Following the somewhat simple maxim of “more is more”, the Maximalist movement was a response to the relative silence of minimalism. Although the term was initially meant to describe the excessive experiments of postmodern literature, maximalism can be easily observed in other art forms such as music and cinema as well. Maximalist films often employ exaggerated stylisations that force the viewer to confront the illusory nature of the medium.
One of the most well-known filmmakers in the history of cinema whose artistic vision had maximalist qualities was Federico Fellini. In an interview, he admitted: “I’m afraid of solitude, of the gap between action and observation in which solitude dwells. That’s a reflection on my existence, in which I attempt to act without being swept away by the action, so as to be able to bear witness at the same time. I fear losing my spontaneity precisely because of such testimony or witnessing, because of my habit of constantly analysing and commenting. I also fear old age, madness, decline. I fear not being able to make love ten times a day.”
Adding, “Making films for me is not just a creative outlet but an existential expression. I also write and paint in isolation, in an ascetic manner. Perhaps my character is too hard, too severe. The cinema itself is a miracle, though, because you can live life just as you tell it. It’s very stimulating. For my temperament and sensibility, this correlation between daily life and the life I create on screen is fantastic.”
In our latest spotlight on world cinema, we take a look at the work of directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and more in order to understand the crucial elements of maximalist cinema.
10 essential Maximalist films:
Napoleon (Abel Gance – 1927)
Often counted among the greatest silent films ever made, Abel Gance’s 1927 epic conducts a spectacular cinematic translation of Napoleon’s life. The ingenious editing techniques as well as the unique visual narrative inspired the pioneers of the French New Wave and contributed significantly to the evolution of cinema.
Gance once said, “Poetry is the inexplicable fragrance of a flower. Braque has put it very well: ‘All that counts in art is that which cannot be explained.’ That’s fundamental. The understanding has nothing to do with it; it comes, it states, it looks, it draws lessons but, for all that, it doesn’t have the fragrance of a rose.”
War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk – 1967)
One of the finest film adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal novel War and Peace, Sergei Bondarchuk’s version was a collection of four distinct instalments that came out in 1966 and ’67. It was hailed by many as the most ambitious cinematic project which attempted to capture the incalculable scope of Tolstoy’s poetic interpretation of the human condition.
Due to the magnitude of the epic production, War and Peace ended up becoming the most expensive film in the history of the Soviet Union. Thankfully, it was a commercial success and picked up various prestigious awards including the Golden Globe as well as the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard – 1967)
Considered by many to be Godard’s magnum opus, Weekend is an irresistible masterpiece which beautifully paints the filmmaker’s contempt for a thoroughly corrupted world. Dangerously apocalyptic, the spectacle of Weekend threatens to destroy the integrity of the cinematic medium itself.
Godard revealed: “Weekend wasn’t done with a script. It came from a personal feeling, a personal intuition, as in Pierrot le Fou. But the intuition in Weekend was closer to the social situation in France than it was in Pierrot le Fou. It came from a clear political analysis and was then transformed into a movie.”
Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini – 1969)
Although Fellini Satyricon is often dismissed as an example of Fellini’s self-indulgence, it is definitely one of the most fascinating films that the Italian master ever made. Partially based on Petronius’ eponymous work, Fellini Satyricon is a brilliant intersection of history and science fiction.
In a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert, Fellini explained, “This picture is a trip back to Nero’s time, and that means it is a trip into an unknown dimension…First I have to invent this world of Nero. Then I must see it from a very narrow point of view, so it will appear foreign and unknown. I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians.
“The film is so detached, the sex in it will not be erotic. Everyone says Fellini is making a dirty movie. But everything will be abstract, detached. The sex in Satyricon will be like those ancient Indian statues on the positions of love. Even as you see a woman kissing a monster, it means nothing, because it is so old, so far away, from another civilisation.”
Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (Shûji Terayama – 1971)
Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets is a transgressively experimental masterpiece by Japanese avant-garde poet and filmmaker Shûji Terayama. In it, Terayama carries out a revelatory examination of socioeconomic realities through the intriguing lens of artistic disillusionment.
Terayama’s works were performed only sporadically in the United States, notably Off Broadway. On one such visit to New York in 1970, he told The New York Times, “My mother has come from Tokyo to visit me and she has been asking all these structured questions. She wants information like who I work for and how much money I’m making. I cannot give her such information; I can only, tell her about feelings.”
Salomè (Carmelo Bene – 1972)
A bizarre adaptation of Oscar Wilde‘s eponymous play, Salomè is an excessively psychedelic vision that blurs the distinctions between the past and the future. Bene’s work still reminds newer generations of cinephiles what the cinematic experience truly means.
While looking back on his working experiences with filmmaker Carmelo Bene and his erratic artistic process, cinematographer Mario Masini reflected: “He was a volcano of ideas, and at times it was tiring to keep up with him… I had to follow his unpredictable movements.”
The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky – 1973)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 surreal masterpiece is an allegorical tale that outrightly rejects traditional interpretations. Inspired by the works of John of the Cross and René Daumal, Jodorowsky embarks on a hallucinatory, metaphysical exploration of the fundamental nature of our existence.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Jodorowsky said: “So when I make this picture, there is a scene where all the women come up from the grave and ask, Why did I do what I did? And I must be forgiven. After I finished The Holy Mountain, I was so awake after six months of shooting, that I finally realised what I was doing in life, how I was hurting women. It affected my conscience. Then I stopped making pictures. I said, this is illusion. I need to work with reality, find myself, discover what I want to say, how to live, how to make a family… to live, you know?”
Sorcerer (William Friedkin – 1977)
A competent remake of Clouzot’s 1953 film The Wages of Fear (even though Friedkin denied it), William Friedkin’s 1977 thriller follows four outcasts and their misadventures in South America. Sorcerer was panned by critics initially but later reassessments have preserved its legacy as an essential cult classic.
While talking about the works in his filmography that he was most satisfied with, Friedkin said: “I’m very happy with Jade, Rules of Engagement, Killer Joe, Bug, The Exorcist… I would have to say Sorcerer, and The French Connection. Those come immediately to mind. And To Live and Die in L.A. And it’s not that I achieved them, or realised them perfectly, but I did come very close to my vision of them in the execution.”
Brazil (Terry Gilliam – 1985)
Terry Gilliam’s 1985 cinematic rendition of a surreal dystopia is an unforgettable experience for most viewers. Brazil is a Kafkaesque nightmare, set in a futuristic world that is plagued by absurdities of bureaucracy and totalitarianism.
Gilliam elaborated: “It’s really like doing a painting, with a big canvas. You sit there, and you know what you’re doing from the start, and as you’re doing it, you’re painting and it’s changing and it’s finally done. It took years to get the film finally written and then made and then at the end the film is quite different from what we began with and yet it’s exactly the film we set out to make, which is rather strange and paradoxical but it is.”
On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Żuławski – 1988)
An interesting adaptation of Jerzy Żuławski’s 1903 novel, On the Silver Globe tells the story of a group of astronauts who hope to start a civilisation on another planet only to witness a terrifying regression. Andrzej Żuławski’s transcendental explorations of mythology, science and religion shatters the boundaries of human imagination.
“I’m so easily bored with cinema,” the filmmaker confessed. “It’s not because I don’t appreciate the effort, the acting, the script writing, or whatever. But most of it is so predictable, after five minutes I know exactly the pattern, the flow, how it will turn out. That’s perfectly all right, why not?”
Adding, “But what these people call hysteria is, I guess, a will to provoke a certain kind of awareness, nervousness, open-eyed-ness, I don’t know what to call it. And actors who will reflect a hope on the audience. They won’t be bored. But this clinical term ‘hysteria’ is very hurtful to me.”