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Arthouse to Exploitation
By Barry Forshaw
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2016 Barry Forshaw
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NEOREALIMS: KEY DIRECTORS
Sexuality is certainly the wellspring of one of the key documents of Italian neorealism, Luchino Visconti's Obsession (Ossessione, 1943). This sultry, highly eroticised version of James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice made the Hollywood version with John Garfield and Lana Turner seem a very buttoned-up affair indeed – it was to be many years before Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange would put table-top intercourse back into the tale. Visconti's Obsession (with Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai) is a key film in the history of Italian cinema, as it functions on so many different levels. The director had been associated with the writers and filmmakers of the journal Cinema (which was, in fact, a project put together by Vittorio Mussolini, the dictator's son) and he had already set down a manifesto that included a swingeing attack on standard Italian cinema of the day (entitled 'Cadavers') and that also articulated his feeling that the everyday life of men and women should be encapsulated in cinema, with a keen and subtle response to the locales in which human dramas took place. The Minister of Popular Culture, Alessandro Pavolini, had rejected a proposed film of a Verga short story, Gramigna's Lover, as it did not conform to the rules of Fascist cinema. As a replacement project, Visconti considered Melville's Billy Budd, later filmed by Peter Ustinov, but finally opted for a film based on a French translation he had read of Cain's Postman, with its betrayal, sexuality and resolutely blue-collar characters. With the assistance of such colleagues as Giuseppe De Santis (who would later become a director himself), Visconti relocated the book to a sultry Italy, and took its classic tale of a couple who murder the woman's husband for his money and then fall out in an orgy of what ultimately proves to be lethal squabbling and made it quintessentially Italian. The characters of Frank, Cora and Nick become Gino, Giovanna and Giuseppe Bragana (the latter characterised as an admirer of Verdi – an element that would not have displeased the opera-loving Cain). But the principal change to the novel was the removal of the focus on the district attorney and Frank's lawyer. In their place, Visconti created the homosexual Lo Spagnolo (The Spaniard), an early example of the gay director's own interest in homosexuality. The first-person narrative of the novel was jettisoned for a cool and dispassionate camera style that brilliantly rendered the baked, arid landscapes with (for the time) impressive novelty. All the elements were brought together in a synthesis that was quite unlike anything that had previously been attempted in Italian cinema. There are details that are far more striking than anything to be found in Tay Garnett's US version of the story, such as Gino shaving with a straight razor while, in the background, Giovanna massages the overweight body of her husband – as a harbinger of the violent death that ensues, this is a perfect visual metaphor. The film created something of a sensation, particularly among such critics as André Bazin, and it was clear that Visconti had elevated the squalid sex and violence of Cain's plot into something that was genuinely operatic yet never overblown.
Needless to say, the film created a scandal in the censorious atmosphere of Mussolini's Italy. Il Duce himself looked at the film, but did not halt its distribution; this was left to his son Vittorio, who famously denounced the film after a public screening with the words 'This is not Italy.' Perhaps it was not the Italy of the Fascists, but the humanity and power of the film survive long after so many of the dull propaganda pieces of the day have fallen by the wayside.
There is much debate about what the term 'neorealism' in Italian cinema actually means, and probably the safest approach is to regard it as a portmanteau concept in which various elements appear: a committed, generally left-wing view of the problems of society; deliberately de-glamorised pictures of Italian life; casts that often feature non-actors (sometimes shored up with professionals such as Anna Magnani); and, in general, working-class rather than middle-class milieus and concerns. There is little question that the form developed as a reaction to Fascism, but its deliberately 'non-artificial' aspects are in fact underpinned by a passionate approach to human problems that frequently reminds the viewer that Italy is the home of grand opera; in Italian opera, the verismo movement had produced operas with similar concerns, such as Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. The key figures in the movement were Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, the aforementioned Visconti and Federico Fellini – the latter for his early films, although he is not strictly a neorealist director. All shared a passionate concern for conveying the realities of quotidian working-class existence, a trait that was particularly remarkable in the case of Visconti, with his aristocratic background. Themes that concerned these directors included ones which were then topical: the effects of the war and the resistance activities of the partisans; the degradation of the workforce through unemployment; and the aspects of municipal corruption that destroyed the quality of life for so many Italian working men and women.
Rossellini's Rome, Open City (Roma Città Aperta, 1945) was a major box-office success and demonstrated that the movement could be popular as well as revolutionary. Similarly, the director's Paisà (1946) and De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948) enjoyed popular as well as critical acclaim, as did De Santis's Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro, 1949). But, on the whole, the movement was appreciated more by the critics than by mainstream Italian audiences, who still preferred escapism (either of the Hollywood variety or via their own homegrown imitations) to depictions of the lives that many of them were living.
However, these films (and such classics as Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero [Germania Anno Zero, 1948] and De Sica's Shoeshine [Sciuscià, 1946]) absolutely defined the movement and have proved timeless, still having a powerful impact today when the sociological concerns of the directors are now history. With Rome, Open City, Rossellini threw down a gauntlet for the cinema of the day. In many ways it was a classic example of guerrilla filmmaking, with most of the shooting taking place on location, and even the film stock being obtained by clandestine means. Rossellini did not enjoy the luxury of access to daily rushes, and all the sound in the film is post-synched as there was no budget for any live sound recording – in this, however, the film adopted a long-established Italian approach, whereby most of the dialogue is looped in the studio later. The film itself is a striking synthesis of radically different techniques: the documentary aspects of the film are set against operatically heightened emotions, and the partisan struggle against the German invaders is conveyed with both a dispassionate realism and an attention to violence and tension that makes most contemporary Hollywood (or British) efforts seem contrived. The characters are a partisan priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who fights alongside partisan leader Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) against the Nazis. Manfredi, however, is doomed when his treacherous lover Marina (Maria Michi) betrays him to the Germans (in the person of the psychopathic Major Bergmann, played by Harry Feist). Despite Fabrizi's astonishingly nuanced performance, however, the character most viewers remember is, of course, the working-class Pina – an incandescent Anna Magnani – who is a friend of Manfredi. Her fate in the film at the hands of the Nazis, along with that of the brave priest, remains as powerful an image as ever it was when viewed in the twenty-first century, and if the Germans are allowed little nuance, this is part and parcel of Rossellini's attempt to deliver his message with maximum force. The fact that the Nazi Bergmann is portrayed as a homosexual in a further effort to convey his perversion is not, in fact, an action that can be attributed only to straight directors; the gay Visconti also treated several of his homosexual characters in an unsympathetic fashion, and it can perhaps be read in the same way as the treatment by such directors as Hitchcock of his gay villains – a dramatic truism of the day that may not meet today's standards of political correctness but that functions as a metaphor for transgression. Similarly, Bergmann's colleague Ingrid is a predatory lesbian who is responsible for Marina's traducing of Manfredi, seducing her with drugs and baubles. The pending marriage of Pina and the typesetter Francesco is a central image, making the final tragic denouement all the more powerful. But despite the fates of its central characters, there is a humanistic embrace of a possible future lying beyond the grim present. What still strikes the modern viewer is the richly drawn documentary surface, into which the more conventional film-star performance of Anna Magnani is perfectly integrated. The suspense sequences still pack a considerable punch, such as the moment when Fascist soldiers ransack workers' apartments in the Via Casalini for hidden resistance fighters. It is, though, the death of Magnani's character (shot in the street by soldiers) and the cruel torture of Manfredi by a drunken Nazi that stay in the memory, and Don Pietro's execution remains one of the most harrowing scenes ever committed to celluloid.
With Paisà, Rossellini moved even more resolutely into documentary mode, with a disjunctive narrative dealing with the Allied invasion of Italy. A voiceover and images of the movement of troops stress the documentary aspects, as does actual documentary footage bookending each separate section of the film. The individual episodes within this structure function brilliantly, and the relationship between the Italians and the liberating American soldiers is encapsulated in the very title: 'paisà' is a demotic term signifying countryman or friend, and was the standard form of address between the natives and the American GIs. The most memorable episode involves a black GI, with his fantasies of a return in triumph to the USA finally playing out in a tragic denouement, as he realises that his status as a black man in a racist America puts him in line with the disenfranchised Italians he finds himself among. The structure of the film, which details various events that give a patchwork picture of the Allied invasion, is powerfully convincing. Rossellini's son Romano had died in 1946, and the director's method of dealing with his grief was to shoot another film, Germany, Year Zero (Germania, Anno Zero); thiswas dedicated to his son, and the film foregrounds a youthful central character. After a somewhat portentous opening title, we are shown the destruction brought about in Berlin after the war, while a narrator tells us that we will be watching a truthful vision of this large city lying in ruins. The construction of the screenplay follows a more linear line than Rome, Open City and concentrates on the young Edmund, who lives with his father and sister in desperate circumstances. His father is ill, and his sister obtains money from Allied soldiers for sexual favours. Edmund's brother Karlheinz was formerly a Nazi soldier and is in hiding. We are told that Edmund had denounced his father when the latter tried to end his involvement in the Hitler youth. Another negative, corrupt homosexual figure is portrayed in the Nazi schoolteacher Herr Enning, who sells records of Hitler's speeches to the soldiers using Edmund as a go-between. At the same time, he lectures the young man on the Nazi philosophy in which he still passionately believes, and, working on the principle that the strong should survive while the weak fall by the wayside (one of the many simplifications of Nietzschean theory that the Nazis were responsible for), Enning persuades Edmund that he should murder his sick father. The ending of Germany, Year Zero is as bleak as one could imagine. The effect of the film is occasionally schizophrenic, in that the documentary verisimilitude is undercut by the almost operatic horrors of the human story. The picture we are shown of ruined German landscapes remains immensely impressive, and the portrayal of the youthful Edmund (a perfect encapsulation of Nazi youth) is striking. Again, the concept of perverted ideology being married to sexual corruption is aired in the figure of Herr Enning, but the detail is often more sophisticated than this schematic setup might suggest.
After Rossellini, the other patron saint of neorealism is De Sica. Vittorio De Sica was, in many ways, a more conventional filmmaker than his peers, and his success as an actor (initially as a romantic lead, then as a much-in-demand character actor in Hollywood) chimes with his more traditional approach. His first films as a comic actor do not wear well today, but when he took up directing in the early 1940s his true artistic calling was within his grasp. Utilising the screenplays of Cesare Zavattini, he created a body of work that continues to impress today. The Children Are Watching Us (I Bambini Ci Guardano, 1944) has a more structured feel than those films that display the more improvisatory qualities that are now seen as the hallmark of neorealism. The plot involves a woman's infidelity, which results in the loss of her son's love and her husband's suicide; the presentation (seen through the eyes of the child) was remarkably successful, even though De Sica utilised everyday cinematic tropes to emotionally involve the viewer with his characters. Shoeshine (Sciuscià, 1946), the first major De Sica film in the neorealist canon, once again deals with the theme of the destruction of youthful ideals in the face of a cynical and bitter adult universe. Pasquale and Giuseppe, two shoeshine boys, save up to buy a horse. Unfortunately, they find themselves involved in a black-market scheme and are sent to an Italian borstal for juvenile criminals. Giuseppe escapes and meets an accidental death, which, however, is blamed on Pasquale.
The tragedy through which the boys' friendship is destroyed is handled with masterly assurance by De Sica, and the cinematic language employed is much more sophisticated than that utilised by most Italian neorealist directors (not that they did not know how to use cinematic technique in a sophisticated fashion; rather, they chose not to). The performances of the boys (Rinaldo Smordoni as Giuseppe and Franco Interlenghi as Pasquale) are astonishing, and make most portrayals of childhood in the cinema (particularly the Hollywood variety) seem hollow. The horse – emblematic of the boys' freedom – is a complex visual symbol that both opens and closes the film: its escape in the last reel is a metaphor for what has been lost between the two boys. De Sica is unsentimental about the boys; when Giuseppe's brother is betrayed by Pasquale in prison (which occurs only because Pasquale is deceived into believing that Giuseppe is being beaten), the revenge taken by Giuseppe has disastrous consequences for both boys.
One aspect of neorealist cinema that now appears to have had variable results (although it was much lauded at the time) is the use by directors such as De Sica of nonprofessional actors. The two non-professional children in Shoeshine are coached into giving remarkable performances, such is the empathy with which De Sica directs them. De Sica's own skills as an actor made him hyper-conscious of the artificiality that a professional can slip into, but the great performances throughout the neorealist canon (such as those by Anna Magnani) often throw into perspective the limited range of the nonprofessional players. However, the triumph of the method is to be found in Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948), which is both De Sica's masterpiece and one of the defining films of the neorealist movement. It is discussed in the next section.
After Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, De Sica presented his other great neorealist testament in Umberto D. (1952). This was the director's own favourite film, which he financed himself, and its box office failure was a tremendous disappointment to him. At the time, it was viewed as sentimental and a falling off from the ideals of neorealism, but its reputation has subsequently grown considerably and it is now regarded as one of his great works.
Pensioner Umberto (Carlo Battisti) has been living a quiet and uneventful life until the series of disastrous events that we are shown in the course of the film. In a remarkable performance, Battisti presents the old man's life in a series of well-observed tableaux with both his pet dog and a youthful maid who lives in the same apartment.
Excerpted from Italian Cinema by Barry Forshaw. Copyright © 2016 Barry Forshaw. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
1. Neorealism: Key Directors,
2. Personal Cinema: Fellini, Antonioni and Others,
3. Gialli and Horror: Bava, Argento and Co.,
4. The Italian Western: Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci,
5. Magpie Mayhem: Poliziotteschi,
6. Italian Cinema: The Films,
7. Into the Twenty-First Century,
8. Films since 2000,
9. Italian Crime Television after 1999,
10. Key Film Stars,