Saturday, April 24, 2021

Mauro Bolognini | La notte brava (The Big Night), a.k.a. Bad Girls Don't Cry and Night Heat

desperate embraces

by Douglas Messerli

Pier Paolo Pasolini (screenplay, based on his novel La ragazzi di vit), Mauro Bolognini (director) La notte brava (The Big Night), a. k. a. Bad Girls Don’t Cry and Night Heat

Out of the Neo-Realist Italian films of the post-war 1940s and 1950s, grew an amazingly powerful new Italian cinema in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s that dominated world cinema. These works by Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Mauro Bolognini, and others—cuting through the underlying neorealist grids of the romantic—asserted political and satirical issues that undercut whatever spiritual and nationalist subtexts remained in the earlier works.

     With the economic redevelopment of the post Fascist-Italy and the gradual crumbling of the pre-war wealthy and noble Italian families, along with the immigration to the cities of a vast number of young rural males and their families, a deep rift had grown between the old and new wealthy and those who felt themselves as outsiders in their own society. The tensions between the often handsome and well-dressed poor youths who now dominated Italian street life and the sons and daughters of the decadent noble families who associated with the younger nouveau riche grew so intense that it became a palpable force that spilled out into the nightlife of Rome, Milan, and other major cities.

       At one end of the spectrum Fellini, Antonioni, and Griffi explored the decadent and aimless worlds of the wealthy, while Pasolini and Bolognini centered their works primarily on those seeking to find a way to survive day by day in a world in which there were so few jobs available that they posed as determined drifters; throughout his career Visconti shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other. Together both of these groups of filmmakers expressed the terrifying angst and meaningless of life in Italy throughout the 1960s and the effects of Italian Fascism long into the next decade.

     In a world in which everyday survival meant fluidly moving between ephemeral possibilities of finding money, food, and love Pasolini and Bolognini, in particular, were fascinated by the transitoriness of both male and female sexuality wherein the male macho and female heterosexual poses often slipped in between pitched battles of those of the same sex and strong couplings of female solidarity along with male-on-male sex. The street boys wrestling each other all day sometimes fell into each other's arms in exhaustion by night, while females working basically as competitive whores both off and on the streets cuddled up to one another in consolation in their off hours. Accordingly, these works along with nearly all of Visconti’s films are of most interest to LGBTQ audiences, although Fellini and Griffi often veered outside of their basically sexually normative—if you can describe Fellini’s and Griffi’s depictions of male and female couplings as representing anything close to “normal”—representations of love.

       Somewhere between Fellini’s celebrity-struck decadents in La Dolce Vita (1960) and Pasolini’s rollicking and fighting homeboys in Accatone (1961) stands Bolognini’s gangs of beautiful young street thieves in La note brava (1959). One might argue that this trinity of films represent almost all the ideas that were later expressed in myriad ways in the Italian films of the 1960s.

       If  La note brava shares more of the turf of the Pasolini work that is to be expected given that the film’s script was written by that director based on his novel La ragazzi di vit (1956); but Bolognini, against Pasolini’s advice chose known actors to perform in major roles instead of using unknowns as the screenwriter desired. Moreover, his cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi’s languid gazes of the work’s almost too-beautiful-to-be-believed male leads, despite Pasolini’s gay sexuality, might surely have rubbed the younger director the wrong way given that it removes them from the ordinariness of everyman status. Indeed, if the script demands us not to like these petty criminals we instead grow to sympathize and even empathize with their empty lives pushing the film in the direction, I argue, of the French New Wave.

     Oddly, given Pasolini’s narrative talents, one might easily recut most of the seemingly pointless “actions” of the story to be shown in a different chronological order, each “event” representing, as it does, just another small attempt to get through another frustrating day.

     Strangely, although none of the central characters engage in what might normally be defined as work or a regular “job,” the prostitutes Anna (Elsa Martinelli) and Supplizia (Antonella Lualdi) and the two petty thieves Ruggeretto (Laurent Terzieff) and Scintillone (Jean-Claude Brialy) work harder than almost any factory employee to make ends meet. And since all might be described as “self-employed,” they have to do battle with one another as well in order to survive. In short, it’s not easy life to scrounge up enough money each day for dinner or an evening’s sexual pleasure.

     The film begins with a pitch-battle fight between Anna and Supplizia who seem to be fighting over the territory of a man the other intruded upon the evening prior. Soon the girls are “hired” by Ruggeretto and Scintillone, but not as one might suspect for sexual gratification, but rather, as even the girls quickly figure out, as decoys to cover their actions in case they meet up with the police. 

      Having stolen four police rifles they hope to sell them to a middleman, Mosciarella (Mario Meniconi) but catch him at the very moment when he is in the midst of a funeral for his mother. Despite their continued insistence, he whispers between displays of sobs, “Tomorrow.”

      Our two inept robbers, desperate for money, however, cannot wait. A cousin of the grieving son Gino “Bellabella” (Franco Interlenghi),  having overheard their pleas, agrees to skip the funeral and take them to another jobber if they share a percent. But his connection has just been dispossessed and has no money to pay for the loot.

      Bored and tired of their “customers’” ineptness, the whores propose they visit a friend of theirs in an isolated house just outside of the Rome city limits, owned by a deaf mute, with another prostitute, Nicoletta sprawled out nude in his bed. Only she, apparently, can communicate with him, making the deal for yet another percent, and counting out the substantial amount money as she deposits it into one of their hands.

     On their way back into Rome, the trio of males now determine to stop in a field and a small grove of trees supposedly to enjoy a romantic interlude, which the girls realize will end up in their being dumped. Yet oddly, each male taking one of the females off into their separate space, do enjoy a moment of quiet companionship simply talking to one another. 

      The boys finally make their run, but before they reach their home destination they discover the women have taken the money stashed in the glove compartment. By the time they return to their former Arcadia the prostitutes have split.

       Seeking the women out on the streets they run into another “gang” of three equally pretty boys and, after the trio attempt to steal a camera from their car, engage in a street fight only to join up in order to allude the police who have been called to end their skirmish.

       Throughout Bolognini’s work the camera keeps returning to derelict wastelands in the midst of the vast apartment complexes of the urban landscape (a contrast that is repeated in the films of Fellini, Pasolini, and Antonioni as well), and it is now in just such a space that the six males, replacing the former gender-mixed sextet, go to finish off their macho melee. But the tone suddenly shifts here, as if finding themselves in some sort of remnant of nature they are temporarily mollified and returned to a semblance of humanity. They meet a couple of small boys attempting to lug a large wing of a small plane down from a hill, hoping to take it to a junk collector to bring home a small bit of change to their parents just so they might eat. Surely it reminds them of their own youths, and one of the new members of the group decides to help the ragazzi load their find on a small wagon, handing them some bills for their efforts.

     The original trio of Ruggeretto, Scintillone, and Bellabella decide they like the three new companions and they all agree to adventure out into the night together, soon spotting a small wagon asking for paid blood donations. Together, they correctly estimate, they’ll make enough to eat or at least store up on alcohol.

     Bolognini never shows us the immediate results of that blood-letting but he can well imagine what it must have consisted of since the film’s longest scenes are devoted to the camera panning over the beautiful open-shirted and half nude bodies sprawled in various after-sex poses in a large room of a Roman villa where one of the group obviously is employed, the wealthy tenants away for a few days.

     In all the descriptions I read about La Notte brava in English only one mentions this essential scene of the film. But without comprehending it, Bolognini’s film makes little sense. For here we have suddenly opened up a door to discover Fellini hiding behind it, revealing a Rome behind the curtain of Italian masculine bluff. Throughout this film, women are “used” not primarily for their sexual abilities, but as fronts, companions, and images of what the good life looks like, as decoys to cover up the secret joys of male camaraderie. There is no way to describe the scene the director’s brilliant cinematographer lays out before our eyes for several long minutes: if these men have obviously consumed a great deal of alcohol they are even more sotted from mutual sex.

     Critic Paul Travers expresses it quite straight-forwardly:

 Bolognini then treats us to a grandiose exhibition of male bonding which culminates in the film’s most notorious sequence, an all-male orgy in a swanky Roman villa, of the kind no doubt de rigueur two thousand years previous. Bolognini spares us the sordid details but from the homoerotic signals being fired in every direction, it is obvious that heavy consumption of alcohol is not the only vice to have been indulged in.”

     Actually, the director doesn’t entirely spare us as “the sordid details” as the camera slowly pans across the sated bodies, with Bellabella sentimentally sobbing over the fact that he has missed his great-aunt’s funeral while spending the evening amusing himself “like a bastard.”

   One rubs his chest and moves his hand across his crotch. Another calls up his girlfriend to describe those laid out before him, attaching animal names to each. Scintillone moves over to his friend and lays down next to one rubbing his nipples and chest through his half open shirt, putting his hand to his arm before beginning a sentence with the words that any gay man might use in an attempt to describe his feelings to another male who he is uncertain will want to hear of his love: ”I don’t know how to say it.... You may not understand.” 

     What he is really about to say, however, is even more queer, given the circumstance. Explaining that he has no money despite having even attempted to work, he is asking for some money as if he were also a prostitute requesting after the fact the pay the handsome lover had promised for sex. The friend hands him over several bills as Scintillone again places his hand upon his arm, the other continuing to rub his chest.

    Ruggeretto meanwhile explores the villa, discovering in a back bedroom a girl sleeping on a bed. Pulling back her cover, he discovers a stunning nude who wakes up wondering if he is her brother, obviously one the boys that Ruggeretto has just fucked. The two engage in sexual banter as she dresses, apparently in her employer’s wardrobe since it quickly becomes obvious that she works in the house as the maid.

    Ruggeretto would obviously love to spend more time with her but their tête-à-tête is interrupted by Bellabella who announces he has just stolen the wallet containing a large sum of money from their host. The three meet again after racing away from the villa in a small square, where after promising to share his ill-gotten purse, Baellabella and  Ruggeretto—who wants to return the money so that he might again meet up with the lovely maid—engage in a slug out, with Ruggeretto finally winning. When he turns back, however, to pick up the wallet he finds it missing, Scintillone having stolen it and run off.

     Scintillone tries to hook up with his ex-girlfriend Rossana (Rosanna Schiaffino), using some of his new money to buy everyone drinks before he discovers her with her new boyfriend Eliseo (Franco Balducci) at a dancing joint. He dances with her, plotting to meet her at her home a short while later.

     When they finally meet up he takes her to an expensive club where only the wealthy go, but as they attempt to enjoy their newfound wealth, the maître d’restuarant arrives to tell him that all the tables are reserved. When he refuses to leave, he is thrown out and the police called. He is arrested as Rossana retrieves the stolen wallet, Ruggeretto coming upon the scene just it time to steal back the wallet and take Rossana, as he puts it, “to life.”

      They visit a couple of clubs and end up in an expensive restaurant about to close for the evening. This time a bribe buys them a late-night dinner all alone and the return of the band so they might dance. They joke about how they might be treated if the servers knew how poor they were; and recognizing that tomorrow they will need to struggle all over again just to eat, Rossana proclaims “One night in a year is enough.”

      Ruggeretto pays for the taxi back to her house, before asking the cab driver to drop him off near his home, paying with almost the very last remaining bill in the wallet.

     He sits on a nearby wall and drops the last scrap of money to the trash pile below where, in the opening credits we might have spotted it if we had known what to look for.

     Bolognini’s film, indeed, demands that kind of attention to detail. For in Ruggeretto and Scintillone’s world it is not what is said nor to whom it is said that matters. A “girlfriend” or a “boyfriend”—in fact, any “friend”—or “lover” are just words. In the end, loving involves anyone with whom in your daily desperation you can grab a quick embrace before moving on. Living is something you try to do day by day.

Los Angeles, April 24, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (April 2021).

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