previous chapter
11— La Macchina Ammazzacattivi (1948–52)
next part

La Macchina Ammazzacattivi

La macchina ammazzacattivi (The Machine to Kill Bad People) was begun just after L'amore was completed in 1948, and thus manifests much of the same questioning found in the two parts of this earlier film. Due to various production problems, however, it was not completed and released until the beginning of 1952. In its wry probing of social relationships and its comic vision of man's fallen state, it most clearly resembles another "atypical" Rossellini film, Dov' è la libertà? , the bulk of which was filmed in 1952, but not released until 1954. The social investigation of the later film, however, occurs in the context of a conventional commercial product in which the mediation of the film itself is not foregrounded, as it is in La macchina ammazzacattivi .

Massimo Mida, who worked as Rossellini's assistant on La macchina ammazzacattivi , insists that the director was not really very interested in the film. While this may indeed have been the case, this denial, as we have seen, is a common gesture that allows critics bent on seeing Rossellini as a realist to dismiss films or parts of films that do not fit the realist paradigm. The film is spotty, according to Mida, because it was done in fits and starts, without inspiration or enthusiasm.[1] Jose Guarner adds the further details that shooting was finished by Mida and Renzo Cesana and taken over and edited by another company, Fincine, but does not cite any source for his information. In any case, it seems incorrect to claim, as Guarner does, that the film "occupies a similar position to Desiderio on the list of unfinished films, written off by their director,"[2] given the fact that all critics agree that Rossellini did the majority of the shooting, at the very least, and the fact that he never publicly disclaimed responsibility for this film, as he did with Desiderio .


Celestino the photographer (Gennaro Pisano) talks to the devil
in La macchina ammazzacattivi  (1948–52).

The plot, after the spareness of La voce umana and The Miracle , is quite complicated, but that, of course, is in the nature of comedies.[3] It concerns a small-town photographer, Celestino, who is visited by an old man who turns Celestino's camera into a killing device to mete out justice to "bad people." All that Celestino need do is take a picture of a previously taken picture, and its subject will freeze dead in whatever position he or she had assumed for the first picture. Along the way, comic subplots (concerning municipal fraud, young love, and American entrepreneurs with sexy nieces) bloom and wither, as Celestino is more and more outraged by the evil he finds everywhere. Celestino is convinced that the old man is actually Sant'Andrea, the town's patron saint, and soon enough "miracles"—like a gigantic catch of fish and an unexpected check for town improvements from the government in Rome—occur, which appear to benefit the village but succeed only in bringing out everyone's latent selfishness. Celestino's vengeance grows greater and greater and becomes utterly self-righteous, to the point that he even turns against the wise doctor who has tried to convince him that it is finally impossible to separate good and evil in such absolute terms. Desperate, he decides to take his own picture, thus killing himself, but first wants to take a picture of the old man's picture, the one who had originally started all the trouble. At the moment he snaps the shutter, the old man magically appears before him and is revealed to be a minor devil looking to


curry favor with the powers below. Celestino has him make the sign of the cross, and in so doing, all those Celestino thought he had photographically killed are brought back to life, and everything returns to normal. The film ends with the moral:

Coltiva il bene senza esaggerare
Rifiuti il male, se ti vuoi salvare,
Non affrettare troppo a giudicare
E pensaci tre volte prima di punire.

[Cultivate good without exaggerating
Reject evil if you want to be saved,
Don't be too quick to judge
And think about it three times before punishing.]

One of the most interesting things about the film is that it is cast in the form of the Italian commedia dell'arte (a form that was also to interest Renoir), and thus largely concerned with broad character types rather than sharply individual psychological portraits. Even more than Una voce umana , the film is thoroughly stylized, delightfully and purposely artificial. (The comic lovers are even called Romeo and Juliet!) Enormously self-aware, much to the dismay of realist critics, it continuously and exuberantly foregrounds its own status as artificial construct rather than real life. At the same time, however, Rossellini's typical documentary impulse is also greatly in evidence, and the disruptive combination of stylization and documentary, not unlike De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1950) has bothered many. From another point of view, however, it is precisely this unstable, contradictory blend of ingredients that, in posing the problem of realism, makes the film so interesting.

Though critics have been reluctant to come to grips with this side of Rossellini, preferring to see in him alternatively the great realist or the failed realist, the director himself has been very clear, as we saw in the previous chapter, about the importance of imagination and fantasy in his work. In a specific discussion of La macchina ammazzacattivi , he has said that it "shows . . . places where I'd been happy, places I love, where some poor devils are convinced they have seen Satan. One of them told me one day, 'I've met the werewolf, I ran over him on my bicycle last night.' They are mad, crazed by the sun. But they have a power few of us possess—the power of the imagination."[4] From this perspective, Rossellini's interest in fantasy can itself be seen as a form of documentation of the people of this area.

From the very beginning of the film, the fantasy elements are stressed, probably more intensely than in any film Rossellini ever made. The first thing we see is a large hand and arm, in choreographed, flowing movements, self-consciously placing all the elements of the story before us in the form of paper cutouts (a nice literalization of the phrase mise-en-scène). Like any good neorealist, even an expressionist one, the locale, or what the voice-over, stressing the commedia dell'arte features calls the "scena" (stage), is put in place first, followed by the "personaggi" (characters) who are not named but called by generic types, such as "rich men" and "thieves." The theatrical elements foreground the artificiality of the narrative, of course, and the status of La macchina ammazza-


cattivi as filmed artifact is appropriately underlined by carrying out this stylized presentation by means of continuous dissolves, a uniquely cinematic device. The hand also plays a game of alternating revelation and concealment with the variout elements. Most important of all, when the stage setting—complete with pictures of the characters as they will be later frozen by Celestino's camera—dissolves to the first "real" scene, a car going downhill around a bend, the hand and arm of the "creator" are seen to linger for some seconds as a superimposition, thus making overt the carryover of the artifice to the realistic part of the film itself.

After we are introduced to the bumbling American entrepreneurs in the car (the man is played by Bill Tubbs, the same American actor who played the Catholic chaplain in the monastery sequence of Paisan ), the film's self-aware elements continue. When the American's shapely, if mindless, niece sees "Viva Sant'Andrea!" written on a rock and asks who he is, the director provides a blatantly artificial partial wipe that moves from the middle simultaneously to the left and right (suggesting the parting of a stage curtain), revealing the old man we will later follow through town and who will make Celestino's camera the magical arbiter of justice. The curtain wipe then closes, and the scene on the winding road returns. In thus using montage to imply, visually, an equivalence that is in fact untrue, the film suggests that the medium cannot ever be fully trusted.

The major feature of the self-reflexive questioning, of course, is Celestino's role as photographer. (A more correctly literal, if more cumbersome, translation of the title would be "The Apparatus to Kill Bad People"; it is also important to know that macchina is the common Italian word for "camera"). Celestino's shop is called La Foto Chiara , but his photographs are less clear in sorting out good and evil than he would like. More and more obsessed with punishing evildoers—who turn out to be everybody in town, including himself—he exclaims that he is more powerful than the atomic bomb. It seems possible to read in this a specific warning to Rossellini's fellow neorealists, men for the most part more politically committed, as to the limits of their moral judgment, especially through the medium of film. In some ways, this pointed message and the insistence on fantasy can even be seen as an overt separation by Rossellini from what neorealism had become. The self-reflexivity of La macchina ammazzacattivi is further insisted upon by the very fact that the "deaths" caused by the camera are portrayed on the screen precisely by the use of uniquely cinematic devices such as stop motion, montage, and reverse action, tricks as old as Méliès. And, of course, they are just that, tricks , and thus to be shunned by all proper realists; what Rossellini seems to be coming to understand at some level, however, is that all cinema, including the realist variety, is, and can only be, trickery.

The precise nature of the self-reference is ambiguous. Interestingly, Celestino's camera can be effective only when it takes a picture of another previously existing picture. On a purely functional level, of course, this is understandable because it is much more visually humorous—the bullying policeman stiffens into the Fascist salute (Rossellini feels secure enough for parody by this point), the mayor assumes the pose of his baby picture, and so on. But it seems to go further


than this. The American Peter Bondanella, who has attempted what is certainly the most detailed examination of this motif, has this to say:

In good neorealist fashion and reminiscent of statements made by such important figures as Cesare Zavattini, Celestino views the camera as a means of separating reality from illusion, good from evil, substance from appearance. Photography is, for him, a metaphor for a way of knowing, for a means of apprehending essential moral and ethical facts; it enables him, so he believes, to penetrate the surface of events to the bedrock of reality and to fulfill a god-like role in his small village (not unlike that of a film director on the set).[5]

Elsewhere in his essay, Bondanella points out, "The camera, viewed as a means of acquiring knowledge of social reality by overly optimistic neorealist theorists, has been reduced to a fallible instrument which reflects not reality but human subjectivity and error."[6] The trouble is that Celestino's camera is never really considered by either him or Rossellini as a "way of knowing," as a device by which one might separate good from evil. Rather, the camera is merely a tool by which Celestino metes out punishment to those who have already been judged guilty by the independent moral consciousness, before the photographic or filmmaking process enters in. Rossellini's point thus seems to be that the photographic or cinematic "capturing" of reality is morally neutral (or impossible or irrelevant), and thus significant only as the actualization of a prior idea or moral stance that the filmmaker takes toward a particular reality. This idea or stance preexists any taking up of the camera, though the idea is, of course, only actualizable through it. This, in turn, helps to explain Rossellini's cryptic, if famous, 1954 definition of neorealism as "above all a moral position from which one looks at the world. It then becomes an aesthetic position, but it begins as a moral one."[7]

Thus far we have been stressing the film's fantasy elements. But it would be a mistake to focus upon them to the exclusion of all else, for the film's simultaneous insistence on a documentary realism is what constitutes its rough, unconventional appeal. Many of the scenes of the Amalfi coast seem to have been taken from stock documentary footage, or else Rossellini shot new footage himself; in any case, the particularization of locale is remarkable. The blessing of the boats and the procession for Sant'Andrea are also obviously real rather than staged, and, as the film opens Rossellini adds, in the self-congratulatory manner of La nave bianca , "and others taken from real life" to the list of screen credits. This continued concern for the "real," in the face of doubts about the possibility of achieving it, is what distinguishes La macchina ammazzacattivi from De Sica's better-known Miracle in Milan , made on a similar subject around the same time. As Jose Guarner has rightly pointed out, for De Sica the Duomo in Milan is little more than "an element in the decor."[8] In La macchina ammazzacattivi , on the other hand, the fantasy combines uneasily with the documentary footage to call into question what is after all the predominantly realistic mode of the individual dramatic scenes. A brilliantly staged religious procession, in other words, achieved at great expense of time and money, would insert itself seamlessly into the fabric of the film, and we would take it as happening before our


eyes, and thus give ourselves to it. Here, however, it is precisely the rough reality of the actual procession's documentary images (rather than a smooth realism) that makes us aware that we are watching a film, and that, in this film, nearly everything else we see is fake.

Many other motifs from Rossellini's earlier (and later) films make an appearance as well, though now transmuted into comic form. Thus, the theme of language is restated (we see how language is often little more than puffery and rhetoric, used to deceive rather than enlighten, as in Una voce umana , and how, as in Paisan , it keeps cultures, and therefore, people, apart) but here it is all played for laughs. Similarly, the motif of the miracle, so significant for Stromboli and Voyage to Italy and such an important, if ambivalent, part of The Miracle , is parodied. In addition, Celestino teaches the sign of the cross, as the priest did in L'uomo dalla croce , but now the pupil is a minor devil; the Americans "land" and corrupt the eager natives as they did in Paisan; God is present in the sky at the end, as at the end of Stromboli, Francesco , and, twenty-five years later, The Messiah; the deadly serious fishing and price haggling of Stromboli and Visconti's La terra trema , are here treated humorously. The steps and incessant climbing of The Miracle , struggling against all odds, is here comically cursed; the doctor says that he prefers the poor to the rich because he does not have to climb stairs to care for them, and the Americans, continually moving from one unsatisfactory guest house to another, complain about the ubiquitous steps. (The oppositional motif of high and low camera shots, as well, continues from The Miracle .) Even suicide has become funny. Most importantly, the failure of coralità , so bitterly remarked in Germany, Year Zero and the films immediately following, now seems attributable to the comic selfishness of all humanity.

It is on this last point that the film has been most seriously attacked. Rossellini refuses to assign blame solely to the rich, and his "condemnation" assumes the global, exculpatory dimensions of "that's the way people are." The director's thoroughly bourgeois attitude thus allows him to criticize the poor for being just as "selfish" about money as the rich are. The doctor, as the man of reason and science, and thus a typical Rossellini stand-in, as we shall see, gives the thematic summation that in real life good and evil exist side by side; he claims that he has never been able to tell them apart. A moral position, in other words, once again substitutes for a political one. It is this that annoys Pio Baldelli about the film, and though his rhetoric may be a bit harsh, it is hard to disagree, finally, with his position: "The photographer claims to be doing justice, to punish evildoers, but things gradually go from bad to worse, and the poor are even worse than the well-to-do: so let's just keep things as they are, and be patient: there's still the sun, happiness, and Sant'Andrea.[9]


previous chapter
11— La Macchina Ammazzacattivi (1948–52)
next part