Renaissance Man

Ara H. Merjian on Carmelo Bene

Carmelo Bene, Capricci, 1969, still from a color film in 35 mm, 89 minutes. Right: Carmelo Bene, Nostra signora dei turchi (Our Lady of the Turks, 1966), still from a color film in 16 mm, 142 minutes.

WRITING ON THE ITALIAN THEATER IN 1968, Pier Paolo Pasolini invoked one name in particular as the benchmark of contemporary, avant-garde sensibility: that of Carmelo Bene. As playwright, actor, poet, costume designer, author, and, for a few years, film director, Bene envied nothing of Pasolini’s own extraordinary versatility. And like Pasolini’s similarly unclassifiable oeuvre, Bene’s work has long enjoyed a particular esteem in France (he was an intimate of Pierre Klossowski, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, even coauthoring a few essays with Deleuze). He remains far less known in the United States, however. A retrospective this weekend at Anthology Film Archives featuring Bene’s core cinematic works, along with a few notable shorts like Il barocco leccese (1968) and Hermitage (1968), should go some way in redressing the oversight of his work on this side of the Atlantic.

By the time of his debut as a film director in 1968, Bene had already established himself as one of Italy’s bolder cultural figures, staging innovative versions of Albert Camus’s Caligula (in 1959) and Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (in 1964), as well as penning the novel Nostra signora dei turchi (Our Lady of the Turks, 1966). It is this last work—a hallucinatory meditation filmed at the Ossuary of Otranto, site of a famous Ottoman invasion and massacre—that served as the basis for Bene’s first feature-length film. Debuted at the Venice Film Festival to equal parts insult and acclaim, Nostra signora dei turchi launched the style that Bene would hone in what remained of his cinematic venture: nonnarrative sequences; surreal, staccato montages mixed with stretches of repetitive dialogue; and the use of music and sound to heighten visual dissonance.

Bene’s is first and foremost a visual cinema, a feast of sensuous colors, oneiric superimpositions, elaborate costumes, and provocative jump cuts. To watch Bene’s Capricci (1969) or Salomè (1972) is to get a basic lesson in art cinema. Veering from the expressionist to the affectless, the frenetic to the oppressively boring, Bene’s films are relentlessly paratactic, never settling into any fixed pattern or design, shifting in and out of coherence both optical and conceptual. Still, Bene was no mere formalist. Drawing upon the likes of Mayakovsky and Hölderlin, Leopardi and Collodi, he channeled his talents into a seemingly impossible range of media, of which the cinema served as a kind of consummation. Bene’s turn as a director was meteoric. Lasting just five years, his tenure behind the camera (as much as in front of it) resulted in a handful of extraordinary, genre-pushing films. These occupy an eccentric but firm position in the history of experimental, twentieth-century cinema.

“The Films of Carmelo Bene” runs April 26–29 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.