Movies and Film: A Few Good Films

A Few Good Films

The great cinema scholar Ephraim Katz, author of The Film Encyclopedia, calls the three decades after World War II a "vast wasteland" in Italian cinema, and for good reason. After 10 wonderfully successful and creative years of neorealism (keep reading!), the nation's movie moguls sought to create a "Hollywood on the Tiber" by pumping vast amounts of (largely American) money into the production of spectacular films that would reestablish Italy's greatness in the medium. It didn't happen.

Nevertheless, the period from 1950 through 1980 did produce a fair number of excellent films. Three directors in particular emerged from the ashes of World War II to become internationally acclaimed artists. And the postwar years gave birth to a small group of stars who lit up silver screens around the world with a dazzling and uniquely Italian combination of wit, irony, and sizzling gorgeousness.

The Other Michelangelo

Second Take

If you're looking for riveting story lines, you won't find them in most of Antonioni's films, which tend to feature long but penetrating shots that go nowhere while revealing with often searing intensity the emotional depths of his characters.

It would be hard for an artist in any medium to live up to Michelangelo Antonioni's first name, though the great Italian director certainly did his best. After studying business at the University of Bologna, Antonioni took up a number of jobs in the film industry, collaborating on scripts, directing shorts and documentaries, and doing some producing before directing his first feature, Cronaca di un Amore (Story of a Love Affair), in 1950.

Like many of Italy's post-World War II directors, Antonioni had unmistakable ties to the Fascists during the early part of his career. He contributed to the journal Cinema during World War II, when it was being coedited by Mussolini's son Vittorio, and attended the Fascist-established film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, for a brief stint in the early '40s.

Most importantly, perhaps, Antonioni's films are character-driven rather than plot-driven, a distinction that's crucial to bear in mind while watching his pictures. Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955), for instance, is a highly complex meditation on the intricacies of human relationships, a theme treated with even greater success in L'Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962).

Antonioni was particularly adept at using color to bring out psychological dimensions of his characters, though his first color feature, Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert, 1964), failed miserably in this regard in its banal treatment of human alienation in modern society. His later American-produced films, such as Blow-Up (1967 for MGM) and Zabriskie Point (1970), while not critically acclaimed, created highly pessimistic views of contemporary materialism.

If you're planning an "Antonioni-othon," though, it'd be best to stick with the 1950s. Films like I vinti (1952), La signora senza camelie (1953), and Il Grido (The Outcry, 1957) clearly represent some of his best work, conveying with unrivaled depth and haunting drama the tortured inner world of human emotions. Blow Up is another film that you should make a real point of watching.

Getting Real(ist) with Roberto


Marcello Pagliero as the resistance leader Manfredi in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist Roma, citt aperta (1945).

Like Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini had Fascist ties during the early years of his career, collaborating on the script of Luciana Serra Pilota (1938), which was made under the watchful eye of the Duce's son, Vittorio. But the political commitment and consistency of his cinematic vision soon allowed him to triumph over the propagandistic wasting of his talents during World War II. The result was an illustrious and often notorious career that would change the face of filmmaking forever.

Above all, Rossellini gave crucial impetus to the aesthetic movement dubbed neorealism, a turn toward the hard reality of the human condition that many film historians would argue officially begins with his Roma, citt aperta (Open City) of 1945.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Neorealism was a cinematic movement, originating in Italy, that reached its peak in the late '40s and early '50s; in response to the feel-good pap of the "white telephone" era, neorealists demanded a turn to natural settings rather than artificially constructed sets, "real people" instead of actors, and authentic human stories rather than stale melodrama.

Neorealism had important precedents in silent-era naturalism and films such as Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (Obsession, 1942). In fact, the term was coined by the critics Umberto Barbaro and Antonio Pietrangeli in a discussion of Visconti's thriller, which was adapted from the American novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James Cain. Rossellini was one of the undisputed masters of the new style, however, and many historians would agree that he exploited its possibilities with the greatest success.

Unfortunately for Rossellini's artistic legacy, his career is just as well known for his steamy and controversial marriage to Ingrid Bergman as for his filmic genius. Roberto and Ingrid hooked up, left their respective spouses, and got hitched in 1950. She starred in several of his films during the next few years—and, not coincidentally, gave birth to Isabella Rossellini of Blue Velvet fame. Isabella was their only truly successful collaboration, however; Stromboli (1949), Europa '51 (1952), and Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1953) are considered some of Rossellini's weakest works.

Their marriage soon followed suit, ending in an annulment in 1958 after a decade of international scorn and condemnation and the virtual blacklisting of Bergman from American moviedom. Rossellini's later career was generally undistinguished, though he did win the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival for Il Generale della Rovere (1959), which is very much worth seeing.

Director's Cut

Some of the greatest film sequences of all time are contained in Rossellini's so-called "World War II Trilogy," which consists of three movies that should be on the very top of your foreign film must-see list:

Roma, citt aperta (Open City, 1945), shot in the streets, alleyways, and apartments of Rome, was the hallmark film of neorealism and used the ancient ruined city as both setting and set.

Pais (Paisan, 1946) is made up of six vignettes documenting the human side of the postwar liberation of the Italian peninsula.

Germania Anno Zero (Germany Year Zero, 1947) explores the Nazi-inflicted psychological turmoil of a young German boy who turns against his own family before committing suicide.

Aside from their enormous influence upon the succeeding decade of Italian and worldwide filmmaking, the three films in the trilogy are notable for the stark but moving performances of their mostly nonprofessional, untrained casts and the gritty realism of their camerawork. Make a bucket of popcorn and watch all three in one night!

Fellini the Fabulous

And then, of course, there's Fellini, perhaps Italy's most enduringly beloved director. Unlike both Antonioni and Rossellini (or, for that matter, Hitchcock and Welles!), Federico Fellini never had a real "low point" in his career. He made some clunkers, sure, but few would argue that his talents diminished with age. Instead, his early life as a cartoonist, a loafer, a draft-avoiding student, and a circus devotee would inspire 40 years of consistently fabulous filmmaking and 24 feature-length pictures that have few rivals on the European screen.

Short Cuts

812 was so named because Fellini had directed seven solo films and three collaborations previously each collaboration counted for half of a film. (Get it? 7 + 12 + 12 + 12 = 812.)

Fellini's career in film began with his collaborations on the script of the first picture in Rossellini's great World War II neorealist trilogy, Roma, citt aperta. He also worked as an assistant director for prominent and emerging neorealist directors before collaborating with Alberto Lattuada in Fellini's directorial debut, Luci del Variet (Variety Lights, 1951). His solo debut, though, had to wait one more year; Lo Sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1952), a commercial failure like Variety Lights, nevertheless foreshadows the farcical voice of his later films with wit and skill.

Fellini's big break came in the early 1950s with two films that immediately established his international reputation. I Vitelloni (The Loafers, 1953) is a quasi-autobiographical story about a group of urban loafers, while La strada (1954) tells a story of sexual domination that combines an almost claustrophobic personal intensity with a broad social drama on the costs and constraints of human freedom. While Fellini's career had been boosted by his early work with Rossellini, these two films marked a decisive break from neorealism in favor of an indomitable focus on the fantastical that is no less serious than neorealism's most jaundiced attempts at psychological portraiture.

Themes of sex and lapsed morals remained central to Fellini's subsequent films; Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957) features a disenchanted prostitute who can't get out of the world she yearns to escape, while La Dolce Vita (1960), which many consider Fellini's finest picture, starred Marcello Mastroianni as a gossip columnist uncovering dirty secrets about members of Rome's elite social circles.

It was in 812 (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) that Fellini made his most complex and confessional autobiographical statement. A superb story of a film director who can't decide what to make his next film about, 812 explores with visual audacity and psychological contortions the inner mental world of the artist. The film garnered Fellini his third Oscar for best foreign film.

Fellini Satyricon (1969) was a less successful but quite controversial adaptation of Petronius's decadent Latin novel of the same name. The original Satyricon, which survives only in fragments, was written in the waning years of the Roman Empire (you know, when Nero was fiddling while Rome burned), and it features the appropriate amount of sexual and other forms of debauchery that Fellini clearly had a great time bringing to the screen. Opinion has always been divided about the merits of this film, but if you try reading the Petronius novel before watching it—which few of Fellini's critics seem to have bothered doing—we think you'll find that fewer literary adaptations have been so artfully true to the original.

Fellini won yet another Oscar for Amarcord (1973), which turned back to his boyhood memories for inspiration, and delighted American audiences with a nostalgic homage to the nation's golden cinematic past with Ginger and Fred in 1985. Fellini's final film, Voices of the Moon (1990), was released four years before his death. A personal retrospective of his last 40 years, the film brought a moving and, in many ways, clarifying end to a career whose results continue to delight millions of filmophiles around the world.

Falling for Fellini

Franco Interlenghi as Moraldo with his group of provincial ne'er-do-wells in Fellini's I Vitelloni (The Loafers/, 1953)

Franco Interlenghi as Moraldo with his group of provincial ne'er-do-wells in Fellini's I Vitelloni (The Loafers/, 1953).

Here are four great reasons to start renting, watching, and absorbing the great Italian director's life's work today:

  • Fellini made 24 films—a considerable number, but not insurmountable, meaning you can begin to master his entire oeuvre in two or three months of subtitle-packed weekends.
  • Fellini's films are some the most frequently referenced foreign films by today's master directors (Woody Allen's work, for example, is loaded with clever allusions).
  • When some snobby NYU grad at a cocktail party sneers "That guy's so eight-and-a-half" you'll know what he means.
  • Fellini is so self-conscious about the history and artistry of the cinema that his work will continually whet your appetite for a broader range of Italian and European film.

Face Time

Other directors, if less distinguished and acclaimed than the three we've been discussing, also made important contributions to Italian cinema from the early '50s through the '70s. The eminently controversial Pier Paolo Pasolini clashed with the church and state establishments with sex-laden films like The Canterbury Tales (1972) and The 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Bernardo Bertolucci's cross-Atlantic career, which began with the notorious Last Tango in Paris (1972), would later culminate in nine Academy Awards for The Last Emperor (1987). Other important directorial names from this period are Pietro Germi, Francesco Maselli, Francesco Rosi, and Valerio Zurlini.

Short Cuts

Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren steamily starred together as romantic leads in several Italian films during the '60s. They were reunited as romantic retirees after a long hiatus in Robert Altman's Ready to Wear (1994).

The period from 1950 through 1980 is equally well known for giving the world some of its most desired and admired faces. After Sophia Loren's discoery by producer Carlo Ponti in the late '40s, international audiences got to witness her incomparable beauty as she launched her film career with seductive roles in La Tratta delle Bianche (The White Slave Trade, 1952), Ada (1953), and Peccato che sia una Canaglia (Too Bad She's Bad, 1955) before she took Hollywood by storm in 1958. Loren's greatest performance and the peak of her career came with her Oscar-winning role as the tragic maternal heroine of De Sica's La Ciociara (Two Women, 1961), a film that belongs near the top of your Italian list with Rossellini's trilogy.

Gina Lollabrigida was a close rival to Loren for sheer audience allure during the 1940s (see, for example, Follie per l'opera [Mad About the Opera, 1948] and Campane a Martello [Children of Chance, 1949]). But she lost much of her unique Continental sexiness at the hands of Hollywood's uniformity machine and ended her acting career by starring on—egad!—Falcon Crest in the 1980s. The great romantic lead, Marcello Mastroianni, came to international prominence with starring roles in films by Fellini, Antonioni, and Pietro Germi, becoming one of the world's most recognized male faces and the quintessential embodiment of raw masculine sexiness.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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