More than a decade after his death in 1997, the moment is right for the rediscovery of the work of Marco Ferreri. “I think he’s modern. More than modern, in fact,” frequent collaborator Marcello Mastroianni once remarked, encapsulating how far ahead of his time the controversial and innovative director was. Though he enjoyed a prolific and successful career in Europe, turning out thirty-three films over nearly four decades, Ferreri’s idiosyncratic vision was so aesthetically and philosophically radical that he never made the name for himself among American audiences that his Italian art cinema contemporaries—Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Federico Fellini—did from the late fifties to the midseventies, the heyday of intellectual European imports. As unhesitatingly aggressive in his attacks on left-wing complacency as on right-wing repression, Ferreri pushed and challenged his audience instead of conforming to what was stylistically palatable or ideologically trendy. But times often catch up with forward-thinking artists ignored or misunderstood in their own eras, and the long-overdue appearance in the United States of Ferreri’s 1969 masterpiece Dillinger Is Dead—finally released, to great acclaim, in 2009—seems to have marked that moment for one of postwar Italian cinema’s great subversives.
Born in Milan in 1928, Ferreri began his career working with some of the most important names in postwar Italian cinema. In 1951, he produced a short documentary by Luchino Visconti about the rape and murder of a young girl, and in 1953 wrote and produced “Paradise for 4 Hours,” the Dino Risi segment of Love in the City, an omnibus film also featuring contributions from Fellini, Antonioni, and Cesare Zavattini. Ferreri then moved to Spain, where he directed his first features, including The Little Apartment (1959) and The Little Coach (1960), both cowritten with the man who would be his creative partner for years to come, Rafael Azcona. In these early films, the dark humor, caustic social satire, and surreal logic that would define Ferreri’s subsequent work are already fully developed, a sign of artistic maturity and courage all the more extraordinary for flaunting iconoclastic, antiauthoritarian ideas during the reign of Franco.
Ferreri returned to his native country in the early sixties, and continued his collaboration with Azcona in a run of films mocking sexism, marriage, and male vanity, including The Conjugal Bed (1963), about a middle-aged man who marries a virgin for purposes of sexual conquest, only to cast her aside once she becomes pregnant; The Ape Woman (1964), a parable of sexual exploitation in which a hirsute woman is made into a freak show attraction by her spouse; and The Harem (1967), in which traditional gender roles are reversed when a woman keeps a rotating cast of lovers. Ferreri’s uncompromising vision repeatedly pitted him against prudish censors and timorous producers. Foreign censors forced changes to The Ape Woman, for instance, turning its bleak ending of death and further exploitation into an ill-fitting happy one. And believing it would ruin star Mastroianni, producer Carlo Ponti originally intended to prevent Breakup (a.k.a. The Man with the Balloons, 1965)—about a childish playboy who tests balloons to see how much air they can take before bursting—from seeing the light of day, before whittling it down to a twenty-five-minute short.
But not much could daunt Ferreri. Fearless in the pursuit of a cinema that would challenge both with its ideas and with its means of expression, the director was passionately inspired by the tectonic shifts in politics and culture during the mid to late sixties. “The values that once existed no longer exist,” Ferreri famously proclaimed in a 1977 interview. “The family, the bourgeoisie—I’m talking about values, morals, economic relationships. They no longer serve a purpose. My films are reactions translated into images.” Shot around the time of the violent, tumultuous protests and strikes that raged throughout Europe in 1968, Dillinger Is Dead is one of Ferreri’s angriest and most provocative reactions to the unraveling world around him, a definitive break not only from the antiquated values promoted by capitalist society—industrialization, consumerism, and social conformity—but from conventional cinematic narrative altogether, and from his own previous work.
Where Ferreri’s earlier films contained straightforward, if transgressive, allegories about characters with clearly defined goals, in a world recognizable according to the standards of cinematic realism, Dillinger Is Dead throws narrative, psychological, and symbolic common sense out the window. Dillinger’s trajectory may seem simple—a gas mask designer played by Michel Piccoli (Glauco, although his name appears only in the script) returns home after work, cooks himself dinner, discovers a gun, and shoots his wife in the head—but the film’s refusal of clear-cut logic, its contradictory symbols, and its moral ambiguity open it to endless interpretation. (Even this new approach would not be radical enough for Ferreri, however: in the late sixties and early seventies, he helped produce hard-core leftist films by Glauber Rocha, and Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group, and, forever dissatisfied with the ability of cinema to make a social impact, he would later lament that Dillinger was too easily recuperated by the mainstream.)
Dillinger unfolds almost wordlessly, with much of its scant dialogue imparted in an opening monologue by one of Glauco’s colleagues, from a collection of notes he has composed on the state of modern life. “Isolation in a chamber that must be sealed off from the outside world because it’s full of deadly gas . . . strongly evokes the conditions under which man lives,” he begins, decrying the dehumanizing effects of industry and commerce, and announcing the themes and metaphors of the rest of the film. In the middle of the speech, Glauco interjects: “I don’t want to design any more of these.” The masks Glauco makes enable people to live in unlivable conditions, and so does he wear the mask of a respectable bourgeois to hide his repressed anarchic urges. His fashionably mod home is an advanced means of keeping up appearances, of isolating himself from the outside world, and of maintaining a near-constant state of technology-aided make-believe, while reality is brought to this domestic womb mediated via television, home movies, and the radio, all of which substitute for human communication. Shut off from others, Glauco hardly talks to his wife (Anita Pallenberg, best known as the onetime spouse of Keith Richards), or even the maid he eventually seduces (Annie Girardot).
Since Glauco lashes out at his sheltered, alienated existence through the sexual conquest and murder of the women with whom he lives, does his escape represent a misogynist fantasy? Certainly, none of Dillinger’s major female characters are portrayed in a favorable light. Pallenberg is a pampered trophy wife who spends her time in bed and takes pills to fall asleep, preferring to drift off into an artificially produced slumber rather than take part in reality. Girardot’s maid does hardly any actual work, instead engaging in narcissistic daydreams, admiring herself in the mirror while wearing diaphanous tights and kissing posters of pop idols to whom she proclaims her love. The women who appear on Glauco’s television are also vain, superficial, and exemplary of society’s poisonous consumerism.
Much of Glauco’s strange and disturbing behavior can thus be interpreted as an extreme reaction against the weak, vain, and materialistic femininity—and “feminized” culture—surrounding him, an irony considering he displays his self-sufficiency through deft culinary skills. Like Luis Buñuel, Ferreri frequently caricatures decorous, food-based rituals as a way of mocking bourgeois propriety, a motif most notoriously explored in his La grande bouffe (1973), where the piggish male characters gorge themselves to death. But in the highly symbolic psychodrama of Dillinger, it’s significant that Glauco’s preparation of a gourmet meal intertwines with his discovery and restoration of a phallic object synonymous with masculine power: a gun that may have been wielded by the infamous American bank robber John Dillinger. When Glauco finds the weapon, wrapped in some old Italian newspapers announcing the bandit’s violent death, Ferreri inserts black-and-white footage of a cocky Dillinger, a man attacking a car with a machine gun, a dead body splayed out on concrete, and a crowd gathered around a crime scene. Glauco’s imagination has been sparked by this unearthed treasure, and as he disassembles, cleans, and restores the gun to its original deadly efficiency, so does the gun restore his masculine assertiveness, independence, and rebellion. (In an interesting coincidence, Dillinger received its American theatrical release the same year Michael Mann’s Public Enemies revived for the big screen the romantic myth of Dillinger as macho outlaw.)
On the surface, Dillinger seems to revel in unabashed misogyny, yet the film’s satiric, absurdist, and oblique tone suggests otherwise. Ferreri once candidly stated that he considered himself 50 percent misogynist and 50 percent feminist—and one can see both attitudes at play in his masterpiece. While Glauco’s uxoricide can be viewed as a dispensing with the bourgeois institution of marriage rather than an act of misogyny, more important are the methods by which Ferreri prevents viewers from identifying with his protagonist. Instead of using a straightforward score, for instance, Ferreri employs catchy, upbeat pop tunes to comment on Glauco’s desires and longings: a cover of Stevie Wonder’s soulful “Travelin’ Man” and various other radio-friendly songs, in both English and Italian, play on his transistor as he cooks and fixes his gun, thereby associating his flight from constricting modern life with lyrical platitudes (“I love freedom / No one’s going to take it away from me”; “Tomorrow is another day / And your sorrow might just fade away”; “I finally found my baby”) rather than he-man bravado, and so calling into question whether Glauco stands up to modern alienation or merely manifests its childish symptoms.
Ferreri further keeps his audience at arm’s length by making Glauco a cryptic character whose state of mind can be only vaguely guessed. Since Glauco mostly expresses himself in sudden, enigmatic outbursts, we cannot simply live vicariously through his outrageous emancipation but must piece together from inconclusive evidence the motives and meanings of his unraveling. Piccoli’s controlled performance contributes greatly to the disorienting divide between what we see of Glauco and what we imagine of him. In a 2007 interview with Cahiers du cinéma, the actor described how Ferreri’s hands-off direction forced him to come up with his own ideas for the lead role in Dillinger: “Ferreri didn’t direct me for a second during the shoot; he would simply give spatial indications. It was up to me to play this solitary person, this solitude, this eternal child or this childlike rebirth of ‘mature’ man, between despair, suicide, simple insomnia, dream.”
Famous for his acclaimed work with Godard and Buñuel, Piccoli met Ferreri for the first time while trying out for Dillinger; Ferreri hired him immediately, and five more collaborations between the Italian director and the French actor would follow in the next decade. Watching Dillinger, one can see why: Ferreri refuses a psychological portrait of his protagonist, and Piccoli’s reading of Glauco—something not quite cerebral, yet not quite animal—faithfully imparts the mystifying quality of the character’s hallucinatory actions. Glauco remains impenetrable (just why does he paint the gun red with white polka dots?), even as the objects and images within his orbit (the hippyish young men and women who appear on his television screen; the toy snake with which he teases his sleeping wife; the Futurismo rivisitato painting—by postmodern artist and close Ferreri friend Mario Schifano—he nods to just before committing his murderous deed) reflect an interior state of anxiety and confusion. “The old alienation is no longer possible,” as Glauco’s colleague pronounced in his opening speech, and in its place Glauco enters an irrational fugue state resistant to deciphering.
It’s through the ambiguity of its antihero’s behavior that Dillinger encourages new ways of reading its bizarre images, and one of the film’s most important sequences invokes a metaphor for urging the viewer out of a passive spectatorial position. After finishing his meal, Glauco watches a reel of home movies that he initially projects onto a corner of his living room wall, and then onto a foldout screen. Glauco interacts with the movies, taken on a vacation in Spain with his wife: he waves to himself, dramatically imitates a bullfighter, voices the thoughts of a violinist (“Go away! Don’t film me while I’m playing!”), reaches out to grab a pair of nude bathing women, pretends to swim, stabs at a brunette who seductively licks her lips, and, as the reel lapses into absurdity (a pair of hands mimic the movements of a dancer) and comes to an end, feigns suicide by casting a frightening shadow of himself aiming the gun into his mouth and pulling the trigger.
Glauco is either sincerely attempting to become “absorbed” by the unfolding images, much like moviegoers experience the illusionary adventures of illusionary characters, or he is ridiculing such attempts. In any event, Ferreri indicts the traditional mode of spectatorship as failed, an obsolescence represented by Glauco’s mock suicide—not only is his bourgeois past made an ungraspable chimera but cinema’s ability to capture and replay moments of pleasure for all eternity leaves the viewer unfulfilled. When, at the conclusion of Dillinger, Glauco dives into the sea, boards a Tahiti-bound boat, and is quickly taken on as the vessel’s chef (the entire scenario recalls the sand-and-surf locales of the home movie footage), we can’t simply accept such an escapist fantasy and wish it for ourselves. “I can’t believe it . . . ,” Glauco remarks at his good fortune, and indeed the resolution of his story feels more like a parody of a Hollywood ending than one enacted in earnest. Rather than a surge of triumphant heroism, we’re left with a sense of unease as Ferreri dissolves the film’s final shot into searing blood red, a harbinger both of the eschatological event that will be the setting of his next film, The Seed of Man (1969), and of the scorched and desolate environments of much of his later work.
To where, then, is Glauco really journeying at the close of Dillinger? Ferreri discouraged readings of his films’ settings as apocalyptic or postapocalyptic: “We have already moved imperceptibly into an ‘elsewhere.’ That is, inside a reality that merely survives itself or that is already obsolete,” he once stated about contemporary society. Investigating a world unmoored from traditional values—a world continually confounded by rapid, unprecedented changes in technology and morality—Ferreri fashions Glauco’s reality as a distorted reflection of our own. This is the elsewhere that makes Dillinger Is Dead so unsettling, for even if Glauco remains a distant antihero whose behavior seems far beyond the bounds of reason, certainly the insulated purgatory he inhabits is all too recognizable. However much Ferreri undermines the realistic prospect of his film’s ending, he still evokes the desire for a positive, constructive elsewhere against the one he has so troublingly held up as a mirror of our lives.
Michael Joshua Rowin writes for Reverse Shot, Cineaste, and Stop Smiling, among other publications. He lives in New York City.