‘Love in the City’ Dives Into Unexplored Cinematic Territory

This anthology of Italian films explores the taboos of love: prostitution, suicide, and girl-watching.

The Italian anthology Love in the City was conceived by Cesare Zavattini as a “journal” to investigate taboo aspects of its title: prostitution, suicide, marriage agencies, poor single mothers, and girl-watching that amounts to harassment. As a neo-realist, Zavattini preferred the idea of non-actors playing themselves in more or less documentary enactments of their lives, and the resulting film exists in a nether region between reality and fiction. Although the film wasn’t successful enough to warrant further installments, it’s an intriguing capsule that demonstrates the styles and interests of its young directors.

For example, Michelangelo Antonioni’s segment is so Antonioni, it slaps you upside the head. He interviews people who attempted suicide, gathering them in an artificial manner against a white backdrop and sometimes playing “themselves” in various environments. On display is Antonioni’s visual instinct for staging people, primarily women, against arid and decaying urban settings in a manner where one reinforces the other. The people seem expressions of and products of their landscape, while the landscape projects their alienation writ large.

Here too is Federico Fellini’s bittersweet little contrivance about a supposed reporter (played by an actor) who wanders through a labyrinthine building in search of a marriage agency, the camera tracking forward in tour-de-force shots of odd bustling people. Claiming that he’s trying to find a wife for a friend who thinks he’s a werewolf, he meets a winsome waif similar to the downtrodden optimists played in other films by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina. Even the music of Mario Nascimbene, who scored the whole film, here echoes the sprightliness of Nino Rota.

Carlo Lizzani interviews prostitutes in a mannered and apparently rehearsed segment, even visiting one woman in her apartment and having her explain how her boyfriend stole her money and how she reads Topolino (Mickey Mouse) and Scrooge McDuck. All the film’s interviewees speak in a drained, mechanical manner that’s accidentally reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s films. Is this weariness, discomfort, or clumsiness? Does it matter?

Dino Risi’s sardonic glimpse of a tattered dance hall, which must have been painstakingly arranged, reminds me of other movies that use dance as metaphor, like Ettore Scola’s Le Bal. Zavattini and Francesco Maselli invite a poor woman, who got her name in the papers for temporarily abandoning her child, to re-enact the events for the camera in a manner that foreshadows Abbas Kiarostami’s similar experiments.

Alberto Lattuada’s segment on voracious girl-watching claimed to be a hidden-camera study, as he set young examples of pulchritude to strut on the street and filmed the reactions of various men who turn their heads and even follow, but there’s much obvious contrivance. Some of the episodes are blatantly acted, such as the use of future director Marco Ferreri as one of the followers, and of course the miracle of editing makes it impossible to know if a particular reaction truly follows a certain stimulus.

The Fellini and Antonioni segments have been excerpted as bonus material on previous DVD/Blu-Ray releases (respectively Fellini’s The Clowns and Antonioni’s The Vanquished), but RaroVideo is to be commended for offering the complete movie in an excellent restoration with optional critical commentaries and interviews. The field of European anthologies is a rich and varied one that’s under-explored on video. Zavattini spearheaded two more, Latin Lovers (1961) and Mysteries of Rome (1962), and there have been many such bastard works like the remarkable Love and Anger (released on DVD by NoShame). Perhaps more will find their way to disc.

RATING 5 / 10