Tarantino’s Django Unchained has renewed interest in Italy’s westerns of the 1960s. But what are these films about? Austin Fisher argues that labelling them as ‘political’ overlooks their complexity of engagement.
‘One violent man is an outlaw; a hundred violent men are a gang; a hundred thousand, an army. Beyond the confines of individual violence, which is criminal, one can reach the violence of the masses, which is history!’
Brad Fletcher, Faccia a faccia
That the Western negotiates and dramatises the cultural-political mores of its time and place is a notion as old as the hills.
When Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian kick-started the cinematic genre, his polemical lament at the passing of the Old West commented more on fin de siècle social ills than on Frontier history, and so it continued. The ideological turmoil of the twentieth century, through wars both World and Cold, is palpable throughout the popular imaginary of Hollywood’s oldest genre. Yet the story of the later twentieth century would also, in part, be one of globalisation. For many in Western Europe, the ubiquity of US cultural imports offered a blank canvas for a post-war identity, the ’America’ of the silver screen in particular occupying a perceptual centre-stage in the European imagination. Little wonder then, that when Italian studios took possession of the Western in the 1960s, here too the schisms of the era became indelibly etched into the genre.
Enter the offbeat loquaciousness of Sergio Sollima’s Faccia a faccia (1967). The Italian, or ‘Spaghetti’, Western has become famed for its taciturnity; it is, in the words of Richard Jameson, ‘an opera in which arias are not sung but stared’. The philosophical disquisitions littered throughout Sollima’s film, however, demand that we avoid the easy trap of homogenising this hybrid genre. Gian Maria Volonté, who had shot to stardom as Sergio Leone’s go-to bad guy, here polishes his Marxist credentials with a contemplative study of ideology, repression and the will to power. His portrayal of Brad Fletcher – a liberal-minded academic whose experience of the wilderness awakens a brutal monster within – was intended to represent the perils of Fascism (Sollima had served in the Italian Resistance, and claimed to have seen similar transformations in acquaintances who were seduced by the power of the Blackshirts)
If this film indeed offers a warning about psychoses lurking beneath the façade of civilised propriety, however, its admonition is coupled with a decidedly ambiguous outlook on the politics of violence. Ultimately, Faccia a faccia leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Are we to condemn Fletcher for his ruthlessness and authoritarianism, or admire, even aspire to, his virile awakening and his lucid identification of violence’s usefulness (opined with clinical certainty in the epigraph to this article)? Certainly, while on the one hand Sollima seeks to condemn a brutal fascistic mentality, on the other he leaves us in no doubt as to the charismatic nature of the fascist Mr Hyde as opposed to the pathetic, sexually-repressed liberal Dr Jekyll. Fletcher’s transformation is in fact entirely in keeping with the Western genre’s traditional affirmation of masculine vitality and regenerative violence. If Sollima indeed set out to condemn the seductive nature of brutality and power, he chose rather an odd medium.
Furthermore, it is no coincidence that precisely such equivocation and confusion around the issue of politicised violence was also characteristic of left-wing revolutionary factions emerging in Italy at the time of Faccia a faccia’s release. As neo-fascist gangs began once again to roam the streets of Italian cities, and the entrenched mechanisms of state perpetuated Christian Democratic hegemony, the Far Left would soon be divided down the middle over the efficacy and morality of armed insurrection. The professed leftism of Sollima’s film, it would appear, inadvertently extends to his very inability to make up his mind about what he was trying to say.
Once again, we can see the Western registering the neuroses of its time and place. Indeed, Faccia a faccia was part of a trend of Italian films from this era, which attempted to negotiate local political oppositions through recourse to this grand old genre. The at times confused dialogue with the Western’s tropes to be found in such films as Quién sabe?, La resa dei conti, Tepepa and Il mercenario constitute neither imitation nor rejection. Instead, they attest to a disorientation in cultural identity partly brought about by the superimposition of US-led modernity in 1960s Italy.
As the incoherent agenda of Faccia a faccia shows, it is easy to label these films ‘political’ (and many have done so), but the specific nature of this engagement is more complex than linear narrative allegory. The silences, confusions and oversimplifications of the era that inadvertently shine through these films make them fascinating and immediate documents of an Italy in the throes of cultural and political upheaval; an Italy which more accomplished and internationally-oriented films do not register so tangibly. What is commonly known as ‘popular cinema’ therefore has much to offer us, beyond the search for beautifully-crafted artistry or the deft touch of a maestro. Through their very imperfections, these films take us back to a time when action cinema meant something, politically as well as financially. ■
Image courtesy of Nathan.
Austin Fisher is the author of Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Frontiers, which is out now in hardback and due for release in paperback later this year. Austin Fisher is also lecturer in Media Arts at the University of Bedfordshire, ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ editor for the Directory of World Cinema: Italy, and has published articles in scholarly journals such as The Italianist and Scope. You can follow him on Twitter @austinjfisher.