Il Bidone (Federico Fellini / Italy-France, 1955):

The landscape is compared to Corot, but this is Beckett country, really. The con men include aspiring painter Richard Basehart, glib driver Franco Fabrizi, and weathered charlatan Broderick Crawford, who doffs a seedy suit to reveal a monsignor’s robes. (The Buñuelian gag finds its completion in Roma’s ecclesiastic fashion show.) Their gig involves posing as clerics, exhuming bones and fake loot in the countryside, and fleecing poor farmers by exchanging the buried treasure for religious fees. Italy here is filled with P.T. Barnum’s suckers, though fellow showman Federico Fellini shows a more trenchant understanding of swindlers, who drive to slums to take down payments for imaginary housing units and then stumble around the deserted plaza, faced with their own emptiness. ("If you shake his hand, make sure you count your fingers," goes the chummy putdown.) Crawford’s heavy American bulk is used very amusingly to bounce gesticulating locals off of, yet when he brags about selling ice to Eskimos or looks at his estranged daughter (Sue Ellen Blake), this mug outclasses Quinn’s Zampanò in La Strada. Despite the link established between hustlers and priests, however, the progression from comedy to tragedy signals Fellini’s most religious work. Paradise is the nightclub where the characters live it up when they’re loaded, buying drinks for the band and going home with one of the dancers. Purgatory, meanwhile, is the New Year’s cocktail party held by a wealthy con man, where Crawford tries to peddle a dream of a small business, Basehart embarrasses himself with a canvas under his arm, and Fabrizi fails at pilfering a cigarette case. Crawford has a flinching moment of conscience recoiling from a crippled naïf’s reverential kiss, and finally experiences Hell -- a passing truck briefly illuminates the rocky roadside at night, the camera departs from the broken-backed trickster reaching toward ineffable grace. With Giulietta Masina. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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