Issue 9: Summer 2012

Cinema As Embodiment Art: Close Up on Carmelo Bene’s Cinema, Ten Years After His Death

Gianluca Pulsoni

Carmelo Bene: actor, playwright, novelist, poet, filmmaker, singer, musician, essayist, theorist; several fields on one unfinished quest, both interdisciplinary and undisciplined. Born in 1937, died in 2002, he came to theatre in 1959 to progressively become the last contemporary example of an Italian total artist, considered a genius by all sorts of critics, compared not only to Pasolini but even to Leopardi or Verdi.

Bene is immediately recognised in France, thanks to philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze or Pierre Klossowski and their analysis of his theories and masterpieces. In the UK, North America and other English-speaking countries, he is known for his cinematic research despite a generally incomplete knowledge of the essential body of his work, which remains theatre.

Today, the almost regular circulation of Bene's short and full-length films has clearly revealed him as possessing a rare experimental attitude and, undoubtedly, qualified him as a master, amongst the most prominent underground filmmakers to have emerged from Italy.

In this article, I refer only to his cinema and, specifically, to three of his works which - I think - depict the essence of my thesis. Instead of aesthetical viewpoints, I suggest a culturally-based approach and choose the paradigm of 'embodiment', as explained by anthropologist Thomas Csordas, to correctly introduce and outline his cinematic research and results, an approriate outlook from which to appreciate his radical and sophisticated contribution to modern film practice.

The cinema allows us to see the process of the penetration of man into the world and the inseparable process of the penetration of the world into man.

Edgar Morin.

L'incarnation! Ce n'est pas cela qui nous intéresse ici! Mais de savoir tout ce dont un soufflé privé de corps est capable pour contrefaire jusqu'à cette affligeante forme: serait-ce sa félicité qui se produirait ainsi sous nos yeux ou bien serait-ce une jouissance encore bestiale dès lors qu'un esprit se la procureait?

Pierre Klossowski.

The corpus of Carmelo Bene's cinematic works is composed of five movies, Our Lady of the Turks (Nostra Signora dei Turchi, 1968), Capricci (1969), Don Giovanni (1970), Salomè (1972), One Hamlet Less (Un Amleto di Meno, 1973); three medium length films, Hermitage (1967), Il Barocco Leccese (1968) and Ventriloquio (1970), the last two of which are apparently lost, and a documentary that remains unseen, A proposito di "Arden of Feversham" (1968). All these works are directed by him and feature him as a performer. They all display a marked degree of independence and autonomy, both in their production circumstances and creative vision, and generallly exemplify what a radical approach to exploring film aesthetics and techniques can ideally be: a way to disclose new possibilities for thinking and doing cinema.



Unaffiliated to any movement or artistic group and not holding to any theory of authorship, Bene's iconoclastic research still appears isolated in film history and practice, comparable perhaps to only a few others, like Chris Marker or Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi, whose efforts also conceive of film as fieldwork and cinema as dialogue between cinematic language and other disciplines or tendencies.

In his autobiography (published in 1998) Vita di Carmelo Bene, he called his filmmaking experience between '67 and '73 his "cinematic digression". What does this mean? At first reading, that it was just a period in his work, one probably brought about by a historical situation which encouraged and allowed artists to cross arts boundaries easily and re-frame aesthetical issues constantly. But there is more to it than that. As he theorized digression in his late works, especially in his late poetry, this definition - 'cinematic digression' - may be translated as synonymous with meditation, or suspension, or even with a phenomenological viewpoint. Also, undoubtedly, it describes a central and meaningful passage, a kind of technological turn in his career and research. In those years - from 1967/68 to 1973 - Carmelo Bene left his first experiences of the stage, begun in 1959 playing Camus' Caligola in Rome, and approached movies, determined to test the magic of image technology as related to performing practices.

Hermitage, defined by Bene as "a rehearsal for lenses", beyond any literal rendition - its narrative trace comes from one of his anti-novels, Credito Italiano V.E.R.D.I - displays his immediate attitude to thinking a cinematic language completely based on actor's movements and actions, and more specifically, on his presence and his schemes. Camouflaged or naked, still or moving, his body seems to play and be played at the same time, shifted by objective and subjective tensions, both metaphorically and visually speaking.

Bene had often argued how an actor should always be a "human lens". To better understand such critical and operative thinking, we may refer to one of the earliest and most intriguing television interviews he did, which is relevant in attesting to his genuine interest in some expressive filmic qualities discovered through the experience of Buster Keaton and his slapstick comedy. He considered the American as a kind of "human wide-angle" in film history, against "chaplinism", which describes the conventional way of playing and displaying feelings. In the conversation, after a preamble where the interviewer recaps the logic of Keaton's general narrative structures, we hear Bene arguing for Keaton's incongruity and view of reality, both seen as ways to challenge society. Also, in his replies, he masterfully outlines some underlying principles which lead to his never formalized film theory on directing and playing. I collected, re-ordered and translated the relevant passages:

...It's an anti-Chaplin formula. An uncritical formula, that's because you can talk about formulas, not forms [...]. If you like, you may say it's a 'stirnerian way': neither positive nor negative hero, no good and evil, this world does not exist, at least it doesn't exist as us, so we are not this reality, but also only we exist, so that we are the unique reality upon an Earth - imagine it spherical, round, conceived by Columbus - completely soaped where you slip and slip and slip, continually. Sometimes, someone can manage to stay in a state of equilibrium - as Keaton does, et voilà - and suddenly everything falls into place. You may say ability. Of course, but what is it for? He does it to prove it's possible to be crafty, that means Chaplin, but only if you're interested in success or money. [...] Keaton finds you can't lose or win, there are no friends or enemies and we are never born yet. This is the issue. Even when he's close to reality, he only gets stuck in a reality.

Moreover, about the approach to being both director and actor at the same time:

...Keaton is in front of the camera when he plays as if he was behind it. In this sense, he's a 9mm, a 25mm, a 400mm, a telephoto lens, a ‘fish-eye', a human wide-angle [...]. But Keaton is not the first who was behind and beyond the camera: there's Welles, the phenomenon Orson Welles and the phenomenon Laurence Olivier, but just to be clear [...] In Olivier, it's a reality which films another reality, so it is not the same reality behind the camera which crosses the line to auto-criticize itself from there. I mean, it's something filmed, but not filming itself anymore. [...] There's no dialectic, no objectivity: since they are not 'human wide-angles', they aren't lenses, so they miss any objectivity [1]

Our Lady of the Turks

Our Lady of the Turks

Our Lady of the Turks pursues and emphasizes the study of human body, from a formalistic and quite static viewpoint to a more complete and fascinating exploration, where it seems to be conceived according to the famous French philosopher Merleau-Ponty's formula, "setting in relation to the world".

Whether celebrated as a poem, visionary and autobiographical, or even as an essay on South Italian geography and its myths, magic and religion, it can be considered a rare masterpiece for how perfectly its outstanding visual qualities match a complex framework, focused on both a lyrical and humorous anti-linear narrative and on a marked technical discontinuity of traditional filmmaking. But what makes a difference here, I guess, is the efficacy with which Bene approaches such thematic and stylistic challenges all-in-one, as both author and actor, shaman and patient of his own imaginary.

Once again, comprehension of body becomes essential. The theatrical side of Bene comes from the well-known revolutionary French artist Antonin Artaud. Like the Italian, he worked between theatre and cinema and was the first to understand the relevance and necessity of an approach to body as a new paradigm for a complete filmic and theatrical renovation, against any form of text dictatorship.

Artaud theorized the 'theatre of cruelty', but this definition is often misunderstood. 'Cruelty' refers to method and simply stands for a rigorous attitude towards theatrical practice and artistic matters. In his last writings, he expanded this outlook by focusing on the idea of the 'body without organs', another of his influential topics and more a philosophical category than a staging guideline. Cruelty and body without organs are strictly related in artaudian metaphysics, as one gives method and the other gives content. They are two sides of the same process, where practice is literally more relevant than any product and the doer fatally more artistic or just more 'living' than any work. Two decisive understandings Bene reprised and transformed, as both author and actor of his own works.

In Our Lady of the Turks, within an evident baroque imagery, Bene displays a paradoxical stylistic rigour - his 'cruelty' - based on a continuous dialectic between epic and ridicule as principles used to avoid risks of fixed forms and suggests how the immortality of body the film narrates - his 'body without organs' - is given by collapsing boundaries between filmic techniques and theatrical approaches to avoid the risk of fixed viewpoints. Thus the impression of a complex and rich system of textures this movie gives is undoubtedly true and extremely fascinating, but lies, literally, on its surface, far from the inner sense of this operation. This is chiefly methodological and seems geared towards creating a distance from any theory of authorship,  as well as emphasizing its difference from old and new avant-gardes, through a distinctive attention to form conceived by Bene not as an aesthetic goal to achieve but as a momentary tension to perform and beat.

In The Time Image, Gilles Deleuze pointed out the framework of Bene's films, paralleled with Antonioni's due to theoretical similarities in the conception of time, and analyzed them as theatrical ceremonies where subject is constantly subjected to various schemes, from liturgy to parody. The relevance of these rituals primarily proves how the body is also culturally thought, within what sociologists use to define as habitus:

[A] principle generating and unifying all practices, the system of inseparably cognitive and evaluative structures which organizes the vision of the world in accordance with the objective structures of a determinate state of the social world: this principle is nothing other than the socially informed body, with its tastes and distastes, its compulsions and repulsions, with, in a word, all its senses, that is to say, not only the traditional five senses - which never escape the structuring action of social determinisms - but also the sense of necessity and the sense of duty, the sense of direction and the sense of reality, the sense of balance and the sense of beauty, common sense and the sense of sacred, tactical sense and the sense of responsibility, business sense and the sense of propriety, the sense of humor and the sense of absurdity, moral sense and the sense of practicality, and so on. [2]

Don Giovanni is what may be called an exception in Bene's movies, since it is the only feature film to be entirely conceived for cinema, whereas the others also had stage versions. Filmed in his house in Rome, played by four 'figures' or 'situations' (some of his famous statements about the dramatis personae he used define the actor and character as figure and situation), Don Giovanni is a powerful effort that indicates the other main concept, beside habitus, we may relate to his unsystematic theory of film: perception.

Vaguely inspired by a tale by French writer Barbey D'Aurevilly, it unconventionally depicts a triangle between Don Giovanni, a woman and her daughter, where sight is conceived as the exclusive source of action throughout the movie, from strategies of seduction to mechanisms of perversion.

But what is a sight that is related to seduction or perversion? It's essentially a sight related to its origins, the human face conceived as 'soul mirror', otherwise identified with its inner consequences, desire or pleasure, both understandings that were already theorized in Stilnovism and Romanticism. I suggest that what Bene offers in Don Giovanni is an additional meaning, focusing on what sight exercises, in neither an aesthetical nor emotional way, but in a phenomenological vision, perception. In this case, perception leads to a state of indeterminacy of things.

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni

So, if perception is the leading quality in sight, indeterminacy is the result of a perception that collapses any boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity. Perception still exists, the world still persists, but they start floating and overlapping. Perception as world, world as perception: in such passage consciousness, sight and body are conceivable as the same force which seems to coincide with the act of seeing:

consciousness projects itself into a physical world and has a body, as it projects itself into a cultural world and has its habits: because it cannot be consciousness without playing upon significances given either in the absolute past of nature or in its own personal past, and because any form of lived experience tends toward a certain generality whether that of our habits or that of our bodily functions [3]

Merleau-Ponty defined more radically the concept of perception by arguing how it paradoxically ends in objects since it is always richer and more indeterminate than the physical world itself, which is a secondary effect of reflective thinking. So, to understand perception means for him to introduce another essential concept such as pre-objectivity, which explains the way the process of objectification conducts to a pre-abstract condition, characterized by a self-perception into an embodied world and a perception of the world into an embodied self.

Anterior to conventional means of expression, which reveal my thoughts to others only because already, for both myself and them, meanings are provided for each sign, and which in this sense do not give rise to genuine communication at all, we must... recognize a primary process of signification in which the thing expressed does not exist apart from the expression, and in which the signs themselves induce their significance externally... This incarnate significance is the central phenomenon of which body and mind, sign and significance are abstract moments [4]

In Don Giovanni such a unity between expression and thing expressed is given by the film's whole framework and emphasized by the paradoxical relation between bodies and sight. The tactile way the camera discloses the figures' bodily presences in fragments which set and move to exceed the limits of shot and image interacts with a baroque use of light and an anti-conventional abuse of techniques like zoom, in order to increase an enduring impression of indeterminacy, obfuscation, fluctuation. Furthermore, these effects get an abrupt but still fluid punctuation, which is conceived in musical terms as a dissonant and sight-based composition, since it overlaps Don Giovanni's glance like a obsessive dissolve in every image in which he's absent throughout the movie, to establish a sort of rhythmical counterpoint where the poles of viewer and viewed progressively become reversible and indefinable.

When both poles of the duality are recast in experiential terms, the dictum of psychological anthropology that all reality is psychological no longer carries a mentalistic connotation, but defines culture as embodied from the outset.

If we do not perceive our own bodies as objects, neither do we perceive others as objects. Another person is perceived as another 'myself', tearing itself away from being simply a phenomenon in my perceptual field, appropriating my phenomena and conferring on them the dimension of inter-subjective being, and so offering 'the task of a true communication'. As is true of the body, other persons can become object for us only secondarily, as the result of reflection. Whether or not, and under what conditions, selves do become objectified becomes a question for the anthropology of the self. In addition, the characteristic of being 'another myself' is a major part of what distinguishes our experiences of the social other from that of the sacred [...] which is in a radical sense 'not myself'. [5]

The author of this passage is the prominent anthropologist Thomas Csordas. His concept of embodiment which is argued in a famous paper and based on Bourdieu's idea of habitus and Merleau-Ponty's idea of perception is what I use to read and introduce differently the essence of the Carmelo Bene's cinematic experiments of the '60s and '70s. If you replace 'anthropology' with 'cinema', the resulting 'cinema of the self' appears as a possible definition of Bene's film practice. His efforts introduce to film what would be scientifically called the 'pre-objectivity of life' - for him, the invisible "musicality of images" - and to re-frame the cinematic self in a huge, new outlook where dualities like mind and body, subjective and objective, directing and acting, perception and action, collapse into what Gilles Deleuze defined as "logic of sensation" in relation to painter Francis Bacon's methods

So, what is the consequence of this collapsing? I suggest two different but related levels which seem necessary for describing his movies as 'living bodies' and defining his approach to cinema more correctly.

One level is theoretical and is internal to his cinema. If you use the concept of 'embodiment' to analyze Bene's cinematic works, I think it can be perceived how his presence is totally absorbed within all the frameworks of the films he conceived and made. He is in them, both the figures he plays and the visions he evokes. Once displayed, they embodied him. As body, actor, author, he should not be seen as an object to be studied in relation to any culture - his movies, his research - but should be considered as a 'subject of culture', in both the active and passive senses of the word 'subject'. Or, more specifically, as an 'actor of culture', according to the definition Italian anthropologist Piergiorgio Giacchè gives to his global artistic practice, by emphasizing Bene's constant attitude of producing and manipulating creative materials. His movies are transfigured variations of his self.

The other level is methodological and is external to his cinema. It is also possible to use 'embodiment' in order to study the whole career of the Italian artist from his cinematic digression, which - from this perspective - proved a decisive passage in the development of his techniques. In this case, it led him to a new comprehension of technological matters in editing, sound recording and lighting but also to a personal conception of image, which is particular because it is based on internal musical forces instead of external visual qualities, an aim he later pursued in his TV theatre. He exclusively related all these acquisitions to himself as paradoxical inorganic extensions of his acting and bodily features. In this sense, he embodied cinema as a way to set himself differently, as a new being - stage machine or body without organs - in relation to the indeterminacy of the living world and the fieldworks of art practices.

Hermitage, Our Lady of the Turks and Don Giovanni are available on DVD, released by Italian Company RaroVideo ( You can find them to buy on the Italian website Ibs (Internet Bookshop Italia):

If you want to see them for free, they have been uploaded on Youtube.

James Devereaux