What does it mean to be a communist? It’s a feeling, a feeling of totality. But what is this totality? It's a field, a playing field… a pool. It is surrounded by angels, the supporters, and they look at you, they scream, they see you, but you keep silent… goal!
(Raoul Ruiz, Palombella Rossa)
I can't remember anything that happened before two weeks ago.
(Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity)
I was in time to vote for the Italian Communist Party, but only just. I turned eighteen in February of 1989. The European Elections were held in Italy on the 18th of June of that that year. So on that day, which was a Sunday, I walked down to my old primary school and did what over nine and a half million of my fellow citizens did: I voted communist. The PCI returned 27.56% of the vote, second only to the Christian Democrats on 32.91%. It would never compete in another nation-wide election.
Then, on the 9th of September, Nanni Moretti's Palombella Rossa was screened at the Venice Film Festival.
The usual explanation for why this film has garnered so little critical attention internationally compared to Moretti's later work is that it requires extensive knowledge of Italian politics, its sub-affiliations and its vernacular in order to be understood. I've never been entirely convinced by this. I think that too much has been made of Palombella Rossa's historically specific references to the identity crisis of the PCI, and that to the extent that this is in fact the overt subject of the film, its reflections are applicable to almost any decade in modern Italian history, and I suspect across borders as well, at least within Europe. But in fact the film is about personal/political identity in its wider sense, how it is constructed and maintained, how it is refracted within culture. It is also quite surreal and very, very funny.
Michele Apicella is a young member of Parliament for the PCI and a veteran water polo player. He has a car accident on his way to a game that leaves him physically unharmed but suffering from memory lapses. People make repeated mentions to something he said or did during a nationally televised political appearance earlier that week, but he has no recollection of it. He travels from Rome to Sicily along with the rest of his team and his daughter Valentina for a season-deciding game, and there he finds a young and clueless journalist, two politically motivated stalkers, a fascist he once victimised at university, a young Catholic and two old comrades, all eager to talk to him about his TV appearance.
Almost the entire action of the film takes place during the water polo game, while the television in the café of the pool complex shows David Lean's Dr Zhivago. But there are other timelines as well: the flashbacks from Michele's beginnings in water polo as a child, and those from his beginnings in politics as a young man (which take the form of an actual film that Moretti shot in super 8 in 1973 entitled La sconfitta – the defeat); the excerpts from Michele's recent televised political appearance; the excerpts from Dr Zhivago; and, woven amidst all of these, an intricately modulated filmic time, with extensive use of slow-motions, frequent intrusions of the musical score into the diegesis (for instance, when Michele wakes up on the massage table after the accident and tries to remember the melody of Nicola Piovani's piece for the opening credits) and the even more frequent overlapping of the timelines. Like in the sequence below, when Michele answers a possibly imaginary question by one of his interviewers in the middle of an offensive play.
The clips are not embedded. Click here to go on a new page with the YouTube video and subtitles of sorts.
The timelines come together in the film's protracted climactic scene, which lasts almost fifteen minutes. Michele's team, down by one goal with a few seconds to go, is awarded a penalty. Michele is going to take it. But first the players and the audience relocate en masse to the adjoining café to watch the ending of Dr Zhivago, cheering the preordained outcome as if it was a sports match and it could be influenced.
Click here to watch the clip.
Back in the pool and poised to take his shot, Michele has one last flashback and finally gets to remember (or possibly reimagine) what it was that he had done during that television programme: it turns out that in the middle of his answer on the way forward for the Communist Party he had broken into song, morphing his rote-learned speech into the lyrics of Franco Battiato's 1984 romantic pop hit E ti vengo a cercare (And I Come Looking For You). When the action returns to the pool, the audience joins him in the bellowed rendition, which segues in turn into the chant of support for the home team.
Click here to watch the clip
A little digression: After the release of Palombella Rossa, Moretti toured several branches of the PCI country-wide for a 40-minute film entitled La cosa, the thing, in which he documented, cinéma verite-style, the discussion amongst members following the proposal by then secretary Achille Occhetto that the party should transition into a new entity, whose working name, believe it or not, was actually 'the thing'. It was a lacerating process that I remember very well – I was in my first year at university when it took place. Eventually the party split in two: a minority component founded the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, aspiring to refound the party of Gramsci on the old revolutionary principles, whilst the majority – which held on to most of the property as well as the membership – moved on to create the Partito Democratico della Sinistra, the Democratic Party of the Left. In the process the party's symbol went from this.
The hammer and sickle, significantly shrunk in size, now lay at the foot of a majestic oak tree, symbolising wisdom and renewal. Then in 1998 the PDS dropped the P and became Democratici di Sinistra – Democrats of the Left, as it if had somehow stopped being a party. In the process, and for no apparent reason, the hammer and sickle disappeared from the symbol altogether, to be replaced by the red carnation of the European Socialists.
Then in 2007, in another genius move, the party dropped the S and regained the P! So now it's the Democratic Party, but no longer of the Left (demonstrating once again that when a term is omitted on the grounds that it's implicit, it actually never is). On the botanical side of things, the carnation and the oak tree were replaced by a single olive branch, symbolising the definitive end of any residual attachment to class warfare or indeed to struggles of any kind.
At this rate the next symbol will be a dozen red roses and a blowjob. But the reason why I mention all this is to illustrate to what extent the process of transition from the old Communist Party to a modern and broad-based centre-left party was predicated on deliberate acts of amnesia, and the gradual deletion of old symbols and ideas, as if in order to reclaim modernity the Left had to get rid of its past wholesale first. That is the sense of the shrill, desperate-sounding slogan of the Partito Democratico at the national election of 2008: Un'Italia moderna si può fare, A modern Italy can be achieved. Standing for the united centre-left, as a broad coalition and no longer the mass party of old that was always marginalised when it came time to form a government, the Democratic Party at the European elections of last year garnered 26.13% of the vote – less than the PCI in 1989.
What Palombella Rossa does is dramatise this process of unbecoming, in a modality that I would suggest is applicable to many other places and times in history. Ultimately, asking who we are is the same thing as asking who we were, and this has always been true, or at least it certainly has been in my lifetime for the militant Italian Left, whose foremost preoccupation has always been the very problematic affirmation of its own identity. In 1989 the party counted almost one and a half million active members, and seemingly every one of them was a theorist, as La cosa ably illustrates. Those endless and fiercely historicized discussions, that sometimes appeared to exist in an entirely self-referential plane, never prevented Left-wing activists inside and outside the party to operate in very concrete ways to change Italian society; inhuman utopia rather than humane pragmatism was in fact arguably the lifeblood of all those mass movements and organizations.
And so Palombella Rossa's main preoccupation is not only with loss of memory but also with loss of language. The nonsensical title (palombella is the lob shot in water polo, hence 'red lob') is the distorted mirror put in front of Michele's insistence that 'words are important', and all of the film's competing and patterned voices, each with its highly specialised armoury of tropes, gradually lose their capacity to mean things, including the protagonist's, until political speech turns into pop song lyric, albeit a highly literate one, and ideology is reduced to the choice of which corner to aim for.
To the right... to the right… I must look to the right and shoot to the right… the goalkeeper leaves me room on the left but I'm going to shoot to the right… NO! Maybe it's better if I shoot to the left!…
The penalty, naturally, results in a save. But Michele's trembling incoherence, which two decades later must strike us as acutely prescient, has far more catastrophic consequences: and so, on the way back to Rome after the game, he ends up driving off the road and down a steep bank whilst obsessively repeating the words 'We're like everyone else, but we're different! We're like everyone else, but we're different!' As he and Valentina climb out of the car, preternaturally unharmed, the cut-out of a sun is raised at the crest of the hill, and the assembled crowd – which turns out to comprise many characters from Michele's past, including his childhood self – spontaneously form a tableau, their right hands outstretched towards the old socialist symbol: il sol dell'avvenire, the red rising sun. Fittingly, in a sequence that is pure symbolism, the last line of the film is non verbal, and belongs to Michele as a young boy:
This laughter is a sardonic summation of the kind of spectacle that was the end of history in Italy: played out more as farce than as tragedy, animated more by confusion than by despair. Having lost its memory and its voice, the Left whimpered off the stage. And it had all been carefully mapped right here, in this curiously neglected film, oft-cited but seldom watched, whose highest praise is that it speaks so much more clearly now than it did back then.