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Ginger & Fred

Gasser

Ginger & Fred (1986)

     I’m not sure why I keep returning to Fellini films thinking the result will be different. I’ve seen more of the director’s films than any other Italian actor or director and yet I continually dislike what I see. I know I keep trying to enjoy them because Federico Fellini has more well-regarded/known flicks than most Italian director and TCM shows them with deference, so I have access.

     A Primer on Fellini and Me: Through my Italian film class we watched 8 1/2, which I did not enjoy nor fully understand. Next I embarked on a quarter-long independent study/research project on Fellini that did not involve watching any films but instead reading about them. Since that time I have seen La Dolce Vita, Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits), and I Vitelloni, and the the latter was the only I could tolerate. Fellini began Jungian analysis in 1960 after filming La Dolce Vita and before 8 1/2, and that semi-biographical work would be dripping with the influence. Jung placed much importance on dreams, which is an aspect apparent in much of the director’s work after 1960. Unfortunately, the approach also made his films, in my opinion, strange, creepy and difficult to understand.

    Thankfully, by 1986 the surreal approach Fellini took toward many of his films seemed to wear off, so Ginger and Fred is among his more accessible films. I should note that although I give this film a middle-of-the-road rating, I did not enjoy it. I do, however, acknowledge the creative use of themes to convey a message.

     Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and standard female lead, plays Amelia, stage name Ginger. Marcello Mastroianni, the director’s stand-by male protagonist, is Pippo, or Fred. The two had a tap dancing (called “tip tap” in Italian) act in the 1940s that imitated Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, so they called themselves Ginger and Fred. The duo has been separated for 20-25 years now and are reuniting to do a television special for Xmas. We do not meet Fred until about 30 minutes in, so we stick with Ginger as she discovers that this TV special is a seeming freak show that will feature celebrity look-alikes, an admiral, a transvestite on trial for conjugal visits with male prisoners and others with strange stories to tell. Ginger is veritably out of place in her classic style of dress and disinterest in television. Once Fred arrives, the two stumble through rather unimportant events leading up to the show, during which they find little time to rehearse a routine they have not performed in decades. We question whether they will go through with it, but they pull it off.

     Ginger and Fred offers numerous themes: sex, commercialism, garbage and television. Televisions are in every scene, even on a bus, as it is apparent the Italian people cannot do without them (the TV special even features a woman they paid to go a month without TV, and who suffers a breakdown and describes the experience as akin to torture). Similarly the sound emitted by the televisions is so loud and the music so bizarrely modern that Ginger seems to be on another planet. The streets of whatever city in which this takes place is littered with piles of steaming black garbage bags, and one’s every view is equally blocked by a smattering of oversized billboards. Sex is overly present as well in the form of a topless woman peddling sausages on a billboard, the story of the transvestite lending “her buns” to the inmates, a cow with 18 teats to be featured on the freak show, or Fred’s frequent talk of arousal. Fellini certainly goes a long way to criticize and make fun of the Italian people’s apparent obsession with television and sex.

     Both Astaire and Rogers were alive when the film was released and Rogers threw a fit about it. She was offended that the film’s title was used without permission and was concerned the public would take it as a biography. It is unclear whether the dancer-actress ever saw the movie, however. The concept for the story was not based on the dancing partners, but instead was one that Fellini had developed for a television series (similar to the Screen Director’s Playhouse) that would feature Masina in short stories directed by a variety of people. Fellini was working on a story that seemed too grand an idea to keep short and so morphed into the feature film. Ginger and Fred is apparently considered the director’s last great work, but again, I’m not swayed.

Source: Robert Osborne;  Federico Fellini as Auteur: Seven Aspects of His Films by John C. Stubbs

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Divorce – Italian Style

Ring a Ding Ding

Divorce - Italian Style (1962)

     I always enjoy a good foreign film, but I, like most people, do have a certain aversion to them. I would say the greatest problem with reading subtitles is that not only can you not leave the room while watching them and still catch the dialogue, but you also cannot doze off and listen with your eyes closed. Perhaps a more substantial complaint about subtitles, however, is that they distract from the action and cinematography. This is especially true for Italian film because the language is typically spoken troppo quickly, that one does not have time to look around after reading a line of dialogue.

     Nevertheless, I would never pass up an opportunity to see my favorite Italian actor: Marcello Mastroianni. For those who do not know about the wonderfully talented (and handsome) man, he could be described as Italy’s Cary Grant: well adept at both drama and comedy and still sexy when he went gray.

     Divorzio all’Italiana contains all the elements of an American romantic comedy but takes a rather bleak approach. One can understand how the base plot about a man who lures his wife to cheat so he can take a lover would attract the attention of U.S. filmmakers, but Divorce American Style five years later is less about infidelity and more about the hardships of single life for the separating couple.

     Divorce – Italian Style has other elements that would have been a sure taboo if they had shown up in the American version. Our protagonist, Ferdinando, is in love with his 16-year-old cousin. He is 37. What begins as mere longing on Ferdinando’s part, however, is consummated just prior to the girl being shipped back to Catholic school. Ignoring the troubles of incest and statutory rape, it takes little for the viewer to get on board with that romance, but the remainder of the film, while driven by that love, does not focus on it.

     After making love to his adolescent cousin in the lush garden outside the large, although rundown home occupied by both sects of the family, Ferdinando consults Italian law to discover how his crime could be punished. simultaneously, a trial proceeds to the conviction of a woman for shooting her husband for infidelity. Ferdinando finds the penalty is up to seven years for murdering a cheating spouse, however, Italian culture considers it a disgrace to the entire family, and those who associate with them, when a spouse is unfaithful. Given that Ferdinando has already comically fantasized about murdering his wife for us, he makes a natural leap to finding a suitor for su moglie, Rosalia.

     The chosen culprit is a man who was in love with Rosalia prior to and during World War II. He is now a mural restorer/artist, who Ferdinando commissions to mend some ancient paintings on the walls of one room of the house. He next sets up a microphone so he can monitor activities, which progress to his liking. Ferdinando hopes that when Rosalia feigns a headache while the rest of the family goes out, it will be his opportunity to catch her in the act and unload some bullets into her. Instead he returns to find his wife leaving with a suitcase, but is unable to beat her to the train. News spreads throughout the town and the family is shunned because Ferdinando has not defended his honor by killing his wife, but he is playing it cool. When he finally does discover where the lovers are hiding, it is Rosalia’s partner’s wife who shoots him, just moments before Ferdinando reaches them. Saying “What about mine?” he next shoots his wife.

     The story is a bit gruesome at times and not an obvious comedy. It certainly uses Hitchcockian humor that the British/American director inserted into all his films. Like a Hitchcock flick, Divorce – Italian Style deals with serious circumstances but is filled with goofy moments and circumstances that seem odd until the viewer realizes they happen for comedic effect, albeit dry effect. Ferdinando has a lively imagination that involves voice-over dialogue of a famed attorney pleading his case before the crime is ever committed, in addition to visual dramatizations of various deaths that could befall Rosalia. I’m not sure if Mastroianni’s appearance in the movie is also a joke, but it must be noted that he sacrifices his good looks in order to sport a mustache and side-parted lacquered hair that today we would associate with a child molester. Apt, aye?

     One final note: The greatest joke in the film is that when the entire family, minus Rosalia, go out, they are attending the opening of La Dolce Vita, a Federico Fellini film staring Mastroianni and released the year prior to Divorce. Granted the scenes shown are exclusively of the lustful Anita Ekberg, but nevertheless, an inside joke for the astute.

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