Faccia a Faccia (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Directed by Sergio Sollima; produced by Alberto Grimaldi; story by Sergio Sollima; screenplay by Sergio Sollima and Sergio Donati; art direction by Carlo Simi; cinematography by Rafael Pacheco; music composed by Ennio Morricone; music conducted by Bruno Nicolai; with Gian Maria Volonté, Tomas Milian, William Berger, Jolanda Modio, Gianni Rizzo, Carole Andre, Angel Del Pozo, Lydia Alfonsi. DVD, Color, 107 min., 1967. A Eureka! release, distributed by http://www.eurekavideo.co.uk.
Casual fans of the Italian Western may be familiar with the spectacular films of Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) that catapulted Clint Eastwood to international stardom, but perhaps not many others, since dozens of films of this very popular genre of the Sixties and Seventies either have not been released, or appear on discounted DVDs taken from dreadful prints. There are some notable exceptions, such as Blue Underground’s editions of Sergio Corbucci’s exceptionalDjango, Sergio Sollima’s Run, Man, Run, and Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General. The label Wild East is releasing many Italian Westerns in restored, wide-screen format, although not many of these titles are especially esteemed.
Sergio Sollima is one of the consciously Marxist directors of the Italian Western (I have always despised the term “Spaghetti Western”), as demonstrated by Faccia a Faccia, commonly referred to as Sollima’s allegory of the rise of fascism. The film immediately preceding this one was The Big Gundown, about the oppression of the Mexican people under the reign of Napoleon III and his proxy, Emperor Maximilian. Faccia a Faccia focuses on fascism as the product of an effete, ineffectual, but resentful and calculating intelligentsia, a contrast to the down-to-earth working class and peasantry. The theme of the intelligentsia as parasitical, and, because of their weak sense of self, a danger to democracy, becomes recurrent in the European cinema. It is basic to Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and nascent in that same director’s earlier Before the Revolution, where an intelligent member of the bourgeoisie can drift toward the revolution, or back to his creature comforts, given his sentimental support of the standing order. Faccia a Faccia, like Bertolucci’s films, is more a study of male psychology, and the role of certain types of men in revolutionary situations, than it is an examination of the dynamics of fascism, and its origins in the capitalist state.
Brad Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonté) is a history professor at an unnamed New England university. He is forced to resign his position due to a progressing pulmonary disease—tuberculosis and similar lung ailments were often a mark of decadence in the nineteenth century, and have been so portrayed in art. The use of the idea here is notable, since the film hints at the outset that Fletcher’s infirmities go beyond his illness. As he bids farewell to his class at the height of the American Civil War, Fletcher reminds his students of the need to make choices between right and wrong, saying “if the little I have taught you is of any value, then my life, my role in history, will not have been completely useless.” The apparently modest remarks are self-serving; one senses that the weak self-concept within this pale, dissipated man conceals an unrealized agenda and not a little rage. Before he leaves for Texas where he hopes the climate will restore his health, he is admonished by his college president, who tells Fletcher, gesturing with his fist, that he needs “willpower,” and to “want to succeed,” there being “no limits in this country” for a man so committed. The president is accompanied by a young woman named Miss Wilkins, presumably his daughter, who shows some sexual attraction for the sickly Fletcher, but turns away. The point is clear: what will ultimately deform Fletcher is his sense of inadequacy, the consequences of the vicious assumptions of his class, and the tired but deadly dicta at its root.
As Fletcher recovers in Texas, he is taken hostage by an outlaw on the run named Solomon “Beau” Bennett (Tomas Milian). A combination of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, dressed in buckskin clothes and wearing long tresses associated with Native Americans, Bennett is coded as Other twice over. Fletcher is at first terrified by his circumstances, then slowly warms to his captor as he learns to live with him in the wild. Frightened to tears of the blood as he fixes Bennett’s wounds, and utterly incapable of even holding a firearm, Fletcher becomes fascinated with Bennett’s revolver, sensing its “power” and eventually becoming a crack shot. What slowly emerges is the theme of the Double (with no small homoerotic element, which shows an angry edge as Fletcher becomes violent), with each man reflecting qualities of the other that are buried, but brought forth by his opposite. One also sees a theme that appears often in the Italian Western: the Anglo interloper who empowers but also deforms Mexican peasant society—the idea is basic to a range of films from A Bullet for the General to Duck, You Sucker.
Bennett is a kind of populist hero who presides over a stronghold called Pietra di Fuoco (stone of fire), where his fellow gunmen, the Wild Gang (the genre always makes interesting distortions of the American idiom), hides, but Pietra is more than a robber’s roost. It is nearly a commune, a home for women and children as well as “hunters without buffalo, prospectors without gold,” as one inhabitant tells Brad Fletcher. Bennett is therefore a kind of father to those cast aside by “modernity and reality” (terms actually in the script). Fletcher, now a full-fledged member of Bennett’s gang, is taken by his own romantic view of the hideout: “I’ve never seen a people more real.” Soon, however, he views Bennett as soft, as the outlaw’s humanity emerges, and Fletcher’s increasing sense of self makes him a formidable presence—when Bennett introduces him, he makes the mistake of saying “He has more brains than all of us.” In Bennett’s absence Fletcher masterminds a bloody raid. His tan suits are replaced by a black frock coat as his intellect conveys a charisma unfamiliar, but utterly fascinating, to the people of Pietra di Fuoco—Fletcher has found a kind of lumpenproletariat to exploit in order to satisfy his long-repressed vanity. But the people are not entirely gulled, and dissent forms against Fletcher’s authoritarian leadership.
Gian Maria Volonté’s performance as Fletcher is astonishing. At one point he ascends a small hill to deliver to the people of Pietra di Fuoco a sermon on the mount. He gently touches his face and neck, reminding the people that no bullet has scathed him, and that they will be safe if they simply obey! (His gestures mimic Mussolini without going over the top.) The gang has been infiltrated by a Pinkerton agent named Charley Siringo (William Berger), whose sneaking admiration of Bennett is reciprocated. For Fletcher, he is merely “a spy, a dirty policeman.” Fletcher morphs from the academic demanding nuanced thinking into a dogmatist—in this he is perhaps less a fascist than a representation of the trajectory of the Soviet experience. As he cold-bloodedly tortures informants, Fletcher waxes lyrical about the necessity for sanctioned violence, how “one man killing another is a criminal, but ten thousand violent men is an army,” the point being that Fletcher is serious about making the place in history that he referred to in his self-serving, woebegone farewell to his students at the film’s opening. Fletcher is finally Wilhelm Reich’s “little man,” an angry and antisocial type who for too long embraced, or affected, social niceties until he sees the opportunity to unleash his Id in service of messianic impulses and destruction—but he is never a total monster. The film understands his type too well, and offers him a moment of sympathy at the end, when the dying Fletcher pleads that he had “such plans.”
As Beau Bennett, Cuban actor Tomas Milian, omnipresent in the Italian Western, is a lanky, appealing personality; he makes plausible the outlaw’s transformation from self-indulgent criminal to a conscience-driven leader. It is unfortunate that in his character roles of later years, Milian, overweight and bald, became unrecognizable. But the film’s star very clearly is Gian Maria Volonté, one of the greatest and most underappreciated European actors of the last century. At this writing, his best performances—Elio Petri’sInvestigation of a Citizen above Suspicion and The Working Class Goes to Heaven—are hard to find. Investigation of a Citizen is currently not available in Region 1 editions, and the Region 2 discs available have no English subtitling. The Working Class Goes to Heaven is available on Region 2 from Minerva/Raro Video, with subtitling and a very good documentary. Another superb Volonté performance, Christ Stopped at Eboli, is distributed by Facets Video, but in a truncated version of the original film. Viewers familiar with Volontè probably know his monstrous archvillains in Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More—Volonté, a prominent figure of the Italian Communist Party of the Sixties, later denounced these Westerns as depraved, but embraced Faccia a Faccia and A Bullet for the General. Seeing him in Faccia a Faccia is a lesson in the art of acting, so thoroughly does Volonté transform himself, with minimal makeup and a little weight loss, from a pale, sickly, nervous teacher to a self-assured tyrant and sadist. At the film’s conclusion, when Bennett and Fletcher face off against a huge gang of mercenaries who destroy Pietra di Fuoco, Fletcher crouches behind a small redoubt, his body coiling as if it, as much as his Winchester, will bring death to his adversaries. I hope someone releases the Godard-Gorin film Wind from the East—watching Volonté simply walk back and forth in front of Godard’s camera is worth the price of admission.
At its best, the Italian Western offers the most caustic European vision of America in any art form, and Faccia a Faccia is exemplary. The aptly-named Purgatory City is the locus of part of the action, a symbol of American society presided over by obese, wealthy businessmen out of Strike!, who literally call the shots. As in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, “gunfighters” are what they were in the actual Old West—a battering ram for financial interests.
Sollima, one of the visionaries of the genre, has a talent for creating a vision of the West that shows an extraordinary eye for period detail, yet offers a landscape that is askew, both baroque and expressionistic, commenting on the perversity of a genre lauded in the U.S., in its classical form at least, as the best representation of “American values.” The Almerian desert of Spain, almost always used by the Italian Western to simulate the Southwest, looks especially parched and unsparing here, giving a Dalíesque quality to many cinematic compositions.
The score is by Ennio Morricone, the most prolific and consistently inventive of all film composers. Morricone was perhaps overused in the Italian Western, his work applied arbitrarily to projects beneath his talents and intelligence. Not so here. For Faccia a Faccia, Morricone created a main theme and a series of leitmotifs having an organic relationship with the film; to call the project operatic is not unreasonable. The score’s alternately thunderous, eerie, and lyrical themes, sometimes within a single composition, are constantly intriguing—I have owned Morricone’s scores for years and find them consistently rewarding.
Faccia a Faccia is released by Eureka!, but not, for whatever reason, as part of that company’s Masters of Cinema series. The lack of the MoC label seems incidental, however, since the film is painstakingly transferred into a wide-screen edition, in the original Italian with English subtitles. The disc includes a booklet with a short but informative essay by Howard Hughes, an interview with Sollima, and European and American trailers (the former fascinatingly abstract, and minus an announcer shouting out the film’s fascinations). Eureka! is one of the great assets in current film preservation efforts—the booklet contains the company’s usual admonition to take care with your TV’s aspect ratio lest you “travesty the integrity of both the human form and cinematographic space.” Bravo!
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.
To purchase Faccia a Faccia, click here.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1