Arrow Video: Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) - Reviewed

After the mixed reception of fantastical Italian surrealist and filmmaking maestro Federico Fellini’s Casanova with Donald Sutherland and in the wake of increasingly hostile repressive politics plaguing Europe at the time, the beloved auteur set his sights on what became known as his only political film in his illustrious oeuvre.  Produced for Italian television before being granted a limited theatrical release, Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, one of the shortest films in the director’s filmography since The Temptation of Dr. Antonio, came and went before disappearing and forgotten almost entirely.  Thanks to the dedicated efforts of Arrow Video, as with their recent release of The Voice of the Moon, Fellini’s one and only mockumentary is finally getting a second chance at life for cinephiles around the world over.

Deceptively simple yet oddly operatic in form, Orchestra Rehearsal follows a television crew interviewing a group of musicians participating in an orchestral rehearsal inside a converted 13th century church where all the popes have been buried.  Initially presented as a faux documentary with a mixture of actors and real musicians making up the crew with a fastidious and hot-tempered conductor furiously smacking his baton on the podium, we’re presented an ensemble cast of characters pontificating about their love of the musical form. 

However, in the time-honored tradition of Fellini, the film gradually begins to slip off the rails into fantasy, chaos and anarchic pandemonium as the musicians soon revolt and devolve into violent uprising.  Soon walls are covered with graffiti, fights break out, fellow musicians begin fornicating amid loud vocal protestations and soon the conductor is replaced with a giant oversized metronome.  Not unlike the recently released and divisive Aronofsky film mother!, the characters and situational mayhem don’t represent real characters in flux so much as loose allegories for the follies of humankind before making a grand thesis about the unifying power of art.

Initially poorly received by critics, Fellini quickly moved away from attempting to comment on the real world and in turn retreated back into fantasy with his subsequent works.  Noted for being the final orchestral collaboration between Fellini and composer Nino Rota who passed away a year later, the rarely seen and often overlooked political satire Orchestra Rehearsal functions at once as a condemnation of the increasingly dangerous political atmosphere dominating Europe at the time and a testament to the power of music to bring together people of vastly different ethnicities, classes and walks of life.  

Though some may find the targets of Fellini’s snarky quip to be too specific and the director’s own outlook to be somewhat smart nosed, Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal deserves a second look and a place in cinema history as one of the few times where the auteur tried to make a serious minded artistic statement about the shifting social mores surrounding his life at the time.

- Andrew Kotwicki