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Ten years after his death a re-evocation of the immense legacy of his art by Paolo Spedicato
To Nisia, sweet sister, who read Vita di Carmelo Bene
The ten years that separate us from the death of Carmelo Bene (born in Campi Salentina 1937, died Rome 2002) is a very relative period of time. The man and the personality are transversal art and meaning production machines that make them timeless presences: a legacy that we will be dealing with for a long time, an inexhaustible font of projects, proposals and provocations. Anyway the province of Puglia is a pre-announced destiny, a star that bodes well. A rare theatrical land, Salento is home to Greek/Roman theatres and Baroque, Rococo and Liberty-style scenography. Its 20th century modernity is expressed from the operas interpreted by Tito Schipa, one of the most influential tenors of the century, to the Odin Theater of Eugenio Barba, a Danish and international version of theatrical research which is different, but parallel to that of Bene.
Rome is the setting of Bene’s definitive debut, the capital city of the most important cultural circuits, official theatres, Cinecittà, etc. But he chooses to take his first steps starting with the off off workshops, in the alternative small theatres. That is where his cultural and linguistic revolution springs up, in opposition to a stiff national theatre which he considers still rather provincial in outlook, despite being a great “provincial” genius himself. He performs in a series of works like Caligola by Camus (1959) at the Teatro delle Arti, Pinocchio (1961), his first Amleto (1961), Spettacolo-concerto Majakovskij (1962), Salomé by O. Wilde (1964), Nostra Signora dei Turchi (1966) and Amleto o le conseguenze della pietà filiale (by Shakespeare and Laforgue, 1967). The latter two productions are to become the staples of the mythical Teatro Beat 72, the alternative space in via G. G. Belli 72, in Rome, with Lidia Mancinelli almost always by his side on stage and in life, and his friend Tonino Caputo, the designer of the Beat 72 posters and splendid leading character in the film Capricci. Of the two masters of European avant-garde theatre, Bertold Brecht and Antonin Artaud, Carmelo is the heir to Artaud, the theoretician of “the theatre of cruelty”, of the descent into the hell of the most intimate anthropological nature, as deep as the territories of madness and human unconscious. With this “baggage”, a powerful dramatic capacity, an unusual “voice” and an expressionistic, excessive, body aesthetic, he freely re-interprets centuries of dramatic literature, subverts the traditional reading of the classics, and discovers hidden subtexts, liberating the imagination towards an ethical/aesthetical utopia, while contributing in an original way to the artistic and political revolution of the turbulent 60s and 70s in Italy and the world.
In his review of the first of Bene’s five films, Nostra Signora dei Turchi (1968), Oreste Del Buono wrote: “In Italy we have a genius: do we deserve him? Thirty-two-year-old Southerner Carmelo Bene calls himself a desecrator, and it’s the truth. In this convulsive and overflowing film, everything is furiously vituperated by the sensational histrionics of our hero. Nostra Signora dei Turchi is an evocative title but pales in comparison with the incandescent material it is attached to. The starting point is a meditation on the 15th century Turkish misdeeds in our country: the assault on the city of Otranto, the massacre of the inhabitants, the martyrdom of the eight hundred people who did not fall down on their knees to plead for mercy and renege their faith. The destination, however, is Bene, perpetually on screen, in every infamy of his repertoire. Bene who tries looking through the orbits of one of the two hundred and sixty martyr’s skulls conserved in the cathedral of Otranto, who imagines being a martyr, and so martyrs himself. Bene running away from himself and dazzling himself. Bene who wins himself over and abandons himself. Bene who enjoys himself and disgusts himself. Bene who exalts himself and who depresses himself. Bene who defeats himself and loses to himself. Bene who gets lost and finds himself, continuously, obsessively and pathologically. Bene is everyone else. The other Bene, of course”.
In the film, he made the Moorish villa in Santa Cesarea, the Castle of Otranto, the Cathedral with its famous mosaic of the tree of life by Father Pantaleone (circa 12th century) and the blue sea opposite the Torre del Serpe, symbol of the city, into transversal metaphors from Neo-Baroque to Expressionism, while the style alluded to and/or preceded the scene of international research: the American underground cinema (Gregory Markopoulos, Andy Warhol, etc., the Canadian Michael Snow), the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, the Living Theatre of Julian Beck and Judith Malina. What is to be done with a genius? “A genius is useless, gets in the way, is a worrying presence in our stupid society and could even be harmful. In fact, he does not respect the sacred nature of the commonplaces of the right and the left”, concluded Del Buono. The question was asked over and over again and was never really laid to rest. The “gazetteers”, as he called theatre critics and journalists in general, were the target of raging polemic and invectives. He declared a never-ending war on the theatrical establishment, from the Ministry of tourism and Performing Arts to the circuits of the permanent theatres. In February 1992 he published announcements in Il Messaggero and La Repubblica which denounced the “ despicable survival of the Ministry”, the “ relentless ignorance” and the “gaseous slovenliness” of the Teatro Stabile di Roma and the Ministerial circles. He spent about two hundred million lire on this enterprise. At the trial, the injured parties asked for damages of two billion.
After having revisited the Golden Age of Otranto with its famous Turkish invasion of 1480, Bene deals with other Apulian and Salento-oriented themes, as always turning them upside-down or translating them into great political, poetic or sexual metaphors. As is the case of S.A.D.E., ovvero libertinaggio e decadenza del complesso bandistico della gendarmeria salentina (or rather, the licentiousness and decadence of the band of the Salento gendarmerie) (1974), a performance in two “aberrations”, a dialogue between a masochistic servant and a master. With Giuseppe Desa da Copertino. A boccaperta, a text published by Einaudi in 1976, the 17th century saint who flew during the moments of his mystic ecstasy, Bene means to underline “the project of a sanctity beyond defeat in history and in life. A stupid divinity contrasting the opaque sort of too many human beings” (Goffredo Fofi). Salento is always there, in the background, the place he used to call “the south of the south of the saints”.
For decades, Carmelo, the divine provincial, interacted with great international culture, particularly French culture, since he had learnt the language as an adolescent at the High School run by the priests of the Istituto Calasanzio in his home town of Campi: Salvador Dalì, Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Klossowski, Jean-Paul Manganaro, Camille Dumoulié etc. The theatrical and cultural revolution achieved by Carmelo Bene is a boundless legacy of which we are the custodians and undeserving heirs. What is to be done with a genius? His followers are grateful, as they retrace the steps of his infinite work of love and destruction.