'Cinema' --That's Italian for Cinema

by Michael Barrett

4 April 2011

From Federico Fellini'sThe Clowns (1970) 

If We Ruled the World

As we stated above, we hope RaroVideo’s gambit pays off and they’ll be able further to explore the vaults of Italian cinema. With nice releases like this, we wish them all the success in the world in these hard times. And that reminds us: just for the heck of it, here’s an idle wish list of stuff that still hasn’t made it to Region 1 DVD, although some of it’s available in Europe. Call it “If We Ruled the World”, or:

Un Piccolo Inventory of Overlooked Italian Classics
I don’t touch upon Italy’s eminence in the silent era, when costly spectacles and romances dominated the screens, as can be seen via clips in the wonderful DVD Diva Dolorosa. I also don’t mention the “white telephone” films, the studio products aimed at diversion and distraction. This was the bathwater that got tossed out when critics starting canonizing neo-realism (non-professional actors, real locations, social conscience) but that doesn’t mean such films shouldn’t be re-examined.Nor do I mention the most honored, now utterly forgotten items of the Fascist era, when the Venice Film Festival gave out what was called the Mussolini Cup to epics directed by Augusto Genina, Carmine Gallone, and Goffredo Alessandrini—though I suspect these might be interesting also!

These are simply films mentioned in a few reference books. While very far from definitive, this list gives a glimpse of the wealth of Italian cinema and the poverty of what’s available outside Italy. If RaroVideo can hardly handle all these, I hope others get some ideas. I take an auteurist approach for convenience, although writers and producers have often done more to shape the Italian industry, and social conditions have done most of all. In roughly chronological order:

Mario Camerini
Sometimes called Italy’s Frank Capra, he specialized in comedies starring future director Vittorio De Sica. In their book Cinema: The Magic Vehicle, Adam Garbicz and Jacek Klinowski make entries for Rails (1929), a precursor to neo-realism, What Scoundrels Men Are! (1932), I’ll Give a Million (1935), Il Signor Max (1937), and the postwar The Street Has Many Dreams (1948), described as “his best, if an underestimated work”.

Alessandro Blasetti
The other important ‘30s director who pointed toward neo-realism, he’s noted by Garbicz and Klinowski for Sun (1929), the historical epic 1860 (1933) and Four Steps in the Clouds (1942), about a traveling salesman who pretends to be the father of a pregnant woman’s child. For the record, 1860 and Camerini’s What Scoundrels Men Are! (see above) are two of the three films produced by influential critic and writer Emilio Cecchi, who believed Italian cinema should be Italian instead of Hollywoodian. His third production, another of Italy’s most important early talkies, is Walter Ruttmann’s experimental Acciaio (1933), based on a novel by Pirandello and filmed at a steel factory. The mouth waters.

Luigi Zampa
Vivere in Pace (1946), once hailed as a masterpiece of neo-realism, is about two escaped American POWs (one black, one white) hiding in a barn. It was produced by Carlo Ponti, co-scripted by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, and scored by Nino Rota—all on their way to careers as major shapers of Italian cinema. Cecchi D’Amico also worked on Zampa’s landmark mafia film A City on Trial (1952). Indeed, almost the whole contour of postwar Italian film could be traced through the scripts of this woman, the daughter of the above-named Emilio Cecchi.

Mario Soldati
Primarily a writer, Soldati is best known (or forgotten) for films made under Mussolini in WWII, such as Piccolo Mondo Antico (scripted by Emilio Cecchi, and winning a prize at Venice for star Alida Valli) and Malombra. And when there was such a category, his Policarpo (1949) was named Best Comedy at Cannes. He sounds ripe for rediscovery.

Aldo Vergano
The Sun Rises Again (1946) is a tale of conflict among partisans and fascists that Garbicz and Klinowski hail as a wartime social panorama equal to Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan.

Alberto Lattuada
Criterion has released his Variety Lights (because it’s co-directed with Fellini) and the lately rediscovered Mafioso (1962). It’s time to rediscover his pioneering neo-realism, including The Bandit (1946) with Anna Magnani; Without Pity (1948), co-written by Fellini and with Giulietta Masina; and The Mill on the Po (1948). Garbicz and Klinowski refer to the second of these as “one of the most pessimistic works of Neorealism…not a didactic exhortation to honesty, but the bitter conclusions of a humanist”.

Vittorio De Sica
Frequently working with ubiquitous writer Cesare Zavattini, his neglected titles include Miracle in Milan (1951), an example of neo-realist techniques applied to satirical fantasy; Terese Venerdi (1941) with Anna Magnani, The Gold of Naples (1954) and The Roof (1956).

Giuseppe De Santis
An early proponent of neo-realism with melodramatic slickness. His crime film Caccia Tragica (1947) is an early script for Antonioni, and his international hit Bitter Rice (1949) made stars of Silvana Mangano and Raf Vallone. This was a legendary film. Where is it now? “De Santis was never faultless or original, although he was at times great,” say Garbicz and Klinowski, and they call Rome, 11 O’Clock (1952) “the last classical masterpiece of Neorealism”.

Luchino Visconti
Criterion pays attention to this meticulous auteur, as witness their recent definitive Senso and the Blu-Ray of The Leopard, but how long must we wait for similar restorative dazzlement on the monumental Ossessione (1942, the first, unofficial version of The Postman Always Rings Twice), La Terra Trema (1948), Bellisimà (1951), and Rocco and His Brothers (1960)? Then there’s his lovely, neglected Sandra of a Thousand Delights (1965) and his version of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1967), which might be controlled by Paramount.

Roberto Rossellini
For many long years I’ve imagined Criterion would put together a box of his films with then-wife Ingrid Bergman. I’m still waiting. (However, they’ve put out his late historical films, which is a surprising pleasure.) Also waiting: the controversial L’Amore with Anna Magnani (1949), the Stendhal romance Vanina Vanini (1961) and the witty fantasy The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952).

Pietro Germi—Known for sardonic ‘60s comedies, Germi actually made the first film to mention the mafia, In the Name of the Law (1949, co-written by Fellini!). NoShame released The Railroad Man on DVD and Criterion put out Seduced and Abandoned and Divorce Italian Style, but the unreleased The Birds, the Bees and the Italians (1965) won the Grand Prize at Cannes.

Michelangelo Antonioni
We’re still awaiting his three ‘50s features between debut Story of a Love Affair (released by NoShame) and Il Grido (Criterion). There’s also the oddball shot-on-video The Mystery of Oberwald (1979), the enigmatic Identification of a Woman (1982) and more recent films that have barely been released. He also made documentaries.

Franco Rossi
The Oxford Companion to Film (1976) praises Friends for Life (1955) as “a remarkably sensitive study of childhood”, and Death of a Friend (1960) for “gentle psychological awareness”. Wonderful. Where are they?

Vittorio De Seta
Not to be confused with De Sica, De Seta made his reputation with color documentaries in the ‘50s before garnering acclaim with his feature The Bandits of Orgosolo (1961), about a shepherd boy and bandits. Next came the experimental, New Wave-ish Un uomo a meta [“A man in half”] (1966). Where is this stuff?

Francesco Maselli
The Abandoned (1954), about a youthful romance during WWII, is praised by Garbicz and Klinowski as worthy of comparison to Fellini’s I Vitelloni and Antonioni’s Il Grido. Can we see for ourselves? They also praise the freshness and conviction of young love in Renato Castellani’s Dreams in the Drawer (1956) and Lattuada’s Guendalina (1957).

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