** 1\2 (out of ****)
Life is a song in Federico Fellini's "Orchestra Rehearsal" (1979).
Growing up the son of a musician it wasn't unusual for me to travel with my father when he performed with various orchestras. I would sit back stage and watch the musicians as they rehearsed and as everyone scrambled on the big day of the performance.
Musicians, in particular classically trained musicians, are funny creatures. There are a lot of egos in an orchestra. Everyone feels they are an extremely talented musician. Their talent is not being properly acknowledged. They are artists. When you sit down and observe musicians you will notice they are rather pretentious, especially those in an orchestra.
But, can an orchestra be used as a metaphor for life? The legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini seems to think so. "Orchestra Rehearsal", which runs approximately 70 minutes, was originally intended as a made-for-television movie. It comes to us at a time when the great Fellini was seen to have lost his talent. His best films were behind him; "La Strada" (1954), "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963).
"Orchestra Rehearsal" usually gets lost in the shuffle and is ignored by the general public. "Orchestra Rehearsal" is not a bad movie but it is a movie which lacks a definitive point-of-view. It is not difficult to see Fellini and "Orchestra Rehearsal" are making a social commentary and are using the orchestra as a metaphor but to what end? What is Fellini ultimately telling us?
The movie begins as musicians slowly enter a church, which dates back to the 13th century, where they will begin their rehearsal. A television crew would like to make a documentary on the orchestra. Immediately some of the musicians are upset. Union rules they cry out! They are not being compensated for the documentary. Why should any of them participate?
Soon though many of the musicians volunteer to be interviewed. Each musician speaks passionately (or pretentiously) about their instrument and why it is so vital to the rest of the orchestra. Is that not how it is in real life? Each person has a role, a function in society and to help us get through the day we pretend what we are doing is important. Some foolishly take pride in their job. They defend the company they work for as if their employer would ever do such a thing for them (let alone remember their name). Their job, their function, provides a great service.
As each musician speaks we suddenly notice a conflict between the musicians (society) and the conductor (the leader). The conductor likes to see their role as the person in charge but has limitations put on him. In the case of "Orchestra Rehearsal" much of that limitation is due to union rules. One musician protest when asked to play a few bars as he notes, he has already played the bars twice. A third time would be in violation of union rules, the entire section of the orchestra must play together.
The movie also has fun with union delegates negotiating over the phone. We can never hear the person on the other end but we hear the delegate say things like, "even if you need one clarinetist, I'm sending four. And you must accept it." At one point the delegate even says he is sending someone over who doesn't do anything but the person must accept it. Union rules!
The question becomes, why are we union bashing? What is the point? What is the alternative? If unions are bad, what is the better solution? For this Fellini and "Orchestra Rehearsal" have nothing to say. The movie hits on politics, unions, society, class warfare. We can even interpret the orchestra as a metaphor for a movie set. Each person on a movie set assigned a task, doing their job, with a director (conductor) trying to bring everything together. The problem is, when you try to make a movie comment on everything in the end it says nothing.
Without much rhyme or reason the musicians revolt against the conductor. They will not continue to make music for others. The music is theirs. They will no longer be exploited. Instead of a conductor the musicians will use a metronome. The conductor is replaceable. An unnecessary figure.
Is the lack of a point-of-view in "Orchestra Rehearsal" the message? We live in a society where people are revolting and protesting and they don't know why? Is the message we live in a world which is in a contest battle between dictatorship and freedom? Do the musicians represent different countries? Different personalities in society? Does the orchestra represent Europe? Perhaps the European Union. The answer is probably yes to all of the above but "Orchestra Rehearsal" feels too subtle to make any major statement.
Fellini was known for making movies which presented characters as caricatures of society. "Orchestra Rehearsal" could have used more comical exaggeration. It would have helped satirize the issues it presents. It should have also limit its focus.
As it stand now "Orchestra Rehearsal" doesn't have any real characters. The movie doesn't give the musicians any personality truly distinguishing one from another. Everyone say their lines and then disappear from the rest of the movie. There is no coherent plot to follow. Perhaps the movie relies too heavily on its metaphor that it willing to sacrifice plot and characters.
I have never been convinced an orchestra is a good metaphor for society. There have been other movies since "Orchestra Rehearsal" that have tried to use music and the orchestra as a representation of society and Europe specifically. The Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo tried it in "Meeting Venus" (1991) as well as the brilliant Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda with "The Conductor" (1980). Both movies I believe fared a little better than Fellini's film precisely because they didn't take on as much as "Orchestra Rehearsal".
Fellini was one of the grand masters of cinema. His films should be watched repeatedly. But, "Orchestra Rehearsal" is a mid-level movie, not the work of a master storyteller. It is however better than other movies Fellini was releasing at the end of his career.
If you chose to see "Orchestra Rehearsal" only do so after you have seen his early classics from the 1950s and 60s.