Let's Wash Our Brains: RoGoPaG Review
The Ro stands for Rossellini, as in Roberto, the director of Rome, Open City. By 1963, the year in which RoGoPaG was made, those neo-realist films which had heralded his talents were long behind him. So too were the various Ingrid Bergman collaborations, one which had brought notoriety and tabloid attention but also helped to maintain his international profile. His most recent successes were both war dramas, Il generale della Rovere and Era notte a Roma, which had picked up the Golden Lion at Venice and a Special Jury Prize at Karlovy Vary, respectively. And soon after RoGoPaG he would embark on his final major project, a series of radically stylised historical biopics (mostly for television) which remain just as challenging to this day. But in 1963, for his contribution to this four-part, four-director anthology film, he found himself making a sex comedy.
Rossellini was no stranger to anthologies. He’d contributed to The Seven Deadly Sins in 1952, We, the Women in 1953 and Mid-Century Loves in 1954. Some were comic, others more dramatic. His own The Miracle (from 1948) also fits the pattern thanks to its two self-contained stories, one by Fellini, the other Cocteau. According to the opening titles, RoGoPaG offered up its filmmakers a single remit from which they could make what they liked. Their efforts are concerned with “recounting the joyous beginning of the end of the world” which, in Rossellini’s case, involves an Italian air hostess, a schlubby American businessman and a stopover in Bangkok.
The air hostess is played by Rosanna Schiaffino, who was currently in the process of crossing over into English-language productions. (She had just appeared in Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town and had the likes of The Victors, The Long Ships and Drop Dead Darling opposite Tony Curtis on the way.) At the time of RoGoPaG’s production she was best known for appearing in sword and sandal epics with names like The Minotaur and Romulus and the Sabines (with Roger Moore of all people as Romulus). And yet here, in a segment entitled ‘Virginity’, she is supposedly pent-up and tied-down. Her clothes do not reveal her figure, her demeanour does not reveal her character and her fiancé back home ensures she always behaves respectably. She’s more maternal than sexual and thus awakens the attentions (and Oedipal inclinations) of our US businessman.
What follows is a slight but amusing half-hour powered along by Carlo Rustichelli’s incessant score and the two perky central performances. Bruce Balaban had never acted before, nor would he again, yet he turns in a nicely adjudged little turn - think Don Draper as imagined by Phil Silvers. Importantly, Rossellini allows his actors the space to breathe and to make a little impact. After all, his contribution is essentially an extended gag, slowly but surely leading up to its punchline, or rather its cute little pay-off. Flimsily enjoyable, there is some fascination in seeing the director turn in something so light. And yet it’s also perfectly understandable as to why his much more serious ventures remain much better known.
Go is for Jean-Luc Godard, here in less frivolous mood than Rossellini. His “beginning of the end of the world” is a more literal one, involving atomic explosions over Paris and radioactive clouds obscuring the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. Within this potentially apocalyptic - though, on the surface, deceptively normal - landscape live Jean-Marc Bory and Alexandra Stewart, a couple whose relationship is also on the brink of coming to an end after he spies her getting cosy with a younger man. Needless to say, Godard has the two events mirror one another, both spelling out impending doom for Bory.
Godard plays it mostly straight, restricting any playfulness to mere asides: the Godzilla matchbox, say, or Stewart’s Andress-esque bikini-plus-knife combination at the local swimming baths. (The baths also cue up a bit of wordplay typical of the director, PISCINE becoming CINE.) Otherwise he tells his tale in a mostly documentary fashion, capturing the French capital in an off-the-cuff fashion and favouring off-screen narration over live sound. As with Alphaville two years later, Godard lets the viewer do most of the work when it comes to the science-fiction elements, though it should be stressed that this particular side of things is minimal and far from essential. It colours proceedings, certainly, but is never the main event. That would be the faltering relationship between Bory and Stewart.
Complementing the documentary stylings and stark Cold War mood (headlines repeatedly reference Kennedy, Cuba, Moscow, etc.) are the equally chilly scenes between our two leads. Godard seems to favour simplicity in this case, having their conversations unfold in barely furnished white-walled rooms that can only emphasise his actors. The overall approach is far closer to formalism of Vivre sa vie or Une Femme mariée than it is the fun of Breathless or Une Femme est une femme; indeed, the control and command is really quite remarkable for someone both so prolific and so relatively new to the medium. But then you can sense his enthusiasm for cinema in every frame. Whereas Rossellini could turn in a lightweight little sex comedy, Godard takes it all incredibly seriously. Whether a feature, a short or an episode in an anthology film, it makes no difference to the director - all should be treated with the utmost respect, care and attention.
The Pa is Pier Paolo Pasolini, courting controversy once again. His instalment, ‘La Ricotta’, tells of a director recreating the Passion for his latest big-screen venture. The filmmaker in question is a dubbed-into-Italian Orson Welles and much of the screen time is devoted to those moments in-between takes. It’s here where the contentiousness comes in as the various players in the Passion are seen in a less than reverent light. Some wear hairnets, one uses his angel’s trumpet to mime along to a rock ‘n’ roll record, another conducts a striptease. Pasolini states in one of the opening intertitles that this particular episode should not be interpreted as disrespectful in any way, but it’s hard not to detect a sly grin throughout.
The main narrative focus in not Welles (who mostly harrumphs in his director’s chair) but a minor player portrayed by Mario Cipriani. In the film-within-the-film he is the Good Thief crucified alongside Christ. In Pasolini’s tale he is a man in search of a meal, having fed his family with the allotted portion from the caterers. His ill-fated quest is handled with both sourness and silliness. There are sped-up sequences aided along by Rustichelli’s sprightly score but also the realisation that this man’s life is seemingly less significant than the main star’s beloved pooch. The movie set, it transpires, is the perfect microcosm for highlighting the class divide.
As with Godard, Pasolini gets a great deal out of his half-hour. Satire, social commentary, a playful use of Welles’ image and some beautiful pastel-coloured photography (in an otherwise entirely black and white feature) for the film-within-a-film sequences. Less nuanced than the best of his features it nevertheless - much like the Godard - deserves a respectable place in its director’s cv. Of the four episodes which make up RoGoPaG, it is his and Godard’s which have kept the film in and out of home video distribution in the UK over the past two decades. (First a BFI VHS, then a Tartan DVD, and now a Masters of Cinema Blu-ray.)
And finally to G, or Ugo Gregoretti, easily the least well-known of the filmmakers involved. Of his efforts other than RoGoPaG only The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers may ring a bell, another anthology made the following year which also saw contributions from Godard (again) plus Claude Chabrol, Roman Polanski and Hiromichi Horikawa (a former assistant to Kurosawa). More familiar will be the other Ugo in this tale, actor Ugo Tognazzi, here playing a family man struggling to keep apace of the post-war economic miracle.
Entitled ‘Free-Range Chicken’, this particular episode is somewhat slight, although the effect may be slightly enhanced thanks to its following the Godard and the Pasolini. The name sums up the satire: people may think they are free-range thanks to ‘Il Boom’, but really they are closer to being battery farmed. Gregoretti seemingly possessing less of a delicate touch than his fellow contributors makes the symbolism quite literal, transforming a restaurant full of patrons into a chicken run courtesy of primitive special effects. And therein lies the problem. It’s all a little too obvious, a little too laid out for the viewer. Tognazzi is never less than watchable, but RoGoPaG ends on a whimper rather than a bang, which can be a little misleading. Despite fizzling out that shouldn’t distract from the qualities elsewhere. The Rossellini is somewhat slight too (especially in comparison with the vast majority of his output), but the Godard and the Pasolini are more than worth a look.
RoGoPaG arrived onto Blu-ray and DVD last week in two editions: as a dual-format release containing both and as a standalone DVD. In both cases the film was accompanied on-disc by the original Italian theatrical trailer and in the package with a typically hefty booklet. Both editions, as with Masters of Cinema’s other Pasolini-related titles, were region locked to B/2. A Blu-ray disc was supplied for review purposes and it is this edition which is considered below.
In terms of presentation the multi-director and multi-cinematographer nature of RoGoPaG provides an interesting lesson in just how different black and white 35mm film can look. Each episode came with its own crew (only composer Carlo Rustichelli was present on each) and, as such, each has its own distinct style. As a whole the film is in terrific shape. Both image (in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio) and original mono soundtrack are crisp, clean and very impressive. However, do bear in mind that the image will not be consistent as we move through the contributions. The film stock and contrast favoured by Luciana Trasatti on the Rossellini contribution, for example, produces less shadow detail than Jean Rabier’s photography for the Godard. Trasatti seems to prefer very distinctive blacks and whites whereas Rabier’s efforts posses a greater grey scale. At first glance it would be tempting to say that the latter is the more preferential - greater detail, superior sharpness, and so on - though clearly we are getting the same level of care across the board when it comes to the transfer and simply seeing the film as its respective directors and cinematographers intended. The other two episodes exist somewhere in-between in terms of contrast and clarity, though it would appear that Italian cinematographers favour the more high contrast approach: richer blacks, brighter whites. (Recent restorations of Italian films from the period that have been issued onto disc over the past couple of years seem to back this up.) As for the colour inserts in the Pasolini segment these look as wonderful as you could hope for.
The booklet is the main draw of the extras. Stretching to 44 pages it encompasses material old and new with an essay for each of the episodes plus a compilation of recollections from some of those involved in the production. The main pieces are all newly commissioned: Tag Gallagher tackles the Rossellini, Arthur Mas the Godard, Martial Pisani the Pasolini and Pasquale Iannone the Gregoretti. The latter’s background information is particularly welcome given how little-known the director is; impressively Gregoretti once shot an interview with Italian politician Amintore Fanfani in the manner of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory!
The reprinted reminiscences (newly translated by Gallagher) come from Pasolini, Gregoretti, producer Alfredo Bini, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (who shot the Pasolini episode) and actor Laura Betti (who appeared in the Pasolini). As we’ve come to expect from Masters of Cinema there are also copious illustrations to accompany the text.