Che Bella

Italian Neorealism and the Movies -- and the AFS Series -- It Inspired

The series is called "Che Bella: Italy in the 60s," but the story really begins -- as does all of modern cinema -- in the streets of Rome, in May of 1944.

There, even as Allied troops raced toward the city, and Nazi occupiers tightened their martial-law grip in preparation for a final Battle of Rome that never came, a small filmmakers' collective with ties to the Italian Resistance movement began shooting what would become the signature film of Italian neorealism: Roma, Cittô Aperta (Open City). The production, under the direction of Roberto Rossellini and screenwriter Sergio Amidei, was about as "underground" as it gets: shot in the streets, and in apartments that sometimes doubled as Resistance safe houses, using mostly nonprofessional actors and available lighting, captured on mismatched bits of film stock scrounged from still cameras and left-over "short ends" from previous shoots. The story -- about a communist underground leader being hunted down by the Gestapo -- was a collaboration, pieced together in large part from the experiences of the participants and their friends -- and what finally emerged was a taut, largely unvarnished vision of life as they had seen it lived over the past years. Courage, cruelty, love, death -- all the elements of the human condition parade by, seemingly without comment or elaboration.

Audiences around the world were stunned by what they saw (or thought they saw), and they wanted more. And if Rome was an open city, Italy -- despite its crumbled economy, fractured politics, and shattered cultural institutions -- was suddenly a cinematic hotbed. Over the next few years, Italian filmmakers who had grown up under Mussolini's fascism pieced together a string of true masterpieces (see "Essential Neorealism," p. 64), and Rossellini, along with Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and others, became a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a generation that had grown up under Mussolini's fascism. The Italian film industry had stalled out creatively at about the beginning of the sound era, recycling high-minded historical dramas and high-society drawing-room farces known derisively as "white telephone" movies for their utter lack of relevance to people's everyday lives. But the propaganda-savvy fascists also founded a high-level national film school, called the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia -- still in existence and now the oldest film school in Europe -- which brought an intellectual vigor to the medium, but more importantly, provided a meeting place for movie lovers from around the country to meet, talk about their passions, and begin to work together.

Friendships that began at the Centro Sperimentale became collaborations after the war, and it became truly an era of collectivism. Italian writing credits, in particular, became something of an industry inside joke elsewhere in the world -- films had as many as six or eight writers credited with various elements of story, script, and dialogue -- but there was no denying that the collaborative style worked remarkably well, both in turning out good scripts and films and in training an essentially new generation of filmmakers.

Of course, melodrama is another part of the Italian condition, and it didn't take long before every hack producer in the country (and elsewhere) snapped to the fact that all it took to earn the label of "neorealismo" was a sad tale, a couple of dumpy sets, and an actress with a torn skirt. Meanwhile, Italy underwent its "economic miracle" (repeatedly, with mixed success), foreign investment poured in (especially in the film industry, as American studios discovered they had massive amounts of stranded capital in the country), culture and politics changed, and things became less black and white (pun somewhat intended).

By the late 1950s, neorealism as a cohesive movement was pretty much played out. But in that brief, tumultuous time, it had transformed the world cinema and jumpstarted a national cinema that still, today, traces its cultural heritage directly back to those heady days in Rome, when the present seemed so grim, but the future seemed so wide open.


D: Pier Paolo Pasolini (1961); with Franco Citti.

I hadn't seen either of the Pasolini films on this program before, and I must say that they, and especially Accatone, come as a considerable revelation -- missing links, as it were, between the post-war period and the baroque formality of Pasolini's later films. I've never been a big fan of those -- Salo, The Decameron, Arabian Nights, etc. -- which still seem overripe and calculated solely to "shock" and anger the Catholic church. (I mean, really, where's the sport in that?) But now, I think there's more there than I'd given him credit for, if the starting point is Accatone ("Scrounger"), a low-life pimp living on the outskirts of Rome -- in a barren, blasted moonscape of a neighborhood where Pasolini himself had once lived. And what makes things all the worse, even compared to the darkest hours of neorealism, is that Pasolini offers no hope whatsoever of any improvement. Accatone himself is the only one who seems to care that his life sucks; he hates being a pimp, but he can't seem to talk himself into trying to change. This may be the grimmest movie I've ever seen. Sixteen years after the promised rebirth of Open City, and this is where we've arrived? (Feb 13)

Mamma Roma

D: Pier Paolo Pasolini (1962); with Anna Magnani, Franco Citti.

Made just a year after Accatone, Pasolini's second feature already shows considerable maturation and a progression in some of the themes and techniques the director would carry on throughout his career. We're still mired in the squalid pimpdom of Rome, but everyone seems more comfortable with it now. Accatone's bitter hopelessness and self-loathing are here evolved into Mamma Ro's robust, aggressive cynicism as she tries to transition from prostitution to respectability. (Leonard Maltin says, "Mamma Roma would be the same character Magnani played in Open City, had that character not been killed at the finale!")

Most memorable are the impossibly long dolly shots of Magnani holding court on the streets telling her stories (to see where Pasolini is heading with this particular device, flash forward to 1966's religious road movie, Hawks and Sparrows).

It's said that Pasolini didn't want to use Magnani in this role -- preferring nonprofessionals like Citti -- and that they fought constantly on the set. I'd be curious, then, to see what Pasolini had in mind, because without Magnani, there's no movie here at all. (Jan 30)

Rocco and His Brothers

D: Luchino Visconti (1960); with Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Claudia Cardinale.

Okay, I'll admit it. I haven't seen this in 25 years, and then only in the truncated, pre-restored version that everyone agrees is a pale shadow of the three-hour original. What I remember best, though, is Giuseppe Rotunno's stunning black-and-white cinematography -- especially when he's lighting the impossibly beatific Alain Delon -- and the baroque brutality of the fight scenes. A family of impoverished southerners moves to the big city to make a new life for themselves -- it's a common story. But this is Visconti, the aristocratic Marxist, returning to Milan, the city of his birth, so there are echoes rippling throughout of his own misgivings regarding the politics of class. (Feb 6)

Death in Venice

D: Luchino Visconti (1971); with Dirk Bogarde, Silvana Mangano, Björn Andrésen, Luigi Battaglia.

What is beauty? Can it be created, out of nothing, in an extraordinary act of genius and will? Or is it pre-existing, all around us, just waiting to be noticed? In other words, does an artist create beauty, or just put a frame around it? These are not idle questions for an artist who suddenly realizes he's nearing the end of his life, who has dedicated his entire being (and perhaps his ideals, as well) to his art, whose lifelong confidence in his own moral compass is suddenly shaken...

In Visconti's retelling of the Thomas Mann novel, Aschenbach is not a writer but the composer Gustav Mahler, who has come to Venice to ... well, not to do anything, really, but just because that's what one does in the summer, if one is of a certain social standing. From the opening shot of Bogarde, wrapped under a blanket on the deck of a steamer, lips pursed, shrunken into himself, it's clear that the life, the capacity for feeling, has been sucked out of this man. All that remains is the feeble arrogance of a Once Great Man among lesser mortals. When that's taken away as well -- when he finally comes to realize that he cannot direct all things -- then the veil is lifted and he's finally able to feel and create again ... if only it weren't too late.

This is the middle of three films in Visconti's German decadence trilogy -- along with The Damned and Ludwig. They're all great. (Feb 27)

Red Desert

D: Michelangelo Antonioni (1964); with Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Rita Renoir.

Almost more a kinetic art exhibit than a movie, Red Desert drags Monica Vitti here and there across the industrial wasteland of Northern Italy, poses her amid the inexplicably vibrant tableaux of her unhappy existence, and lets the compositions and the colors tell the story. This was Antonioni's first color film and perhaps his most extreme early effort at manipulating the visual images on the screen. Later, he would shoot onto film through a video camera, so that he could alter the color mix. Here, he contents himself with painting everything in sight (including some of the natural landscapes) and otherwise filling the frame with fields of color. A multistory wall in bright orange, an unexplained splash of paint against a wall, a thick trail of yellow smoke used as a cutaway, foreshortened rows of refinery pipes: Subtle it's not.

Little surprise that some find the story and characters uninvolving and tedious -- but that really does miss the point, I think.

AFS will be showing a newly restored 35mm print of Red Desert. (Jan 23)


D: Federico Fellini (1963); with Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele.

In this, Fellini's first film in three years -- since La Dolce Vita catapulted him and Marcello Mastroianni to international stardom -- Mastroianni plays Guido (hmmm...), a director who's just had a huge hit but is now struggling to come up with an idea for his next project. Between fits and starts, ducking the press, and false assurances to his producer that, yes, he will certainly find some way to use the giant rocket ship set, Guido goes back through his life and confronts all his demons.

And what a cavalcade of demons! It's partly the autobiographical fantasy cast with which Fellini fans became familiar in numerous later films -- the strict parents and school, the sneaking out at night, the terrifying first encounter with a prostitute, the mysterious circus characters that seem to populate deserted piazzas in the middle of the night -- but this marked the first time (and not the last) that Fellini was to claim all of these as personal memories. But it's also interesting that, though he was such an autobiographical filmmaker, this was to be the closest he ever came to making a film directly about filmmaking. He got better at hiding behind his own persona in later years.

With 81é2, Fellini cast aside all vestiges of the naturalism that informed his early work. From here, he stepped off into the dazzling fantasyland of Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, and Roma, but for many, this remains the quintessential Federico.

The title, by the way, refers to this being Fellini's eighth-and-a-half movie (after six features and three collaborations). (Feb 20)

The Conformist

D: Bernardo Bertolucci (1971); with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda, Pierre Clémenti, Pasquale Fortunato.

Marcello Clerici is the perfect Fascist, because all he's ever wanted to be (ever since a childhood incident that he can't quite remember) is normal and safe. He's got a job in Mussolini's secret service, a pretty wife, and impeccable social skills. And he's so suave and reserved that no one can tell that anything is wrong. When he's assigned to a murder in Paris -- the victim is a strident anti-Fascist who happens to be an old mentor -- things start to unravel. Not that the old professor is a problem -- he's an intellectual, a weakling, and ... impotent -- but his wife turns out to have passion enough for the two of them. Clerici wants her; she wants Clerici's wife and a piece of him as well. (This is the role that made Dominique Sanda's career, and it's all that and more.) This is not good. Questions are asked. Memories are probed. Certain thoughts cannot be denied.

And yet, that description only barely scratches the surface of this beautiful, complex, massively layered adaptation of the Alberto Moravia novel.

Amazingly, though The Conformist looks as opulent as some of his later mega-epics, Bertolucci brought the film in for only $750,000; most of the staggering, monumental sets are examples of surviving Fascist architecture -- much of it in civic buildings. And, of course, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is a god. (Mar 6)

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che bella, austin film society, che bella: italy in the 60s, fellini, pasolini, visconte, bartolucci, antonioni, red desert, 8 1 / 2, death in venice, the conformist, rocco and his brothers, accatone, mamma roma

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