His films’ peculiarities reveal a self-questioning, paradoxically nihilistic and activist cinema, which resonates with the spirit of Dada and Surrealism. The idiosyncratic combination of the subversive imagery explains Ferrerìs transgressive and experimental approach to both form and subject matter in the anti-narrative of his dysfunctional macrocosms. His style echoes the neorealist legacy (innovative aesthetics as a reaction to the Italian Fascist cinema) and the Spanish artistic influences reflecting his years spent in Francòs Spain between 1956 and 1961. He shared his visions with scriptwriter Rafael Azcona, who co-wrote many of Ferrerìs films by helping him shape his peculiar worlds.
The independent Italian filmmaker was gifted with a distinct, eclectic artistic personality and nomadic spirit, which allowed him to sharpen his critiques of the diverse contemporary, changing social mores, and to create his dark and wry social satires that were imbued with a singular voice of protest and profound discontent. His distorted visions of the ‘real’ world, therefore, underscore not only his taste for the bizarre, but also his anarchic irreverence towards bourgeois norms and conventions. Moreover, it is a film language carved from human caricatures and absurd fantasies, and producing non-conformist narratives and a surreal sense of displacement.
Many of his controversial films raise the question as to whether the abrasive cinema of shock and protest is now dead. From today’s perspective, and unlike most contemporary Italian cinema, Ferrerìs iconic films from the 1960s and 1970s offer a revived awareness of the politics of form and content. La Grande Bouffe (1973), for instance, displays his pictorial filmmaking style as an original concoction of neorealist canvasses/frames broken by surreptitious surrealist interventions. His Italian/Spanish iconoclastic spirit ultimately shows a peculiar sensibility towards society and art, as his film aesthetic bridges the conventional dichotomy of the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ of culture, avant-garde aesthetics and concerns, and popular cinema. He argues:
"When I arrived in Spain, I found themes and motifs peculiar to Spanish culture that influenced me positively and led me to take a specific direction as a filmmaker. On the other hand, I reckon, you can’t see the world in any other way but through the eyes of the grotesque. I believe this is the only way."1
Some of the surrealist and grotesque features can already be found in his early 1960s social satires, such as The Queen Bee (L’Ape Regina, 1963) and The Ape Woman (La Donna Scimmia, 1964). The filmmaker’s obsession with the representation of the changing role of women in modern society, and the consequent demise of the myth of Latin virility, is less a morbid fascination than an anthropological preoccupation which profoundly affected him as both a man and a filmmaker. His critique of the hypocrisies of conjugal life led to The Queen Bee being banned by the Italian censorship. Man’s fears of the new woman cause the deformity of his imagination: Reginàs meekness (played by Marina Vlady) turns into brutality, her submissive sexual role is subverted into a dominant one; she becomes a sexual predator. While depriving her husband Alfonso (Ugo Tognazzi) of his energies to her own advantage, the ‘queen beè Regina is depicted as a hungry praying mantis.
In The Ape Woman, the bizarreness of Mariàs monstrosity (played by Annie Girardot), with her body covered in thick hairs, leads to the exposure of social moral depravities, as her husband (Antonio Semola, played by Ugo Tognazzi) exploits her as a freakish spectacle. Devoid of any sentimentalism, the story, therefore, unfolds its metaphorical significance: the modern urban jungle and the barbaric cruelty of its social values as opposed to the primitive but harmless life of the Amazon forest (where Maria was found). In this case, her grotesqueness is not the result of man’s fears, rather it is meant to underscore the city as a prison engineered and regulated by a deformed consumer society.
Ferrerìs idiosyncratic power of vision shapes his most audaciously irreverent, aesthetic sensibility. Dillinger is Dead (Dillinger è morto, 1969), for instance, contains the key to the typical elements of Ferrerìs anti-bourgeois provocation, for it underscores the denunciation of incomprehensible human relations in a capitalist world – which are perfected in La Grande Bouffe through themes of fetishism, the reification of the body, and the soul’s abnormalities.
Like many of Ferrerìs films, Dillinger is Dead draws on the tradition of La Commedia all’Italiana (a genre that continues some of the motifs of the older ‘commedia dell’arte’2). However, its mercurial and wry tone is combined with a raw, animal energy that sets the mood not only for La Grande Bouffe, but also for his other accomplished portraits of surrealist and uncanny phenomena: The Seed of Man (1969), The Last Woman (L’Ultima Donna, 1976) and By Bye Monkey (Ciao Maschio, 1978).
The site of conformist rituals, and equipped with modern gadget paraphernalia, the outlandish kitchen in Dillinger is Dead is the setting of the whole climactic film, where Glauco (Michel Piccoli) organises his family dinner and his wife’s murder. In a dream-like sequence, Glauco finally sails away towards the remote shores of Tahiti.
The apocalyptic theme started in Dillinger is Dead is fully developed in The Seed of Man – it is the point of no return. While in the former film, man’s flight from the outmoded nuclear family takes on a fantastic and utopian character, in the latter, the whole humanity regresses into bestiality. This is the cinema of negation where man goes back to the original nothingness. It is the illusion of escapism and the dread of the nuclear bomb. The Seed of Man’s story sees Cino (Marco Margine) and Dora (Anne Wiazemsky) take refuge on an island, following a television announcement of a bomb explosion. Not only is their story suspended between their past and their future, but it is also the metaphor of a collective frenzy. The film ends with the bomb explosion, a visual motif that draws the attention to the cyclical film narrative, and suggesting that man’s escape has no-way out. It is a sharp satire on collapsing consumer society drawn to cannibalism and murder. The presence of a dead gigantic whale on the beach is momentous, lending a fable-like flavour to the dark tapestry of the film’s imagery.
Beach monsters in modern urban legends, the carcasses of mythical heroes, Moby Dick (or the whale that ate Pinocchio, from the eponymous Italian fable) and King Kong, are the surrealist remains of post-industrial barbarism, a theme continued in Bye Bye Monkey. Gerard Lafayette (Gerard Depardieu) finds the dead body of King Kong on the river Hudson shore, and his monkey son whom he decides to raise. Manhattan skyline, framed in a long-distance shot from the beach, displays the contrast between the dominant, phallic Manhattan skyscrapers and the gigantic dead beast spread on the beach. In a strongly symbolic way, Ferreri is telling the story of male virility showing signs of its imminent breakdown, and of man’s struggle to cope with his changing role in heterosexual relationships. When Glauco finds out that he will be fathering his girlfriend’s unborn child, and that a pack of rats has eaten his little monkey, he sets fire to himself and to a wax museum, with Imperial Rome miniatures. In Bye Bye Monkey, Ferreri explains one of his most fierce critiques of modern civilisation, while Gerard’s death suggests that man is a wax-like caricature and that he can melt, just like mannequins.
Human beings, caught within the parody of nature and civilisation, are nomadic and rootless creatures, emarginated and just like the dispossessed Ferreri, trying to come to terms with modernity.
By touching on Italian contemporary feminist concerns, his 1976 film, The Last Woman, carries forward similar themes such as man’s violence and his grotesque acts of desperation. Chauvinist Gerard (Gerard Depardieu) cuts off his sexual member to conquer his lover Valerie (Ornella Muti) back into his life. His penis is his ultimate symbol of manhood, of affection, but mostly it is his white flag of freedom.
At a crossroads of social reality and fantasy, there are Ferrerìs surrealist themes such as the oneiric, the irrational, the bizarre, and the snares of desire. La Grande Bouffe offers the best example of how Ferreri most successfully blends the ‘real’ and the ‘oneiric’ using overwrought grotesque imagery. This is also one of the best examples of ‘transgressivè cinema; it is the cinema of scandal and blasphemy.
While configuring dystopic fantasies, the film graphically portrays consumerist deviations narrating four men’s suicide by gluttony, over a weekend of orgiastic sex with three prostitutes and the schoolteacher Andréa (Andréa Ferréol). The four middle-aged men, gathering in an aristocratic mansion from the 1920s on the outskirts of Paris, are symbols of capitalist, consumer society and its cultural norms: a magistrate (Philippe Noiret), a television executive (Michel Piccoli), a chef (Ugo Tognazzi) and an airline pilot (Marcello Mastroianni). As Peter Bondanella suggested, the film’s metaphor of overconsumption may have influenced "Pasolinìs more ideologically coherent, if no less revolting, Saló."3 (Saló o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975).
As a ‘physiological’ film, La Grande Bouffe is obliquely autobiographical since Ferreri suffered from a phobic relationship with food, which, similarly to Pasolinìs addiction to sex, had an enormous bearing onto his films. Therefore, his vision of the body is one devoid of any sentimentalism and liberation ideals common in the post-’68 years.
The film’s main allegory is indeed the portrayal of human physiology, the corruption of the human ‘templè through man’s vices and ‘sins of the flesh’. By destroying the body itself and showing the ‘revolt’ of the bodily fluids, Ferreri enacts an assault on the presumed dominance of man’s intellect and reason over physiological mechanisms. Thus, in the form of a deliberate act of protest, the four bourgeois men’s implosion emphasises the resolution to choose death over life. Following the metaphor of bourgeois accumulation and entropy, the men’s regression/degradation to infantile, primal fantasies suggests it is a necessary journey to re-birth.
With La Grande Bouffe, Ferreri let the chaotic, indifferent matter burst out of the schism between rationality and irrationality, disorderly yet within a repetitive narrative pattern. Arguably, this is one of the many paradoxes in Ferrerìs work. While unreservedly showing man’s anarchic indulgence in sensual pleasures, he also organised this material in a naturalistic and systematic manner. His approach to images of the human body and the mechanics of its orifices, verges on the aesthetics of a morbid research into human physiology. It is as if he were cultivating a personal religion meant to turn his transgression of bourgeois norms into an existential quest.
His gelid, observational eye delineates the middle-class excesses to the point of caricature. The film becomes a carefully composed repetition of parodic vignettes. The kitchen is the symbolic site of initiation rites to exorcise Fascist excesses and past sins, encaged within man’s body and mind. The ‘Redemptrix’ 4/ schoolteacher Andréa, the only person gorging copious amounts of food but surviving, will assist them throughout this process until they, one by one, die. The filmmaker seems to suggest that the excessive materiality, the baroque ornamentation of Ugòs ‘high cuisinè enmeshed in the body’s flesh, are necessary to activate man’s infantile regression so he can, through ‘orgasmic’ pleasures, purge himself of his past. Excessive presence leads to absence and immateriality. Andréàs role of mother/whore within the male ‘circle of gluttony’ reinforces their Oedipal bonding, which, within a sado-masochistic dialectic, underscores a chilling, progressive ‘castrating dynamic’.
Almost supplanting the four bourgeois professionals, in La Grande Bouffe, food, sex, excrements and bodily fluids are the main "characters" of the film. Less than abstractions and themes, they form the matter of the film, the interwoven texture of Ferrerìs biting and angry attack on contemporary consumerist society.
Ferreri recreates the contingent but also disrupts the neorealist legacy of the "ontological wholeness of reality," and even more "the actual duration of time within the story."5 The representation of the temporal dimension has become one single tense, a Bergsonian stream of consciousness, a time-continuum. The external scenes, shot in the twilight hours, the most penumbral parts of the day, suggest the irrational, the oneiric, the exoteric side of life. A cyclical repetition of activities punctuates the rhythm of the temporal dimension indoors. Therefore, La Grande Bouffe follows an atypical narrative structure, not regulated by any spatio-temporal outposts of normative storytelling. The sequential repetition of events tells the story of deranged minds, caught in freewheeling duration while gravitating towards suicide.
As for the film’s spatial dimension, this is ‘fractured’. Surrealist capricious and irrational elements disquiet the realist illusion aesthetic, which long-takes and deep-focus shots strive to achieve. The surrealist curlicues, scattered throughout the film, both bemuse and disquiet. The cow’s head held high by Michel proclaiming "To Be Or Not To Be," Marcellòs sudden gust of lust in the garden with the stone statue of a woman and Andréa, the final cake in the shape of big breasts as the final fetish that will choke Philippe to death, among others. They contribute to create an irreverent sense of eroticism, which, however, pitted against the chilling context of the four men’s course to suicide, heightens the perception of the story and its characters. The juxtaposition with Ferrerìs gelid recording of the overthrow of all moral values creates the film’s overall ghastly and nightmarish tone.
The film’s overarching spirit of perversion is reminiscent of subversive, anarchic Rabelaisian jollities. The vulgar and carnivalesque-like tableau of each frame illustrates the allegory of contemporary consumer society driven to transgression. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s reading of François Rabelais’s world draws a parallel between the aesthetics of the monstrous with those of the grotesque, which, in turn, contrast the aesthetics of the sublime. 6
Through parody, Ferreri thus creates a macrocosm, where both monstrous and sublime are fused. ‘The sublimè – exemplified by the recurrent symbolism of conventional differentiations, such as ‘high art’, ‘high culturè and ‘high cuisinè – is relentlessly debased by the presence of the ‘flesh’. The last shot frames a Dalí-like canvas, synthesising Ferrerìs achievement as an original, audacious and experimental filmmaker. With the masters of the mansion dead, in a mocking and irreverent gesture, the butcher delivering the meat throws it in the garden and on the tree, leaving it to the dogs to eat.
("What Ìve always hated most – coarseness, violence and filth they’re now our inseparable companions. Death is preferable to this abject promiscuity"
- Enrique Rambal in The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñuel, 1962)
Marco Ferrerìs cinema is the cinema of images. In an interview with Angelo Migliarini,7 he stated that filmmaking for him is an enterprise founded on the relationship between bold images. Like the 1970s garish colours, Ferrerìs films are populated by "garish" images; strong and striking, they do not need words. They do not need a dramatic storyline, or a character development either. His anti-narratives enfold according to an imagistic sensibility, even echoing abstract expressionism. His images, Ferreri says, are there to evoke the film’s ‘psychological climate’.8
While declaring that one of his most influential filmmakers was Michelangelo Antonioni, one might see the similarity in theme, the urge to express a timely sense of alienation. However, Ferrerìs portraits of human disaffection culminate in imagistic expressions that are more concrete, striking and available to the wider audience than Michelangelo Antonionìs subtly conveyed, yet beautifully rendered, sense of anomie and psychological fragmentation.
Ferreri stated that his main objective in filmmaking is not the search for beauty, but the search for what is the essence and the vitality of the kinetic image.
1. My translation. Original text reads: "Arrivando in Spagna, a contatto con la cultura spagnola io ho trovato dei motivi e dei temi che mi hanno favorevolmente colpito e spinto a fare il regista in una determinata direzione. Io non credo, d’altra parte, che si possa vedere il mondo se non con la lente del grottesco. Credo sia l’unica possibilitá." Marco Ferreri, ‘Ferreri on Ferrerì, in Maurizio Grande, Marco Ferreri, Il Castoro Cinema (La Nuova Italia), 1975, p. 1.
2. ‘…the older commedia dell’arte theatrical tradition…might be more accurately described as tragicomedy bordering on the grotesque.’ Bondanella, Peter, Italian Cinema – from Neorealism to the Present (The Continuum International Publishing Group: New York, 2004), p. 145.
3. P. Bondanella, 2004, p. 329
4. ‘…the male Surrealist view of woman as erotico-sacred redemptrix…’. Paul Hammond, ‘Available Light’ in Paul Hammond (Ed.), The Shadow & its Shadow (City Lights Books: San Francisco, 2000), p. 29.
5. P. Bondanella, 2004, p. 32.
6. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (The M.I.T. Press: London, 1968), p. 43.
7. Angelo Migliarini, "Interview with Marco Ferreri", in Parigi, Stefania, Marco Ferreri – Il Cinema e i Film (Marsilio Editori: Venezia, 1995), p.289.
8. A. Migliarini, p. 290.