The idea that Western culture reflects and expresses its era’s cultural and political norms is a very old concept.
When Owen Wister wrote “The Virginian” in 1902, it marked the beginning of Western movies. However, instead of focusing on the history of the Frontier, Wister’s novel commented on the social issues of the time. As the 20th century unfolded with World Wars and the Cold War, these upheavals influenced Hollywood’s Western genre.
The later part of the century also saw globalization, and in Western Europe, the prevalence of American cultural influences played a significant role in shaping post-war identity. This impact extended to Italian studios in the 1960s, where the Western genre reflected the societal divisions of that era.
Sergio Sollima’s Unconventional “Faccia a Faccia” (1967)
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 extensive philosophical discussions within Sollima’s film emphasize the need to avoid oversimplifying this hybrid genre. Gian Maria Volonté, known for his antagonistic roles in Sergio Leone’s works, showcases his Marxist perspective through a thoughtful exploration of ideology, repression, and the pursuit of power in “Faccia a faccia.” His portrayal of Brad Fletcher, a liberal academic whose exposure to the wilderness unleashes a brutal side, is a deliberate representation of the dangers of Fascism. Drawing from his experiences in the Italian Resistance, Sollima asserts that he witnessed similar transformations in individuals seduced by the allure of the Blackshirts.
This movie may caution viewers about hidden psychological issues behind a civilized exterior, but it also presents a mixed perspective on the politics of violence. “Faccia a faccia” leaves us with more questions than clear answers. Should we criticize Fletcher for his ruthlessness and authoritarianism, or should we appreciate, or even aspire to, his assertive awakening and clear acknowledgment of violence’s utility?
Breaking The Silence Of Spaghetti Westerns
While Sollima aims to condemn a brutal fascist mindset, he also emphasizes the charismatic appeal of the fascist character compared to the weak, sexually repressed liberal counterpart. Fletcher’s transformation aligns with the Western genre’s tradition of celebrating masculine vitality and rejuvenating violence.
If Sollima intended to criticize the allure of brutality and power, the choice of the Western genre, Spaghetti Western, seems somewhat unconventional.
Moreover, during the movie’s release, the ambiguity and uncertainty regarding politicized violence in “Faccia a Faccia” align with the atmosphere surrounding left-wing revolutionary groups in Italy.
As neo-fascist gangs resurged in Italian cities and the established structures of Christian Democratic dominance persisted, the Far Left became divided on the effectiveness and morality of armed uprisings.
It seems that Sollima’s film, despite its proclaimed left-wing stance, unintentionally reflects his indecision about the message he intended to convey.
Political Ambiguity In “Faccia a Faccia” Spaghetti Western
Once again, the Western genre reflects the contemporary issues and concerns of its time and place. “Faccia a faccia” was part of a trend in Italian cinema during this period, where films attempted to navigate local political tensions using the Spaghetti Western genre.
The sometimes perplexing engagement with Western themes in movies like Quién sabe?, La resa dei conti, Tepepa, and Il mercenario does not involve mere imitation or rejection. Instead, it indicates a cultural identity confusion influenced by the imposition of U.S.-led modernity in 1960s Italy.
The labeling of films like “Faccia a faccia” as ‘political’ is insufficient to capture their complex nature of political engagement beyond a straightforward narrative allegory.
The incoherent agenda of such films reveals a more intricate portrayal of the era, with silences, confusions, and oversimplifications inadvertently highlighting Italy’s cultural and political upheaval.
These movies serve as fascinating and immediate documents of a turbulent Italy, capturing aspects not as tangible in more polished and internationally focused films.
Therefore, what is typically called ‘popular cinema’ offers more than just a quest for well-crafted artistry or a masterful touch. Through their imperfections, these films transport us back to a time when action cinema held political and financial significance.