Milanese Malaise

The Italian film poster for DISORDER (1962).

Any art house patron in the early sixties must have thought modern society was headed toward a complete collapse as witnessed by the emptiness of life and the bored, amoral behavior of characters in films like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). That film was mostly a portrait of wealthy, jaded Romans and ambitious social climbers that was probably the most famous in a wave of films that viewed Italian society as a lost and alienated culture. Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962) offered similar views of a world where modern progress and technology had a dehumanizing effect on relationships while Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (Italian title, Lo la conoscevo bene, 1965) focused on a naïve working class woman who seeks an acting career in Rome but finds herself exploited and eventually discarded by the people that profession attracts. Less well known, Franco Brusati’s Il Disordine (Disorder, 1962) differs from the above films in that it depicts both upper class and economically strapped folks in Milan who share the same sense of disillusionment and despair over their lot in life. Also, it is almost epic in scale and more tragic and heartfelt than the aforementioned titles. 

Disorder has a three-part structure with each story linked by the same character who finds himself in increasingly desperate circumstances with each new interaction. That person is Mario (Renato Salvatori), a part-time waiter who is first introduced as a last minute hire at an elaborate party being given by a dying aristocrat (Curd Jurgens). Mario boasts to the other kitchen help that “It’s in places like this that you find opportunities. You work hard and make them notice you. That’s what matters. Making an impression on the rich and powerful.” Mario, of course, is hopelessly deluded because he is barely noticed at all. The dying aristocrat and his estranged family are much too absorbed in their own problems to really notice anything beyond their immediate concerns.

Susan Strasberg plays the unhappy daughter of an Italian aristocrat who is desperate for her ill father’s forgiveness in DISORDER (1962), directed by Franco Brusati.

Isabella (Susan Strasberg) is the rebellious daughter who has returned home to seek her father’s approval before he dies. Her brother Carlo (Sami Frey) enjoys a better relationship with his father but feels inferior to him in every way as revealed in a flashback where the two men compete in a jousting exercise. Isabella and Carlo’s mother (Alida Valli) might be even more emotionally fragile than her children since she fears her husband never really loved her and possibly preferred one of his many mistresses in life.

Carlo (Sami Frey) orchestrates a huge bash for his dying father in the 1962 drama DISORDER, set in Milan.

The gala event comes off without a hitch. There is an impressive torchlight presentation by an army of waiters carrying a huge roasted pig, a live jazz band and a spectacular fireworks display to top it off. But the night ends with the aristocrat and his family leaving for the hospital and Mario returning to Milan. It is there that he encounters Bruno (Tomas Milian), a friend from the past who appears to be doing quite well from the look of his sports car and fashionable clothes.

Mario (Renato Salvatori, center) wanders through the poor neighborhood where he has currently set up residence in Franco Brusati’s DISORDER (1962).

Bruno is also friends with Tom (Louis Jourdan), a wealthy patron of the arts who tries to keep loneliness at bay by giving parties and opening his home to poseurs and sycophants. Tom is currently hosting a young married couple, Andrea (Jean Sorel) and Mali (Antonella Lualdi), who are having marital problems, but Tom is too emotionally unstable to help anyone. He ends up ejecting the couple from his lavish apartment after Andrea sexually assaults the maid and replaces them with Bruno, who appears to be the new favorite of the week.

Andrea (Jean Sorel) and his wife Mali (Antonella Lualdi) prove to be a mismatched married couple in DISORDER (1962), an Italian drama set in Milan.

As for Bruno’s brief reunion with Mario, it ends badly and the latter goes to visit his mother in a rundown nursing home where she shares a large communal hall with other castoffs. It is there that Marco meets Don Giuseppe (Georges Wilson), a delusional good samaritan posing as a priest, who invites the homeless young man back to his condemned dwelling. Mario is surprised to find other lodgers staying at Don Giuseppe’s residence but they are not charity cases from church but despicable parasites who are taking advantage of their host’s good intentions.

Mario (Renato Salvatori) suspects that Don Giuseppe’s houseguest is not a devout Christian in the 1962 Italian film DISORDER.

Disorder ends on a note of despair as Mario is confronted with the fate of someone even worse off than himself. I know it sounds like a feel-bad melodrama to avoid but Disorder is actually an engrossing snapshot of Milan as a place of great economic disparity between the haves and have-nots, who often live and work together in everyday life. Of course, money can’t solve everything and it certainly can’t cure people with flawed personalities due to pride, selfishness, cruelty or enormous egos. Many of the protagonists in Disorder are their own worst enemies and incapable of solving their personal dilemmas or even helping others. It all adds up to an existential cry of angst from people who have lost their purpose in life.

German actor Curd Jurgens plays a dying Italian aristocrat who isolates himself from his family in the 1962 drama set in Milan, DISORDER.

The most sympathetic among the many characters is Mario, who may be a fabulist but never gives up trying to find a decent job. The sequence where he returns to his poor neighborhood with Bruno is the most heart-wrenching. He longs to ask his friend for financial help and Bruno senses it, stating “I can’t help you. All I own are these clothes and that car.” Mario responds with “I waited all evening for you to ask me what happened to my family, to my home.”

Bruno: “Did you ask about mine?”

Mario: “That’s different. My family took care of you.”

But Bruno has no sympathy for his former friend and is now a cynical opportunist. We noticed this earlier when the pair pick up a girl who has quarreled with her boyfriend and drive her to a deserted area where Bruno has sex with her after Mario leaves the car in disgust.

Just as pitiable is Don Giuseppe (a great performance by Georges Wilson) who is suffering from malaria but obsessed with helping the needy. He was dismissed from the order before being confirmed as a priest because his superiors considered him “too arrogant.” Despite that, he has devoted his life to helping the less fortunate but his efforts seem doomed to failure. “Here they need more than soup and aspirin,” he says to Mario, regarding his work at the nursing home. “They need help with their souls. I’ve never known what to do for them.”

French film poster for the 1962 Italian drama DISORDER.

Of all the characters on display in Disorder the most ambiguous one is Tom, who appears incapable of sustaining a relationship with anyone. When we first see him, he is getting drunk after being jilted by yet another girlfriend. Yet Tom seems equally attracted to men, which explains his curious relationship with the immature Andrea and his later replacement, Bruno. Yet even if Tom is bisexual, his self-absorbed personality would sabotage any potential happiness with a companion. In some ways, the film starts to seem like a dysfunctional version of Max Ophuls’s La Ronde (1950), where instead of finding love or sexual fulfillment, the main characters experience profound unhappiness.

Director Franco Brusati (center) on the set of DISORDER (1962) with Antonella Lualdi and Louis Jourdan (right).

Franco Brusati is better known in Italy as a screenwriter and has worked on such films as Roberto Rossellini’s The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952), Mario Camerini’s Wife for a Night (1952), Paolo Heusch & Brunello Rondi’s Una Vita Violenta (1962), Franco Rossi’s Smog (1962) and Romeo and Juliet (1968), directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Brusati has only directed eight films but American movie buffs probably know him for Bread and Chocolate (1974), a bittersweet tale of an Italian immigrant (Nino Manfredi) trying to create a new life for himself in Switzerland, and To Forget Venice (1979), an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Disorder, however, might be his finest work as a director and is distinguished by its excellent ensemble cast which reads like a who’s who in European cinema with Susan Strasberg standing out as the sole American actress (playing an Italian heiress).

The evocative black and white cinematography by Leonida Barboni (The Passionate Thief, The Facts of Murder) captures both the opulence and excess of the wealthy Milanese but also the grinding poverty of the lower class as represented by Don Giuseppe’s decaying hovel or the state-run nursing home where Marco’s mother lives. The music score by Mario Nascimbene (The Barefoot Contessa, Room at the Top) also plays up the cultural disconnect between the classes with light jazz and pop music that sounds like an Italian version of the Ray Conniff Singers for the posh party scenes and melancholy melodies for many of the scenes that focus on Mario.

Mario (Renato Salvatori, left) encounters a character who calls himself The Grand Duchess Anastasia in the bizarre household of a faux priest in DISORDER (1962).

Disorder premiered in the U.S. at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1962 where Georges Wilson won the Golden Gate Award for Best Supporting Actor (an honor he shared with Noe Murayama for the Mexican comedy-drama Tlayucan). The film was later given a limited U.S. release in 1964 but it is virtually forgotten today.

Andrea (Jean Sorel) and his wife Mali (Antonella Lualdi) are an attractive couple who are seduced by the wealth and attention of an art patron (Louis Jourdan) in Franco Brusati’s DISORDER (1962).

The negative review the film received from Time magazine certainly didn’t help. “Disorder boasts an impressive roster of international film stars sloshing through still another odyssey of contemporary moral chaos. In this artiest of art films, the malaise reaches epidemic proportions. To make his points, fledgling Italian Director Franco Brusati borrows freely but not well from Antonioni, Fellini, Visconti and perhaps Bunuel, hopefully compiling a whole movie from the kind of footage the masters might have left out.”

Georges Wilson (left) and Renato Salvatori star in the Italian drama DISORDER (1962), set in Milan.

Disorder is not currently available on any format in this country but you may be able to find an import DVD of it from online sellers if you own an all-region player. Despite Time’s low opinion of the film, I found Disorder visually and emotionally captivating and recommend it for fans of Italian cinema from the early sixties.

Alida Valli plays the emotionally fragile wife of a dying aristocrat and Sami Frey plays her son in the 1962 Italian drama DISORDER.

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