Revisiting post-war Italian Cinema: neorealism, comedy, melodrama!

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Italian filmmakers made quite a name for themselves on the world stage, producing several hard-hitting films exploring the heartbreaking social and economic conditions in their war-torn nation. These films, which were shot primarily with non-actors and undressed outdoor locations, came to be grouped under the term Italian neorealism, which influenced other key film movements such as the French New Wave, the Egyptian and Indian social dramas of the 50’s and the Indian Parallel Cinema movement that followed, as well as the Polish Film School. Thereafter, as economic conditions improved, so did the tone of the movies, becoming more light-hearted and eventually by the 60’s, more explicit and cynical in their depiction of wealth and its corruptive influence on morals and on society at large.

About 10 years ago, I systematically started watching many of these seminal films, mainly in chronological order:

  • I started with the post-war films from 1945-50 – full of stark images of poverty, squalor and despair – classics like Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rome Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero) and Stromboli (the first of five films he made with Ingrid Bergman).
  • By the early 50’s, the rebuilding of the nation and consequent economic growth led to a public rejection of films obsessed with social misery. The attention of filmmakers shifted to protagonists who were street smart and willing to do what it took to hustle their way up the social value chain. This came through in the early works of Federico Fellini such as I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone and Nights of Cabiria. And with Fellini’s films, one could see the transition from neorealism to magical realism, which would get accentuated as his career progressed.
  • The widespread affluence of the 60’s was reflected in the films of that decade – parties and fast cars – but side-by-side with a sort of moral and spiritual poverty. This was a recurring theme in Fellini’s later works, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, as well as Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy of films, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse. This decadence was also portrayed through the genre of ‘Commedia all’italiana‘ (Italian-style comedy); I had watched an example of this, Vittorio de Sica’s anthology film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The overt sexuality of these films created global careers for their statuesque leading ladies (‘maggiorata‘ in Italian slang) Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Mangano, Monica Vitti and others.
  • Italian cinema evolved through the late 60’s and 70’s, and I watched a wider variety of genres including epic historical melodramas like Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, the newly created Spaghetti Westerns popularized by the two Sergios (Corbucci and Leone) and the later, more nostalgic works of Fellini like Amarcord and Ginger and Fred. The only genre I had absolutely no interest in was Italian horror (‘giallo’) from the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento.

In the past few weeks, I somehow developed a nostalgia for these films and realized there were still several notable ones from that period that I hadn’t watched. So I set out to fill the gaps and ended up watching an assortment of 8 famous films, covering the categories of neorealism, commedia all’italiana and historical melodrama:

Bitter Rice (1949): Directed by Giuseppe De Santis, this well-known neorealist film caused some controversy because it was considered too glamorous, stylized and noir-ish by neorealist purists. In addition to its commentary and core message about the struggles of female rice field workers, Bitter Rice features an unusual love-quadrangle, played by four charismatic actors – future stars Vittorio Gassman and Raf Vallone, American actress Doris Dowling and then unknown Silvana Mangano. As mentioned, this film has strong noir undertones and Silvana Mangano’s character was its femme fatale. Her first appearance on screen, dancing the boogie-woogie at the train station, oozing sexuality, is as impactful a screen entrance as one can think of. She became an overnight star, married the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis and went on to have a versatile four-decade-long film career. Another key feature of the film is the cinematography by Otello Martelli, best exemplified by the two-minute continuous opening shot which brilliantly combines exposition from a radio commentator, a 360-degree pan of women arriving for the rice planting and an in medias res introduction to the plot.

Raf Vallone and Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice (1949), directed by Giuseppe De Santis

Umberto D. (1952): This film is straight out of the playbook that Vittorio De Sica created for his influential neorealist work Bicycle Thieves in 1948. Umberto D. is a hard-hitting, unflinching portrayal of the travails of the poor and downtrodden in a big city. The protagonist of the film is a retired pensioner named Umberto Domenico Ferrari, who lives in a squalid apartment in Rome with his pet dog Flike, trying desperately to make ends meet on his meagre pension and now under pressure from his landlady to pay the rent or move out. As the narrative progresses, Umberto’s condition becomes increasingly pitiable and wretched. In one heartbreaking scene, he decides to beg on the streets out of desperation, but at the last minute, just as a passerby is about to drop a note into his open palm, Umberto’s pride gets the better of him and he quickly turns his hand over as if checking for rain. The film was so downbeat that it led to a backlash from the public who, after years of war and reconstruction, were tired of having their misery thrust into their faces. Umberto D. can therefore be considered to be the beginning of the end of hard-core neorealism, as filmmakers transitioned to more escapist fare during the mid- and late-50’s.

Senso (1954): Nearly a decade before Luchino Visconti created his sumptuously mounted magnum opus The Leopard, starring Hollywood leading man Burt Lancaster, he had pilot-tested the same approach with the historical melodrama Senso, starring Farley Granger, who had recently made it big in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Top billing went to Alida Valli, a well-established Italian actress who had also appeared in Hollywood productions. Visconti was one of the pioneers of Italian neorealism, but Senso was the film with which he cut away and moved to a diametrically opposite filmmaking style involving big name actors and lavish sets shot in colour. I didn’t much care for The Leopard when I watched it some years ago, and likewise didn’t find the subject matter or protagonists of Senso particularly interesting either. Having said that, the final act of the film is melodrama of the highest order, as the ill-fated love affair between Valli’s besotted Italian countess and Granger’s two-faced Austrian military officer ends in a spectacular confrontation charged with self-loathing, emotional abuse and hysteria.

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): This film, considered to be the first example of commedia all’italiana, is a hilarious crime caper similar in structure to Ocean’s 11, in the sense that the bulk of the film relates to the meticulous planning of a heist, while the final act is the robbery itself. The key difference here is that the thieves are a set of bumbling (though good-natured and lovable) incompetents. As their preparations progress, it becomes increasingly obvious that their stars are not aligned for success and all that remains to be seen is the manner of their failure, which unfolds in increasingly spectacular fashion through the last half hour. In that sense, the film is also a parody of the 1955 French heist classic Rififi. Director Mario Monicelli loaded the film with talent, featuring early big screen appearances for up-and-coming stars like Vittorio Gassman (who eventually became a poster boy for commedia all’italiana), Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, as well as comedians Totò and Carlo Pisacane (I suspect Brad Pitt modeled the non-stop eating of his Ocean’s 11 character on this trait of Pisacane’s gluttonous Capannelle). Composer Piero Umilani’s superb minimalist jazz score during the heist scene and cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo’s striking chiarascuro street shots are other highlights of this masterwork, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Welcome to Collinwood, one of the early directorial efforts of Joe & Anthony Russo before they hit the big time with the Captain America and Avengers movies, is a contemporary remake.

(from left) Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman, Carlo Pisacane and Tiberio Murgia in Big Deal on Madonna Street, directed by Mario Monicelli (1958)

Divorce Italian Style (1961): This is another early example of commedia all’italiana, specifically the sex farce, of which there would be many more in Italian cinema. Marcello Mastroianni plays a Sicilian nobleman who is trapped in a loveless marriage with a cloying wife (brilliantly played by actress-model Daniela Rocca). He secretly covets his young cousin living in the same family estate and discovers that she has feelings for him as well. His increasingly convoluted machinations to free himself from the marriage (divorce was illegal in Italy at this time) form the basis of the movie’s ridiculous plot. The entire cast plays it straight through various over-the-top scenes to great effect.

Boccaccio ’70 (1962): This chronologically mis-titled anthology film contains works by the four leading directors of the Italian Golden Age – Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. With each segment clocking in at about 50 minutes, the entire feature runs for nearly three and a half hours; but each segment can be viewed independently, as they are separate stories, each filmed in the distinctive tone and style of its director. I really enjoyed the down-to-earth narrative of Monicelli’s opening segment, titled Renzo and Luciana, about a young man and woman working at the same factory, who get married but have to hide it from the management due to the ridiculous rules that require female employees to be single. The second segment, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio, is a classic example of Fellini’s magical realism and satire. A pompous, self-appointed protector of public morals who goes around catching lovers in parked cars and ripping out provocative magazine covers at news stands, is appalled when a sexually suggestive billboard for milk featuring Swedish bombshell actress Anita Ekberg is installed at a park in full view of his residence. He takes it upon himself to petition the authorities to have the billboard removed, but ultimately works himself up into such a state that he succumbs to his repressed desires and inner torment. The third segment, The Job, directed by Visconti takes place (not surprisingly) in a luxuriously appointed house and features a protracted conversation between a playboy Count and his wealthy German wife (the money belongs to her father), after he has been caught by newspapers in flagrante delicto with high-class call girls. The wife’s father has frozen the husband’s bank accounts and he must convince her to make a public statement in support of him and get daddy to unfreeze the accounts. Romy Schneider is devastating as the wife, who in spite of all the wealth and resources at her disposal, realizes she is a prisoner in an emotional cage of her own making. The final segment The Raffle, is a sex farce directed by Vittorio De Sica. Sophia Loren stars as a carnival worker Zoe, who offers a night with herself as the prize in an illegal raffle, the proceeds of which are meant to pay off the tax debts of her pregnant sister and brother-in-law! This is quite a contrivance and appears to just be an excuse to show off Loren in stages of undress. Fortunately, Loren proves herself a natural at physical comedy and her on-screen grace and warmth ensures the story doesn’t get too tawdry; it ends in fact on quite a light-hearted note.

Sophia Loren in the fourth segment of Boccaccio ’70, The Raffle, directed by Vittorio De Sica

Il Sorpasso (1962): One of the most highly regarded films in the commedia all’italiana genre, Il Sorpasso literally means “the overtaking”; this becomes evident soon after the film begins as it’s about a road trip in an open-top Lancia Aurelia sports car, with plenty of wild highway driving. The film stars Vittorio Gassman (yes, him again!) as the brash and irrepressible middle-aged playboy Bruno, who takes a shy, bookish law student Roberto (played by French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant) with him on an impromptu road trip, simply because he is bored and has nothing better to do on a public holiday. Over a two-day period, Bruno manages to get Roberto out of his shell, while also coming to terms with his own wild and untethered life. The casting is inspired; Gassman is tall and charismatic – his Bruno is a force of nature – while Trintignant, who is slightly built and soft-spoken, plays Roberto as a hopeless “noob”. The film has an outstanding soundtrack; the cold open kicks off with the crackerjack jazz-based Il Sorpasso theme by Riz Ortolani and the rest of the movie is peppered with various arrangements of contemporary hits including the evergreen Quando Quando Quando and Peppino Di Capri’s foot-tapping St. Tropez Twist. The end of the film is quite a shocker though!

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Vittorio Gassman in Il Sorpasso (1962), directed by Dino Risi

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978): It’s unusual to have an Italian neorealist film popping up in 1978, but the construct of the film itself is not surprising given the documentary filmmaking credentials of director Ermanno Olmi. This is essentially a three hour long docudrama about a year in the life of a peasant community in the Lombardy region during the late 19th century. It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and is one of the great examples of humanist filmmaking. Given it’s length, I watched it episodically over 3-4 sessions, but it was engrossing and so relatable even though it portrayed a community a world and a century removed from mine. For the hardworking peasants portrayed in the film, there isn’t much that separates one day from the next and it was heartwarming to see them take pleasure in the simple things – the sounds of music floating over the fields from the house of the landlord; a man shyly asking the girl he is courting if he may say “Hello” to her; the appreciation on the face of a teenager who has recently lost his father, when he is offered a job at the local mill; two little sisters giving each other rides on the wheelbarrow in which they transport dirty clothes to their mother, the washerwoman; a farmer lovingly tending his private tomato garden; Olmi portrays all of this with zero melodrama but with genuine empathy and compassion.

And so that was my highly enjoyable and fulfilling revisit of Italian cinema from the 50’s and 60’s (plus the one film from 1978), replete with pathos, charm, comedy and sexuality. There are still a number of notable films from this era worth watching and that will hopefully give me plenty to write about soon.

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