ORCHESTRA REHEARSAL -- At the Tenley Circle 2.
Artistic discipline, used as a metaphor for social order, is the theme of Frederico Fellini's "Orchestra Rehearsal." Much of the 72-minute film is done in the simplest theatrical convention, the soliloquy, but toward the end, his familiar surrealistic style is used.
It is perhaps not Fellini's fault that the way he used chaos to depict social decadence in "La Dolce Vita" in 1961 became so much of a cliche, in the cinematic and other "happings" of the 1960s, that one feels any fool can do it and most have. When actors throw excrement at paintings and copulate on a crowded floor, as they do in the free-form part of this picture, it surely won't startle anyone.
But seeing Fellini work within the old-fashioned, rather rigid form of serial soliloquies is shocking because he does it so well. It's like rediscovering the early representational work of a famous abstract artist, and remembering that before he broke the rules, he had the discipline to master them.
For this reason, the metaphor of discipline in art is more interesting in the new Fellini picture than some great social truth that one may or may not be able to make from it.
Members of an orchestra assemble in a 13th-century oratory, which they use for a rehearsal hall because of its splendid acoustics. A television crew there to do a documentary provides an excuse for having each of the players talk directly to the audience about his feelings for his instrument.They have all personified their instruments, and talk tenderly, humorously and with a spirited sense of rivalry about the personalities of whatever they play -- cello, drums, oboe, harp, piano, flute, trumpet.
But they are workers, as well as musicians. They speak of what music has done for them professionally, not just spiritually, and they have union representatives there to enforce their breaks. A mouse distracts them and everyone joins in killing it. One player is trying to follow the soccer game on a transistor radio. When the rehearsal gets difficult, individual musicians jump up between notes to remove their coats, sweaters or shirts.
It's the complicated way that these people are shown that makes the conventional part of the movie a rare experience.
The question is their relationship to their ruler, the orchestra conductor, played by Baldwin Baas with a wonderfully rumpled, sensitive, poetic look that we later see him privately adjusting in front of a mirror. Although he is quick with the sarcastic metaphor, and his authoritative tone is aided by a German accent, it's evident that the musicians do not respect him.
An elderly copyist, drolly played by Umberto Zuanelli, and the conductor himself blame modern society, with its lack of respect for authority and for selfless devotion to work. The musicians first blame the individual, but then begin to attack the role. The rehearsal disintegrates, and the movie along with it, as the musicians scream, fight, deface the walls, topple the conductor, set up a giant metronome in his place, and then topple it.
But the revolution is frozen when an enormous wrecking ball, looking suspiciously like the planet earth symbol of some movie company, begins to destroy their ancient rehearsal hall. The conductor resumes his podium, as the rebelling musicians accede to his statement that the only way they can go on is to "follow the notes." They play. They seem, finally, to have achieved a symphony out of individual sounds, because outside opposition has made them unite. But then the conductor's voice rises and, switching into German, he yells himself into a Hitlerian frenzy. All is dark.
What means all this?
That democracy, with its individualism and unionism, cannot function and harmonious society is possible only under a dictator? That the dictators will then abuse their power and therefore harmonious society is never possible? That Italy needs historical landmark protection enforcement?
None of this works. The rebels are as phony as the oversize wrecking ball. To find out how they really felt about destruction, all you would have to do is to try to abuse one of their beloved instruments.
But that is never attempted. The earthy sensitivity that was so beautifully established for the musicians earlier in the film makes the subsequent premise unthinkable.