Social Context of the Liminal Narrative

Figure 4: Figurative death and burial of the liminal protagonist. Top: Fistful of Dollars (Leone 1964) Middle: Death Rides A Horse (Petroni 1967) Bottom: $1,000 on the Black (Cardone 1966)

Figure 4: Figurative death and burial of the liminal protagonist. Top: Fistful of Dollars (Leone 1964) Middle: Death Rides A Horse (Petroni 1967) Bottom: $1,000 on the Black (Cardone 1966)

Social Context of the Liminal Narrative

After Fascist era laws restricting internal immigration were lifted in the late 1950s, there was a profound demographic shift from the countryside to cities. In the sixteen year period between 1955 and 1971, over nine million Italians migrated within the country (Ginsborg 1990). All the major cities rapidly expanded in these decades, but especially the industrial cities of the North such as Milan and Turin. While rural Italians form throughout the nation took part in this movement, Southerners contributed the bulk of internal migrants.

As already mentioned, Sergio Leone claimed that in his westerns he translated the American genre into an Italian vernacular in a manner inspired by the travelling Sicilian puppeteers: “. . . the skill of the puppeteers consists of one thing: to give each of the characters an extra dimension which will interest the particular village where the pupi are visiting . . .” While the characters in the Western alla’Italiana wear cowboy hats and carry Colt revolvers, they move in a landscape that is a hybrid of the mythic cinematic West and the arid, impoverished, and over-populated Mexxorgiorno (Southern Italy). Frayling (2006) has already speculated that the superficially amoral ethos of the genre emphasizing flamboyant, crafty, and self-serving characters manipulating a hostile world reflects the ethos of “amoral familism.” Banfield (1967) coined the term to describe the fragmented, competitive character of the impoverished villages of “Montegrano” in Southern Italy he studied in the late 1950s. What most struck Banfield was the lack of a civic culture and communal projects to collectively alleviate the desperate conditions most villagers lived in. Instead, according to Banfield, Montegrano was a Hobbesian war of all against all for the few resources available. While the notion of “amoral familism” has gained considerable notoriety, other contemporary fieldworkers confirmed the general concept of a “familism” caused by systems of land tenure (Silverman 1968; Blok 1969) or a harsh physical environment and distant ineffectual central government (Muraskin 1974). Whatever the causes, external bonds beyond the family were weak and unreliable accept for the patron-client relationships necessary to gain access to education, employment, and social services. These patron-client relations, based on calculation, were best managed in the crafty manner of Joe in Fistful Of Dollars.

In the emerging Italian modernity of the 1960s and 1970s, internal immigrants faced the challenge of orienting themselves in a rapidly changing society. In the South, families had survived by turning inwards and playing on networks of patron and client. Though there were waves of collective social action, especially in the decade after the Second World War (Ginsborg 1990), collectivism was atypical. Forced to immigrate by poverty and over-population, Southerners became the most militant activists in the wave of strike actions that occurred in the North starting in the early 1960s but resurgent and strong after 1968. The late 1960s also saw massive unrest led by students and workers following divergent socialist programs of the official Communist and Socialist Parties (Ginsborg 1990). It was a time in which many people were drawn in the direction of collectivist action.

At the same time, however, Italy was becoming an increasingly consumerist society atomized by television, marketing, and capitalist ideologies of the individual. This consumerism arose as clientalistic politics and a rigid central bureaucracy were impotent at addressing urgent social crises involving housing, land reform, or unconstrained capital. This added momentum of centrifugal, individualistic responses.

Fried (1967) quotes an Italian journalist commenting in 1964 about the tension between these two impulses:

“We have changed a great deal in only a few years, more than any other European nation in the same period of time. We were the country of the ‘hundred cities,’ and now we are the country of the ‘four metropolises.’ We used to speak many languages, and not we are close to speaking only one. We were inert, and now we are in movement. We were parsimonious, and new we are big spenders. We used to have the spirit of sacrifice, and now we incline towards hedonism. We used to believe in ‘destiny’ and now we believe in ‘success.’ We used to cultivate friendships; now we make ‘contacts.’ We used to be impetuous with the ladies; now we are becoming more tranquil. We were composed; now we are agitated. We used to be prudent; now we are aggressive. We were talkative; now we are more taciturn. We were diversified; now we are becoming homogenous. We were an elite society; now we are becoming a mass society. What more? We used to be individualists; we have remained individualists” (518-519).

Student and worker militancy, beginning in 1968 and lasting through the economic turmoil of the 1970s, challenged this individualistic orientation. Many of the filmmakers of the Western alla’Italiana were sympathetic with populism (Frayling 2006) even though some, like Sergio Corbucci, were hostile to the form that it took in the counterculture. It is in this context, this tension between the individual and communal, that the Western alla’Italiana must be placed. In Leone’s original telling, the liminal masculine hero passes through his initiation in order to adopt a more altruistic stance toward others. Jow the Stranger is nearly killed in Fistful Of Dollars after performing an altruistic act for Marisol and her family. In a series of films starting the popular actor Giuliano Gemma including Arizona Colt (Lupo 1966), Day of Anger (Valerii 1969), and The Price Of Power (Valerii 1969) this shift in orientations is made explicit. In these movies, the hero is a drifter or outcast motivated by his own psychological appetite or calculation for profit. Rejected by the community, he sulks like a moody adolescent until he decides to sacrifice personal interests for communal ones. While these movies are, to some degree, adolescent fantasies of male potency, it is significant to note the direction in which these fantasies are channeled. Instead of fantasies of domination, these are fantasies of community and justice. This justice is not the “law and order” of legitimate state institutions as in the Hollywood western. Instead, legitimacy resides in the individual and, more generally, the people.

Though the protagonist of the Western alla’Italiana is often described as an anti-hero, his action has positive byproducts. Even in the many revenge westerns like Django, Death Rides A Horse, or I Want Him Dead (Bianchini 1968) the enactment of personal revenge had the effect of removing a corrupt and illegitimate regime from power. The detached irony and flamboyance of the Italian western protagonist has long been seen as the marker of the cynical anti-hero by American critics, but this is a mistake. These characters perform the same structural role as the classical Hollywood western hero, but they do so within a different ideological grounding. Their actions are anchored in different conceptions of legitimacy. This is not simply a popular cinema, it is a populist cinema. These films express a similar grotesque idealism as that described by Bahktin, one in which the world is constantly renewed through the lower stratum of earth and body. This pregnant death is portrayed explicitly in Enzo Castellari’s Keoma, made at the very end of the Italian western boom. It is one of the most self-conscious films in the genre, sharing this quality with George Stevens’ Shane (1956). Not only does it reenact sequence from earlier films, like Django and performs one of the most explicit crucifixion scenes in the genre, but it ends with a gunfight as a pregnant woman gives birth. Sick with cholera, she dies after delivering the child. Keoma, the liminal hero, leaves the child in the hands of old woman who has represented Death throughout the film.

This populist element is taken to its extreme development in the explicitly Marxist westerns written by Franco Solinas like A Bullet For The General (Damiani 1966) The Big Gundown (Solima 1966), Tepepa (Petroni 1968), and The Mercenary (Corbucci 1968). In these films the hero is an ambivalent revolutionary instructed, as a proxy for the audience, in the machinery of power, exploitation, and resistance. Revolution is represented as a tragic carnivalesque fiesta extinguished by the state’s brutal retaliation. But like the liminal hero himself, the revolution will rise again. In A Bullet For The General, the protagonist El Chuncho is a Judas figure swept up in revolution and motivated by excitement, freedom, and loot. Betraying a village by abandoning its defense, he experiences the true social significance of revolution.

The portrayal of revolution as fiesta is intriguing. As I have suggested, instead of portraying the liminal individual these movies describe a liminal community which for a moment inverts power relations. This is almost the definition of carnival. Later, thematically or aesthetically cruder “Zapata” westerns like Companeros (Corbucci 1969), Head I Kill You, Tails Your Dead! They Call Me Hallelujuah (Carmineo 1971), Return of Hallelujuah (Carmineo 1972), and What Am I Doing In The Middle Of The Revolution? (Corbucci 1972) dropped Solinas’s tone of political sincerity but retained the atmosphere of fiesta. The Mexican Revolution was portrayed as a backdrop for sight gags and slapstick.

Not all of the films in the genre take such a collectivist orientation. In comedies like Any Gun Can Play (Castellari 1967) or Dead For A Dollar (Civriani 1968), partners double-cross each other in a zero-sum free-for-all whose reward if the consumption of all the gold or dollars for himself or herself. Interestingly, most of these movies also lack the liminal narrative. This element is also lacking in the dozens of slapstick westerns inspired by the enormous success of Enzo Barboni’s My Name Is Trinity (1970) and They Still Call Me Trinity (1971).

By the late 1970s, the social climate in Italy had changed enormously. The populist ferment of the 1960s was dissipated by in a nation wearied by economic crisis and political violence. The film culture also changed. Most homes has televisions by the early 1970s, depressing ticket sales and altering the film-going experience. The popular genres of the time were urban police thrillers, stylish giallos and horror, and a series of strange cannibal movies mixing reflections from contemporary ethnographic film with mondo movie sensibilities, animal cruelty, voyeuristic misogyny, and a raw and poignant sense of social and political outrage. In the middle to late 1960s, the Italian western represented a cinematic enactment of a central conflict of modernity that was returned to again and again by audiences and filmmakers. By the middle 1970s, this secular ritual no longer performed a compelling social function.


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