The filmmaking career of Carmelo Bene (1937 - 2002) lasted from 1968 to 1973, six years out of a lengthy time spent in the theater that made Bene one of the most celebrated figures of the Italian avant-garde in the second half of the 20th century.
Bene first made a name for himself with a controversial production of Camus’ Caligula in Rome in 1959. Subsequent productions retained this sense of notoriety, and Bene (like Pasolini) quickly acquired a police record. Bene, however, would come to bemoan the controversy his work created, because it attracted an audience looking for shocks and titillation, while he himself was more concerned with reinventing the vocabulary of the theater: sets, gestures, texts.
Bene’s turn to cinema expanded that quest to reinvent. His films resist synopsis because, although they are often derived from narrative sources, Bene uses these sources against themselves and as a springboard for his critique of the stultifying traps of representation and interpretation. The films are wildly inventive and visually arresting on several levels: the performance styles of his actors, including eccentric movements, gestures and grimaces; the sets, costumes and makeup; the editing; and the use of the camera, with stable shots regularly punctuated by handheld camera work, extreme close ups and the occasional baroque use of zooms, dollies, cranes, elaborate pans and exaggerated camera angles. They resemble something like the work of Jack Smith crossed with the experimental Pasolini of Teorema and Pigsty.
One constant feature of Bene’s work is its satire of heterosexuality. The two sexes keep trying to communicate with each other, but always fail to do so. Bene’s work constantly deflates masculinist pretenses at mastery: his male characters tend to be hapless and often hysterical, while his female characters are alternately predatory and remote, and unknowable in either case. But this satire is merely the most visible form of Bene’s revolt against convention and communication. Over and over again in the films, everyday actions become hopelessly complicated or endlessly interrupted. His characters often end up staring quizzically offscreen or even into mirrors, as if they were no more sure than we are of the meaning of what they see. Indeed, identity and by extension agency seem to get suspended, along with meaning. What is left is glorious spectacle and enigmas for the eyes and ears: endless music; babbling, stuttering text; excessive and exciting images.
Presented with support from the Committee for the Lauro de Bosis Lectureship in the History of Italian Civilization. Special thanks: Laura Argento, Cineteca Nazionale, Rome; Jed Rapfogel, Anthology Film Archives; Giuliana Bruno, VES, Harvard; Marc Siegel.
Directed by Carmelo Bene. With Donyale Luna, Carmelo Bene, Veruschka
Italy 1972, 35mm, color, 74 min. Italian with English subtitles
Salomé is perhaps Bene’s most accessible work; on at least one occasion, he called it his best film. Derived from Oscar Wilde’s play, it tells the Biblical story of Herod, Salomé and John the Baptist with occasional slight detours, including a rather blasphemous “Last Supper.” The film is an eye-popping visual feast; Bene himself referred to Salomé’s art direction as “total kitsch.” The sets and costumes are covered with Day-Glo paint and festooned with feathers and elaborate jewelry, sequins and baubles, all edited into a frenzied montage, with few shots lasting more than a second or two. The cast features a gallery of grotesques to rival Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Directed by by Paolo Brunatto
Italy 1967, 35mm, b/w, 20 min. Italian with English subtitles
In 1966, Bene presented The Pink and the Black, his successful theatrical adaptation of Matthew Gregory Lewis’ lurid Gothic novel from 1796. Experimental filmmaker Paolo Brunatto filmed some of the play’s rehearsals in a Rome apartment (also frequented also by the Living Theatre). Bene’s artistry is encapsulated in one sentence: “One cannot continue to prostitute the idea of theatre, which stands only for a magical, brutal link with reality.“
Directed by Carmelo Bene. With Carmelo Bene, Lydia Mancinelli, Alfiero Vincenti
Italy 1973, 35mm, color, 68 min. Italian with English subtitles
Bene’s version of Hamlet celebrates the power and beauty of Shakespeare’s theatricality, while attempting to strip the piece of the morbid piety that has come to cling to it over the centuries. The film radically condenses most of the action of the play and further deforms the text: lines are repeated; original passages inserted; the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is not delivered by Hamlet but read – in an extremely abbreviated version – by Horatio; Polonius quotes Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. This film then is perhaps the best example of what Bene called his aesthetic/strategy of contestation. Bene also incorporates a critique of the play’s sexual politics: the male characters sport elaborate and even ludicrous costumes, while the women wear outfits that reveal more than they cover.
Directed by Carmelo Bene. With Carmelo Bene, Lydia Mancinelli, Gea Marotta
Italy 1971, 35mm, b/w and color, 73 min. Italian with English subtitles
Although this Don Giovanni includes snippets of the music from Mozart’s opera of the same name, the film is not a staging of the opera but rather a radical re-working of the Don Juan legend. After a prologue that alludes to the many conquests of Don Juan, the rest of the film concentrates on a peculiar kind of love triangle, in which the mother of a young girl competes with the Don for her daughter’s attention. Bene’s Don Giovanni could be considered a “queer” film, mounting as it does a satiric attack on several of the institutions of modern sexuality: binary gender difference, the nuclear family, the machismo of male sexual prowess, and the Oedipal complex itself.
Directed by Carmelo Bene. With Carmelo Bene, Lydia Mancinelli, Anita Masini
Italy 1968, 35mm, color, 124 min. Italian with English subtitles
Bene’s first feature film is an adaptation of his novel of the same name, published in 1966 and subsequently transferred to the stage. Bene himself compared the book to Huysmans’ À rebours, which catalogues the manias of a decadent aesthete. In Bene’s case, the protagonist’s obsessions are obscurely derived from the invasion of the southern coastal town of Otranto by Turkish forces. The character (or perhaps characters) played by Bene is haunted by visitations from Saint Margaret, to which he reacts, variously, with panic, ardor and erotic attraction. In keeping with Bene’s aesthetic of interruption and amputation, dramatic action and narrative threads are waylaid and eventually dropped. The film is a savage send-up of the weight of history and the ridiculous importance of the self.
Directed by Carmelo Bene
Italy 1968, 35mm, color, 6 min
To prepare for Our Lady of the Turks, Bene shot extensive footage of the famous Baroque churches of Lecce, his home province, which he edited into this short film.
Directed by Carmelo Bene. With Anne Wiazemsky, Carmelo Bene, Tonino Caputo
Italy 1969, 35mm, color, 81 min. Italian with English subtitles
Capricci is a very loose adaptation of the Elizabethan play Arden of Faversham, about a woman who plots with her lover to kill her husband. Bene’s version overflows with allusions—to the paintings of de Chirico and Morandi, and the classics of Italian opera (La traviata, I Pagliacci and La boheme), and a lengthy citation from Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. What emerges is something like a Beckettian commedia dell’arte: a series of sketches with a large cast of broadly characterized artists, prostitutes, cuckolds and hit men engaged in ceaseless, frantic and fruitless plots and counterplots, always at cross purposes. Ultimately, the caprices of the title turn out to be the glorious uselessness of art and the pleasures and discontents of sins of the flesh.
Directed by Carmelo Bene. With Carmelo Bene, Lydia Mancinelli
Italy 1968, 35mm, color, 24 min. Italian with English subtitles
Bene’s first film is this short, which features Bene himself feverishly pacing in a suite at Rome’s Hotel Hermitage, until the arrival of an unknown woman disrupts his private rituals.