More post-war Italian Cinema: tragedy and the human condition

After my two week binge of Italian post-war films, I assumed I would be ready to move on to some other short-term obsession. Instead I found that I hadn’t yet had my fill of that era. There was something genuine and unadulterated about the people depicted in the films from that period, (specifically the mid-40s to the early 60s), before Italian films became increasingly lurid and unrestrained, focused more on human excess than the human condition; I certainly feel like this shift away from realism coincided with the transition from B&W to colour movies. So, I went back to the B&W period of the same directors who had lit up my senses a fortnight ago – Visconti, De Sica, Rossellini, Monicelli, De Santis and Olmi. And by sticking to the 40’s and 50’s, I steered clear of sex comedies, satires and farces. All the films I watched were neorealist works, tinged by tragedy and sometimes amplified through melodrama.

Ossessione (1943): I had mentioned in my previous post that I didn’t really care for Luchino Visconti’s two celebrated period films Senso (1954) and The Leopard (1963). Well, clearly I had started at the wrong end of his ouevre. This time around, I tried three of his more grounded works and found them to be much more to my taste. The first of these was Ossessione, Visconti’s debut film, an unofficial adaptation of John M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (subsequently brought to the screen twice in high-profile Hollywood productions). The movie is a film noir at heart, although also credited by some film observers as a proto-neorealist film, made a couple of years before the Italian neorealism movement officially began. Although I already knew the story, I was riveted by Visconti’s dramatization of this slow motion train wreck of an illicit relationship between an itinerant tramp Gino and an unhappy housewife Giovanna; a relationship built on passion, but later corrupted by greed and fear. Special mention must be made of the camerawork by Domenico Scala and Aldo Tonti, which injects dynamism into the narrative – an early tracking/crane combo shot to show the arrival of Gino at the trattoria and immediately after, a quick zoom/track-in shot (reminiscent of John Wayne’s introduction in Stagecoach) to visualize the impact that his arrival has on Giovanna. Another notable aspect of this film is its homoerotic male gaze that focuses on Gino (played by Massimo Girotti) in his tight-fitting undershirt, rather than on Giovanna. This made sense to me after I realized that director Visconti was gay, openly so at a time when this was neither politically or socially accepted. As it is, the film was so controversial that Mussolini’s government destroyed the film’s negative; fortunately, Visconti saved a print from which all subsequent copies were made. Among the film’s crew was assistant director and co-screenwriter Giuseppe De Santis, who went on to a successful directing career of his own, including the highly acclaimed quasi-noir Bitter Rice that I wrote about in my previous post.

Shoeshine (1946): Two years before Vittorio De Sica shook the world with the neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, he served up many of the same tropes in Shoeshine; people from the lower socio-economic strata trying to get along with their lives, but constantly thwarted by officialdom and a callous society. Two young shoeshine boys Giuseppe and Pasquale, inadvertently get caught up in a stolen goods racket orchestrated by a group of petty criminals, with the kids taking the rap and being sent to juvenile prison. Not surprisingly, their experience in prison hardens them as individuals, robbing them of their youthful innocence and driving them towards the very delinquency that the system is attempting to cure them of (something I feel strongly about personally as well). The film is anchored by outstanding performances from young actors Franco Interlenghi and Rinaldo Smordoni (the former went on a long and successful film career working with a number of great directors) and leaves a lump in the throat by the time it reaches its inevitable, tragic conclusion. At the 1948 Oscar awards, the film was nominated for Best Screenplay and also received the inaugural Honorary Award for best foreign language film.

Rinaldo Smordoni (as Giuseppe and Franco Interlenghi (as Pasquale) in Shoeshine (1946), directed by Vittorio De Sica

La Terra Trema (1948): Following on from Ossessione, Visconti’s second film was very much a purist entry in the Italian neorealist movement, featuring uncredited non-actors in the lead roles. Set in a fishing village in Sicily, this docudrama tells the story of a young man from a traditional fishing family who attempts to bypass a cartel of wholesalers and set up an independent route to market. He mortgages his family home and initially enjoys success, but his naiveté leads to financial ruin and thereafter, his pride leads to social ostracism. Eventually, he has to accept defeat and seek the favour of the same group of middlemen for a daily wage job, so that he can feed his mother and siblings. It is a harsh slow-burning story, narrated dispassionately and objectively (very much in contrast to Ossessione). I was reminded of Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, both shot in local dialect, using a cast of non-actors and presenting an unhurried (it’s nearly 3 hours long) and unvarnished account of the lives of farmers and fishermen. As the film ended, I reflected that in 70 years, perhaps very little has changed for this lot in many parts of the world, they are still literally at the bottom of the food chain.

Europe ’51 (1952): This Venice Golden Lion nominee is the second of five collaborations between neorealist pioneer Roberto Rossellini and screen legend Ingrid Bergman. What began as mutual admiration between these two accomplished artists, quickly led to an extra-marital relationship that caused scandal across Europe, but also resulted in five highly regarded films. I had previously only watched the first of these, Stromboli, which was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. Europe ’51 starts off with a wealthy family suffering a terrible tragedy in the first act, which leads to Ingrid Bergman’s character Irene searching for catharsis and meaning to her life. Rossellini exploits this storyline to expound on his socialist beliefs, using Irene’s desire to help poverty-stricken families as a means to showcase living conditions in housing projects and slums. While these visits give her a sense of fulfillment, she is unable to articulate these feelings to her husband and mother, who become increasingly alarmed at what they see as her erratic behaviour and refusal to revert to their accustomed high-flying lifestyle (they drive a Rolls Royce). While the poor and downtrodden think of her as a saint, her family believes she is going insane and feel compelled to have her committed to an institution. The film features a brief but sparkling performance by Giulietta Masina (Federico Fellini’s wife and the star of a number of his films) as an impoverished housewife living in the slums who manages to feed and care for her bevy of children with improbable cheer! The film initially had to undergo some censorship to dilute its strong socialist/Marxist message and for many years was only available in this edited form, but Criterion finally released a fully restored version in 2013.

Rome 11:00 (1952): On 15th January 1951, a staircase in an apartment building on Via Savoia in central Rome collapsed under the weight of dozens of candidates who had lined up for a job interview, leading to several casualties and one death. One year later, director Giuseppe De Santis (of Bitter Rice fame) released this docudrama which chronicles the events of that tragic day, featuring a large ensemble female cast and a couple of male stars (Raf Vallone and Massimo Girotti) in bit parts. Running at a tight 105 minutes, there is practically no plot to this film, but De Santis develops audience interest by creating personalities and backstories for a few of the women as they arrive one by one in response to an advertisement for a typist. Pretty soon, the news travels down the queue that there is just one vacancy available, triggering feelings of panic, anger and despondency among the predominantly working class women, all desperate for a job. Inevitably, what comes next is jostling and raised voices as some try to cut the queue and suddenly, the spiral staircase collapses. The aftermath is played out in the hospital, as families rush in to check on the victims and give vent to their anger and frustration, especially when they learn that they have to pay for the treatment. Although the women are grateful to be alive, they and their families have to face the reality that without money or influence, they will always remain disadvantaged.

The Great War (1959): Mario Monicelli, the father of Italian comedy, followed up the heist caper Big Deal on Madonna Street (which I raved about in my last post) with this masterful work about the human condition, using the First World War as his backdrop. He snagged Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman in the lead roles, as two reluctant soldiers who compete with each other to pick up assignments that take them as far from the fighting as possible. They are supported by a cast of accomplished character actors and hundreds of extras for the battle scenes. The film is peppered with humorous repartee between Sordi’s and Gassman’s characters, but equally and more importantly, it showcases the futility of war and the many anonymous tragedies that play out in the midst of conflict. One scene in particular brought tears to my eyes – Sordi and Gassman have just finished scamming a local village for contributions to the soldiers (they fully intend to keep the money for themselves) when they come upon the wife of a fellow soldier who has just recently been killed; the poor woman is unaware of the fate of her husband and has taken a train to this staging post so that she can hand him a pair of woolen socks she has knitted for the coming winter. A glance passes between the two men, and next thing they are handing over the money, making up a story that her husband was called away for other duties and had given them the money for her. Silvana Mangano (of Bitter Rice fame) has a brief role as a woman whom Gassman’s character befriends while at his initial staging post, but both know that the war will come in the way of any lasting relationship. The ending is truly poignant as the two slackers make the ultimate sacrifice and redeem themselves in the eyes of the audience. The cinematography is extraordinary, with some of the war scenes worthy of a Steven Spielberg epic. Of particular note is a two minute continuous tracking shot that shows men engaging in light-hearted banter while on a break from a long march and juxtaposes that against an informer being shot for treason. The film won the Golden Lion at Venice, got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and features in the Venice film festival’s list of 100 Italian films to be saved (7 of the 8 films mentioned here are in the list).

Rocco and His Brothers (1960): After his first foray into historical melodrama shot in colour with Senso, Luchino Visconti returned to more intimate settings and a B&W palette with this 3 hour long family drama about a widow and her five sons after they move from their village to seek their fortunes in the city of Milan. The film is couched in the trappings of neorealism, but throws them off by the final act to reveal full-blown melodrama underneath…not dissimilar to the story beats of Senso. The film is divided into five seamlessly connected segments, each focused on one of the brothers. But much of the story revolves around the contrasting character arcs and resulting conflict between the second and third siblings, Simone and Rocco, played by Renato Salvatore and Alain Delon respectively. Frenchman Delon’s sensitive portrayal of Rocco paved the way to his stardom, which was further cemented with Purple Noon (released around the same time) and L’Eclisse in 1962. The other key performance is from Annie Girardot, another famous French star, who plays Nadia, the woman who is caught in a deadly triangle with the two brothers. The film ends with a horrifying murder, one which is simultaneously a crime of passion and also a premeditated, cold-blooded execution. Nino Rota’s score is haunting and very reminiscent of the one he created 11 years later for Coppola’s The Godfather.

Annie Girardot (as Nadia) and Alain Delon (as Rocco) in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), directed by Luchino Visconti

Il Posto (1961): After being mesmerized by The Tree of Wooden Clogs a few weeks ago, I rewound the clock to one of Ermanno Olmi’s early successes, Il Posto. First-time actor Sandro Panseri plays Domenico, a shy and rather gauche teenager who has just finished school and is now ready to enter the workforce. He is among a large group of applicants of varying ages who go through a series of tests and interviews as part of a mass recruitment drive by a large corporation. During the interviews, he meets a pretty young girl Antonietta and as they are among the two youngest applicants, they end up speaking to each other during the lunch break and after the interview. Eventually both are hired, although in different departments of the company. The young man slowly starts to figure out how things work in a large company. The only person Domenico knows in the entire company is Antonietta, and he tries desperately to find out which department she works in, keeping an eye out for her during lunch breaks. The director uses this narrative framework to showcase the corporate rate race and how intimidating it must appear to a shy, young first jobber. There is a mildly satirical bent to Olmi’s narrative – an office scene mid-way through the film would not have been out of place in a Jacques Tati film. The film ends with Domenico sitting at his work table, seemingly in a trance, surrounded by the sounds of typewriters clacking, as he contemplates the soul-numbing monotony of a clerical career. An interesting bit of trivia – Loredana Detto, the first-time actress who was 16 years old when she played Antonietta, married director Olmi in 1963 and the couple remained together until his death in 2018. Their son Fabio is a cinematographer and daughter Elisabetta a film producer.

After a month of bingeing on post-war neorealism, I think I can now say that I have a much deeper understanding of this era of film-making in comparison with my previous exposure which was limited to the works of Fellini and the neorealist trilogies of Rosselini and Antonioni. The twenty years of Italian post-war cinema encompass an incredibly rich and rewarding body of work, in equal parts entertaining and insightful.

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