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Thank heaven for Pasolini (and Gregoretti)!
on 30 November 2012
Ro.Go.Pa.G aka Let's Wash Our Brains: Ro.Go.Pa.G is one of the more highbrow entries in the slew of anthology films so popular with continental producers in the 60s. Ro is Roberto Rossellini, Go is Godard, Pa is Pasolini and G is the all-but-forgotten Ugo Gregoretti, and the common link is that each has half an hour to present a story about the beginning of the end of the world, although in reality it was because producer Alfredo Bini had three of the directors under contract (Pasolini was the odd man out) and wanted to give them something to do while waiting for their next features.
It gets off to a poor start with Rossellini's at times surprisingly shoddily made Virginity. It compliments its poor back projection that resolutely fails to sell the idea that its' characters are in Thailand rather than on recycled sets in an Italian studio with a rather trite tale of Rosanna Schiaffino's air hostess being pursued by Bruce Balaban's enamoured American salesman. It takes forever to get going before heavy-handedly hammering home it's too neat conclusion about what really attracts him and what she needs to do to repel him. There are a couple of nice moments amid the product placement, particularly Balaban going through a checklist of how to talk to women and realising he's as ignorant of the concept of empathy as he is romantically clueless, but the episode is a bit like one of those forgettable non-conversations you have waiting in a queue at an airport boarding gate. Still, it does have one memorable exchange when it suddenly introduces two new characters with the solution to her problems via the magic of psychological diagnosis via home movies: "Of course, America and England are full of sex maniacs and stranglers." "Full, no. There's still a little space left."
Godard's The New World is a bit of an improvement, though it's equally trite in its grafting a Big Subject of the Day - the threat of nuclear annihilation - onto largely mundane images and everyday incidents that are connected to it only by the narration. Change the narration and it could be just another of his exercises in male-female non-communication as Alexandra Stewart blithely evades boyfriend Marc Bory's questions about their deteriorating relationship and their `ex-love.' It's the narration that tells us these are the subtle results of a nuclear explosion over Paris that nobody noticed until it was in the papers and then completely ignored and went about their everyday lives. There are some visual oddities thrown in, like the uncommented on knife that Stewart keeps tucked in her knickers or a striking shot of the Eiffel Tower half obscured by clouds like the one visible bit of wreckage in the aftermath of the unseen explosion, but Godard seems more interested in playing with the soundtrack here: aside from the disconnect between narration and visuals, he regularly alternates shots of the roar of city life with silent shots of the busy city before just seeming to lose interest and bringing the episode to an abrupt halt.
Thank heavens for Pasolini, who kicks the film into life with the viciously satirical La Ricotta, a truly divine bit of black comedy observing the shooting of the Passion scene from a tacky devotional postcard religious epic shot in deliberately artificial static colour tableaux while in the black and white real world the crew ignore the hungry poor in the background, twist to rock and roll on the radio or taunt the crucified with food and drink, Christ and the Good Thief argue politics on the cross between takes, policemen pick flowers because they've nothing else to do, actors overact, think of their dog or pick their noses and the aforementioned dog steals the starving actor playing the Thief's lunch. Presiding over it all with wistful disinterest in the director's chair is a bored Orson Welles as the worn-down Marxist making a film about Christ for a Capitalist. The voice on the soundtrack may not be Welles, but the occasional cynical twinkle in his eye as he quotes Pasolini's Mamma Roma and casually dismisses an interviewer who is incapable of understanding anything more profound than the simplest of facile soundbites is pure Awesome. The words may be the director's, but when quietly he says "I am a force from the past," his sheer presence and history gives it a real weight.
Its barbs at hypocrisy, piety and the resigned nightmare of being stuck creating bad `art' for the money are all very much to the fore, but the observational naturalism (a couple of cinematic flourishes aside) and casually cheerful blasphemy of the crew as they engage in more earthly pursuits is entirely convincing. It's one of the most astonishingly accurate depictions of a movie set you'll probably ever see, and it's definitely the highlight of the film. The Catholic Church didn't agree, missing the point entirely (something you can't help feeling that their boss's son wouldn't) and landing Pasolini with a four-month suspended sentence for `publicly undermining the religion of the state.'
Gregoretti's Free-Range Chicken is almost as viciously satirical, this time setting rampant consumerism as its target, moving between a lecture on marketing and Ugo Tognazzi, Lisa Gastoni and their brood (a very young Ricky Tognazzi and Antonella Taito) en route to view some land they can't afford to invest in and constantly distracted by things they don't need to spend their money on. Gregoretti avoids going over the top, even when Topo Gigio is roped into selling televisions on their brand new television set (we meet Tognazzi getting a strained wrist signing the 24 installment cheques for it) or diners are replaced by battery chickens in a narrow motorway service station diner, opting instead for the everyday pressures as the family casually talk themselves into more purchases. Some of its points are even more pertinent today, with the expert's assertion of the need to eliminate human intermediaries in the sales process to allow the buzz and false sense of freedom of impulse buying to overcome the realisation you don't need what you're spending money you can't afford to waste tailor-made for the one-click internet age. That they're delivered by a man who has lost his voice and is talking through an electrolarynx only underlines the point. There's also a chance to see where Five Easy Pieces' most famous and oft-repeated scene came from when Tognazzi tries to order one egg from a waitress who won't be budged from the set menu and its two eggs. It's not particularly subtle with its allegories, but it's a much more effective and satisfying entry than the first two and, along with the Pasolini, ironically justifies the purchase price for anyone thinking of making an impulse buy...
It has to be said that the Blu-ray starts off as a bit of a disappointment, especially from the usually reliable Masters of Cinema. All four stories were shot by different cinematographers and on different film stocks, and it shows. Rossellini's episode, photographed by Luciano Trasatti looks terrible, with no depth, comparatively little detail and a very dupey look that isn't just limited to the flat stock footage it over-relies on. The Godard, photographed by Jan Rabier, is enough of an improvement to make you think the problems may derive from the original cinematography or lab work on the first episode, but it's still not going to knock your socks off, looking like a good quality DVD. It's not until you get to the Pasolini episode, photographed by Tonino Delli Colli, that the disc starts to really impress, and, along with Gregoretti's story, photographed by Mario Bernado, starts to look really good. The only soundtrack option is for the Italian language dub, but the final story benefits from an excellent translation that finds British equivalents to the brands that pepper the children's every other sentence.
Extras are light - the original five-minute Italian trailer and a substantial booklet on the episodes and the making of the film. It's not one that can be given an unreserved recommendation, but it's worth it for the Pasolini alone.