PETER WIX: If I live long enough to see the transplantation of souls, I'll happily replace mine with that of Italian cinema. For that sad part of the 20th century we have to refer to as post-war, the art of filmmaking grew into the maximum expression of all that the flattened, demoralised and confused Italians had to say about the way things were, and their statements covered a rare, candescent gamut of human emotions and possibilities, passing through the most profound humour, the misery of the poor, the confusion of the rich and the famous, the despair of the loser, the joy of righting wrongs, the splendour and the baseness of our desires and fetishes, the extent of our hypocrisies, the consequences of our lies, the limits of our hopes, and the glory of our imaginations. Italian cinema from the ’40s to the ’70s gives us interiors in which we can all but smell the sweat of uncertainty, desperation, or lust; gardens in which to reflect on this futility or that resurgence and carefully plot our moves; and the mountains and valleys of delightful and grotesque muses upon which we might hightail to the tip of our fantasies. It has it all, in my opinion, and it said something - always - that we listen to and walk away from feeling enlightened and spiritually fondled.
MY VOYAGE TO ITALY - Martin Scorsese (1999)
There is no more loving introduction to Italian movies than this 246-minute documentary put together and presented by a man of Sicilian stock and a director of no meagre importance in our times, Martin Scorsese. On his journey from the realism of Rossellini to the dreamlike revelations of Fellini's 81/2, he lingers on many of the great works of this era; perhaps revealing so much of each movie you may feel you don't need to see the whole picture. And a lot gets left out - he doesn't even mention Pasolini, for example. But Scorsese does get across his love for Italian cinema, and many cogent reasons for such adoration. Without indulging in any highbrow explanations, he'll help you to see why it worked so well and how it all fitted together right up to the days when European directors made films on an artistic call-and-response basis around impulses led by the likes of Antonioni. I'd like to meet Scorsese. To be able to sit down with him, drink some wine, and listen to him tell stories and talk about cinema would be something very special. This little gem brings one a little closer to such an experience. If you love Fellini's I Vitelloni, as I do, hearing Scorsese say how much he cares about the lovable good-for-nothings who inhabit the plot of this masterpiece is like sharing an observation with a friend. This tribute and history is really that warm. 8/10
IL SORPASSO - Dino Risi (1962)
One of the great things about Italian cinema's neo-realist period was the way in which it made stories about people all the more poignant by placing them in real, compelling, and emotionally charged spaces - and by that I mean a real space, the air around us in real streets, the dust that we see so well in real ruins that we can taste it. Italian directors would all know how to do this but it was Rossellini who began this movement and who, in Germany Year Zero, told us more about life in destroyed Berlin than many a history book or documentary. Fellini was a master at making us feel the melancholy wind of a square or a beach, or the excitement of a street on a Saturday night. And in this rather too uncelebrated movie, Risi (who left us as recently as 2008) puts us in locations that so carefully describe an era and a people that we can fancy we really did once live August amongst the Romans of the 1960s. As a shy student, a very young Jean-Louis Trintignant will introduce us to the extraordinary cocksure character at the heart of the film. This is the great Vittorio Gassman, and his performance as Bruno, an arrogant, loquacious, capricious and basically unhappy man whose own life he drives as recklessly as his convertible car, is one of the acting triumphs of all Italian film. Sixties movies all over the world showed up show-offs in all sorts of cool ways, but this has to be the most intense exposé of male exuberance and confidence of them all. Why? The Risi magic that lets us see behind it all while we look at the action square-on; the amazing faces of Trintignant and Gassman; the way everything about Bruno turns out to be an empty boast; the continual risky driving scenes along cliff-top motorways - very much a Sartrian reminder of our existentialist freedom to turn the wheel into the abyss at any moment - make this a road-movie that breathes tragedy so constantly onto sharp humour we can never take it as cold-blooded comedy. It's tragic. Essential viewing. 10/10
MALIZIA - Salvatore Samperi (1973)
With all the ingredients of the late night 'continental' delights that crept onto British TV screens in the dark and distant 1970s, this is drivel in stockings. Reasonable acting, silky focus and warm-filtered camerawork on flushed interiors and elegant vestments are driven by a slobbering script and sloppy editing to the film's declared objective of taking off Laura Antonelli's clothes and exciting the male cinema population of a time when the lifting of censorship on screen eroticism was the socio-sexual equivalent of the demolition of the Berlin wall. I remember the Continental Film Night experience well as a teenager, staying up past midnight, knees up to hide the incriminating bulge if anyone should come downstairs while I was watching, the wait for the exciting moments, something like leafing through a paperback to find the dirty bits. They are called Italian sex comedies, but all European cinema used comedy as a vehicle for eroticism, and the 'continentals' were not films like Carry On Camping. They were like this, eroticism about women ready to satisfy the fantasies of men... but not at the drop of a leer or for a few lira more. There was always a game to be played. Malizia is a key example with Antonelli playing a hired housekeeper who is prepared to yield to the doting widower in order to carry on an ambiguous but compelling relationship with the younger of his two teenage sons. As a statement on the sexual mores of its time, the relationship chosen by the sexy housekeeper represents our deliverance in the 1970s from the sexless and stagnant post-Victorian generations and social formalities; it is a nod to the permissive society. In terms of cinema, however, the climactic scene in which Antonelli undresses more-or-less willingly while furiously cursing the teenager is perhaps of a reflection of how director Samperi must have felt turning his talents to what was a huge cinema genre and one which ultimately helped to degrade Italian cinema.
LA LOI - Jules Dassin (1959)
An exquisite, forgotten gem, directed and written by blacklisted US director Dassin but which has a potent Italian feel to it, as well as the kind of surprising jamboree of sensations you might get from a good production of a Shakespearian comedy. Romance, tragedy, twisting plot lines, power, crime, abundant Mediterranean sexuality, and almost surreal weirdness - what more, what more? Well, there are the performances of actors we often recall for one or two more 'expensive' roles, Yves Montand and Gina Lollobrigida, both really exceptional, Dassin's muse Melina Mercouri and Paolo Stoppa, an Italian actor whose talent was universal even if his name was barely international. Amongst this lot, you hardly notice Marcello Mastroianni, then just a gallant young comic actor. At the centre of winding storylines set in a village of winding streets that climb from the beach to a gloriously filmed plaza is a curious drinking game known locally as 'the law' (hence the film’s title). This odd theatrical ritual allows the powerful figure at a table (egged on by a selected deputy) to say when the others might also drink from the carafe. Meanwhile, the boss is allowed to humiliate the others, a game that can only really work if the guy calling the shots is the kind who enjoys acts of cruelty. It's a nice device for helping to reveal certain facets of human nature, as well as for reflecting the real game of power played out every day in the village. As I said, like Shakespeare.
ROMA ORE 11 - Giuseppe De Santis (1952)
De Santis was a communist who made realist films. Bitter Rice was his most famous offering. This film is not so widely known and tells the true story of how some 100- plus women were injured or killed when the staircase on which they were queueing for a single secretarial job gave way under their combined weight. We enter intimately into the lives of some of these women and then we see how the building owner, the constructor, the architect, and the businessman who allowed the women to wait in this way all refuse to accept responsibility for the accident. The risk in cinema scripts portraying parallel lives is that the spectator's concentration will be fragmented, making it harder for us to engage and empathise than it is when we follow one character responding to events (as in De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, for example), but Roma Ore 11 has some memorable scenes and De Santis handled the dynamics of the situation with skill. 7/10
LA MEGLIO GIOVENTU (The Best Youth) - Marco Tullio Giordana (2003)
Although Italian cinema may not have set the world on fire since the 1960s, it still has its moments. This epic story of two brothers is splendid. At 366 minutes, it is almost a mini-series and you can watch it bit by bit… but you'll want to finish it all. Lovely characters and we see, as the title suggests, the best of them as they react to the movement of the plot around key events in recent Italian history. The result is very moving: great acting, a script that never overstates anything, and clean, honest photography. 9/10
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