#11 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
This is often talked about as Fellini’s deconstruction of contemporary Italian society, and that obviously has merit. However there’s something at this little television movie’s center that seems so blindingly obvious to me that it feels remarkable that more people don’t talk about it. Fellini was one of those directors who made incredibly personal films all the time, and I don’t think Orchestral Rehearsal is any different. I think that the presence of unions, artists, and a conductor point to the filmmaking process and the troubles that he’s seen arise over the course of his career.
Continuing his mockumentary streak that he started in I Clowns and continued in Roma, Fellini presents exactly what the title suggests: an orchestra rehearsal. A group of musicians have come together in an auditorium converted from a 13th century church where several bishops and popes are buried in order to practice playing some music. Introduced by the copyist who lays out the music, he speaks of the space with some reverence, but that attitude doesn’t get shared by the musicians who file in. They get ready, speak to each other, engage with the film crew, and explain their relationships to each other, their instruments, and how their involvement in the orchestra represents the lynchpin whether it be the violinist, the drummers, or the clarinetist. These are people who obviously love their craft.
Yet they’re not the only ones there. There are union representatives who demand things unrelated to the music itself like double breaks (20 minutes, understandable) and four players where one will do (which does not have the interests of the music at heart). Reigning over them all is the conductor. Speaking Italian with a German accent, he’s a tyrant who berates his orchestra in order to get what he wants. Having read a bit about how Fellini treated his actors, this performance by the conductor recalls Fellini himself and tells me that this movie is as much about the changing nature of the film industry as it is about Italian society.
After the introductions and the first round of practice where the conductor is unpleased by the performance, everyone goes on their double break as the players begin to forcefully question the nature of the overall arrangement and the conductor, alone in his private room, bemoans the lack of control he has over the orchestra. He doesn’t so much as pine for the good old days (as the copyist does just outside, describing how the players loved to be wrapped on the knuckles to make beautiful music, a description that may have more to do with nostalgia than fact) as consider how he will exert further control. When he returns to the practice space, though, the artists have erupted in a full on rebellion, painting graffiti all over the walls of the ancient church, playing discordant musical notes, and calling for the conductor to be replaced by a metronome before casting off the metronome itself as oppressive.
Everything comes to a stop when a wrecking ball (that had been presaged by rumblings that had shaken the action several times previously) crashes through, casting dust everywhere and injuring the nice harp player. Suddenly shaken, the orchestra returns to practice under the guide of the conductor who moves them through part of a piece before returning to his tyrannical ways.
This seems to be Fellini’s most self-consciously and defined use of symbols to drive storytelling so far in his career. No one has a name, they are all people defined by their instruments and, potentially, their place of birth. It’s a portrait of a complex system built out of individuals with their own desires and dreams. Constructed out of the remnants of a holy place repurposed, it’s a system steeped in history with talk of previous conductors in decades past. The individuals of the system, who had managed to work together so well in the past while keeping to their uniqueness, suddenly skip through questioning of the entire system and jump right into destroying it like one finding a seemingly useless fence in a field. Their tearing down of the past does nothing to invite better music in the future, all it does is pit one group against another, creating disorder. Their differences had been celebrated to a certain degree before, but after the revolution they are all made into suspicions.
It’s a short film (a grand 69 minutes) and packs in a lot. As implied, there are no real characters, but the individuals fill their specific places with strong color. Like many Fellini films, the pieces don’t come together fully until the ending, that wrecking ball that seems to come out of nowhere and provides the characters and the audience with the right frame from which to look at the action preceding it. What does the wrecking ball represent? An undefined external threat? The EU? The box office? I don’t know, but the interpretation of the specific symbols is never as important as the flow of the action itself, and Orchestra Rehearsal creates a vision, told on a single set, of a system that tears itself apart and manages to reassemble to a limited degree. It’s a surprisingly fun movie to watch and dig into, and it carries a savage intelligence about human nature.