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By Celluloid Liberation Front
“We no longer have time for the paternal and revolutionary erections. Expression is the end of the internal, in the arrogance of producing ourselves (me, the author). What has been disintegrated is the concept of authorship.”—Carmelo Bene
Carmelo Bene always had very little to do with the provincial history of Italian cinema and its self-congratulatory antics. “Culturally I’m not Italian, but Arab,” he told Jean Narboni in an interview for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1968, reclaiming his geo-historical lineage while simultaneously denying the existence of a national culture. Born in the “ethnic mayhem” of Otranto—“a most religious bordello, a centre of culture and tolerance to bring together Islamic, Jewish, Turkish, and Catholic confluences”—Bene dedicated his life to the manic deconstruction of any form of identity, including his own.
Far from an exclusively theoretical endeavour, Bene’s philosophy of “not-being” was first and foremost a corporeal experiment. In his essay “An Autobiographical Portrait,” the Italian polymath writes that “life’s indecency tirelessly pursued me from my earliest years. Illnesses of all sorts and hospital rooms, continual convalescences; diagnostic clinics: coronary angiographies, biopsies, gastroendoscopies, Gamma scans, MRIs, bronchial pneumonias, periodontology, hepatopathies, heart attacks, discopathies, gastrointestinal dysfunctions, irreducible insomnia, urinary tract complications.” It isn’t by chance that Bene spent his life trying to escape his body, his subjectivity, to liberate his flesh from the burden of being and negate its terrestrial dimension through art. In Our Lady of the Turks (1968), he employs a supranatural vocal modulation to dub all the characters; in Capricci (1969), he acts out his own carnal inadequacy, literally crashing his car on film in a figurative attempt to get rid of himself (Júlio Bressane, who saw Capricci in Cannes, said he found himself howling along to the film, to the dismay of the person sitting next to him). Like a spinning Sufi, the cinema of Carmelo Bene produces mystic knowledge through a kinetic movement that calls on the senses. It is daunting, and perhaps pointless, to intellectually decipher his films, which are best experienced epidermically rather than cerebrally.
Two books recently published in English offer an insight into the inner workings of Bene’s “actorial machine,” disclosing the backstage behind the mirage of his cinema. My Films with Carmelo Bene (Edizioni Damocle), written by Bene’s cinematographer Mario Masini, provides anecdotal clues to the hallucinatory deluge of Bene’s aesthetics; the other, Bene’s autobiography I Appeared to the Madonna (Contra Mundum Press), is a sort of psychiatric self-report in which the director ritually disavows his own authorship. For Bene, cinema was never an art, but a medium incapable of reaching its own potential, barely literate and unwilling to transcend its material limits to evoke an “elsewhere,” a time-space beyond the rectangular limits of the screen. “Italian cinema, from neorealism (with or without bicycles) onwards, is the squalor that always was,” he declared in a televised interview in 1995, when such things were still conceivable on Italian TV. (The only Italian filmmaking he voiced approval of, much later in his life, was that of Ciprì & Maresco, possibly blinded by the shamanic light of their apocalyptic photography.)
Bene’s aversion to the seventh art was on account of its mediating and mediated nature: its natural artificiality was a restraint for his frenzied self. For a director who habitually “un-staged” his theatrical productions of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Wilde, and others—stripping out dialogue, scenes, characters, motivations, and even (conventional) meaning to eliminate the filter of representation—the filmmaking process must have felt like the ultimate distancing act. Yet despite his beef with the material boundaries of cinema, and his own mercurial egomania, Bene proved to be a disciplined craftsman. “At night [during a shoot], when we were lucky, the heroic Masini and I would get three hours of sleep,” Bene writes in his autobiography. “But more often than not, we didn’t get more than half an hour, particularly when I had to prepare the next day’s décor myself.” For his part, in My Films with Carmelo Bene (a work of publishing art in and of itself, consisting of a long interview with Masini and previously unseen iconographic material), Masini recalls the close attention the director would pay to his technicians: “He would listen and follow their directions very carefully, especially on those ideas he couldn’t materialize.”
Masini’s career as a cinematographer is an eclectic collection of collaborations. After making a name for himself in the Italian underground and experimental scene of the ’60s, Masini worked with the Taviani brothers on San Michele aveva una gallo (1972) and Padre padrone (1977), provided the baroque chromatism of Francesco Barilli’s immaculate giallo The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), immortalized Andréa Ferréol and Joe Dalessandro in Sergio Bazzini’s Donna è bello (1974), and shot Fernando Birri’s monumental ORG (1979); returning to the cinema after a nearly decade-and-a-half retirement (during which time he worked as an elementary school teacher, among other things), Masini worked in such countries as Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, where he shot Haile Gerima’s Teza in 2008. After meeting Bene on the set of Salvatore Samperi’s Grazie Zia (1968), which Masini was kicked off of, the DOP went on to shoot all of Bene’s films—which, heavily reliant on the visual as they are, amounts to saying that he co-authored them. However, as the very concept of authorship was of course not a part of Bene’s vocabulary, their collaboration is better understood as an almost instinctual, pre-linguistic affinity, or perhaps the elemental dependency of two explorers facing a particularly harsh mountain peak together. The convulsive physicality and athleticism of Bene’s cinema, both in terms of acting and editing, was also a reality on set. “He was a volcano of ideas, and at times it was tiring to keep up with him,” Masini confesses in the book; “I had to follow his unpredictable movements,” particularly as Bene worked without a script (but “had everything extremely clear and thought-out in his head”) and often presented his cinematographer with extraordinarily difficult technical challenges (“once he told me we had to shoot from the POV of a corpse”).
As Gilles Deleuze has suggested, Bene’s films are “operations” rather than “operas,” where repetition leads to difference (as in modal jazz), and where classics are not adapted, but resuscitated. Building on Deleuze’s clinical metaphor, Carole Viers-Andronico, the translator of I Appeared to the Madonna, notes that “Bene does not proceed by building or adding; his modus operandi is always that of a surgical subtraction. A case in point is his un-staging of Shakespeare’s Richard III: as Gilles Deleuze points out in ‘Un manifeste de moins,’ what Carmelo Bene excises from this play are all the figures of power.” (Note also the title of Bene’s 1973 version of Hamlet, Un Amleto di meno—“One Hamlet Less.”) It’s hardly surprising that Deleuze should have taken an interest in Bene’s work: just as he and his colleague Félix Guattari had theorized the necessity of dissolving the dualism of dialectics, and posited the plane of immanence as the site where this dissolution should take place, Bene seems to have created such a space in his films. In the conventional grammar of cinema, editing—in both its Griffithian and Eistensteinian acceptations—has functioned as the elaborator of meaning, whether linear or dialectical. In Bene’s cinema, conversely, montage is the dissolution of meaning: the signifier is excised, the signified is orphaned, and meaning is no longer a synthesis but a sensorial thump dealt to the spectator without warning.
Facing the ornamental delirium of Bene’s films, one is forced to reconsider the modernity of cinema and recognize those older forms of collective ritual that fed into the medium. Recounting an anecdote from the production of Our Lady of the Turks, Bene noted how the local population became entranced by the sight of the Madonna (played by Lydia Mancinelli) reading a fashion magazine; when they enthusiastically encircled her, praising her looks, “the only thing I could do, out of breath from trying to get a recalcitrant horse to climb up the altar, was to elicit the help of the cops to quell those mystical tumults.” Spiritually overcharged and blasphemous, Bene’s cinema serves as a liturgical reminder of the transcendental potential of the medium, which is too often reduced to its possibilities and deprived of its impossibilities.