Ettore Scola, the French Revolution and the “Little People”



Presento nella sezione “studi inglesi ed americani” un saggio su Ettore Scola e il suo “Mondo Nuovo”, che avevo scritto in inglese per un pubblico evidentemente non italiano. In questa breve premessa sottolineerei in particolare due aspetti molto importanti della visione del mondo di Ettore scola. Il primo è che egli era molto interessato al tema delle ideologie forti, tanto da scrivere: “Nei miei film, come nei documentari e nelle inchieste, il diaframma tra arte e ideologia non esiste”. Il secondo punto, che è fondamentale per comprendere l’ironia con cui egli guardò alla partecipazione della “piccola gente” alla Rivoluzione francese, fu ottimamente spiegato da E. Bispuri, il quale scrisse: “Ettore Scola parte dal presupposto che gli individui in fondo non siano in grado di percepire la storia, che pertanto appare loro sempre come una nebulosa troppo lontana e non interpretabile”. Così, il “Mondo Nuovo” altro non è che la storia della “piccola gente”, che non comprende nulla di quanto sta vivendo. Se l’ironia fu uno dei capisaldi del pensiero di Ettore Scola, essa trionfa tra la “piccola gente” di un “Mondo Nuovo” di cui essa non capisce nulla.


Ettore Scola, the acknowledged master of Italian political satire, died in January, 2016. In honor and memory of the great maestro, I have recently   revisited The New World, perhaps less important than other films he was shooting, but certainly striking in its effort to  rethink the role of the “little people” during the first years of the French Revolution. Ettore Scola’s The New World (French title, La Nuit de Varennes [That Night on Varennes]  is a key film in reading the period of the French Revolution through his own eyes, i.e. through the eyes of a great intellectual who has enlightened contemporary international cinema.


Nearly two decades into his film career, Ettore Scola shot That Night on Varennes [The New World (1982)],  focusing his attention on an important subject matter (the French Revolution)  that attracted  ever growing interest in  historians, filmmakers and educated people. Here I would remark only that Ettore Scola, at least according to him, looked on a specific event of the French Revolution (the escape of the King and his arrest at Varennes) not merely  with the eye of  the historian, but with the desire to know political beliefs that the little people (la piccola gente) hold about a particular event of the French Revolution.


On the night of June 21, 1791, Louis XVI tried to escape Paris, placed under the revolutionary control. The stagecoach that followed him contained a certain number of passengers, an Austrian Countess [Hanna Schygulla] (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Antoinette), the Libertine writer Rétif de La Bretonne [Jean-Louis Barrault], Virginia, an Italian opera singer [Laura Betti], the American revolutionary leader Tom Paine [Harvey Keitel], and  the famous Venetian womanizer Giacomo Casanova [Marcello Mastroianni].


A wide-ranging debate on the French Revolution took place just inside the second stagecoach. Rétif de La Bretonne and Tom Paine were in favor of the revolution and about some people’s claims, while both the old Giacomo Casanova and the Austrian Countess seemed absolutely opposed to the French revolution, because they feared the people as the bringer of chaos, violence and vulgarity. Giacomo Casanova believed that the French Revolution  had opened the way for the destruction of old values, and that  both grace and  dignity were lost forever. Tom Paine argued instead that human dignity will be safeguarded if the new revolutionary government will succeed in eliminating the exploitation of poor people and the illegitimate reign of aristocratic parasitism, like what happened in  America.


What fascinated Ettore Scola? According to him, That Night on Varennes  wasn’t just the exact reconstruction of an episode, even if it was directly relevant to the French Revolution, because as he himself said, “The escape of King  from Paris could be interesting in itself, but I wouldn’t have known how a king should  be  represented, or  how the kings speak.” What seemed to take an interest in Ettore Scola  was how the little people experienced certain historical events, “What interests me is based on little people’s point of view  about  political issues of that time.”


And so, as  Ettore Scola always was saying, he would have been interested in exploring how the phenomenology of change influenced little people when they were faced with strange and new political problems that marked a momentous moment in history. However, and maybe it’s just a false impression, it seems to me that the little people are not particularly present in the film by Ettore Scola, if not as a crowd, totally unaware of what was about to happen. All in all,  it would seem that there is considerable discrepancy between what Ettore Scola  said  and the characters of his film. Almost four of the film’s main characters talking about the French revolution aren’t ordinary people at all. Several of them are high-profile writers and political  figures, like T. Paine, Rétif de La Bretonne, and Casanova. So they do not belong to the little people.


Their proper analysis in the social effects of the French revolution is essentially an ideological discourse which reflects the values of the ruling classes. Ideological concepts cannot be generated  by the little people, but by the ruling class, because, as Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” Only when  ideologies and political beliefs become simplified conceptions, they are transferred to the little  people. The speech of  protagonists is just a confirmation of ideological issues because the discussion between them suffers from a process of radicalization, and dialogue does not lead to something useful, and practical.  So somebody  is strongly in favor of the French revolution (T. Paine), while others look at it as an enormous social upheaval (Casanova). It seems clear to me that Ettore Scola believed  that ideological barriers are insurmountable.


It remains to explain why Ettore Scola spoke of “different points of view from which the little people can see this event.” The thing itself exercises curiosity, but it is not a difficult matter to resolve. As he explained in an interview from 2011 ( Ettore Scola – Flucht nach Varennes ), when he was referring to the little people, he did not refer to the main characters of the film, but to the French people, who did not permit their King to leave France. According to Ettore Scola, many French people had  an emotional attachment to their sovereign during those years. There was a lot of truth in what he said, because “Louis XVI was loved for his simple and peaceful life, his popularity, and his economy […]  The French people loved him for his attachment to religion and his honest lifestyle,” Proyart wrote.


In addition, it is not really true that Ettore Scola paid no attention to historical data, since he sought the collaboration of the French historian Claude Manceron, with whom he had come into contact in his villa in the South of France. Ettore Scola therefore was anything but a filmmaker who did not pay attention to historical data, although he retained a certain nonchalance about history,  attempting to convince the public that he was not interested in the exact reconstruction of  historical events.


But this is true only  in a very limited sense.


But where is people’s point of view of which Ettore Scola was always talking a lot? We have already seen the ideology of the upper classes, for and against the revolution, and a whole host of characters who can be defined as general people, but they do not belong to the little people in the strict sense of the word. There are little people there , but they are a chaotic crowd that does not have any clear idea in its mind . Ettore Scola describes Paris as a city in a state of absolute chaos before the advent of the Reign of Terror,  “in which the young are uniformly unsympathetic: ignorant and rude, loud and dogmatic, pompous and arrogant, they strut through villages, read proclamations they do not understand.” (T. Elsaesser).

In such conditions, the little people didn’t have any awareness of what they were going, “As one of the characters says, summing up the lesson of the Revolution: We must find the ideals that suit us .” (T. Elsaesser).


This can only be so,  because Ettore Scola sets That Night on Varennes in 1791-1792, two years  before the Terror (1793), and the real involvement of the little people. Before, “Even the people were also, frequently, recognized as a class,  the people […] really meant the bourgeoisie. When the multitude or the people were distinguished as a separate class, it was always in negative terms: the ignorant, irresponsible, and unproductive, in contrast with the productive bourgeoisie.” (G. C. Comninel). So Ettore Scola  could only describe his little people as a crowd completely devoid of any point of view and  ideas. For one who was looking at social classes and ideologies with  pungent irony, personal message was just that.


So, if we want to really understand Ettore Scola’s beliefs about  history with its (unaware) protagonists, we must consider two very important factors that require consideration.




Ettore Scola had always been interested  in the subject of strong ideological positions, so he wrote that “The barrier between art and ideology does not exist in all my films.” (E. Bispuri).



This  is a critical point to understand the irony with which he looked at the French Revolution. No participation of the little people was well explained by E. Bispuri who wrote, “Ettore Scola assumes that people are not able to perceive history, which seems to them like a nebula that is too far away and not readable.”


Thus, The New World is nothing more than the historical (and metaphorical) meaning  of the little people that does not know anything and cannot do anything alone. If  the irony was one of the cornerstones of Ettore Scola, it triumphs over the little people living  in a New World of which they understand nothing.


So, when Ettore Scola said that he wanted to know the point of view of the little people, he was pitilessly ironical  not only  about those poor wretches who couldn’t have known nothing  about the events that were happening there, but also about himself and, at the same time,  on the real possibility that history could learn something about past events. The scenario of these events passed unnoticed not only by contemporaries but also by moderns, who instead presume to know


“How things actually happened.”




Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Edited by C,J. Arthur, New York, International Publishers, 2004, Part. One, p. 64.


Proyart (Abbé), Louis XVI et ses vertus aux prises avec la perversité de son siècle,  Paris, 1808, p. 195.


“Rendezvous with the French Revolution.” European Cinema, Edited by T. Elsaesser, Amsterdam,  Amsterdam University Press, 2005, p.  409, 411.


C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge, New York, & London, Verso, 1987, p. 117.


E. Bispuri, Ettore Scola: un umanista nel cinema italiano, Roma, Bulzoni, 2006, p. 104.



Precedente Mr. W.H. is William Shakespeare Successivo Protagora e la “consequentia mirabilis”