It’s appropriate that the peculiar worldview of Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto should be communicated most unabashedly through the appearance of his fuzzy, humanoid caricatures. Hopelessly gawky, if generally well-meaning, they seem all too aware of themselves, as though perpetually and trepidly balancing mixed feelings toward a silent creator who fashioned them lovingly but lazily into quasi-entities of asymmetrical buffoonery. Bozzetto’s geometrically plump, neckless drawings (the middle-aged moral-seeker Mr. Rossi being perhaps the most iconic), often cloned ad nauseam to represent crumbling empires and misled, crusading races, are exemplars of off-kilter, misshapen samehood; their fumetti-inspired schnozzolas, globosely Cro-Magnon foreheads and bristly, calligraphic moustaches devilishly suggest that corporeal blemishes may define human form more crucially than any pulchritudinous ideal. And by vibrantly conflating Saul Bass’s pithy paeans to manmade progress with Jan Svankmajer’s bleakly comic illustrations of the numbingly cyclical futility of society, Bozzetto arrives at a baroque, hand-inked philosophy that’s simultaneously cynical and humanistic.
Bozzetto’s primary idiom is the animated short, and his métier is physical comedy, though his sketches contain such sweepingly universal themes and global landscapes that one wants to imagine the time restrictions as consciously imposed borders protecting us from the implicating allegories they encompass—or, perhaps, protecting the artist’s indefatigable wrist from arthritis. But the less-than-10-minute format also fosters the structural freedom required to execute Bozzetto’s signature storytelling style, whereupon he seizes a general, typically socially relevant theme and converts it into a scenario-ized template that can be endlessly permutated and repeated until exhausted and capped with an ironic, sometimes fatalistically alarming, resolution. And as specific and redundant as this formula’s narrative variables may sound, Bozzetto uses them to usher us through such disjunctive tonal universes from film to film that concise attempts at appreciative, oeuvre-spanning summation tend to be impotently glib. How does one describe an animator who wryly dissects obstetric politics with anthropomorphized sperm that flounder about in the vulcanized reservoir of a condom (Baby Story) and then provides a cheekily Zen parable about the irrepressible quest for truth beyond bromidic love-thy-neighbor-isms (Mr. Tao)?
To be sure, Bozzetto’s perspective has veered precariously close to bombastic pessimism in more recent years, but it’s to be expected of an animator for whom maturity often means watching one’s patience dwindle (this, too, might be observed in Bozzetto’s boxy, quick-drawn Flash cartoons). In 1990’s Grasshoppers, a darkly prescient, Oscar-nominated piece about the brutal, timeless simplicity of war, he illustrates with nearly ferocious rhythm the ultimate meta-ethical observation of our time: that while mankind seems resolutely headed toward self-annihilation, hatred itself might be an evolutionary mechanism designed to safeguard the Earth from species monopolization. Bozzetto’s unintelligible monarchs, chiefs, presidents, and grudge-holding plain folks are insect-like, thinly outlined with black scratches that make their cloudy, charcoal smeared skirmishes seem silly and masturbatory against the serenely verdant grass that overtakes their skeletal residue post-composition. But while the microcosmic, Petri-dish focus inspiringly pits various, interchangeable factions against once another on a small plot of land in a never-ending battle for hegemony, it lacks some of the spritely exuberance of Bozzetto’s 1977 magnum opus, Allegro Non Troppo.
Like Osamu Tezuka before him, who helped calcify the anime look with his Steamboat Willy obsession, Bozzetto is besotted with animation’s mythic etiology, and its most shamanic high priests; he can’t resist plastering a dopey Gertie face on a lumbering sentinel of a Brontosaurus for half a second in an otherwise somber examination of predatory animalism. This nearly reckless dedication to craft origins surfaces triumphantly in the feature-length Allegro Non Troppo, the trenchancy of which is, in a masterstroke of comic timing, not immediately apparent. Black-and-white live action interludes depict a rotund conductor, an obsequious master of ceremonies, and a harried cartoonist stumbling over one another to unprecedentedly “illustrate” symphonic music on the big screen until an unamused phone call alerts the MC that the feat had already been performed, and was under copyright to, “a certain someone by the name of Prisney or Grisney…”
A visual tour de force independent of its satirical connection to Fantasia, the film not only parodies Disney’s bulbous eyes, mangled folklore, and insincere ecological messages, but its formidable technical contributions to cartoon mise-en-scène: Bozzetto uses UB Iwerks innovations such as layered depth perspective and rack focus to intensely define his impish visions and their adolescent preoccupations rather than to trick us into accepting his grotesqueries as lifelike. Bozzetto goofs on Disney’s insipid choice of music as well; the philistine MC asks the conductor—for the benefit of the audience, of course—“who wrote Ravel’s Bolero?,” and even the name of the movie is a colloquial signification of steady, genteel orchestration (though his appropriating of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite for his closing episode is likely a slight approbation of their Rite of Spring passage).
From the wildly ambitious, guignol-esque opening to the celebratory mushroom-cloud denouement, Bozzetto’s man-as-lemming premise is in snarling form throughout Allegro Non Troppo, though one cannot confuse the film’s outlook for nihilism. In the Bolero section particularly, which imagines all of creation as having propelled itself from out of a primordial ooze captured in a massive Coke bottle, Bozzetto renders the airy thinness of existence more dismally than most; each new mutating creature is a marker-shadowed organism knowing only how to destroy, and becoming only prey. In the less-than-subtle periphery we watch a sinister, beady-eyed monkey slowly morph from sentience to sapience, harnessing along the way the power of machinery, fire (limned with a burst of multi-colored pencil), religion, and eventually civilization.
But even when the scrawny, nefarious ape reveals its insidious leap to homo sapiens as chiefly cosmetic, the doom in its ebullient, nearly demonic eyes is not without a perverse kind of admiration for its manipulated minions (everything from dinosaur to mole rat is symbolically genuflecting to its skyscrapers). Bozzetto’s films observe defeat without succumbing to defeatism; they seem to argue that while primitive nature stamps a hardened expiration date on all living things, and speeds along the destruction of those that abuse their precious time, there’s a whimsical nobility in the continual process of death and rebirth that we, as organisms, cosmically contribute to. And, quite refreshingly, the truism is not so much to make the best of our earthly moments or to appreciate and respect the grandeur of all living things as it is to find as much pleasure and poetry as possible in our post-primitive selves. From the moment we slide out the soda pop bottle of the womb, our bodies are designed to consume, eliminate, copulate, and die. We revel in the first three perennials—why not the last?
The World According to…Bruno Bozzetto! will play on June 9 as part of this year’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. For details about the festival, including ticketing information, click here.