Sunday, September 20, 2015

An Introduction to Italian Cinema

I'm currently reading a book called World on Film, by Martha Nochimson.  Each chapter gives a brief history of the cinema of a different country.  This week, I read a chapter about Italian cinema, and have been watching a lot of Italian films.  Here's what I've been learning...

Early Italian Cinema and the Risorgimento

The first movie in Italy was made in 1896.  It was a short documentary called Umberto and Margherita of Savoy Stroll in the Park, and featured the king and queen of Italy.  At this time, Italy was not a unified country.  Rather, it was divided into separate kingdoms that Napoleon had imposed on it in 1815.  The long and tumultuous period of unification, called the risorgimento, lasted roughly from 1815-1915.  The map of modern Italy would not have a stable shape until after World War I, in 1918.  The early silent films from Italy reflected a desire for national unity, often hearkening back to the ancient Roman Empire for inspiration.

1.) The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli Ultimi Giorni de Pompeii) directed by Arturo Ambrosio and Luigi Maggi (1908).  Like many early Italian silent films, this one looks back to ancient Rome to forge a kind of unified Italian identity as the country was still struggling for unification.  This film also helped to establish a benchmark of early Italian cinema—spectacular sets, costumes, and early special effects.  The eruption of Mt. Etna, which destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii, was an audience favorite, in terms of special effects.


2.) Quo Vadis? directed by Enrico Guazzoni (1912).  An early example of a “biblical epic”, this film was also set in Ancient Rome, and has beautifully ornate sets and costumes.  The film, which depicts Rome at the time of Christ, was adapted two other times, in 1924 and 1951.


3.) Cabiria directed by Giovanni Pastrone (1914).  This film, also set in ancient Rome, introduced two important archetypes of Italian cinema: the Machiste (a tough, strong man), and the Diva (a film goddess, dark, sexual, and highly independent).  In this film, the character Sophonisba teaches the heroine Cabiria to be a strong-willed, independent woman who makes her own choices in life.


4.) Assunta Spina directed by Francesca Bertini and Gustavo Serena (1914).  This important silent film is often seen as an early forerunner of “neorealism” — an attempt to focus on the lives of ordinary, working-class people.  This film was directed by and stars a woman (Francesca Bertini), who is a kind of working-class diva.  Unfortunately, the film gives a rather sexist, as opposed to feminist, portrayal of the diva.


Cinema Under Mussolini the Fascist (The Ventennio)

From 1922-1943, Italy was under the control of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, whose government (like the governments of Russia under Stalin and Gemany under Hitler) exerted significant control over the country’s cinema.  The period of Mussolini’s control is called the Ventennio, and it was a rough time for Italian Cinema.  The films released during this period were often sexist celebrations of masculine military might.  Gone were the independent divas.  Instead, the  Machiste (strong-man) dominated the screens.  During this period, both the government and the catholic church exerted influence and power over what kinds of movies were made.  It was dark time for creativity in Italy.

5.) The Old Guard (Vecchia Guardia) directed by Alessandro Blasetti (1934).  A good example of a Ventennio-era film that celebrates masculinity and violence, and looks down on women.


6.) Scipio the African: The Defeat of Hannibal (Scipione L'Africano) directed by Carmine Gallone (1937).  Like The Old Guard, this film celebrates the “Machiste”, the military strong-man, which Mussolini viewed himself as and wanted the cinema to celebrate.


7.) Mr. Max (Il Signor Max) directed by Mario Camerini (1937).   In every country that exerts censorship, artists will creatively attempt to subvert or question the dominant ideology.  This is the case with Mr. Max, a seemingly simple romantic comedy that actually, quite subtly, questions the notions of masculine identity popular during the Ventennio.


8.) The Iron Crown (La Corona de Ferro) directed by Alessandro Blasetti (1941).  Like Mr. Max, this film also contains subtle critiques of political power by using a fairy tale setting.


Neorealism and the Impact of World War II

In the history of world cinema, many countries developed their own unique artistic style.  Germany gave us expressionism, France developed impressionism, Russia developed montage theory and constructivism.  In Italy, a new style developed in the aftermath of World War II called Neorealism.  Pioneering directors of this movement like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica sought to create a realistic portrayal of ordinary life by filming in real locations (as opposed to constructed studio sets), using natural light, and often using non-professional actors.  The purpose of this was to deal, as honestly as possible, with the traumas of World War II, and the difficulties of ordinary life.

9.) Obsession (Ossessione) directed by Luchino Visconti (1943).  An early example of “Neorealism” which sought to realistically portray the lives of ordinary Italians, this film was actually censored by Mussolini’s government for its complex portrayal of sexual desire and social repression.


10.) Rome, Open City (Roma, Citta Aperta) directed by Roberto Rossellini (1945).  Widely considered the first fully neorealist Italian film, this harrowing drama is set during the Nazi occupation of Rome near the end of World War II.  Shot on the real streets and buildings of Rome not long after the horrific events it portrays actually happened, Rome, Open City unflinchingly depicts the trauma experienced by Italians during World War II.  The first in his unofficial “War Trilogy,” Rome, Open City was followed by Paisa, and Germany: Year Zero, which was shot on the real streets of a bombed-out Berlin just after WWII.


11.) The Bicycle Thief (Ladri de Biciclette) directed by Vittorio De Sica (1948).  Another classic of Italian neorealism, The Bicycle Thief sympathetically depicts the struggle of an ordinary man to provide for his family.  The protagonist, Antonio Ricci is compelled by poverty to steal a bicycle.  This film, in true neorealist style, depicts life in shades of gray, and demonstrates that characters’ actions are determined by larger social forces beyond their control.


12.) The Earth Will Tremble: Episode of the Sea (La Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare) directed by Luchino Visconti (1948).  Another classic neorealist film, The Earth Will Tremble has no professional actors, and features a regional dialect that was forbidden during the Ventennio.  The film tells the story of an ordinary fisherman who stands up against exploitation by wealthy merchants, and even equates their capitalism with Fascism


13.) Umberto D directed by Vittorio De Sica (1952).  One of the last of the postwar neorealist films, Umberto D tells the story of an old man and his dog who are struggling with crushing poverty.  Amidst the “economic miracle” that capitalism supposedly brought to postwar Italy, the film focuses on those left behind in this new system—the poor and the elderly.  As we watch the protagonist struggle to maintain his pride amidst poverty, we come to question the larger forces that lead to his plight.


The Films of Federico Fellini

Widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Federico Fellini got his start by working with the great neorealist director Roberto Rossellini, as an assistant on Paisa.  His early films reflect a strong neorealist sensibility: Variety Lights, The White Sheik, and I, Vitelloni.  While working on his 1954 film La Strada, Fellini suffered a major nervous breakdown, for which he sought treatment through psychoanalysis.  During his treatment, Fellini kept a dream notebook and became fascinated with the insights of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.  Beginning with La Strada, Fellini began to depart from neorealism, and focused instead on the interior lives of characters, incorporating dreams, non-linear storytelling, and juxtaposition of incongruous imagery—in an attempt to navigate the inner workings of the human mind.  Fellini may be considered a post-neorealist in that he moved from exterior reality to interior reality, creating a kind of poetry of the subconscious.

14.) La Strada (The Road)--1954.  This film may be seen as a transitional one between neorealism, and the poetry of the interior life that Fellini would explore in later films.  La Strada tells of two traveling street performers: Gelsomina and Zampano.  In true neorealist style, these characters are not idealized.  Rather they are a rag-tag and unglamorous duo.  Through them, Fellini raises questions of gender constructions.  Through Zampano, the filmmaker challenges the iconic Italian “machiste,” the strong man, and re-establishes a kind of working class “diva” with Gelsomina—complicating the gender roles prevalent during the Ventennio (or reign of Mussolini). 


15.) La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life)--1961.  In this film, we see Fellini moving away from neorealism, and into a style all his own—incorporating dream-like imagery and strange juxtapositions meant to get at the inner life of the main character, Marcello, a journalist who wanders around 1960s Rome.  Unlike neorealist films, which focused pretty much exclusively on the lives of the poor, La Dolce Vita spans the full spectrum of Italian society.  As a journalist, Marcello is granted access to the lives of both the wealthy and the poor.  Fellini’s depiction of Rome is one of radical syncretism—that is, bewildering juxtapositions of the old and the new, rich and poor, sacred and profane.  Through Marcello’s eyes, we see a new world taking shape in the aftermath of World War II that is confusing and contradictory.  It is the post-modern world.


16.) 8 1/2 (1963).  Widely considered Fellini’s masterpiece, 8 1/2 is a semi-autobiographical film about a director struggling to make a film.  This film radically departs from neorealism with its chaotic and poetic blending of dreams, reality, memories, and fantasy.  It is a self-conscious window into the director’s subconscious, and the inner life of an artist.  It is an epic journey into a human mind, as the director undergoes a mental breakdown, and then attempts to use his art to re-construct a kind of meaning amidst the confusion and fragmentation of the post-modern world.


Other Great Filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s

The 1960s and 1970s were a vibrantly creative time for Italian cinema.  In the aftermath of World War II, a bunch of new directors arose, like Michelangelo Antonioni, Ettore Scola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone, Pietro Germi, and Pier Paolo Pasolini—each developing their own unique style.  I’ll focus on a few important films from this era, sometimes called “the second golden age of Italian Cinema.”

17.) The Adventure (L'Avventura) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (1960).  The film is about a young woman's disappearance during a Mediterranean boating trip. Her lover and her best friend, during the subsequent search for her, become attracted to each other.  The film is noted for its careful pacing, which puts a focus on visual composition and character development, as well as for its unusual narrative structure. L'Avventura is the first film of a trilogy by Antonioni, followed by La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962).  Gene Youngblood has described this trilogy as a "unified statement about the malady of the emotional life in contemporary times.”


18.) Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all'Italiana) directed by Pietro Germi (1962).  A dark comedy about an impoverished Sicilian nobleman who spends his spare time (which is most of it) imagining several ways in which he can do away with his wife, such as throwing her into a boiling cauldron to turn her into soap or sending her into space in a rocket, because he is in love with his cousin Angela, a very much younger and attractive woman.  He resolves to carry out his plans and is inspired by a local story of a woman who killed her husband in a rage of jealousy to make his wife have an affair so that he can catch her, murder her, and receive a light sentence for committing an honor killing.   The joke of the film is that “divorce Italian style” is murder.


19.) Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (1964).  The film is about a woman trying to survive in the modern world of cultural neurosis and existential doubt. Red Desert, Antonioni's first color film, is renowned for stunningly colored industrial landscapes which express the unease, alienation, and vivid perceptions of the main character.   Surrounded by cold industrial architecture, Giuliana seems lost in her loneliness and isolation.  The film is set in the industrial area of 1960s Ravenna with sprawling new post World War II factories, industrial machinery and a much polluted river valley. The cinematography is highlighted by pastel colors with flowing white smoke and fog.   Antonioni went to great lengths in reaching his visual effects, such as having trees and grass painted white or grey to fit his take on an urban landscape.  "My intention..." said Antonioni, "was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful."


20.) The Gospel According to Matthew (Il Vangelo Seconco Matteo) directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964).  A sparse and reverential retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, made by a gay atheist Marxist (Pasolini).  The dialogue is primarily taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew, as Pasolini felt that "images could never reach the poetic heights of the text."  The impetus for the film took place in 1962 when Pasolini accepted Pope John XXIII’s invitation for a new dialogue with non-Catholic artists, and subsequently visited the town of Assisi to attend a seminar at a Franciscan monastery there. The papal visit caused traffic jams in the town, leaving Pasolini confined to his hotel room; there, he came across a copy of the New Testament. Pasolini read all four gospels straight through, and he claimed that adapting a film from one of them "threw in the shade all the other ideas for work I had in my head." Unlike previous cinematic depictions of Jesus' life, Pasolini's film does not embellish the biblical account with any literary or dramatic inventions.  Pasolini employed some of the techniques of neorealism in the making of his film; for example, most of the actors he hired were non-professionals, and he cast his own mother, Susanna, as the elderly mother of Jesus.   At a press conference in 1966, Pasolini was asked why he, an unbeliever, had made a film which dealt with religious themes; his response was, "If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”


21.) Oedipus Rex (Edipo Re) directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1967).  An adaptation of the Greek tragedy Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles in 428 B.C.E.   A son is born to a young couple in pre-war Italy. The father, motivated by jealousy, takes the baby into the desert to be abandoned, at which point the film’s setting changes to the ancient world.  The myth of Oedipus, about a man who inadvertently kills his father and marries his mother, formed the basis for some of Sigmund Freud’s most profound ideas about human psychology.


22.) The Conformist (Il Conformista) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (1970).  A political drama set in 1930s Fascist Italy, the film is a case study in the psychology of fascism: Marcello Clerici is a bureaucrat dehumanized by a dysfunctional upper class family and a childhood sexual trauma. He accepts an assignment from Benito Mussolini’s secret police to assassinate his former mentor, living in exile in Paris.  Clerici is willing to sacrifice his values in the interests of building a supposedly "normal life."  According to the political philosopher Takis Fotopoulos, The Conformist  is "a beautiful portrait of this psychological need to conform and be ‘normal’ at the social level, in general, and the political level, in particular."  The film is widely praised as a visual masterpiece. It was photographed by Vittorio Storaro, who used rich colors, authentic wardrobe of the 1930s, and a series of unusual camera angles and fluid camera movement.


23.) We All Loved Each Other So Much (C'eravamo Tanto Amati) directed by Ettore Scola (1974).  A comedy-drama about a group of friends who fight for the liberation of Italy from the yoke of Nazi occupation and the fascist collaborationists aiding in it.  After the end of World War II, the three part ways, and each man's story sheds light on post-war Italy, with its hopes and disappointments.  Gianni moves to Rome and arranges to marry the daughter of a construction tycoon, a former fascist who managed to get good connections with the pro-American conservative Christian democratic party dominating public life (and building licenses) in post-war Italy.  Antonio, a worker in a hospital, has instead remained loyal to the ideals of their youth, and is now a fervent communist activist. Nicola, the most intellectual of the trio, leaves Nocera and his family and moves to Rome, too, to try win a fortune on the famous TV quiz show.  After several decades the three friends meet again in the trattoria where they spent their last evening together, commenting bitterly on their lives.


24.) Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salo o Le 120 Giornate de Sodoma) directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975).  Based on the book The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, the film focuses on four wealthy, corrupt fascist libertines after the fall of Benito Mussolini’s Italy in July 1943. The libertines kidnap eighteen teenagers and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, and sexual and mental torture. The film is noted for exploring the themes of political corruption, abuse of power, sadism, perversion, sexuality and fascism.  The story is told in four segments, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy: the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. The film also contains frequent references to and several discussions of Friedrich Nietzche’s 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morality, Ezra Pound’s poem The Cantos, and Marcel Proust’s novel sequence In Search of Lost Time.  It was Pasolini's last film; he was murdered shortly before Salò was released.


The 1980s and Beyond

A good window into the concerns of contemporary Italian cinema is Maurizio Nichetti's 1989 film The Icicle Thief, which displaces the family from Vittorio De Sica's neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief to contemporary society, suggesting "that there is no way back to the faith and idealism of the neorealists and that end of the century filmmakers are stuck with the task of finding a new humanist way forward" (Nochimson).  Here are a few noteworthy contemporary Italian films.

25.) Three Brothers (Tre Fratelli) directed by Francesco Rosi (1981).  Tells a story of three brothers, each of whom is facing difficult contemporary problems. Raffaele is a judge living in Rome, who is presiding over a terrorism case for which he risks assassination.  Rocco is religious and works as a counselor at a correctional institute for boys, so that he can fulfill his dream of helping troubled teenagers.  Nicola is a factory worker involved in a labour dispute as well as a failed marriage. When their mother dies, the brothers meet at their childhood home to grieve and share stories. 


26.) Stolen Children (Il Ladro di Bambini) directed by Gianni Amelio (1992).  A policeman has an order to take two children (Rosetta and her brother Luciano) from Milan to Sicily to an orphanage. Their mother has been arrested for forcing Rosetta (11 years old) to work as a prostitute.


27.) Dear Diary (Caro Diario) directed by Nanni Moretti (1993).  A semi-autobiographical film in the style of a documentary, the film consists of three chapters of an open diary.  The first episode follows the director/protagonist riding a Vespa through Rome. Shots of landscape, architecture, and beautiful monuments accompany his thoughts, which range from critiques of Hollywood cinema, to critiques of banalization of the Italian cinema.  The second episode follows Moretti escaping from the frenzy of city life on a journey through the Aeolian Islands, where he visits his friend Gerardo, a scholar studying James Joyce’s Ulysses, who gradually becomes obsessed with soap operas.  The final episode narrates the difficult diagnosis of a disease that affected Moretti in real life and has the symptoms of persistent itching and disturbing insomnia.


28.) The Truce (La Tregua) directed by Francesco Rosi (1997).  Based on Primo Levi’s memoir about his experiences returning to Italy in 1945 after the Red Army liberated the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II.   His long railway journey home to Turin took him on a circuitous route from Poland, through Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany.


29.) Life is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella) directed by Roberto Benigni (1997).  Benigni plays Guido Orefice, a Jewish Italian book shop owner, who must employ his fertile imagination to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp.  Part of the film came from Benigni's own family history; before Roberto's birth, his father had survived three years of internment at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.



Stay tuned for next week's post: An Introduction to Japanese Cinema!

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