A Cinema of the Margins: The Curious Case of Claudio Caligari

Caligari-Non essere cattivo_Film Still 16

By Ruben Demasure

At this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, one of the three directors who received tributes was mostly ignored. Adachi Masao and Pere Portabella were in the spotlight with much-anticipated premieres, while the first international retrospective of Claudio Caligari’s work remained in the shadows—an appropriate fate, as the margin was both Caligari’s subject and position throughout his career. The Italian director passed away at the age of 67 in May last year, only months before Non essere cattivo (Don’t Be Bad, 2015), his lowlife buddy movie, was shown out of competition in Venice. There exists virtually no writing on Caligari or his work in English, including obituaries. A new print of his 1983 debut Amore tossico (Toxic Love) and subtitles were made for the Rotterdam screening. Taken by the revelatory power of his first film, a raw odyssey with real-life junkies, I abandoned my initial schedule and stayed for the only two other features he realized over the next three decades. Although L’odore della notte (The Scent of the Night, 1998), an angry story of Roman Robin Hoods, and Non essere cattivo don’t live up to his debut, together they comprise a curious and captivating trilogy.

In the mid-’70s, Caligari made a handful of documentaries, most of them about Italy’s 1977 movement. Lasting for a decade, Settantasette differed from traditional post-1968 protests because it was a spontaneous countercultural youth movement without any linkage to the institutional left. Caligari documented the decline of the movement, and in his last documentary, La parte bassa (The Low Part, 1978), he looked back to its early stages in three chapters. In 1977 Caligari realized that militant cinema was finished and would be superseded by industrial cinema. But the real disaster was the collapse of the belief in the possibility of an alternative political model. The movement’s momentum had faded and most activists self-institutionalized in political parties, while others turned to drugs or the armed struggle. The rest of Caligari’s oeuvre comprises a fiction of disillusionment.

In 1974, at the age of 26 and before his first documentary, Caligari solicited for an assistantship on a Pier Paolo Pasolini project called San Paolo. That screenplay never materialized and Pasolini went on to make his final film, Salò (1975). However, Caligari would emerge as a largely forgotten heir of Pasolini in his own right. Amore tossico begins with a backwards tracking shot of the main character, Cesare, walking alongside his heroin-addicted friends, a recurring pattern in the film. Side by side, they wander the dirty beach of Ostia, the Roman seaside slum where Pasolini was murdered. Like Pasolini, Caligari made a film in collaboration with the locals, and Caligari’s inaugural motion feels like a literal continuation of the camera movements tracking the line-ups of Franco Citti and his companions roaming another Roman suburb in Accattone 20 years earlier. Over months of research, Caligari spent several five-to-ten-day periods living with his protagonists, junkies and former addicts. In an interview in the film’s press kit, Caligari argued Amore tossico was done in the only way possible: by showing the faces and hearing the voices of the real protagonists of this tragedy.

However, these people aren’t portraying themselves. Cagliari refuted “the obsolete canons of cinéma vérité.” Based on his research, Caligari collaborated on a script with Guido Blumir, an Italian sociologist and narcotics expert, developing a narrative structure that focuses on the other people the four friends encounter on their monomaniac mission to find their next fix. Long shots situate them, their manner of walking, and their gestures from head to toe—all the way down to the clicking of their curious clogs—in the places in which they move and survive. Close-ups alternately show the (simulated) piercing of veins, arms, necks, and hands performing the daily rituals of preparing the dose. It amounts to “a painting made with life, with death, with blood, our blood,” as Cesare exclaims in a scene where the bunch squirts the remaining blood from their syringes onto a white canvas in a painter’s squat.

Caligari not only introduces people who were absent up to that point from Italian cinema, but also words that were previously elided. The characters in Amore tossico use a dialect and jargon in the fashion of Pasolini or Roberto Rossellini’s early films, leading to dialogue that’s impenetrable for Italians from outside that area. He continued this practice in his following films: the voiceover of L’odore della notte is in refined Italian, but the dialect of the gang sets them apart socially from the clean speech of the rich people and politicians they rob; in Non essere cattivo the language of the characters is also heavily accented. In a 2008 interview with Nanni Moretti, however, Caligari said that more than neorealism, his model was Vittorio De Seta, another compatriot working on the border between fiction and documentary and the border of the market. What he picked up from him was “immerse yourself in an environment, understand it thoroughly and then return it with great sincerity.”

There are smaller, direct references to Pasolini in Amore tossico: a copy of his 1957 collection of poems, Gramsci’s Ashes, sits on a table; duellists roll in the dust like in Accattone; the finale takes place by Pasolini’s monument in Ostia. It’s the spot where Michela, Cesare’s girlfriend, in a scene staged in near silence, almost dies, and, later on, where Cesare tries to kill himself—this time accompanied by a bonkers sound piece stuck on the same keystroke and intercut with flashes of Michela having convulsions on the beat. (Moretti visited the monument a decade later in Caro Diario [1993] almost as a tourist, in lyrical long takes of himself riding a Vespa along to a piano piece by Keith Jarrett.) Although Caligari’s ’80s synths replace the sacral soundtrack used by Pasolini in Accattone, Cesare sacrifices his own life and dies like a blasphemous Christ. But his death does not generate any redemption. Cesare’s ending seems as banal as that of Accattone, both of whom die while fleeing from the cops.

The explicit references aside, a post-Pasolinian analysis of the young Roman sottoproletari underlies Amore tossico. The film deals with an historical phenomenon rather than an individual experience. At the time of Accattone, the Roman suburbs were still isolated, autonomous ghettos, with their own culture, words, gestures, and specific codes of behaviour and values totally opposed to those of the upper middle classes. In the months before his death, in Corriere della Sera, Pasolini claimed a “cultural genocide” had taken place. He experienced how the power of a consumption-based society deformed the conscience of the locals, finally arriving at an irreversible degradation, and noted that if he wanted to reshoot Accattone at that time he would be unable to do so.

A decade later, Caligari extended Pasolini’s analysis. “Since his death, no one else has ever taken up his argument or has been there to see what’s happening,” Caligari said in the press kit. The contradiction between the ideological assimilation and the people’s economic condition resulted in a growing dismay and anger towards the false promises of the consumer society. It’s in this climate that the suburbs were overrun with heroin, the market controlled by the Sicilian and Calabrian Mafia. Caligari directly linked mass drug use to the new consumer ideology imposed on them. The acceptance was immediate and widespread because of the lack of values or prospects and the shattered political dreams of a new society. No one saw drug addiction as a larger societal issue, only a medical, psychological, or individual problem.

Caligari argued that the cultural acceptance of consumer society by these suburban areas, which Pasolini so violently denounced, was for the most part extinct by the time of Amore tossico because of the enormous diffusion of heavy drugs that had become their only consumer items. Caligari’s first and last film opens with a gag in which one friend wastes the money for the next fix on ice cream. He contends that such mass use had both materially and ideologically re-proletarianized the suburban youngsters.

The scriptwriter of Non essere cattivo, Francesca Serafini, situates the film together with Accattone and Amore tossico in a “trilogia della periferia” (trilogy of the periphery) ranging from 1960 to the new millennium. Amore tossico traces a history from amphetamines in the late ’60s and early ’70s used by small groups to the great explosion of the heroin market for the masses in the mid-’70s up to the ever-increasing use of cocaine since the turn of the ’80s. In a sunny flashback to a symbolic Ferris wheel ride, Cesare thinks back to the time of speed, the foolhardy happiness of the beginning of his drug adventure; the last hit he shares with his girlfriend is not heroin but coke. Non essere cattivo returns to Ostia when synthetic drugs dominate the scene of the mid-’90s. The film is a borgata bromance between a new Cesare and his friend Vittorio (the real name of Franco Citti’s Accattone character). They hang out at an update of Accattone’s roadside bar but try to settle down with families and jobs. In a sentimental yet strangely sincere way, Non essere cattivo shows how hard it is for this generation to escape from their social destiny.

L’odore della notte, a Brechtian reboot of the poliziottesco (the ’70s Italian cop movie) that is inspired by the true events of a band of burglars who long terrified the Roman upper class, may seem unrelated to the other two films. Yet the movie is set in another Roman suburb around the same time of Amore tossico and deals with the same “lost generation.” It’s the generation that came out of the Years of Lead, the socio-political turmoil that lasted from the late ’60s into the early ’80s and was marked by a wave of both right- and left-wing terrorism. “There’s a war in Italy,” a poster on a newsstand in L’odore della notte announces. For a considerable part of the disillusioned youth, drugs were one way to detach themselves from this reality. Caligari’s second feature explores the other response: criminal activity. At the time, few reviewers referred to the film’s socio-political commentary. In L’odore della notte, the last scene where the troupe of thieves is caught is precisely the point where they touch politics. The burglars break into a villa and find representatives of the Church together with politicians of the governing Christian Democrat party, which Pasolini categorized as purveyors of a specific form of fascism. The behemoth of politics, religion, and corruption represents the ultimate untouchable power in Italy. In poking this heart of the establishment, these little fighters can’t help but fail and crash. L’odore della notte’s gang leader, Remo, was played by Valerio Mastandrea, then known as a TV personality who represented the typical rude boy from the Roman suburbs, the voice of the people. Mastandrea, who played Pasolini’s cousin/personal agent/biographer in Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini (2014), went on to become Caligari’s close friend and the producer of his final film.

Unique in Italian cinema, Caligari fused a Pasolinian strand with codes of American genre cinema. L’odore della notte is the most obvious expression of Caligari’s strong connection with American cinema, but it’s present in all his films. He modelled Remo’s apartment after Travis Bickle’s and even quotes the Taxi Driver (1976) mirror scene. (With freeze-frames and a final gunshot directed at the camera, it’s also his Goodfellas [1990].) In the year of its festival release, Libération’s Serge Toubiana called Amore tossico a mix of Pasolini, Cassavetes, and Mean Streets (1973). Yet Caligari’s swan song is his true Mean Streets. As Caligari described Scorsese’s film: “One cannot rescue his lost friend because he cannot even save himself.” In Non essere cattivo, Cesare dies in front of the large poster of a tropical sunset in his living room, identical to the mural in Al Pacino’s mansion in Scarface (1983). The picture of a beach paradise contrasts to the sleazy seascape of Ostia that sealed the fate of Cesare, but it also echoes the prominent orange sun in the tracking shot that opens Amore tossico.

Caligari saw Travis Bickle, similar to Mastandrea’s Remo, as a representation of a marginalized man alienated from the rest of society, who, through his madness, is able to describe the characteristics and pathology of society itself. Likewise, Caligari also found himself at the margins in terms of production. In the ’80s, it was very hard to make independent films, as everything had to be done with the support of TV stations, which in Italy are always political. Private television was already controlled by Silvio Berlusconi, who, even before he entered politics in 1993, was tied to the corrupt Socialist Party (PSI). But even the three public channels were politically coloured. Rai Uno, Due, and Tre were affiliated with the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communist opposition respectively. In L’odore della notte Mastandrea points his silencer at the television screen when Heather Parisi, one of the most popular Italian TV show personalities on Rai Uno, is singing and dancing, and finally kicks the TV set.

If you started out in film in the late ’70s in Italy, you needed a clear political identification. Amore tossico was made without support from the ministry or television money. Despite Marco Ferreri’s support and awards in Venice’s De Sica sidebar, Valencia, and San Sebastian, it failed to receive international distribution. Due to problems with the producer, the film was released in a few domestic cinemas only a year later. Caligari said he could have made many invisible niche films that didn’t disturb anyone, but he wanted to make potentially commercial films. Meant to be a mainstream film, L’odore della notte was a huge critical and commercial flop. At the time of his death, he had written ten screenplays that never took off or were blocked before they went into production.

Caligari remained outside of the system in terms of production and therefore inevitably made a statement. He was even beyond siding with the communist opposition. He’s on the side of the people that nobody wants to acknowledge, let alone show. In this sense Non essere cattivo may seem the complete opposite of Amore tossico because it received support from both Rai TV and the Berlusconi group, and was even this year’s Italian submission to the Oscars. This is unusual, but ultimately seems to demonstrate how both films are two sides of the same coin. Again, it shows how Caligari at the end of his life, similar to Pasolini’s uncompromising independence, was beyond siding with one or the other party. As Valerio Mastandrea wrote in his adieu: “His cinema has been and will always be political.”

Thanks to Paolo Bertolin and Lorenzo Esposito for the invaluable insights.