After <I>La Dolce Vita</I>: A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi's Italy

After La Dolce Vita: A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi's Italy

by Alessia Ricciardi


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This book chronicles the demise of the supposedly leftist Italian cultural establishment during the long 1980s. During that time, the nation's literary and intellectual vanguard managed to lose the prominence handed it after the end of World War II and the defeat of Fascism. What emerged instead was a uniquely Italian brand of cultural capital that deliberately avoided any critical questioning of the prevailing order. Ricciardi criticizes the development of this new hegemonic arrangement in film, literature, philosophy, and art criticism. She focuses on several turning points: Fellini's futile, late-career critique of Berlusconi-style commercial television, Calvino's late turn to reactionary belletrism, Vattimo's nihilist and conservative responses to French poststructuralism, and Bonito Oliva's movement of art commodification, Transavanguardia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804781503
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 07/25/2012
Series: Cultural Memory in the Present
Pages: 327
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Alessia Ricciardi is Associate Professor of French and Italian at Northwestern University. Her book, The Ends of Mourning: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Film (Stanford, 2003), won the MLA's 2004 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literary Studies.

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A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi's Italy
By Alessia Ricciardi


Copyright © 2012 Board of trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8150-3

Chapter One


The Italian Metamorphosis from La dolce vita to Ginger and Fred

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci argued that Italian intellectuals historically have preferred the cosmopolitan, universal, and aristocratic self-image derived from the mythic and rhetorical traditions of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. It may be argued that contemporary conditions in Italy have aggravated the tendency of the cultural elite to see itself as part of a utopian community superior to the claims of national affiliation. As a result, this group has felt free to ignore the nation's historically specific political and cultural dilemmas. From the painterly movement of Transavanguardia to the philosophical school of weak thought, from the novels of Italo Calvino to the semiotics of Umberto Eco, the apparent intention is to free Italy from the shadow of provincialism and to fulfill the promise of universal importance.

Indeed, no efforts have been made to link Italy's present-day cultural mainstream to its late capitalist logic, as already has been done with respect to the United States in the writings of Fredric Jameson and David Harvey. Eco, for example, in his "Postface to The Name of the Rose," makes clear that for him the aesthetic positions that he associates with the concept of postmodernism constitute an ahistorical category that can be extended back to Saint Augustine. An apocalyptic, critical approach to contemporary mass culture and mediation such as the one epitomized in France by Jean Baudrillard is also glaringly absent from the Italian milieu. What has prevailed instead is a formalist aesthetics that welcomes the dissolution of historical metanarratives as the prelude to an expanded freedom of irony, reappropriation, and ludic play. I maintain that Federico Fellini constitutes a distinguished exception to this intellectual panorama, not only because he refused through the end of his career to become a "cosmopolitan," universalist filmmaker in the Hollywood mold but also because his last films register the crisis point in which Italian ultraconsumerism culminates.

In what follows, I will analyze the strategic positions occupied in this culture by two of the director's films: La dolce vita and Ginger and Fred. Like quotation marks, the films bracket a period in Italian history during which the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s paved the way for the full-blown principle of spectacularism that emerges in the 1980s. In this sense, the itinerary from La dolce vita to Ginger and Fred encompasses the very genealogy of social and cultural change in Italy during those decades. I will contend that in Italy contemporary social conditions are premised to a unique degree on the complicity of mass culture with corporate capitalism, a phenomenon epitomized by the transmutation of the staggering success of Berlusconi-style commercial television into actual political power. It is this phenomenon that clearly prompts Guy Debord in the late 1980s to identify Italy as the chief example of what he calls the society of "integrated spectacle." Reinforcing Debord's insistence on defining spectacle as "not a collection of images, but a social relationship among people, mediated by images," Giorgio Agamben concludes in The Coming Community that such a mediation of relationships ultimately results in expropriation and alienation of human sociality itself. He makes us aware, in other words, of the violence intrinsic to the society of spectacle. We may well contrast the Italian state of things to the situation of the United States. Although undeniably driven in many respects by the logic of late capitalism, to invoke Jameson's phrase once more, contemporary American popular discourse frequently has involved critical reflection on gender roles, on race, and on national identities. In Italy, however, such considerations have entered into the public sphere of discussion only in the most superficial ways and subject to the resistance of a dismissive parochialism.

If La dolce vita dramatizes the conversion of Italy's newfound wealth into popular spectacle, Ginger and Fred satirizes the perverse consequences of this conversion of capital into image as manifested by Italian culture under the domination of Silvio Berlusconi's corporate empire. After the demise of Fascism, neorealism in the 1940s contributed to a new sense of national identity through an aesthetics informed by ethical and political engagement. By the 1980s, Fellini bears witness to the sustained metamorphosis of the always-problematic concept of Italian national identity into a mere consumerist drive associated with the "Italian Style." This phenomenon operated chiefly though fashion, design, and advertising to establish Italy itself as a brand, as its own cultural capital.

Fellini's career may be divided into three discrete phases. In the first, he achieves two international critical successes, La strada (1954) and The Nights of Cabiria (1957), which both starred Giulietta Masina, won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, and contributed, according to the critic André Bazin, to the invention of a new mode of film realism that is phenomenological and poetic. In the second phase, the director sublimely reformulates the language of modernism in cinematic terms in his masterpieces La dolce vita (1959) and 8½ (1963), both of which star Marcello Mastroianni. In particular, the French theorists Christian Metz and Gilles Deleuze have made clear the modernist affinities of this second phase. Deleuze argues for continuity between the neorealism of the 1940s and the experimental Italian cinema of the 1960s (the latter of which is typified by Fellini's second phase) insofar as neorealism and the later experimentalism constitute a new mode of cinema through their invention of what the philosopher calls the "time image." The film that is the key to an assessment of the relationship proposed by Fellini between film modernism and the Italian cultural dilemma is La dolce vita. Although formally constructed according to a "Cubist" ideal of fragmentation, La dolce vita exposes the vanishing point of modernist culture in Italy in the course of observing the emergence of the society of integrated spectacle that ensues from the so-called economic miracle.

The third and last phase includes films such as Orchestra Rehearsal (1979), And the Ship Sails On (1983), Ginger and Fred (1986), and The Voice of the Moon (1990), productions that reflect the filmmaker's controversial, and as I will argue generally misunderstood, turn toward social critique. The Voice of the Moon, his last feature-length motion picture, was not even distributed in the United States, and very few critical studies take seriously the political ambitions of his late films. Of these features, Ginger and Fred, which stars both Masina and Mastroianni and thus may be said to conjoin metacinematically the first and second phases of the director's career, is the most important. Even though casting both stars at first glance suggests a perfect synthesis of Fellini's early and middle styles, neither the phenomenological realism of La strada nor the explosive modernist poetic of La dolce vita is ultimately at issue in Ginger and Fred. More than either And the Ship Sails On or Orchestra Rehearsal, which both rely on the mediation of allegory, Ginger and Fred exemplifies the director's bitter attitude toward contemporary culture in Italy during the final phase of his career. With this film, he clearly abandons his comfortable role as the poetic chronicler of Italian social customs and embraces the antagonistic role of cultural critic. In what follows, I maintain that Fellini must be recognized as one of the very few Italian intellectuals to confront the consumerist transformation of Italian society in the aftermath of the economic miracle. Unlike most members of the Italian cultural establishment (one thinks of Eco or Calvino) who quickly assented to the dominance of the culture industry, Fellini refused to be a mere spectator of his own spectacle.

Ginger and Fred exposes the dominance of private television in the Italy of the 1980s, a nation enthralled by the profiteering of Berlusconi and by the spread of consumerism accelerated in those years by the origination and popularization of the Italian Style in fashion and design. In Italy, as I contend throughout this book, the emergence of contemporary techniques of mediation has coincided not with a blurring of boundaries between the disciplines of knowledge or with a rewriting of the rigid social and political agenda of modernism, but instead with the unadulterated hegemony of consumer culture. In this respect, the importance of marketing, design, and fashion in defining a "new," but weak and amorphous, national identity, better known since the 1980s as the Italian Style, cannot be overestimated. Reflecting on the consolidation of this identity, Ginger and Fred might be said to extend and deepen the investigation of mass culture initiated in La dolce vita, albeit from a more melancholic perspective. When Marcello, the protagonist of La dolce vita, resigns his aspirations of becoming a modernist writer and of observing, like his friend Steiner, the funeral rites of high-cultural aesthetics, he prefigures the pathos of Pippo, the male half of the retired dance team whose story is chronicled in Ginger and Fred and whose routine consists of a staged simulation of Hollywood spectacle. That Fellini cast the youthful and the aged Mastroianni in both roles accentuates the genealogical connection between the journalist of La dolce vita and the tap dancer of Ginger and Fred.

Fellini may be said to have contributed, if involuntarily, to the phenomenon of the marketing of Italian culture in the 1960s inasmuch as the worldwide success of La dolce vita itself appeared to signal the sweet potential of a cosmopolitan consumerism. By the time of his last productions, however, Fellini was determined not to remain an accomplice in the metamorphosis of Italian culture. Ginger and Fred thus bitterly protests the oppressive banality of the full-blown society of integrated spectacle in Italy. This culture combines a halfhearted reaffirmation of the aesthetics of modernism with a fervent embrace of capitalism and political conservatism. Italy thus achieves what might be thought of as a perverse pastiche of the Gramscian ideal of national-popular culture. In the economy of such a culture, Berlusconi represents a new personification of the Machiavellian prince: a media tycoon and self-made politico who has established by corporate means the sort of national cultural hegemony that Gramsci hoped would one day belong to the political left.

Gramsci, of course, contended in his Prison Notebooks that Italy lacked a national-popular culture, meaning by this term the sort of intellectual and artistic works that might renovate the collective consciousness of society. In Gramsci's eyes, the national-popular is a nearly utopian principle that regulates the well-being of the national community. It is only with the triumph of commercial television in the 1980s, however, that a perverse version of national-popular, or more properly "national-populist," culture takes root in Italy. Although the cinematic neorealism of the 1940s did provide a myth of cultural unification, its productions can hardly be called popular. With the exception of a handful of films, most notably Rome, Open City, The Bicycle Thief, and Paisà, neorealism was not a grand success at the box office. Relative to the elitist aesthetics and intellectual challenges of neorealist film, commercial television succeeded in thoroughly penetrating Italian society of the 1980s. As Paul Ginsborg has pointed out, television has been the greatest constitutive element of mass culture in contemporary Italy, where for a general populace that does not like to read books and newspapers watching TV increasingly has become the ultimate—and only—cultural activity.

For Gramsci, the national-popular need not imply a divide between low and high culture, since even Shakespeare exemplifies the category. For the society presided over by Berlusconi, television instead affirms only the crudest and most narrow-minded notion of the popular. The nation, which in Gramsci's argument does not represent the metaphysical foundation of a systematic nationalism but rather the social context of an open-ended search for collective ideals, in the current context designates the imagined community of an Italy based on the consensus of consumption. If the cinema in Italy offered an opportunity for oppositional cultural politics until the end of the 1960s, the rise of privatized television in the 1980s affirms the ideal of passive spectatorship of the operations of capitalism. Fellini unflinchingly registers, and toward the end of his life assails, this drastic social transformation, joining the ranks of the very few intellectuals who have spoken out against the relentless commercialization of Italian culture.

In this chapter, I focus first on La dolce vita's depiction of the agonized dialectic between a waning modernist aesthetics and an emerging spectacularism in Italy. I then consider how, twenty years after La dolce vita, Ginger and Fred looks back on the birth of this exhilarating culture of paparazzi, fashion models, celebrity impersonators, and globalized commerce with the bitterness of an unrelieved melancholy. Far from quixotically picking a quarrel with the television medium, Ginger and Fred delivers an accurate, poignant, and damning critique of the hegemonic commercial and intellectual culture of Italy in the 1980s. Fellini, who did not live to see Berlus coni become the nation's prime minister in 1994, fully understood that the mogul's spectacular brand of capitalism was eroding the contours of national identity and with them any political hope for the future.

The Spleen of Rome: Fellini's La dolce vita

In the 1960s, Fellini's first tactic of resistance to the power of the media was to attempt a cinematic reinvigoration of the aesthetics and critical claims of modernism. As we will see, however, the director ultimately stages, in the course of this reinvigoration, a dialectical, agonistic drama between the modernist form of his film and his mass cultural subject matter, a struggle that is always on the verge of spilling out of control and derailing his critical enterprise. Much later in his career, when he makes Ginger and Fred, he finds a way to successfully bring to light the complexities and contradictions of Italian mass culture by subjecting his own signature visual devices to radical deformation. In La dolce vita, Fellini limits his directorial intervention to an almost unconscious chronicling of the materialization of the Italian society of spectacle, the taking root of a transnational community in Rome, the symbolic capital of the post modern empire.

This empire is signified throughout the film by the perpetual recurrence of popular songs (the 1960s hit "Patricia"), fashion models (the iconic Nico in the castle of Bassano di Sutri), international movie starlets (Anita Ekberg playing the temptress Sylvia), and absurd or meaningless occurrences that explode into media circuses (the newscast of the provincial "miracle"). Fellini even incorporates an Italian Elvis impersonator, played by Adriano Celentano, in a scene of inebriated dancing to rock and roll at Caracalla that foreshadows his persistent use of celebrity look-alikes in Ginger and Fred. The inescapability in La dolce vita of that hallmark of the postmodern, the simulacrum, bears witness not only to the ascendancy of spectacularized mass culture in Italy but to the contemporary decline of modernist aesthetics with its emphasis on high art, abstraction, purity, and fragmentation. The film's interest, in other words, resides in its ambivalent depiction of modernism's decadence, a depiction that manages to criticize and surrender to postmodernity at the same time.

Fellini described in strikingly contrary terms his attempt in La dolce vita to reconfigure plot or narrative construction as a work of both deconstruction and recomposition: "We have to make a statue, break it, and recompose the pieces. Or better yet, try a decomposition in the manner of Picasso. The cinema is narrative in the nineteenth-century sense: now let's try to do something different." That Fellini undertook to make a Cubist film in La dolce vita by cultivating a disjointed, highly original, paratactic narrative style (and by indulging a taste for caricature and grotesquerie not unfamiliar to his Spanish precursor) at odds with the linear plots favored in classic Hollywood movies ought to reopen the question of the modernist status of Fellini's masterpiece.


Excerpted from AFTER LA DOLCE VITA by Alessia Ricciardi Copyright © 2012 by Board of trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Sweetness....................19
2 Lightness....................81
3 Weakness....................125
4 Softness....................211

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