Contesting Cinema: A Carmelo Bene Project
Siegel, Marc, CineAction
1. I would like to thank the following people for their assistance in preparing this essay: Sean Carle, Daniel Hendrickson, David Pendleton, and Erika Tasini.
In 1968, after a decade as one of the most important figures in Italy's experimental theater scene, Carmelo Bene, performer, director, and playwright, abandoned the stage in order to focus on filmmaking. When asked why he turned to cinema, Bene replied, "Why not? If you've been eating for three years, you can drink one day; that's what cinema is for me." (1) Over the next five years, Bene, working outside traditional film production and distribution networks, produced five feature films and two shorts. His features--Nostra Signora dei Turchi (Our Lady of the Turks), 1968; Capricci, 1969; Don Giovanni, 1971; Salome, 1972; and Un Amleto di meno (One Less Hamlet) 1973-played at Cannes and other international film festivals. Bene's almost single-handed efforts at producing, directing, writing, decorating, and performing in his films demanded an intense level of productivity that he eventually found difficult to maintain. In 1973, after making what many consider to be his most accomplished film, Un Amleto di meno, Bene abandoned the cinema just as quickly as he had taken it up. When asked why he returned to the theater, Bene answered, "To relax. The way I make cinema is extremely exhausting." (2)
Indeed, the technical virtuosity and visual splendor of Bene's films immediately garnered praise from critics. After Nostra Signora received a special jury's prize at the Venice film festival, one Italian film critic, for example, noted that "in Italy, we have a genius. Do we deserve him?" (3) For Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Francaise as well, Bene was a "genius" who offered tasty but challenging pleasures.
I can't think of Carmelo Bene's work without thinking of Sicilian torte, caramel, pistachio, almonds, honey and candied fruit...[his films] are filled with stones just as Sicilian tortes are filled with candied fruit. Some break your teeth, others are taken hold of and transformed into rubies." (4)
In a recent special issue of Cahiers du Cinema that looks back on "Cinema 1968," critic Thierry Lounas has suggested that Bene's five films "trace one of the most dazzling and radical trajectories in modern cinema." (5)
Nevertheless, despite few exceptions, Bene's films have received little critical attention and only occasional screenings since their period of production. The most extensive discussion of his work written in English is still Amos Vogel's 1974 book, Film as a Subversive Art. Placing Bene within a category he calls, "Expressionism: Cinema of Unrest," Vogel briefly praises three films, Nostra Signora, Capricci, and Don Giovanni, for their "visual density," "black humor," and "grotesque burlesque." (6) In France, where Bene has continued to perform theatrically, his work has received slightly more commentary. Most significantly, Gilles Deleuze has written an extended essay on Bene's theater, "One Manifesto Less," that was published, together with Bene's script for Richard III, in a volume titled, Superpositions. (7) Recently, Bene's films have screened in festivals in Paris and in Montreal.
In the following article, I will provide a brief introduction to Bene's theater and films and to his critical project of "contestation." I do so primarily with the aim of attracting further attention to this unique body of work. For Bene's films, which attest to the achievements of past cinematic experimentation, also resonate with some of the most interesting experimental work in recent years.
Carmelo Bene was born in 1937 to a middle class family in a seaside city in the region of Puglia in southern Italy. He first gained attention in the Italian theater world in the late 1950s, most notably through his unusual adaptation and performance of Camus' Caligula in 1959. Founding his own theater company in 1961, Bene went on to create a scandal in the Italian art world with radical performances and stage productions in caves and small theaters around Rome. …