Federico Fellini’s The Swindle, part of Berlinale Classics, brings to fore the filmmaker’s deeply Catholic concerns
Fellini’s religious portrayals have always been criticised by a section of conservative Italian society, leading them to wonder if he is really a Catholic.
One of the odder casting decisions in film history is Broderick Crawford in Federico Fellini’s Il bidone (The Swindle). How does one explain the presence of this blustery American, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in All the King’s Men (1949), playing an Italian in a drama made by an Italian director whose La Strada had become the first winner of the just-instituted Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award (now renamed Best International Feature Film)? It’s odder still when you hear who Fellini originally wanted for the part: Humphrey Bogart. But by then, Bogart was dying of cancer, and Fellini happened to see Crawford’s face on a poster of All the King’s Men, and…
Il bidone (1955) was based on stories Fellini heard from a petty thief during the production of La Strada, and these stories were knit into the narrative of a swindler’s gradual change of conscience. (Film critic Tullio Kezich's Federico Fellini: His Life and Work is a must-read for fans of the filmmaker. It's filled not just with analysis but also a ton of such terrific anecdotes.) Crawford plays an aging con man named Augusto. With his accomplices, he dons priestly robes and swindles peasants. But something happens when he meets his estranged daughter, who needs money. Something happens when he sees that one of his “targets” has a young daughter — about the same age as his daughter — who walks with crutches because of childhood polio.
You can see the change of conscience coming, but it’s not obvious, and it’s not hugely melodramatic. In 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement titled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice." Drawing Sacred Scripture and the Catholic Church’s moral and social teaching, the statement insisted that the primary purpose of punishment was to protect society and rehabilitate those who violate the law. But cinema has been doing this for the longest time. Take Augusto. By the end of Il bidone, he is “rehabilitated” — redeemed — at least in the viewer’s eye. He suffers for his sins.
Fellini’s religious portrayals (especially in 8 ½) have always been criticised by a section of conservative Italian society, leading them to wonder if he is really a Catholic. In a 1966 Playboy interview, he gave a most Felliniesque response. “It’s difficult biologically and geographically not to be a Catholic in Italy. It’s like a creature born beneath the sea — how can it not be a fish? (But) If a false and misguided type of Catholic education creates guilts, inhibitions and complexes, then I say it’s not only right but necessary to identify it — and, if possible, to eradicate it.”
Would Fellini say, then, that the peasants conned by Augusto are fools, or blind believers? One of them refers to him as “Monsignore” and none of them ever questions his credentials. But they have their “revenge” in their end, when a grievously wounded Augusto lies by a gravelly hillside, in terrible pain, extending his hands for help. A group of peasant children passes by the path just above him, just out of reach — they don’t see him at all. And we are reminded of the words of the polio-stricken girl from earlier, who says she believes in miracles. “Through my misfortune I’ve found God. I’m always happy even when I’m in terrible pain.”
In the book Fellini’s Eternal Rome: Paganism and Christianity in the Films of Federico Fellini, the Italian poet/translator Alessandro Carrera posits that “one of Fellini’s major concerns, if not the major concern, is the failure of institutionalised Christianity and the impossibility of finding a ‘pagan’ alternative to it.” Il bidone, more than any other of the director’s more celebrated films, may stand as proof to this theory. Perhaps understandably, given its concerns, the film was a big flop when released, both critically and commercially. It wasn’t shown in the US till 1964, where Bosley Crowther, one of the most influential critics of the era, wrote in The New York Times: “It is, in short, an obvious cheap-crime picture, very much on the sentimental side, and therefore thematically inferior to the two films it fell between.”
Those two films were La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, whose star (and Fellini’s wife) Giulietta Masina plays a small part in Il bidone, as the wife of one of Augusto’s accomplices. Over time, though, the film’s reputation seems to have risen. To celebrate the centenary of Fellini's birth, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian ranked all 20 of the director's films. Il bidone came in at 10, between The White Sheik (1952) and Roma (1972). (Number one, was, of course, 8 ½.) And forty years after the release of Il bidone, the film got an inadvertent tribute in the form of Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Star Maker.
Tornatore became a star with his Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser, Cinema Paradiso (1988), which itself looked back to Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), about the lives and the dreams of people in a sleepy little town. And like Augusto in Il bidone, the protagonist of The Star Maker goes about swindling people. (What is cinema, after all, if not its own kind of “religion”, whose demi-gods we practically worship?) He says he is connected to big film studios in Rome and takes money from starry-eyed simpletons for screen tests that will go nowhere. Like Augusto, he undergoes a separation from a loved one. He pays for his sins. Some stories, I guess, never age. Neither do some filmmakers.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
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