Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man

(La tragedia di un uomo ridiculo, Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 1981)


The old “joke” about leftwing cells being composed entirely of masqueraders and triple spies is never a joke in Italy, but always a serious possibility.

– Meaghan Morris


After his swing out into the wide world of international co-productions – with an emphasis on the market accessibility of the English language, during most of the 1970s – Bernardo Bertolucci’s “return to Italy” in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man was surprising both in its content/intent and its scale.


The film, plunging into the cultural and political mire of Italian terrorism, is full of very precise political references. It’s a “small” film in many ways, and among the most overlooked of its director’s remarkable career. Much of the specificity of its context was lost when it travelled beyond its homeland.


In her essay of detailed reportage, “Eurocommunism versus Semiological Delinquency” written during 1977 and published the following year in the book Language, Sexuality and Subversion, Meaghan Morris laid out the terms of careful understanding of the national situation that is pertinent to Bertolucci’s film. She outlines the three strands of “The Movement” that was itself constituted in a historic breakaway from the official Communist Party in Italy.


These three tendencies are: a “creative” wing engaged in struggles to transform everyday life; the “autonomous” workers’ groups, in revolt against the “politics of compromise”; and groups such as the Red Brigades that resort to direct action, such as violence and kidnapping – recall that the Aldo Moro affair (later recreated in Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning Night, 2003) occurred in ’77, and is undoubtedly the major reference-point on Bertolucci’s mind.


This multiplicity of diverse groups gives rise to problems of overlap and public identification, and these are the exact problems that provide the script matter for Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. The terrorist act constituted by the kidnapping of Giovanni (Ricky Tognazzi), son of Primo (Ugo Tognazzi) who is owner of a cheese factory, is gradually revealed to be an elaborately staged fiction. It can be deployed or interpreted in various ways, and this is the substance of the film. Morris: “No one ‘knows’ if the brigades are the Brigades, the CIA, the KGB, the Germans, the French, the Czechs, members of the straight political parties, the Mafia or everybody at once in an unknowing alliance”.


That quality of unknowingness has a lot to do with the comical, even farcical side of the film: its all-pervasive ridiculousness (which can itself, naturally, also be taken as a sinister ideological symptom of whatever mindset you choose to denounce!).


Bertoulcci works over, in his own way, the ground ploughed by commentators including Guy Debord, Gianfranco Sanguinetti (On Terrorism and the State, 1979) and especially Jean Baudrillard, once they open the lid and plunge into the vertiginous ambiguities of this Italian political stew. Baudrillard wrote in Simulacra and Simulation:


Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise en scène to discredit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation. That is, we are in a logic of simulation, which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason.

Bertolucci, too, has spoken of a “logic” of terrorism, allowing us to align his film with Miklós Jancsó’s contemporaneous The Tyrant’s Heart (1981, also featuring an Italian icon courtesy of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ninetto Davoli): terrorism as an elaborate game, a veritable theatre-sport which anyone involved can play to their own advantage … if only to find out, ultimately, that they, too, are being played. No one in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man is fixed, for all time or in absolute certainty, as active or passive, terrorist or victim – the cash flow is nothing if not liquid!

Many of the inherent ambiguities that Bertolucci stirs are exploited for their comic potential, such as the role of police surveillance and investigation. The film is full of hyper-theatricalised scenes that are empty, imploded, symbolic black holes of what Ted Colless & David Kelly call our “lost world”: the disco, the family reunion.

One could produce a purely stylistic or formal analysis – Bertolucci’s films are always richly rewarding on that level – but, in this case, that would miss the point somewhat, since his typically baroque manner is dialled down considerably here. It’s too easy for a critic who is distant from the events in Italy to separate form from content in this way.

Likewise, on another, familiar, auteur-thematic level, even the undeniable Oedipal text – the treacherous, fraught father/son tussle, so prominent in this director’s art and life – seems of somewhat secondary importance here, if essential to the overall texture of incident and intrigue.

I suspect that, for Bertolucci, something else is at stake in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man: all the subtle, sly, ironic games, the images set in counterpoint against sounds, the changes in tone, the switches of viewpoint – all of this serves to re-pose the key questions (glossed above) of political truth and interpretation, of affiliation and identification, of political image and social scene. Politics as a game? Yes, but a game that plays with the serious possibilities of real life and real death.

This was a radio review broadcast on the 3RRR (Australia) arts program Wild Speculations co-hosted by Sue McCauley and myself throughout 1982/1983.

MORE Bertolucci: Besieged, The Dreamers, Little Buddha, The Sheltering Sky, La Luna, Stealing Beauty, Last Tango in Paris

© Adrian Martin 2 September 1982

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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