Il gatto selvatico

Il gatto selvatico (1)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s La via del petrolio (The Oil Road) is a film made for RAI television in 1965. The film was commissioned by the Italian oil company Eni [Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi] in 1964. The film is in three parts: Le origini (Origins), Il viaggio (The Voyage), Attraverso l’Europa (Across Europe). The first part of the film was dedicated to the head of Eni, Enrico Mattei, who died in 1962 in a plane crash in Italy. The plane was blown up by a bomb probably attached to the landing gear and detonated when the plane came in for a landing. The bomb may have been planted either by the OAS of the French right, or by the French secret service (Mattei was opposed to the war in Algeria and to French colonialism) or by the Italian Mafia on contract to the large American oil companies (Mattei’s “the seven sisters”), but the murder was never solved.[1] Many of the police, carabinieri and in one instance a journalist, all of whom were involved in the investigation of the murder, were themselves murdered, while all evidence at the crash sight was destroyed. Mattei had powerful enemies, both economic and political. With respect to the Algerian situation and to American dominance of the oil market – to say nothing of the Cold War and Soviet negotiations with Eni -the line between the economic and the political was always being blurred.

The whole of the Bertolucci film, not simply the first part, can be taken as a memorial to Mattei and to Eni, Mattei’s creation and his success: Mattei was Eni and Eni Mattei. Bertolucci knew Mattei because of the close friendship of Mattei with Bertolucci’s father, the poet, Attilio Bertolucci. In 1955, Attilio was appointed by Mattei as the director of the Eni house journal, a cultural review with articles that were also devoted to reporting on the Italian company and the oil industry.

The name of the journal, suggested by Attilio Bertolucci to Mattei, was Il gatto selvatico (Wildcat). ‘Wildcatters’ was the name given in America to those who were among the first to drill for oil. Il gatto selvatico referred to that early experience of oil drilling, the drill itself and later to the rigs.  Il gatto selvatico suggested exploration, pioneering, the discovery of the new, adventure and travel and it also evoked a history.

Attilio Bertolucci wrote for Il gatto selvatico, administered it, commissioned writers and discussed their articles. Every issue of the journal contained a contribution by Attilio on art and painting: medieval art, the Renaissance, the Baroque, Impressionism, Modernism. Those who wrote for Il gatto selvatico commissioned by Attilio were among the most distinguished literary figures in Italy including himself: Anna Banti, Giorgio Bassani, Italo Calvino, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Natalia Ginzburg, Leonardo Sciascia, Enzo Siciliano and Marco Soldati. Il gatto selvatico was literary, artistic, informative, culturally influential and respected and popular, an accord between the traditional humanities and modern heavy industry. Oddly, Il gatto selvatico resembled an important Communist party, indeed Stalinist, journal, Les Lettres Françaises, which published essays on literature, philosophy, painting, art, poetry, the theatre, cinema and issues of Modernism.

Les Lettres Françaises was a weekly. Films were discussed by Georges Sadoul, poetry and literature by Louis Aragon. LLF was particularly sympathetic to the French Surrealists, to Picasso and Cubism and to the theatre of Antonin Artaud. Bernardo Bertolucci’s films owe an enormous debt to French Surrealism and to the Primitives like Ligabue.

There is an echo in La via del petrolio of Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Italy/France 1954): in the excavation scenes at Pompei in the Rossellini film, in the references to Vesuvius and the setting of the film in Naples where the ancient and the classical overlap and intertwine. There is also in the Rossellini, the scene of the bubbling up vapours from the earth, ignited like the opening sequence in La via del petrolio of natural gas being burnt off.[2]

Viaggio in Italia is not only a presence in La via del petrolio, but leaves a trace in most other Bertolucci films where death, the past and time are the protagonists, like an archaeological dig of fragments from the past and the discovery and display of stratified emotions, coincidences and perpetual, often ghostly returns, particularly as occurs with the uncovering in Viaggio in Italia of the lovers from Pompei locked in each other’s arms in death, an association that so distresses Katherine Joyce and brings her to tears. There is a further echo as well in Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (Italy/France/UK 1996) and his Strategia del ragno (Italy 1970), both of the films marked as an archaeology of returns from the past of doubles.

Though Mattei is never explicitly mentioned by name in La via del petrolio, the film charts a geography that evokes Mattei: the return home to Italy – the Italian oil workers talk most of all of returning, Eni is both their fortune and their displacement – from a voyage beginning in the oilfields of Iran across then to Europe to Italy and finally to Germany, a trajectory (and a narrative) that is at once historical, real, fantastic and mythical (like the Joyces in Viaggio in Italia) as if travelling from past to present, with every present taking the film back to a time and to places before or move them forward to a future, not exactly as a progressive line but as  simultaneities, associations and dreams. The voyage through time is the voyage of oil, from the mountains and deserts of Iran to the tankers moving through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, and there through the Straits of Messina, to European refineries and to pipelines from Genoa to Ingolstadt. Oil is a road, a highway. The film strikes a comparative with the medieval silk road and Marco Polo. The oil road is at once the necessary condition for modernity (petrol, energy) and the ancient culture, centuries old, whose rocks, cliffs and mountains make modernity possible.

The elements and contrasts that are involved relate to Mattei. His major accomplishment was negotiation of oil deals with Iran and with the countries of the Middle East, and with China and the Soviet Union (it was the height of the Cold War and NATO was not pleased). The negotiations offered extremely generous terms to the suppliers in contrast to what American companies offered them, a reason why were so hostile to Mattei who had effectively  compromised their global oil monopoly.

Il gatto selvatico is a journal of such stratifications of time and geology, like the strata of rock containing hidden oil, the modern and the ancient side by side and the diversity and cultural richness it testifies to and is uncovered in the process of drillling. And there is too, the ‘deals’, bribes, market favours to producers offered as inducements by Mattei.

For me, La via del petrolio is also a memorial for a film made almost thirty years after by Chris Marker in 1992, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (France/Finland 1992). The Marker film is a multi-layered homage to the Soviet past, to the Bolshevik Revolution, to Stalinism, to the Soviet cinema, to the filmmaker, Aleksandr Medvedkin (a loyal Bolshevik to the end), to World War II, to the form of the essay (Montaigne is visually cited in the film) and to the musical form of the Tombeau, elaborated by François Couperin in the seventeenth century and revived by Maurice Ravel in the twentieth in his piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ravel and Modest Mussorgsky are cited by Marker in Le Tombeau d’Alexandre transposed to the form of ‘letters’ and essays addressed to Medvedkin and to the intersections of his personal history (and Marker’s own history including that of the cinema) with the history of Communism, the Soviet Union and Russian culture before and after the Revolution. Ravel’s tombeau was composed in memory of his friends killed in World War I and in memory of Couperin, his music and the seventeenth century, and to Montaigne. The tombeau of Marker is multiple, overlapping and intersecting as are the elements in all his films, and these resonate, associate, not a tombeau but tombeaux. This insistence on the heterogeneous and its mechanisms of associational dispersions mark out the Bertolucci film, too, as if the real and the document are the true roads to the fantastic, a Surrealist insight that can be felt in Bertolucci’s documentary as in Marker’s.

Nostalgia, remembrance in the form of citations are layered in Bertolucci’s films, and notably in Via del Petrolio. The layers are literary, poetic, cinematic and musical, for example, the passages in the film from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.  Indeed, almost everywhere in Bertolucci’s work, Verdi appears: in La commare secca (Italy 1962), Prima della rivoluzione (Italy 1964), Il conformista (Italy/France/West Germany 1970), Strategia del ragno, 1900 (Italy/France/West Germany 1970) and, above all, in La luna (Italy/USA 1979).

The Bertoluccis, Attilio and Bernardo, father and son, had a strong, affectionate relation with Pier Paolo Pasolini. The three were poets and in the case of Bernardo and Pasolini, filmmakers too. Bernardo won the Premio Viareggio in 1962 for his first published book of collected poetry, In cerca del mistero (In Search of Mystery). Bertolucci was only 22 years old, and some of the poems in the collection were written when he was 15. The title of the collection could have served as a title to one of Bertolucci’s films and perhaps to his life.

Attilio Bertolucci and Pasolini were established poets by the early 1960s, especially Attilio. Pasolini and the Bertoluccis were neighbours in Rome, their apartments next to each other. Attilio helped Pasolini publish his first novel, Ragazzi di vita in 1955. Bernardo worked as Pasolini’s assistant for Pasolini’s first film, Accattone (Italy 1961). Pasolini also wrote the story on which Bertolucci’s first film in 1962 is based, La commare secca. Bertolucci regards Pasolini’s films and those of Jean-Luc Godard, of Renoir and of Rossellini, as the most important films for him and for the cinema.

In 1972, three years before Pasolini died, beaten to death, then run over by a 17 year old thug and prostitute, Giuseppe Pelosi, Pasolini started work on what he would regard as his most important work. He wrote to Alberto Moravia in January 1975: “I have begun writing a book that will probably absorb me for years to come, if not for the rest of my life.  I don’t want to talk about it, however, it is enough to say that is a kind of ‘summa’ of my entire life and of all my memories.”[3] Some months later Pasolini was dead.

The unfinished lengthy Pasolini novel of 522 pages, much of it in fragments, and some parts of it sketchy and difficult to follow, was published by Einaudi in 1992. The central character of the novel is a Catholic Communist, Carlo di Polis, described by Pasolini as like an angel and as very social. Carlo works for Eni. He has a double, Carlo di Tetis, who, Pasolini wrote, is diabolical and sensual. Though the two Carlos are very different, they exchange roles with each other, go back and forth, as if there is only one single character not two, a living contradiction. The novel is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s The Double, not unlike the double in Bertolucci’s Partner and the doubled character of Athos Magnani in his La Strategia del ragno. Carlo di Polis has sex with his mother, his sisters, his grandmother and the servants of the house (not unlike the ‘scandalous ’ seductions of the visitor in Pasolini’s Teorema).  One day, looking in a mirror, Carlo realises he has become a woman.

That novel is called Petrolio, a reference to Enrico Mattei and his murder and to a capitalism that throughout his life Pasolini found to be destructive of values, persons, of society, and particularly of the young; consumerism for Pasolini tended to make things and persons uniform, to make differences the Same, like Americans. Mattei was murdered in 1962. A few years later Bertolucci began his La via del petrolio for Eni, Mattei’s company, and in 1964, Pasolini began writing Petrolio. The murder of Mattei for Pasolini was a something inherent in a society he loathed, a social occurrence, socially motivated, like his own death would be. The assassins were society like the  ‘scandalous’ tortures, perversions and murders in Pasolini’s Salò (Italy/France 1975), released in October 1975, a month before Pasolini’s body was discovered in Ostia.

For Pasolini – and I think it is general in his work – there is a perpetual play between the ‘other’ and the ‘same’ that involves the ‘other’, either literally as a double, or imaginatively, or sexually, and that to be inside the ‘other’, to identify with that other either metaphorically or physically, is a way to find oneself. Certainly, it is the sense of his Teorema, but also of Accatone, Mamma Roma (Italy 1962), even of Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (Italy/France 1964), strikingly in Porcile (Italy/France 1969), Edipo Re (Italy/Morocco 1967), Medea (Italy/France/West Germany 1969), Uccellacci e uccellini (Italy 1966)…indeed a dominant perhaps in all his films: to become other than you are, to embrace what is other to you, to embrace difference, and difference itself, the contrary, the opposite, the juxtaposition, the negation, the outrage, the incontrovertible scandal, the socially perverse (homosexuality), is to discover who you are and, once encountered, never the same again, difference as a necessity, sometimes pleasurable, possibly instructive, always frightening. Scandal was Pasolini’s social instrument and resistance.

Il Caso Mattei (Italy 1972), made by Francesco Rosi centres on Mattei’s work and on his death. It was released in 1972. Mauro De Mauro, a journalist who worked on the investigation of Mattei’s death for the Francesco Rosi’s film discovered a recording made by Mattei before he died.

Mauro De Mauro disappeared in mid-September 1970.  His body has never been found, nor has the tape recording.


 “…alla storia preferisco la mitologia, perché la storia parte della verità e finisce nelle menzogne mentre la mitologia parte delle menzogne e va verso la verità.

“I prefer mythology to history, because history begins with truth and ends in lies, while mythology begins with lies and arrives at the truth.” 

(Jean Cocteau)

In 1926, the then Italian Fascist government established the energy and gas company AGIP (Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli). In 1945, Enrico Mattei, who had worked for the Fascists during the war, but like many Italians, had become an anti-fascist before the end of the war, was appointed to run Agip by the provisional Italian government, the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN). Mattei was instructed to dissolve Agip because of its fascist past.  Instead, Mattei further developed and expanded Agip. In 1953, a new Italian oil and gas public company, Eni, was founded by Mattei, with himself as its director. Agip was incorporated within Eni as its subsidiary. It was made responsible for marketing and refining within the new company and Eni for all the rest.

When Attilio Bertolucci was appointed to direct Il gatto selvatico for Eni in 1955, having suggested the name Il gatto selvatico to Mattei, Mattei’s condition was that the notion of aventuriero with its connotations of adventurer, speculator, soldier of fortune, the potential lyricism of the story of oil, in short its poetry and imaginary, had to be linked however, and very evidently, to Eni’s main concerns of business and industry and that it was necessary for Attilio to carefully integrate the one aspect with the other.

Thus there were to be two facets to Il gatto selvatico, one related to the animal (self reliant, canny, romantic, savage, even mythical) and the other to the oil industry (rigs, drilling, pipelines, tankers) the corporate business of oil. There was to be oil as commodity and oil as poetry, an imaginative source, so that with every barrel of oil there would also be history, stories, legends, literature and associations. This project for Il gatto selvatico, and its realisation by Attilio Bertolucci, the father of Bernardo, was, years later paid homage to by son to father in La via del petrolio (Italy 1967-)and, though the film is not explicitly modelled by Bernardo on Attilio’s Il gatto selvatico, it is neverthess a mirror reflection of it.

La via del petrolio is a documentary on the exploration, drilling, extraction, transport and commerce of oil, and on the poetry of it, an evocation of historical references and cultural ones, often mythical layers of heroes and writers, like Herman Melville, Jules Verne, and the legendary Homer, Odysseus and Marco Polo. The voyage of oil, just as the voyage on the Silk Road, is a romance and also a commercial enterprise, simultaneously real and made of fictions and dreams, an actual voyage, a voyage of the mind and an impossible fantasy voyage (Méliès, Rimbaud, the Odyssey). Bertolucci’s film, among other things, is accompanied on its voyage by the music of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and it has the, rhythms, colour and force of lyric grand opera and also of dance as with all of Bertolucci’s films.

La via del petrolio is in a perpetual motion of figures, places, objects, the camera. The film is in three parts, like three acts in theatre (with intermissions).

Il gatto selvatico was a journal of a successful, powerful, immensely rich, extraordinarily influential Italian capitalist State owned company; it was also a journal of culture, culture made accessible, easily understood, educative, informative and to be enjoyed.

The popularization of culture, its democratisation, was characteristic of European and American ideas post-war, for example, in programmes of education such as liberal studies and cultural studies and in artistic movements, of which Pop Art and the work of Warhol, are high points. Pop is an art constructed with comic book images, celebrity images from the movies and images from marketing and advertising (like displays of carefully reproduced brillo boxes) often made in series by industrialised techniques and processes. The art was flashy, exaggerated, played upon the vulgar and the common, was often parodic. It called into question what art might be and responded to the question that, in practice it was no longer definable, nor should it be, nor was the question even a relevant one, like André Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, equally I think a challenge because there is no singular or essential response. There is already a hint of this future and its questionings in the work and ideas of the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, the works of Tatlin, Vertov, Rodchenko, Malevich, Eisenstein, and even Medvedkin, Chris Marker’s last Bolshevik.

Perhaps too it goes in another unexpected direction or even sideways to it, the contradictoriness of what came to be known as Socialist Realism whose roots are in a radical documentarism. Examples and theorisations of Socialist Realism and the material success of the USSR and its ‘Plans’ are placed side by side with Picasso’s drawings, Cubism, Surrealism, all inhabiting the same space in the pages of the postwar Stalinist French Communist Party journal, Les Lettres Française. And perhaps, there is as well, another source, in the valorisation of the document, the everyday, the banal, as in the case of Il gatto selvatico and the industrial, as a source and provocation of dream, magic, the unlikely, the irrational, tenets of Surrealism. In effect, an entire literature and aesthetic tradition is behind Il gatto selvatico and the sources of it that include the cultural politics of Mattei and Eni, the poetics of Attilio Bertolucci, and the exquisite melodramas of his son Bernardo.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, La via del petrolio, was, in the first instance, a memorial to Mattei, but it was perhaps, in its details, and more importantly I believe, consciously or not, a work of honor to his father, Attilio, whose ideas in turn reflected an extensive cultural-historical shift, and one still current to which Bernardo Bertolucci’s films are evidence and testament.

In his early films, Bertolucci related most explicitly to Godard, Pasolini, Rossellini and Renoir, but Novecento marks a change: it is an historical epic, a cinema with Hollywood stars made to reach a large audience, despite or on behalf of its Socialist political aspects and even if the early films are recognisable in the later ones, things have changed. From that time there is a trace of another and new presence in Bertolucci’s cinema, the films of Sergio Leone and Dario Argento, admired by Bertolucci. In part, Novecento was a declaration: “I want to be popular” joined to another declaration “I am an artist”, and another still, “I am an artist on the Left”.

It was a reflection by Bernardo of the culture of Il gatto selvatico and of Attilio, his delicate, direct, simple and straight forward poetic essays on painting in the end pages of every issue of the journal. Apparent oppositions in the work of Bertolucci between the political and the aesthetic, between the industrial and the aesthetic, and between father and son, if not resolved were not compromised either, nor denied nor made conventional nor reductive, hence the intensity.


“I have always liked having the ‘ghosts’ of the cinema in my films.”

“The image is a shadow, you have to catch it.”

(Bernardo Bertolucci)

The first part of La via del petrolio, Le Origini, takes place in Iran. It begins with Fire, the burning off of natural gas created as a by-product of drilling for oil. The burn is at the top of high towers in a mountainous terrain. The gas is set alight by gun-flares at night, like a pistol shot followed by a mini explosion of the ignition – it burns off the gas and opens the film, un coup de théâtre. The burning belongs to the extraction process, but the visual effect is magical, unreal, fantastic, even thrilling, a spectacle and also a reference, I believe, to the ancient and beautiful story in The Thousand and One Nights of Aladddin and his magic lamp. By these means, the film is set in motion in two contrasting directions, one of the document and the objective, the other of fiction and the subjective, as if the image of reality, in this case part of an industrial procedure and necessarily limited, is never completely accounted for by the fact of it, by the event. The unreal, the fiction, the ghost of the image, is retained like the residue of gas and goes beyond its bounds in time and in place. The oppositions are transformations of one thing into another but not one without the other; a metamorphosis.

What follows the burning of the oil are sequences from the streets and market places of Iran: young children gawking at the camera and laughing, men with long beards hurrying away, leaving behind them traces of a sidelong glance like a shadowy tail, sellers of carpets on bicycles or pulling a cart or carrying the carpets on their backs. These moments are fragments of a reality that belong to a past, to ancient traditions and gestures, but of an antiquity still present in the Iran of the film. Each event is like a variation on a theme or a counterpoint, musical and not only practical. Nothing is still in the sequence, neither the persons who dash about, nor the camera in pursuit, all in a perpetual movement. A look, an image quickly becomes another, not exactly a displacement but a conjunction, like a fade.

The street sequence, so different from the initial one of the burning, nevertheless is part of a formal pair, a fluctuation of the factual and the fictional, the industrial and the fantastic, an unfinished, improvised rhyme caught momentarily. The images of Iran, however accurate, evoke a lyrical past into which the film plunges like the sequences of The Sheltering Sky (UK/Italy 1990) whose characters enter into another time, another world, of caravans and fortresses, whores in tents, holding onto something whose nature is temporary and fleeting, the overall sense of The Sheltering Sky as is the temporal constructed in La via del petrolio.

La via del petrolio, The Sheltering Sky, and so much else in Bertolucci, are theatre and fairy tale, encounters in a strange world as if the emphases on a reality are only apparent. What is real is artifice, make-believe.

Iran is one of the oldest civilisations in the world, dating back nearly 5000 years. The mountains of Iran in the oil fields (not unlike John Ford’s Monument Valley, real yet mythical, the American West, Indians and the prehistoric), and the markets and streets of Iran (is it Isfahan?  Teheran?, places not exactly specified, more easily to be imagined then) are both what they seem to be and  settings of theatre and legend (antiquity, literature, the epic), real and fabulous, not one nor the other, but the two together.

Such scenes are like those in the fairy tale films of Pasolini, shot in real places that become faeric as in his La trilogia di vita, and his short comic films, La terra vista della luna, Che cosa sono le nuvole?, La sequenza del fiore di carta and La ricotta. Though these films are like parables from which lessons are derived about the loss of innocence and of purity in the modern world, their force depends on the contrast, that is the presence of what is rejected. The parable is less the overt lesson of his films regarding consumerism, conformism, purity defiled, than their form. The real is not only transformed to become fairy tale, but is its precondition and motive, its necessity.

Pasolini, like Bertolucci, plays on such juxtapositions and so too do nearly all of the films of Alain Resnais. L’année dernière à Marienbad (France/Italy 1961), Hiroshima mon amour (France/Japan 1959), Providence (France/Switzerland/UK 1977), Muriel (France/Italy 1963), La vie est un Roman (France 1983) are like fairy tales (with castles, masquerades, a chateau, a prince, unlikely encounters). The films begin in realities made enigmatic, theatricalised, opaque, unbelievable, surreal. Perhaps, of all his films, Resnais’ most striking with regard to Bertolucci and his La via del petrolio is his documentary, Le chant du styrène (France 1959), about the manufacture of plastics, an industrial process, but, treated by Resnais as pure fantasy, dream, the imaginary and the magical by its colours and its fluid trackings like a dance, the ordinary made fantastic.

Bertolucci’s La Strategia del ragno is set in Sabbionetta (a Renaissance city in North East Italy, near Mantova, with a splendid town square). The city becomes a stage for a melodrama of uncanny doubles; Sabbionneta becomes Tara, a legendary and mythical place, taken from the real and poeticised. The film is based on The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, one of Jorge Luis Borges’ tales, overlaid in Bertolucci’s film by scenes in imitation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (the treachery, pointedly in the Bertolucci in a theatre in Sabbionetta, not as in Shakespeare, in the Roman Senate).[4] The city as decor and theatre occurs in La luna, in Besieged (Italy/UK 1998), in Stealing Beauty (Italy/France/UK 1996) and in the French forest in Il conformista where Professor Quadri and his wife are murdered, a scene, as in La Strategia del ragno, of treachery reminiscent of Julius Caesar. In La via del petrolio, the real also becomes decor and the desert theatre and Iranians and Italians, performers, actors.

In The Last Tango in Paris (France/Italy 1972) Marlon Brando plays the character Paul whose fictitious biography in the film is in fact the real biography of Brando but a biography constituted by the roles he played in the past, the reality then of his fictions and the fictions of his realities. Brando becomes a fabulous, unreal being as unreal as the actual settings in Last Tango – the dance hall where contestants are like puppets or mannequins and the flat at rue Jules Verne, where Paul encounters Jeanne, like the encounter of two strangers in Jean Rouch’s Gare du nord (France 1965), surreal, fantastical…and deadly.

The second part of La via del petrolio takes place at sea, Il viaggio, following an oil tanker loaded with oil going up the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean through the straits of Messina between Sicily and Calabria to Genoa where the oil will be pumped into tanks for distribution through pipelines, like criss-crossed webbing, overland, up mountains, down valleys through Italy to Switzerland, to Lake Como, finally to German refineries. The journey from Genoa is the third part of the film, Attraverso l’Europa (Italy 1967). Fire in Iran, Water in the voyage to Italy and from Italy by Land to Germany.

Though the film is a documentary narrative of the oil road, moving in a direct line, industrially dictated and determined, from extraction to transport to final delivery, its elemental aspects are not straighforward. They zig-zag, return, call up memories, provoke associations beyond the narrow range and confines of an industrial journey. The Elements in the film are close to the gods and to the sacred. They belong to ancient myth, to the epic, to a prehistoric time before history: Fire, Water, Earth.

When the Agip tanker passes through the Suez Canal, everything is silent, the tanker is like an unmanned  ghost ship, like the ship in Rimbaud’s poem, Le bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat), with its own rhythms and rhymes.  When the tanker sails onto Italy through the Straits of Messina, it is also the journey of Ulysses, and the Straits of Messina are also his Scylla and Charybdis. An industrial fact becomes a poetic verse of an imaginary: the Odyssey of Ulysses and the mythical hazards of the Messina Straits.

Once the oil travels by pipeline from Genoa through Switzerland to Germany, it is accompanied by Mario Trejo, a journalist, also a voyager and an Argentine poet, come to Genoa to travel the Oil Road, essentially a romantic journey (like all Bertoluccian journeys). Mario Trejo comes to Genoa carrying citations and memories with him. His journey recalls the Milanese nineteenth century novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, the voyages in the novels of Jules Verne below the sea to strange lands, Herman Melville’s epic journey novel Moby Dick, the travels of Marco Polo from Venice to Asia (on The Silk Road), the writings of hearts of darkness of Joseph Conrad, the tales of the Salgarian pirates, the poetry of Paul Valéry, the journey to Italy by Goethe and later by Henry James, the nineteenth century Romantic Grand Tour of Europe, Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, Luther and the German Reformation. Every footstep forward following the oil road by Mario Trejo, who, like Borges, is an Argentinian, is also a step back in time and beyond the path of the oil toward literary and poetic associations. Thus, the film is traversed, overlapped, layered, stratified and over a vast range.

Attraverso l’Europa, narrated by Mario Trejo, shifts the structure of La via del petrolio. A subjective and openly poetic, citational view displaces the appearance of documentary objectivity of parts one and two of the film, a different kind of road opens up made of memory fragments. Trejo’s voyage is an adventure, the gathering together of layers of memories and of strands of voyages of other travellers, other poets. The information Trejo gathers from those he encounters in towns and landmarks along way are not conveyed primarily as information or as fact, but as dream and poetry and anecdote. The journey ends in an imaginative return to its beginning, a journey to the impossible.

[1] Mattei would not negotiate oil contracts with the French so long as the Algerian war continued.

[2]The gas flares are natural gas, a by-product of drilling for oil.

[3] Alberto Moravia is the author of the novel, Il conformista, on which Bertolucci’s film of the same title is based. He was also the author of the novel Il disprezzo on which Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Le Mépris, was based.

[4]In 1980, Borges wrote an essay on The One thousand and One Nights.  The Arabian text was important to him, as it was to Pasolini, who made a film based on it entitled Il fiore delle mille e una notte.


About the Author

Sam Rohdie

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie (1939 – 2015) was Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Film at the University of Central Florida. He has held the Chair in Film Studies at The Queens University of Belfast and before that was Professor of Film Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He also held academic posts in universities in England, Ghana, Italy and the United States and was an original member of the Cinema Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Sam was the editor of Screen in the United Kingdom from 1971 to 1974. His work was widely published in academic film journals and books. His books include Antonioni (1990), Rocco and His Brothers (1993),The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1996), Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism (2001), Fellini Lexicon (2002), Montage (2006) and Film Modernism (2015).View all posts by Sam Rohdie →