarely flagged up in his later career and casts him in a different light, as indeed is the case with Anthony Quinn in "La Strada"

In much the same way, his co-star in "Il Bidone" is Broderick Crawford, more well-known for playing film-noir heavies in a series of films in the U.S and here allowed to show a much broader range than in his other film appearances, leading some U.S film critics to dismiss "Il Bidone" as second-rate film-noir rather than the little-known neorealist work that it is.

The film concerns a trio of grifters of whom Broderick Crawford's "Augusto" is the senior to Basehart's "Carlo", nicknamed "Picasso" because his scam involves duping people into buying crude forgeries of paintings, though he is also a struggling artist trying to support himself and his wife, Iris (Giulietta Masina) who is oblivious to the fact that he is a swindler, and "Roberto", played by Franco Fabrizi who had previously appeared in Fellini's "I Vitteloni" as the wayward "Fausto". Here he plays a suave seducer of women and a vain sex-addict who stops short at allowing himself to be seduced by rich, older women, even if it promises a gravy train, in favour of the quick hit of petty burglary or swindle.

The term "Neorealist" generally suggests films that concern the struggles of ordinary people when faced with authority, social injustice or inequality - here Fellini flips it on its' head and takes us into the dark heart of criminality in impoverished post-war Italy, and we follow this trio of opportunists as they embark on a series of scams, firstly masquerading as priests, then as bogus officials offering slum-dwellers a new home providing they pay a hefty deposit first and then as they ingratiate themselves toward another criminal during a big party he has thrown and who has hit the big-time through drug-trafficking.

This may in part be the reason why "Il Bidone" is overlooked when considering Fellini's work since it makes for uncomfortable viewing, offering an unvarnished look at desperate opportunists determined to make it on their own terms, no matter what the cost and devoid of any conscience, though by the end it is clear that at least Augusto (Crawford) and Carlo (Basehart) realize the errors of their ways, but by then it is too late and Augusto loses his life on a lonely stretch of road after he relents at the latest scam involving a young woman with polio, the daughter of peasant farmers who are cheated out of their life-savings by Augusto and some new accomplices, dressed as priests - echoing the start of the film - and after he has been deserted by Carlo (Basehart) and Roberto (Fabrizi), and he is subsequently brutally murdered by his accomplices, who accuse him of cheating on them.

A sub-plot involving an attempted reconciliation with his estranged daughter that ends with Augusto being arrested by the police when he is recognized by one of his victims, after he accompanies her to the cinema, serves to highlight the fact that Augusto has some redeeming qualities, also reflected in his parental attitude to the younger Carlo and Roberto, but Fellini insists that karmic pay-back for his long list of sins is inevitable no matter how much he tries to rid himself of his past and he is a career criminal until the bitter end, and it is bitter, the film closing with the dying Augusto unable to cry for help from passers-by on the lonely mountain road.

The only thing I would say about commentaries, annoying as they are, is that they will occasionally throw out details that would be unavailable to the average viewer, such as the fact that alternate drafts of the film script indicated a different outcome for a character, or that a scene was written and omitted or edited out in the final film. For example, in one version, possibly in the shooting script itself, Carlo returns to Iris determined to mend his ways but she leaves him in disgust, whereas in the final film Basehart's character simply exits the film after declaring that he is going home and we are left to guess the outcome based on previous exchanges he has with Iris (Masina) - a more intelligent and economic editorial decision perhaps.

The commentary also points out the treatment of women in the film, something noted in many Italian films of the period in previous posts, such as "I Vitteloni", where, for the most part they are subject to male "machismo" - either sirens, prostitutes or mothers and nothing in-between - an aspect challenged in later films. An example of this in the film is a scene at the drug-traffickers' party where a young woman - possibly an aspiring actress via the beauty-queen route as was often the case at the time - is surrounded by men who behave like a pack of ravenous wolves and force her to undress against her will.

The film's score by regular Fellini collaborator Nino Rota changes gear at turns for emphasis during the film though unfortunately the overlaid commentary all but over-rides this aspect of the film, however, this just makes me want to watch it as intended, which I will do at some point.


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