Reviewed by: Themroc

"There’s no denying that the film’s polemical message is still relevant today, but it’s an old argument, didactically constructed."

As I’ve noted elsewhere on this site, the limitations of the portmanteau film can sometimes inspire writer/directors to express themselves with flair and imagination, but they seldom, if ever, conspire to produce a satisfying viewing experience in totality. For a start, by its very nature, the format encourages a broad and often remote interpretation of its premise that is rarely conducive to the induction of a coherent overall emotional response. More importantly, the chain of films as a whole is only ever as strong as its weakest link, and if, for example, a third of the feature’s overall running time is garbage (as with the Coppola segment sandwiched in the middle of New York Stories), it taints the material around it and drags down the perceived quality of the feature as a whole.

Although the calibre of the four filmmakers involved in RoGoPaG makes it a more diverting example of the format than most, it is unfortunately no exception in this respect. To unintentionally reinforce this point, the compendium opens inauspiciously with its weakest and least interesting segment, Roberto Rossellini’s frivolous and dismayingly pedestrian screwball comedy, Illibatezzo/Chastity. Less a piece of serious filmmaking than an extended sketch, it couldn’t be further removed in terms of its tone and style from the raw neo-realism with which he made his name.

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The film opens with a redundant quotation from psychologist Alfred Adler theorising about Oedipal fixation, before going on to tell a crudely illustrative story about a virginal air hostess’ attempts to fend off the persistent attentions of a American passenger during a stopover in Bangkok. Critics and academics, straining to discern depth and meaning in such a perplexingly superficial work by one of Italian cinema’s most revered masters, have speculated that the use of back-projection and the recorded image indicate a meditation on notions of illusion and reality. In all likelihood, however, the film was simply intended as a bluntly satirical political statement or some sort. That would certainly go some way to explaining the excessively broad tone and characterisation of the American as a vulgar, shallow caricature.

Whatever the film’s intended message or meaning, the plotting is so contrived, the dialogue so B-movie, acting so wooden and the pub psychology so risible, that the experience of watching it is simply boring and tiresome.

It is perhaps surprising that of the four segments, it is arch-contrarian Jean-Luc Godard’s characteristically opaque sci-fi contribution, Il Nuovo Mondo/The New World, which gets closest to a literal investigation of the RoGoPaG’s apocalyptic premise. In a scenario vaguely reminiscent of a John Wyndham novel, a man awakes after a two-day sleep to discover that an unexplained atomic explosion has occurred 120,000m above Paris. Despite reassurances from scientific experts and a pliant media that there’s nothing to worry about, he gradually comes to realise that “something strange and incomprehensible had affected the city. The people had become prey to a voiceless and mysterious hysteria”.

It’s through this bizarre prism that Godard investigates yet another doomed romance defined by the inability to communicate, as the protagonist attempts to reach the now remote, cold and unfathomable woman who had finally declared her love for him just hours before the city and everyone in it changed forever. Although the overtones about the death of freedom suggest a political allegory and the explicit atomic theme seems designed to tap into cold war fears of annihilation - exacerbated by the Cuban missile crisis - it also possible to read the film as a cynical metaphor for the impossibility of meaningful and lasting human interaction. But in the end, the film is so vague in its symbolism that it stubbornly resists categorical interpretation. Instead it remains one of Godard’s trademark enigmas – a film of innumerable possibilities, both fascinating in its realisation of an oppressive dystopian present (anticipating the director’s own Alphaville three years later) but equally baffling in its implications.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s segment La Ricotta (After The Cheese) is a black satire in which an arrogant film director (played by Orson Welles, no less) attempts to make what appears to be an unbearably pretentious film about the Passion of the Christ. A peasant everyman named Giovanni Stracci (which translates as “John Rags”) plays the Good Thief crucified next to Christ and spends much of the day’s shooting deprived of food, bullied by the crew and tied to a cross while the acting aristocracy are pampered by the film’s indulgent director. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are terrorised by a bullying AD as they attempt to painstakingly recreate Renaissance paintings of the Deposition in tableaux (RoGoPaG’s only colour sequences), and Welles haughtily opines about the ignorance and stupidity of the Italian masses and bourgeoisie. In the end, Stracci is accidentally martyred in a sequence containing a stroke of Buñuelian irony.

Despite including an earnest disclaimer in which Pasolini insisted that his intentions were neither blasphemous nor dishonourable, the Catholic Church and the Italian authorities took a rather different view. As a result of the La Ricotta segment, RoGoPaG was banned in Italy and Pasolini was sentenced to a four-month prison term for blasphemy. But as with most things which inspire a hue and cry amongst the small-minded, the offended misread the film’s fairly transparent intention.

Pasolini’s film satirises, not the biblical story of the Passion, but instead the hypocrisy with which the politically and religiously pious abuse and neglect the needy for their own vainglorious reasons. It also appears to question whether it is, in fact, possible to make a religious film in a truly reverent manner, given both the nature of human behaviour and the nature of the filmmaking process.

But the film’s real interest lies in Pasolini’s apparent willingness, through Welles’ surrogate film director, to satirize his own pretensions to piety. Like Pasolini, the director is a self-proclaimed Marxist filming a biblical story (Pasolini would follow RoGoPag with The Gospel According To Saint Matthew in 1964), and he is even pictured self-importantly reading from a collection of Pasolini’s own poetry in order to patronise a vacuously sycophantic reporter. Welles’ intellectual vanity and political hypocrisy can be read simply as an angry attack on fraudulent armchair socialists who appropriate Pasolini’s political position without either believing or understanding it. But they can also be interpreted as an admission that Pasolini’s own ostensibly tyrannical position as director, in itself reflective of artistic vanity, was fundamentally irreconcilable with the egalitarian beliefs he espoused.

RoGoPaG closes with Il Pollo Ruspante/Free Range Chicken a segment by Ugo Gregoretti, the least famous of the four filmmakers. The title refers to the idea that free range chickens only think they are free when in fact their fate is as certain as that of battery hens.

In the same way, Gregoretti would have us believe, free-market consumers are insidiously controlled by advertising whilst under the impression that they are free-thinking individuals making informed, rational choices. In order to underline this, the segment opens with a quotation from Ecclesiastes, explaining how “sin enters society secretly into sales and acquisitions”. Gregoretti then illustrates the point by intercutting between a sinister lecture about the ways in which consumers may be controlled through marketing strategies (“monitor them, control them and perpetuate dissatisfaction with the latest model”) and scenes of a nondescript family who die in the attempt of trying to break free of this control.

There’s no denying that the film’s polemical message is still relevant today, but it’s an old argument, didactically constructed, and with little in the way of convincing characterisation to give the ideas emotional depth and resonance. Like much of the rest of RoGoPaG, its flashes of inspiration make it sporadically engaging, but as a whole, it is no classic.

Reviewed on: 21 Mar 2007
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RoGoPaG packshot
Portmanteau film in which four directors “limit themselves to recounting the joyous beginning of the end of the world”. Out to own as part of Pier Pasolini Volume One box set.
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Director: Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ugo Gregoretti

Writer: Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ugo Gregoretti

Starring: : Rosanna Schiaffino, Bruce Balaban, Jean-Marc Bory, Alexandra Stewart, Orson Welles, Mario Cipriani, Ugo Tognazzi, Lisa Gastoni

Year: 1962

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Italy


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