The Jester’s Supper (1942) Directed by Alessandro Blasetti
Better known for being one of the first Italian films to expose a woman’s breasts, little known for the poor, almost scarce exposure this film had and unfortunately remains an arcane piece, like the entire period of Italian cinema during the infamous era of fascism, pre-neorealism. Discovering the treasures of Italian cinema before the emergence of its crowning movement, and objectively its greatest contribution to motion pictures, neorealism, is an abstruse challenge. It is simple and quick to categorize specific styles in that period prior to sociopolitical and neorealist cinema; one can effortlessly distinguish the traditional Telefoni Bianchi, which in a nutshell emulated contemporary American comedies but with a stylized, culturally Italian and uncompromisingly conservative tone of its own. The influential avant-garde period in silent films is not far behind either, and is just as well known as the sound comedies. However, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, many Italian filmmakers followed an amphibological tendency that to this day cannot be identified. Some film scholars feel comfortable encompassing this cinematic facet as Calligrafismo, others simply don’t give it any description; it’s almost as vague as the endless and ambiguous debate about whether film noir is a genre or style. It’s enough to make a brief consultation on the internet to realize how insufficient is the available information about this black hole in the history of Italian cinema.
The only effective method to examine this brief stylistic current is through books or by venturing to experience its films. Yet just as intransigently, it seems that Calligrafismo refuses to be discovered; the elusiveness of its components, its nature and its specificity become increasingly ambivalent when studied. The paucity of historiographical information defining the properties that make a film belong to this particular period forces us to have to do this analytical task from scratch, and with, inevitably, a subjective interpretation. The Jester’s Supper is not the best choice for a dissertation on this particular complex subject, although curiously enough my instinct tells me that this film displays very well in its filmic anatomy the characteristics we seek to define as Calligrafismo. Made in 1942 and directed by the underrated Alessandro Blasetti, The Jester’s Supper is a historical drama with radical sleaze and silly overtones that evoke more of a farce than a solemn drama. Actually, this is a film that arouses a variety of bizarre sensations; indeed, it is an unabashedly bizarre film. It is told with a dramatic morphology that conjures a diversification of contradictory emotions. Paradox after paradox, the eccentric narrative has in its narratological DNA a subtly irritating but explicitly audacious volatility.
To begin with, there is something that The Jester’s Supper manifests immediately in its opening sequences. The aesthetic magnetism of the camera movements, the recycled but refined set design, the eye-catching costumes and the panache of the mise-en-scene; each of these enunciate this ridiculously comic 1942 drama as a fastidiously formal piece of filmmaking. We can already conclude that these unclassifiable films follow a pattern inclined to glamorize formalities and tend to express nothing more than a vigorous formal structure above all. In an unstated but objective way it can be said that they share a number of idiosyncratic qualities that disassociate them from other contemporary Italian films. Form and lavishness are two indispensable elements to be pigeonholed in the so-called Calligrafismo. There is one more that I would like to include that I believe is inextricable from these other two essential ingredients: the literary.
The transposition of literature to cinema was one of the most notable attributes of this esoteric movement. Virtually all, if not all, Italian films of the time draw on a dynamic, uniform, grandiloquent, and theatrical literary density. The Jester’s Supper, for example, is based on the play of the same name by Sem Benelli and tells the story of the aristocratic Chiaramantesi brothers during the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence. Neri, frantically played by a euphoric and effectively over-the-top Amedeo Nazzari, the most uncouth, impudent and frivolous of the Chiaramantesi brothers, dominates the streets of the city with tyrannical vehemence, each night choosing innocent victims for his own enjoyment and his excessive pranks. Among them, the stunning Ginevra, played with effusive vainglory and licentious intensity by Clara Calamai, who is courted by the enemy of the Chiaramantesi, the noble Giannetto, she is a woman of virginal appearance, educated and captivating, but of perfidious and opportunistic mannerisms. Giannetto decides to take revenge for Neri’s burlesque assault on his honorability. What seems to begin as a gratifying and karmic joke, ends up having shockingly tragic consequences.
The plot evokes the dramatic depth that a Shakespearean play usually manifests with a reflective and complex lyric, yet there is a small detail in this film that malforms the beauty of its poetics and generates a grotesque mutation. With this, I am not saying that it is an ignominious defect, on the contrary, one of the most incontrovertible pleasures of this film is its proclivity for camp. The plot takes on different meanings that contradict each other, as if it were a French film from the 60’s. Without warning, the dramatic architecture of the plot changes from comic hyperbole to somber melodrama. Ultimately, what it achieves with these incoherent oscillations is a contrived but functional synthesis of comedy and drama articulating an emotionally reverberating tragedy with unpredictable touches of narrative authenticity. Alessandro Blasetti, arguably the most neglected of Italian directors, finds control in the unexpected, shrewdly mastering the erratic territory in which he exposes his sophisticated talent for highly formal drama. Directing such a shifting, anarchic film must have been a daunting challenge for Blasetti, and yet every frame and organized movement makes it look placid and uniform.
The Jester’s Supper definitely falls under the ambiguous, not stipulated, term Calligrafismo. It contains each of the previously mentioned requirements. By this I am not necessarily declaring this film to be a paradigm of that cinematic stage of Italian cinema, but I do consider it to be a great starting point for anyone who has the enthusiasm to penetrate the confines of the abstract. As a work of cinema, it is nothing new, at times it can even be confused or viewed analogously as an American b-movie; however as an Italian film made at a key moment for its modern development, The Jester’s Supper is a hilariously cruel, deliberately moronic and sexily fascinating opus from that unspecified stage. The overblown sensibilities, opprobrious dialogue, and kitschy ridiculousness will keep many from savoring the complex textures of this film, but for those who dare to examine its nuances and enjoy the art of exaggeration, The Jester’s Supper is a succulent dish of turgid aesthetics and quirky poetry digested by the outrageous performances that cleverly manipulate my perspective and compel me to call this concupiscent work of Italian cinema, a piece too compelling to be left forgotten. It deserves to be rediscovered and above all discussed.