Made for Italian state television in 1978, Fellini’s Orchestral Rehearsal is full of clichés. Some of them do ring true: brass players and percussionists are often a mischievous, rowdy bunch. As for the others… I’d best stop there, lest I annoy any string-playing readers. There’s also a corrupt union official and an autocratic conductor who won’t stop talking. So far, so accurate – though it would have helped if Fellini’s horn-playing extras had been shown how to hold their hooters properly, and the orchestral seating layout is a bit odd. Plus, why do film-makers always show the conductor tapping a baton on the rostrum before they start beating? Don't get me started...
Shortish (70 minutes or so) and largely confined to a single location, its scale is in stark contrast to Fellini’s earlier epics. The plot, such as there is one, has a television crew coming to film a rehearsal and interview the musicians. It’s a film about a film… unravelling when the players learn that they’re not going to be paid any extra. Vox pops with performers are intermittently amusing, each speaker attempting to explain why their particular instrument is the most important. You feel for the clarinettist: endlessly, comically repeating an anecdote about meeting Arturo Toscanini. German actor Balduin Baas plays the unnamed conductor, more interested in the sound of his own voice than meaningfully articulating exactly how he wants Nino Rota’s score to sound. This was Fellini’s final collaboration with his composer of choice, and it’s striking that the most watchable sequences are those accompanied by longer stretches of music.
Fuelled by alcohol and anger, the musicians revolt. The 13th century church venue is defaced by graffiti, and a giant metronome is installed to beat time instead of a conductor. Gunshots are fired before a large wrecking-ball starts demolishing the building, flattening a harpist in the process. Exactly what’s being said is ambiguous. That only authoritarian leadership will get results? That collective action will always result in chaos? Amidst the dust and rubble, there’s a passionate speech about the power of music. Followed by a mellifluous slice of Rota, the orchestral energised at last. And then we abruptly fade to black, Baas’s speech becoming a fascistic screaming rant. It’s an odd coda to an unsatisfying film. For all its incidental pleasures, Orchestra Rehearsal just isn’t funny enough.
The restored image is a little murky, and there’s some iffy sound synchronisation early on, both faults presumably present in the master copy. Extras are scant, though an interview with film historian Richard Dyer on the long Fellini-Rota partnership is interesting. But surely someone could have told him that the portrait hanging on the church wall is an easily identifiable Toscanini and not Herbert von Karajan?