Film 2020: Allegro Non Troppo

A long way back, when watching Fantasia, I promised to include this film later that year, only to forget. It’s time has now come, Allegro Non Troppo (colloquially Not So Fast), a 1976 Italian film directed by Bruno Bozetto, long known as the ‘anti-Fantasia‘.

What this film is is a parody of Fantasia, sometimes directly. It presents six pieces of classical music, set to animations, but these animations are much darker in tone, be it comic or tragic, and the pieces chosen by and large avoid the distinctively melodic likes of ‘The Sorceror’s Apprentice’ and the ‘Dance of the Hours’ in favour of more subtle, and usually shorter pieces that, without being demanding, require a little more concentration.

The original version of the film, which is the version I have, includes extensive live-action sequences (in black and white) in between the colour animations. These initially parody Deems Taylor’s introduction to Fantasia but unfortunately they don’t stop there. These sequences develop a life of their own and unfortunatelky it’s not a happy one.

Basically, the theme is that the eager presenter (Maurizio Micheli, in a spangly suit), after learning that this idea of marrying music and cartooning isn’t original, decides to try and top Fantasia by bringing in a live orchestra (of little old ladies, collected from a cattle pen and herded onto a truck in a sequence that uncomfortably smacked of the Holocaust) under the direction of the conductor (Nestor Garay), a smug, domineering, growling egotist,chomping throughout on a short fat cigar, his hair tweaked into a pair of devil’s horns. An animator (Maurizio Nichetti, with a distinct Pete Atkin moustache) sits on the stage, ‘drawing’ the cartoon sequences whilst a cleaning lady (the genuinely lovely Maurialuisa Giiovannini) tidies up around them.

These sequences are subject to three main problems. One is that they are in Italian, without sub-titles, so they’re completely incomprehensible. Second is that,to a fault, they are overlong. And thirdly, and completely unforgivably in combination with point 2, they are just plain unfunny.

But the point of Allegro Non Troppo is not this bridging claptrap, or at least to me it’s not. The point is the music and the animation.Before we get down to specifics, let me describe the animation generally. First of all, it’s not the clean, pristine full-animation of Disney. Overall, it’s much more limited, the movements frequently jerky, and in style it draws more on the underground art of the Sixties, with a distinctly R. Crumb look in some places, both in imagery (especially in backgrounds) and abstractness.

The piece opens with Debussy’s ‘Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune’, the first of two pieces that have changed dramatically in their effect on me. The story is simple in structure, drawing upon the imagery applied to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ in Fantasia, the cherubs and centaurs sequence. An elderly faun on a summer afternoon tries to recapture his past and his satyr-appeal to long-legged naked female girls, by trying through cosmetics to once again appear young. But the girls walk or even run away as his disguises fail, and he slowly diminishes before sadly accepting his fate, returning to his muffler and stick and wandering off across a curved landscape that, as the camera pulls back, is revealed as a naked young woman.

It’s not the film that’s changed but me. What was new about this was always there before I had the experiences to identify with the aging faun, whose desire, appreciation of beauty and recollection of warmth has neither died nor dimmed, but who is now relegated to the ranks of those for whom it will now only ever be a memory, a memory best accepted because, as John Vleese recently put it, it’s not the despair, it’s the hope…

A comic piece was needed and quickly, but those bloody stupid slapstick live-action bits… Nevertheless, that’s what we got with Dvorak’s ‘Slavonic Dance No. 7’, a couple of minutes of slapstick featuring a cartoon man who tries to better himself only for everyone in his former cave-dwelling community to ape him slavishly. He decides to exploit this viciously by dressing up in uniform and marching over a ciff where there’s a vine strong enough to hold him up. They don’t follow him: when he climbs back up the cliff they’re stood there is unifrm ranks and, as one, turn round and moon him!

To close the first half, we get the film’s longest and strongest part, Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. This powerful piece parodies Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of spring’ from Fantasia by being an evolutionary exposition linked to an inexorable march towards… well,let’s not say what just yet.

The animation is linked to the live action by the conductor throwing away a coca-cola bottle. The animated version flies across the hall, coming to a rest half-buried. The bolero, with its repeated form subtly changing only in arrangement, commences. Bubbles in the coke rise and pop as it turns into a sludge that scales the inside of the bottle and emerges as a primordial ooze that evolves through fantastic, freakish shapes that split and diversify as they begin their long procession, drawn ever ‘eastwards’ – a left-to-right progression across the screen – changing, mutating, like evolution incapable of stopping either movement.

There’s no attempt to realistically depict genuine creatures but, the more sophisticated the marching masses become, as the more sophisticated the arrangements become, the more like creatures we recognise they become.

Midway through, a recognisable creature appears,flitting around and about the procession. This is Ape, this is Man-to-be, and the evil grin on its face establishes in a moment our refusal to accept ourselves as a part of Nature, a part of the processes that apply to everyone. And Man is the predator, killing creatures around him to serve his needs. And the music swells upwards, the creatures walk relentlessly, the Ape kills relentlessly, untilthe climax crashes through a solar eclipse to a city exploding upwards through the ground,  killing thousands by brushing through them. Until all look up to the statue of a Man, noble, wise, proud… who crumbles from within to reveal the Ape, still holding on to its club, settling down with its evil grin to contemplate what it will do next.

The ‘Bolero’ has always been the most powerful part of the film, and its jaundiced but truthful message is even more pertinent today. Long live Us, Lords of Creation.

There’s more clowning around and a man in a gorilla suit supposedly escaped from the bolero, but even that can’t damage the piece. The second half starts with the other piece whose depth and effect has changed on me, and which now had the power to reduce me to tears. This was Sibelius’ ‘Valse Triste’.

An almost wholly-demolished house stands alone, reduced to a gable wall and the outline of no longer existent rooms, three stories. A scrawny, big-eyed cat enters the ruins and prowls around. In its eyes it recreates the life that used to be hear, rooms expanding in dimension, children playing, women doing housework,men playing poker, live action figures shot in monocolours, a hand that put a saucer of milk on the floor. The cat belonged here and for a moment it recreates the life it knew, that was life but which, like the lonely mournful cat desperately missing the people it belonged with, is only a ghost. The cat fades and the sequence freezes as a wrecking ball arrives to remove even this marker of the past. As with the faun, the impact of this piece lies in how my own experiences grew around it so that now I cannot escape feeling it and wanting to give that cat, and one cat in particular, now no more than a ghost herself, the love it felt.

Another comic piece is needed urgently but of course we hve to put up with the nonsense first, until we could throw things. This is equally short, Vivaldi’s ‘Comcerto in C Major’, set to a female bumblebee preparing a prim picnic on a flower but interrupted by two lovers arriving for a rural idyll away from prying eyes, in which romance will be enacted. Until a fuming bumblebee stings a no doubt already priapic man on his arse!

Last up is the only composer common to both films, Stravinsky, here represented by two parts of the ‘Firebird Suite’. God, an eye in the pyramid, makes man and woman out of clay (after a couple of lumpish false starts). Adam and Eve turn into animation cels, followed by the snake, which steals an apple and proffers it to each in turn. Both refuse it, indifferent. So the snake swallows it whole. There follows a dream, of torment by demons leading to torment by the ‘appeals’ of modern  life – sex, money, drugs etc. When the snake, by now possessed of arms and legs, suit and hat, wakes up, it rants incomprehensibly about its dream, shrugs off his human trappings (including his limbs), coughs up the apple, and nobody leaves the Garden.

That’s it basically, and it’s been good fun and well worth the time, but we’ve still got ten minutes left and the film has run out of ideas. The orchestra has fled, the animator has transformed the cleaning lady and himself into parodies of Snow White and Prince Charming, Disney versions, and the Presenter and the bandaged all over conductor (let’s not go into that bit) try to contrive an ending that basically falls apat. Switch the DVD off after the animation transformation, you won’t miss anything,not even the nuclear war that destroys the planet. Watch the ‘Bolero’ again instead.

So you’d have to say that Allegro Non Troppo is a bit of a curate’s egg, and certainly its two short pieces are far from essential, but the major pieces are worth all the film put together. It’s not Disney, it’s the anti-Disney. Ultimately, this and Fantasia aren’t really comparable. They merely use a common format to completely different ends and when Allegro Non Troppo is as good as it can be, it transcends the parodic intent to become a thing of its own. And that thing is astonishingly good.

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