The central instalment of Federico Fellini’s so-called 'Trilogy of Loneliness’ (following La Strada and preceding Nights Of Cabiria), 1955’s Il Bidone picks up on many of the trilogy’s recurring themes around social alienation, amorality, deception and hedonism and (essentially) their battle with traditional (particularly Italian) 'values’ of family and children. If anything, Il Bidone’s tale of Broderick Crawford’s ageing and increasingly disillusioned con-man, Augusto, is even more hard-hitting, unsentimental and shot through with cynicism than those of Zampano/Gelsomina and Cabiria in the other two films. Indeed, Il Bidone’s look-and-feel is very much in the social/neo-realist vein of the film-maker’s early works – any form of decorative extravagance being limited to the relatively brief forays into the party lifestyle of Augusto’s 'social betters’ (used by Fellini to illustrate the ‘meaningless decadence’ and unpleasantness of such people). That said, cinematographer Otello Martelli does mix the sights of tourist Rome very evocatively with the bleaker landscapes of the city’s environs and Nino Rota delivers an engaging mix of the jaunty, caper-like with the tragic in his score.
As was often Fellini’s wont, we again get Hollywood 'stars’ in prominent roles, Crawford and (as in La Strada) Richard Basehart, here as Augusto’s fellow con-man and family man, Picasso, married to Giulietta Masina’s Iris. (The requirement to dub Crawford and Basehart’s voices mimicking the common Italian practise of dubbing all actors, Italians included). Masina (Mrs Fellini) has a much lesser (screen time-wise) role here than in either La Strada or Nights, but her character, as the wife kept in the dark about her husband’s 'profession’, is key to the film’s central moral conflict of the need to engage in criminality to escape poverty. The film-maker again uses children (and youth) throughout as a sobering corrective for the adults’ misdemeanours here, first as Iris’ daughter sees through her father’s ruse ('I don’t believe him’) and then as Augusto is, unexpectedly, reunited with his estranged, student daughter Lorella de Luca’s Patrizia, in a key scene causing the con-man to doubt his hand-to-mouth, nefarious lifestyle. Within the film’s essentially episodic narrative there are a number of standout scenes, including the opening con in which Augusto and gang assume ‘papal robes’ to trick a peasant family out of their life savings (calling to my mind The Ladykillers of all things!) and then as Augusto, Picasso and Iris are humiliated by the status-conscious party-goers at the luxurious house of Alberto De Amicis’ Rinaldo, a previous 'acquaintance’ of Augusto, now made good (the scene serving to belittle Augusto’s status as career criminal).
Acting-wise, Fellini’s cast is consistently strong, Basehart, Masina and (the third member of Augusto’s gang) Franco Fabrizi’s cocky, ladies’ man, Roberto all impressing. But it is on Crawford’s shoulders that the film’s emotional punch depends and the actor does a (perhaps surprisingly) great job as the grizzled, world-weary 'low-life’, keeping us guessing right to the film’s powerful denouement as to the extent of Augusto’s potential redemption.
As might be expected, The Masters of Cinema dual format package provides a superb reproduction, as well as a very interesting, 40-minute interview with Il Bidone’s assistant director Dominque Delouche and a 48-page booklet on the film.
Fellini's "neo-realist" early days are impregnated with marginalised characters who are vulnerable to exploitation, acts of violence and abuse. The victims portrayed in Il Bidone include peasants, a crippled girl, the urban poor and an elderly petrol station attendant. The villains are a group of conmen who will stoop to the lowest level of depravity to rob these unfortunate individuals of all their cash. The methods they employ pray on the deepest yearnings and subservience of the rural and urban poor such as their trust in Church officials, people of authority or the seemingly wealthy. There is much said about post -war Italy in this film. Fellini captures the social deprivation of the time such as the overpopulated shanty town or the ramshackle farm. There are moments of opulence, which, interestingly, are displayed by a criminal who made it. As a whole the film uses the character of the middle aged Augusto to symbolise failure steeped in a shameful life. The consequences of Augusto's criminality are dire such as the time he takes his 18 year old daughter (he randomly meets after over a year) to the cinema. Fellini handles this scene superbly through the use of music, sound and tension, culminating in the worst possible worst case scenarios. At times I felt sorry for Augusto; he is ultimately a very sad and lonely man. For me this was one of Fellini's most moving films and the last sequence involving Augusto's tried and tested Monseigneur routine on a desperately poor and unfortunate family leads to a sequence of events that are some of the best in cinema. The whole "did he or didn't he take the cash" suspense was awesome. This BFI edition is crystal clear and the soundtrack does justice to Nino Rota's score but Fellini's preference for dubbing always irritates me albeit a trivial and minor quibble.
on 9 August 2016
Truly excellent remastering of this wonderful early Fellini film. The interview with Dominique Delouche, who worked with Fellini on the film, that is included is an indispensable introduction to Fellini himself and his way of working, and to Italy and the Italian film making of the period (why were all the actors in Italian films dubbed, even the Italian ones?) The booklet contains articles by Fellini explaining his aims and motivation in his films. The film itself was greatly underrated, especially at the time, but I would put it on a par with La Strada .It is full of humanity and love, despite its subject. The Blu-ray transfer shows an ideal gradation of tones, showing what black and white photography was capable of at the time, and pin sharp definition, obviously missing on the DVD; watching the Blu-ray is to have a (rather thick) veil removed.
Though I'd seen Il Bidone many years ago on TV, I didn't realise it was a Fellini film until the internet joined the dots between film titles and synopsises. I always did remember its starkness, its raw beauty and its redemptive narrative - and at last I bought the DVD and was reunited with this minor classic.
This is where the re-watch proved its worth - the multi-layers of post- war Italian society; its Catholicism fighting at odds with poverty and corruption. The characters interweave their human stories to take us on various personal journeys. Fellini's attempt to include American actors as the male leads, dubbed, fooled me - the oft drawling Broderick Crawford seemed perfect as the guilt-weary protagonist (aka The Swindler) who in actuality was often drunk on set.
For me, the audacious nature of the Swindlers in action, abusing the Catholic position of power by posing as high clergy and conning penniless peasants was bold; certainly for its time. Re-watching brought the trademark Fellini wild party in full swing - as wild and spirited as any he's staged - all rather sickened and over-the-top; portrayed as being funded by immoral, criminal money and in total pursuit of power and hedonism. The ending is one of those that etches itself into your psyche, both haunting and provocative.
However, unlike most 'popular' Fellini films, the leads aren't that likable and one doesn't rally with them in the way of, say, Cabiria or La Strada. That maybe explains why this Fellini isn't generally known, or loved. It's actually rather closer to La Dolce Vita in tone and could be seen as a precursor to that classic.
Il Bidone isn't the easiest film to watch and has its faults; a jarring narrative and inconsistencies that one accepts from amateur crowds on location. But this does add up to a naturally buzzing and strident film, balanced by occasional poignant moments of tenderness as consciences are so sorely pricked, it's heartbreaking.
So, if you're into Fellini, don't let this one pass you by. The director is in his prime here, as voyeur and narrator rather than the self-satisfied but still genius of his indulgent 8 and a half.