Sunday, 16 October 2011

LFF 2011: The Machine That Kills Bad People (Roberto Rossellini, 1952) Review

Celestino (Gennaro Pisano) is bestowed with an unusual power in Rossellini's comical farce...

Previously considered a lost work, fabled by the hundreds of cinéastes teased by its genius plotline, Roberto Rossellini's obscure 1952 satire The Machine That Kills Bad People (La macchina ammazzacattivi) is receiving a rare screening at the London Film Festival this week, and, as the strand title would suggest, it's a true treasure from the archive.

The opening scene is wondrously inventive. A calm ocean is interrupted by a hand from the heavens, which proceeds to set the scene of a politically corrupt seaport town in the South of Naples. This hand magically conjures the town's miniature landmarks, represented by cardboard cutouts; it's a lot like shoebox theatre. Through the gentle narration a divide is established between the proletariats and bureaucrats, who may turn out to be just as troublesome as each other for small-town photographer Celestino (Gennaro Pisano). Once the scene has been set we are welcomed into Rossellini's tale of greedy officials and well-intentioned half-wits, which also acts as a fascinating commentary on cinema itself...

A naive individual, Celestino is one night visited by a vagrant old man claiming himself to be the town's patron saint, St. Andrea. This grubby gentleman bestows upon Celestino the power to kill through his camera. All the lensman must do is select a picture of his target, snapshot the item, and across town that person will die. Comically, upon expiration, they will also strike the same pose as in Celestino's elected photograph ("that idiot died with his arm in the air"). Firmly anti-establishment in his views, Celestino then endeavors to rid the town of its evil, starting with a local cop causing a star-crossed couple (the film's own Romeo & Juliet) trouble. Add into this mix a group of American tourists (who, with their top-range fashions and stylish car, represent modernity) who believe they are cursed, and Rossellini has established a wonderful farce...

Though best known for his contribution to the neo-realist movement of the 1950's, Rossellini never actually settled on one style, crafting a remarkably distinctive (and unpredictable) body of work over his 41-year career. The Machine That Kills Bad People, based on a story by Eduardo De Filippo and Fabrizio Sarazani, is his only out-and-out comedy, and it's a surprisingly broad affair, heavily reliant on sight gags involving donkeys, coffins and devil horns. That said, it is very funny, and it's a shame that the director never returned to the genre. Details are sketchy but it appears that Rossellini wasn't pleased with the final film, which was shot in 1948, finished by another director and then shelved until its release in '52, when it was greeted by sub-par reviews. The director called this film, which was released without his consent, an "isolated experiment", and as such is remains utterly fascinating.

With all that said, it's not entirely successful. This could be put down to the production history, but I suspect the greater problem lies in the fact that, with his feet still in the realist pond, Rossellini is attempting to bellyflop into the realm of absurdism here, and the cocktail of dark political satire, cinematic allegory and character piece doesn't quite come together. The film works best when it adopts a kind of slapdash tone, finding Celestino exasperatedly running across town in pursuit of a will, bumping off all the greedy so-and-so's that manage to get their hands on it before he does. In a hilarious extended set-piece he runs back and forth between the officials and his development lab, pleading with them for the benefit of the town's economy, and casually resorting to murder when they can't see past their own wealth. Rossellini smartly exploits this hypocrisy, but often in an overly sincere manner.

When the comedy works, it really works, and my audience - surprisingly packed with all ages - were howling from beginning to end. There are some really nice one liners, and the visual gags are working on a very sophisticated level, despite how broad they appear (we can see the donkey joke coming a mile off, but the execution ensures a giggle). The film ends exactly as it begins, with that heavenly hand (possibly Rossellini's) dissolving our little shoebox performance, narrating the audience out of Celestino's plight. It's perhaps a little too neat, but that matters little. By this time the laughs have been had. I really hope The Machine That Kills Bad People gets a release sometime over the next 12 months. It richly deserves the audience who so eagerly await it.

The Machine That Kills Bad People is screening at the London Film Festival this evening.

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