1950s, 3/4, Drama, Fellini, Review

Il Bidone


#12 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.

I’ve seen La Strada described as Fellini’s bridge film from his earlier, more grounded works, into his more elaborate spectacles that defined his later career, but that title should probably go to Il Bidone. It carries hallmarks of both eras and feels like it could fit easily in parts in both. There’s a big party scene that feels right out of La Dolce Vita and the entire second half feels like it comes from the more grounded films like La Strada.

One thing about this story that strikes the audience from the start is how unrepentant and awful the main characters are in their work. Il bidone translates to “the swindle”, and that’s exactly what this group of three men do: they swindle money out of poor, remote farmers with a fake chest of gold and jewels that they buried in their field earlier. Dressed as priests from the Vatican with a letter in hand supposedly written by a repentant murderer, they show the chest to the farmers, and then detail the rest of the letter which insists on five hundred masses being said in St. Peters for the sake of forgiveness of the murderer. Those cost money, so the farmers have to sell everything to pay for the masses and, in return, they receive the chest of gold, which is actually worthless. They steal everything from these poor people, and the movie never softens that about them.

The three men are Augusto, Picasso, and Roberto. Augusto is the eldest by far, a man long in the same game (similar to how Zampano ended up in La Strada). Picasso has a family with a wife (Iris, played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) and wants to go straight, having fallen into this life. Roberto dreams of bigger cons and a more lavish lifestyle. The two younger men are looking forward, and Augusto ends up looking back for most of the film. They’re all trapped in the life they lead to a certain extent, with dreams of finding something else to do to pay for the things they want, but it’s Augusto, the one with the most time in the game, who seems both the most desperate to get out and the least able to.

The central section of the film is around the giant party that Rinaldo, an old acquaintance of Augusto’s, throws that sees all three men, along with Iris, showing up. It’s the starting point of the eventual collapse of the group with Iris finally finding out the kind of work that Picasso has been practicing and hating it and Roberto burning his potential bridges for moving up in the Roman game by stealing a gold cigarette case from one of Rinaldo’s guest. Augusto is impotent in the party, though, trying to rope Rinaldo into one scheme or another that Rinaldo considers small time while dismissing him politely.

Eventually Augusto’s past catches up to him when he takes his estranged daughter to the movies where one of his past marks identifies him and has him arrested, and everything falls apart. Augusto spends some months in prison, but when he gets out Picasso and Roberto have both moved on. All Augusto can find is the man who helped him put together the jobs, the Baron, and Augusto continues with his work, dressing up like a priest with a new crew.

Now, this movie’s emotional impact ends up blunted because of the character’s completely unrepentant behavior. Augusto goes on a final swindle, listens to the story of the young, crippled girl, keeps the money, tries to tell his associates that he gave the money back but he hid it on his person. His associates beat him, take the money back, and leave him on the side of the rarely used road. As he lays there dying, he never atones for his sins, he just receives the punishment for his years of bad behavior. He’s been earnest in his desire to see a better life, but he’s never been able to get out. His way out was through, by swindling his fellow swindlers, and he got caught. There’s no attempt at redemption, and his final calls at the end are brought on by his own physical pain and threat of death. It’s an interesting contrast to Zampano’s similar ending in La Strada. There, Zampano saw his failings through the pain he had caused someone else, but here Augusto only sees his failings through his own pain. That internal direction makes the ending feel less emotionally rounded and complete, like the last gasp of a dying man rather than a true moment of self-reflection.

As a transitional movie, it’s interesting. That party scene really does feel almost out of place with the rest of the movie that has a more grounded feel, but it’s still remarkably well handled. It’s easy to see who is doing what and who is talking to whom with constant action swirling around. The ending has a muted impact, but everything else in between is the very solid kind of character based storytelling that Fellini had developed. It’s certainly a step down from I Vitelloni and La Strada, but it’s indicative of where Fellini was going to go next.

Rating: 3/4

2 thoughts on “Il Bidone”

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