Orchestra Rehearsal

(Federico Fellini, Italy, 1978)


In a Nutshell


Orchestra Rehearsal is politics – particularly Italian politics – according to Federico Fellini. It is an allegory, but an abstract, compacted one, boiled down to a single situation. Fellini gets everything into this nutshell.


A renowned but never named Conductor (Balduin Baas) tries to work through the score of an equally unidentified classical work (in reality, the final composition by Nino Rota for Fellini’s cinema), but is beset by all manner of interruptions, squabbles, challenges.


The film wheels through several variants on the most basic situations or relations of political power. For a while, the musicians form one, united “body” of obedient citizens. But then they increasingly revolt, spurred on by the testy, outspoken representatives of their trade union.


Having passed over from passivity to action, the workers start arguing with each other, breaking off into sects. This creates radical militancy in some, and jaded indifference in others. Differences in class, culture, age, gender and education inevitably assert themselves and become bones of contention.


We get the entire gamut of positions, reactions, impulsive behaviours. And, as the situation inexorably breaks down, chaos becomes a kind of carnival – harbouring every kind of illicit, escapist activity.


Fellini’s political references are not specific. He’s taking in and condensing an entire gestalt or mood of a turbulent decade. Earlier in the same year of 1978 in which he made Orchestra Rehearsal, Italy had just breathlessly witnessed, plastered across all media, the saga of the kidnapping, and eventual murder, of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the terrorist Red Brigades – an event later dramatised, and reimagined in dreamlike terms, by Marco Bellocchio in Good Morning, Night (2003).


On the one hand, Fellini’s figure of the Conductor has an almost nostalgic, even tragic aura: he stands for a sense of order and decency that has been lost, trampled by the rising barbarians of leftist ideology. However, on the other hand – and just as significantly – this Conductor is also a figure of tyranny incarnate, breaking out in the film’s final moments (just as Peter Sellers did in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove) into harsh German invective, an implacable reminder of Nazi Occupation as well as home grown Fascism in Italian history, with its attendant miseries.


A recurring, unifying motif of Orchestra Rehearsal perfectly captures this complex ambivalence. We hear with increasing frequency, as do the characters, the muffled sound of what seem to be nearby, approaching explosions. Is it the sound of the type of surprise terrorist attack that bedevils our world still today? Some viewers and commentators are happy to assume that this is Fellini’s intent – and thus either praise him as a wise sage of the political scene, or damn him as an ageing, reactionary conservative.


But when we at last see the source of this sound, it is not a bomb but a wrecking ball – hardly the typical tool of furtive terrorists. It is the sign, rather, of relentless urban development, of governmental power, of what Walter Benjamin called the “destructive character” of a compulsively reformist, managerial middle class. Not the opposition to society, therefore, but society itself, nakedly displayed in a single, ugly object. Fellini was always a dab hand at finding such shocking, audiovisual condensations of big, unruly, ambivalent ideas. They were his nutshells.


In his brilliant book Crowds and Power (1960), the novelist Elias Canetti declares: “There is no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor”. The music produced as a result is almost incidental, a mere pretext for the theatrical ritual or “spiritual economy” of this main man who stands (while all others are seated) and commands the attention of both players and listeners. “He has the power of life and death over the voices of the instruments … The code of laws, in the form of the score, is in his hands”. The ecstatic feeling of celebrity experienced by the conductor is addictive: “The applause he receives is the ancient salute to the victor, and the magnitude of his victory is measured by its volume” (all quotes from Penguin edition, pp. 458-460).


For Canetti, the entire show of the conductor, spellbinding the orchestra and the audience alike, is an ominous sign of the larger, political world that contains it, whether nominally capitalistic or totalitarian in nature. “The conductor is a leader”, he suggests, one who carries the audience, at his back, into the fields of battle – and who can bring about the execution of terrible orders with the slightest flick of his all-powerful wrist. In this sense, the conductor figure is a reassuringly nostalgic symbol of the workings of power – a holdover of charismatic presence in a modern world that increasingly runs on media transmissions, invisible cues and phantom commands.


For Fellini, as for Canetti, the music that would logically seem to the reason for, and focus of, a rehearsal, is secondary. Rota, obligingly, gave him a piece of music that is suitably attractive but generic – and must weather many repetitions, in tiny portions, that grind down whatever magic or charm it possesses on first listen. In many ways, Fellini reproduces elements of the social, orchestral ritual that Canetti evokes – but he also deliberately, brutally amputates it, bringing to it a very modern and un-nostalgic regard.


This is a rehearsal, not a performance, so there is no audience present, no applause or veneration. The space in which everybody labours resembles a claustrophobic, isolated bunker. Glimpses of the conductor’s “private room” bestow no particular glamour or celebrity status upon him. Although Fellini is often painted as an artist of riotous excess and “surplus value” on all levels, in Orchestra Rehearsal he strips the situation down, so as to better dissect and examine it – for him, it’s an almost minimalist film, the polar opposite (in this respect, at least) of Eight and a Half (1963) or Amarcord (1973).


Fellini was himself the grand conductor of a particularly dynamic, volatile ambivalence – the drive that powers all his best films. Especially from La Dolce Vita (1960) onward, in Juliet of the Spirits (1965) or Fellini’s Casanova (1976), he became fond of arranging vulgar scenes of contemporary decadence (in the aristocratic upper classes, in the art world, in mass media and show business), underwritten by a tone of moral disapproval.


And yet, at the same time, these scenes are so vividly and energetically brought to life that the films unmistakeably call out to us, as Sam Rodhie (1939-2015) once argued, to “join the party” and delight in the apocalyptic, “amoral, senseless” conflagration. He describes the “form of the Fellinian dream” in these terms: “The inclusion of a subject ever seeking not only to make sense of the world, but to enjoy it, and to enjoy above all the ability to invent and to look upon his inventions” (Cinema Papers, no.72, March 1989). It is this very Felliniesque ambivalence that is carried on today by Paolo Sorrentino in movies such as The Great Beauty (2013).


The nutshell situation of Orchestra Rehearsal resembles a TV comedy sketch set-up – complete with game-changing variations at key points of the anecdote. Like many of Fellini’s projects beginning with A Director’s Notebook in 1969 – and, indeed, like much of the most celebrated Italian art cinema by Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carmelo Bene and others – Orchestra Rehearsal was partly financed by Italian television, with which Fellini had an ongoing, complex, ambivalent relationship. As with so many things that came into his life and drew his fascinated attention, he both loved and hated it – mixed feelings that played themselves out, especially, in Ginger and Fred (1986).


But the giddy, split-second confusions of actuality and fiction, “live” and pre-recorded material, on-camera and off-camera activities, responses of studio audiences and home audiences – all those mutations of audiovisual presentation and media technology that Umberto Eco dubbed in 1983 as Italy’s garishly revolutionary era of “Neo TV” – added up to a type of enchanted surrealism that Fellini himself foresaw and conjured in Toby Dammit, his elaborate contribution to the Edgar Allan Poe omnibus film Spirits of the Dead (aka Histoires extraordinaires, 1968). Once again, Fellini made a show of enjoying what he simultaneously, at some level of his creative being, disparaged.


The single, reduced set of Orchestra Rehearsal in which its action takes place; the mosaic construction of one small detail placed after another; its network of mundane intrigues between multiple, stereotyped or caricatured characters; the gradual alterations of mood leading to a generalised catastrophe: all of this tips a hat, as it were, to the enabling medium of TV and its popular genres like soap opera.


Yet no one does TV quite like Fellini. From a point in the early 1960s, he had become fond of reflexive counterpoints built into the action of his films: reporters writing stories and gathering interviews, movies being shot within the movies. The technique of using documentary reportage – from a film or TV camera zipping around everywhere asking questions of creators and participants – became his favourite device of this sort, evident in works of the early 1970s such as I Clowns (1970) and Roma (1972). By the time of Orchestra Rehearsal and the later Intervista (1987), Fellini had honed this idea to its finest point.


There is some sort of TV doco being made during Orchestra Rehearsal, but we see absolutely none of the paraphernalia associated with a film crew: the personnel, the technology, the cables, reels or tapes, and so on. Not even a single camera or microphone belonging to this film-within-the-film ever becomes visible. And not a single person, either: these internal filmmakers function, for all the world, like phantoms. Not even an off-screen voice-prompt from an imaginary interviewer is needed. It suffices merely that an actor look into and acknowledge the lens, and then a special light unfussily shines on them: that’s all Fellini needs to make this conceit work for him.


This is a form of creative artifice that declares itself as such, in the simplest, most efficient and economical way. Once established, it can be used and reused, varied and elaborated, discarded and renewed as the material demands – much like in a cartoon. Fellini was always in search of the aesthetic of this kind of artifice, one that would allow him maximum flexibility, variety and inventiveness.


We see the trace of this, too, in the special musical challenge of Orchestra Rehearsal’s premise. Are all the actors trained musicians? Of course not. Will Fellini try to make them all successfully fake a few bars of bowing strings or performing piano glissandos or trilling a flute – as almost any other filmmaker would do? No. An ever-repeated, patently unreal gesture that signifies ‘playing music’ will, for the most part, do the trick from one end of the film to the other.


Rohdie, in his Fellini Lexicon of 2002, grasps this tricky point well: “Fellini’s documentaries are false in the sense of being staged, but true because the staging is acknowledged”. Reflexive devices are not excuses for baroque, convoluted, guessing games in Fellini’s cinema, as they are in so many films that were inspired (well or badly) by his example. In Orchestra Rehearsal, the ways and means of artifice are patent, palpable, shown – at the very same moment that they vanish, flying off the screen in their minimalist, no-nonsense purity.


So, in a sense, Fellini cannily works within the constraints of TV here. At the same time, he never stops rocking the stylistic boat, marshalling formidable energies that constantly threaten to burst out onto a bigger stage, and a bigger screen. Orchestra Rehearsal does not simply take place in a confined area; it offers the truly cinematic spectacle of a dynamic saturation of space: a place that begins bare, then fills up, slowly gaining a lively “character” all its own, before emptying out again …


This is exactly the type of arc of mood and event that Fellini had brought to so many of his previous settings in cinema, whether indoors or outdoors – and from his very first, groundbreaking features of the 1950s, such as I Vitelloni (1953) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). Parties, weddings, dances, funerals, press conferences, taken from the point of modest embryo right through intensive madness all the way to ultimate, usually melancholic exhaustion.


Is it any wonder, then, that Orchestra Rehearsal, sometimes referred to as a “small television film”, culminates in the devastation of a wall, and the liberation of space? The orchestra comes, in the final moments, under the tyrannical control of the Conductor once more, and the score again offers the pretext for a social ritual. And yet the artistic will, the élan of Federico Fellini surpasses all these barriers. Let the music play …

MORE Fellini: La Strada

© Adrian Martin September 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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