Obituary: Marco Ferreri

James Kirkup
Sunday 11 May 1997 23:02

A sombre phantom treads the tinsel steps of the 50th Cannes Film Festival. The unclassifiable Italian film director Marco Ferreri, who died on its opening night, might have been heard, by those who have ears to hear, exploding his mocking laugh at the spectacle of all that useless expense and tawdry triviality, the very subjects he attacked in his harsh, cruel, provocative films.

Not that he had been neglected by former festivals: Special Jury Prize for Reve de Singe ("Monkey Dream") in 1978; Best Actress Award for Marina Vlady as the sexually insatiable queen bee draining her husband Ugo Tognazzi's vital forces to the death in order to get a child in the 1963 L'Ape regina ("The Marriage Bed"); and Best Actress Award in 1983 to Hanna Schygulla for Storia de Piera. But he had never really been accepted as a great director. His work was too disturbing.

On 21 May 1973, his best-known film, La Grande Bouffe ("Blow-Out"), opened in Cannes. It caused a nationwide scandal that today seems hardly credible. The anything-goes 1960s had been submerged beneath the complacently prudish 1970s. Yet Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe, a riot of gourmandise and the gratuitous satisfaction of all the appetites, was one of the official French films. The first-night audience rose up in arms against it, and the director and his stars - Mastroianni, Tognazzi, Piccoli and Poiret - had to fight their way out of the cinema.

The objections to the film were threefold. Though it was billed as a "French/Italian" production, the use of an Italian director was bitterly denounced. The subject was declared by responsible critics to be immoral, depraved and blasphemous. The French middle classes, television-trained to expect clean and healthy entertainment, were outraged by Ferreri's assault on the most holy of holies - French cuisine.

The participants in this private orgy of food, wine and sex demonstrated all too unacceptably the physiological symptoms of over-acting - borborygmus, farting, copious urination and excretion, all depicted as a joyous revel with prostitutes, and with a schoolteacher (Andrea Ferreol) who just happened to be visiting the garden of the luxurious mansion with her literature class, to inspect the lime tree under which the very formal poet Boileau is supposed to have composed his Art poetique - a supreme irony that identifies the house as the Villa Boileau in the high-class residential district of Auteuil.

Ferreri's aim had been to demonstrate frankly what an impasse the "consumer society" was floundering in. The sated diners begin to sprawl in their vomit, the lavatories flush and reverberate until the drainage system revolts, backs up and floods the place with excrement, while hordes of dogs fight over raw carcases. We are overwhelmed by images of decomposition, a pungent metaphor for modern society's total mess. In the end, all four characters commit suicide by gorging themselves to death. The president of that year's jury, Ingrid Bergman, complained that it was the most sordid and vulgar movie she had ever seen. But it went on to great success, seen by three million people in France alone.

Marco Ferreri began studying to be a vet but soon gave up and started making publicity shorts and producing innovative documentaries. The first movie he produced, a collective effort by prominent writers and directors, L'amore in citta ("Love in the City", 1953), was a commercial flop, so he went to Spain to sell movie projectors and the newly launched CinemaScope anamorphic lenses. But business did not flourish. He picked up a novel by Rafael Azcona, El Pisito ("The Flatlet"), about a no-longer-young couple unable to marry until an old lady dies and leaves her apartment free. Azcona wrote the script, the first of many he was to write for Ferreri (including La Grande Bouffe).

The influence of Bunuel was strong in the next two films, Los Chicos ("The Young Lads", 1959), which was banned by Franco, and the highly entertaining El Cochicito ("The Little Car", 1961), about an irascible old man who envies the electric wheelchair of a handicapped friend and is determined to have one for himself, even if it means robbing his family and finally resorting to poison. But totalitarian Spain was no place for such flights of antisocial fancy, so Ferreri returned to Italy, where his real career began. It was one of deliberate provocation, full of the black humour of despair, scabrous, cruel, but at times surprisingly tender and moving.

Unlike many of his Italian contemporaries, he was neither Marxist nor Christian. He described himself as a comic anarchist, and he looked the part of a real buffoon, with his short stature and garden gnome's Newgate fringe. One of his best films, Dillinger e morto ("Dillinger is Dead", 1969), is an austere anarchist meditation on the absurdity of modern morality. It tells of an office worker who comes home, switches on the television, eats a good dinner, finds a revolver, shoots his wife and leaves home. Ferreri hated television, which he blamed for the decline of cinema, which had had to adapt itself to prime-time demands. He saw the barbarity at the heart of industrial civilisation.

He foretold the rise of feminism in The Harem (1967), in which a woman decides to co-habit with all three of her lovers, a fatal error. Pipicacadodo (1979) investigates the problems of an infant's school. La Casa del sorriso ("The House of Smiles"', 1991) is a bitter satire on the false joys of senior citizenship; it won the Gold Bear in Berlin.

His later films showed a slow decline. Storie di ordinaria follia (1982) was based on the stories of Charles Bukowski under the English title Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and Tales of Ordinary Madness and contains the memorable line: "A woman is like a bottle of beer - you pop it open, slug it down and throw it in the trash." It was not popular. His last film, Diario di un vizio ("Journal of a Vice", 1992), never found a distributor.

James Kirkup

Marco Ferreri, film director: born Milan 11 May 1928; married; died Paris 9 May 1997.

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