by Rita Aresta
Orchestra Rehearsal (in Italian, Prova D’Orchestra) is perhaps one of Federico Fellini’s least known films – and his last collaboration with composer Nino Rota, due to Rota’s death in 1979. The Italian master has always been remembered for some of his most influential films, such as La Strada (The Road, 1954), La Dolce Vita (The Good Life, 1960) and 8 ½ (1963), at which point many critics felt that Fellini had either lost his talent or, at the very least, had nothing left to say.
Orchestra Rehearsal was a project originally intended for television – it’s only 70 minutes long, and totally shot in a single studio, as if an Italian national public broadcasting TV crew was making a documentary about an orchestra, interviewing each musician and recording the rehearsal.
Fellini had always made his aversion to political matters quite clear, especially after 1961, when through a psychoanalyst, he become acquainted with Carl Jung’s work, and developed an interest in the concepts of archetype and the collective unconscious – both widely explored in films such as 8 ½, Satyricon (1969), Casanova (1976) and La Città Delle Donne (City Of Women, 1980). However, the production of the film coincided with the kidnapping and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades, a militant far-left organisation. Moro wanted a peaceful conciliation between the communist side of the parliament and the extreme right supported by the US in the context of the Cold War, but the Red Brigaded didn’t accept that. In fact, neither side accepted anything, with many sectarian interests and little concern for Italy’s economic situation.
“Oh no, not Pachelbel’s Canon AGAIN…”
In this way, the tense Italian political conjuncture served as the backdrop and metaphor for Italy as a confused, out-of-tune orchestra, combined with an archetypal approach to music and sound; rather than being part of the world, music is the world itself, despite its banalisation for the individual tastes and pretensions of each musician, who turns their instrument into an alibi for self-indulgence.
Orchestra Rehearsal was criticised at the time for its ambiguity and lack of a definite point of view: there’s conductor authoritarianism, musicians’ exploitation, class struggle, the union that attempts to unite the musicians, anarchists, autonomists, revolt and conflicts. But Fellini’s message is melancholy and bitter – and maybe that’s why it didn’t please the critics. Despite popular discontent and revolt, all that’s achieved is socio-political chaos – and the masses, impoverished by the losses and fearful of the future, always end up opting to maintain the status quo.
The narrative begins with the TV crew’s camera framing the elderly orchestra copyist explaining the story of the location where the rehearsal is about to take place – a 13th century church, where the tombs of three popes and seven bishops are located, that in 1871 was transformed into a music auditorium due to its perfect acoustics. Such an opening is symbolic and essential: the whole narrative of conflict and tension that will take place occurs on illustrious buried characters and on History itself – religion and music.
“The power of Christ compels you!”
We then follow the slow arrival of musicians, who are warned by a union leader that a TV crew is making a documentary about the orchestra. The first conflict begins: why does the union allow TV to interview them without paying them anything? Why should they participate? We also immediately realise there’s a deliberate delay in the diegetic sound of the film in relation to the image – it’s as if Fellini wanted to use this technical “flaw” as a metaphor for the complete lack of synchronicity between the orchestra musicians. They all talk at the same time, in a mixture of disorganisation and lack of education – one cares about the outcome of a game on the radio, another one thinks about taking their medication, a violinist spills a bottle of whisky, while two other musicians discuss the position of a chair.
Soon, the interviewer (in the voice of Fellini himself) begins to interview the members of the orchestra: most defend their instrument as the most important in the performance, while some refuse to be interviewed. We begin to realise each musician’s speech has nothing to do with their instrument or the orchestra, but with themselves – as the instrument reflects their own personality, under the best possible light. For example, a flute player says that the flute’s wind affects the artist’s head, which is why every musician is expected to do something unusual – so she does a backflip for the camera. In fact, very few speak about music, but mostly about themselves.
That is, until the conductor arrives, meticulous and severe, unaccepting of error, and demanding repetition of movements to perfection. The tension grows when one of the musicians shouts out a union law that allows no more than three repetitions. “You should be more concerned with music than with the union”, replies the conductor.
It’s unclear what exactly starts the confrontation between orchestra and conductor (State vs. Society? Capital vs. Labour?) that will gradually deteriorate into revolt, graffiti on church walls, rubbish-throwing at the portraits of consecrated musicians, chair-breaking and general violence. It’s not long before the musicians split themselves into a pro-maestro wing (longing for the “good times”, in which authority is respected), syndicalists (who want to replace the conductor with a metronome), anarchists (they don’t want either) and the simply alienated, who continue to give interviews as if nothing was happening.
Past vs. Present
In Orchestra Rehearsal, it appears that Fellini presents the reason for his aversion to politics in cinematography: the whole narrative compares the past, History and the archetypal with the fleeting individual or political interests. To begin with, as mentioned earlier, all conflict occurs in a 13th century church, over tombs of popes and bishops.
“I am an anti-Christ / I am an anarchist”
In that very space, there are scores, musical instruments, the conductor’s stand, and music itself – eternal entities: music as an archetype. The symbolism of an art that deals with the transformation of time – always ephemeral and momentary – into something perennial, by converting it into signatures, rhythms, harmonies and arrangements, mathematically converting time into eternity.
Fellini confronts all this with individual petty interests and the fugacity of political conjunctures – the fragmentation of the orchestra (i.e. society) in the various political groups that seem to forget the fundamental, and also archetypal, conflict: conductor vs. orchestra, dominator vs. dominated, all social conflicts (of classes, estates, castes, etc.) that have always fractured society throughout history. For Fellini, Politics is the empire of the superficial, the transitory, of everything that’s fragile. All musicians forget their own music (the eternal) to delve passionately into the superfluity of political conflict and personal interest.
Viewers say she came in like a wrecking ball.
Nonetheless, Fellini still has a final reckoning with politics: even in its fugacity and fragility, another terrible, but eternal truth hides – in the end, the conductor re-establishes order and returns to command the orchestra, only this time in a parody, shouting in German. This seems melancholic Fellini’s verdict on Politics: no matter what the struggle, conflict and ideology, in the end, everyone ends up being afraid of the future and choosing to stay the same – the old social cleavage between dominators and dominated.
All these concepts lead us to the conclusion that, like the George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orchestra Rehearsal remains topical and prophetic; but now, with the beginning of a certain social political consciousness, there’s a drop of hope for the silent totalitarian regime to lose strength, lest Fellini’s film become a comparison to the current state of affairs, rather than a study guide.
Dir: Federico Fellini
Scr: Federico Fellini, Brunello Rondi
Cast: Balduin Baas
Prd: Michael Fengler, Renzo Rossellini
DOP: Giuseppe Rotunno
Music: Nino Rota
Runtime: 70 minutes
Orchestra Rehearsal is available on DVD now.