La dolce vita

Cinema - Lilian Pizzichini discovers sex, murder and all of Italy's history in its film posters

From early sword-and-sandal silents to the great spaghetti western, Italy has produced some of cinema's most unforgettable moments. A new exhibition celebrates the history of the film posters that advertised them. Not just highly collectible works of art, these posters offer an insight into social movements as they were played out on screen.

The first important feature film in Italian cinematic history was Cabiria (1914), about a virgin princess abducted by pirates during the second Punic war. With its spectacular settings and 2,000 extras, Cabiria was a worldwide hit, and the inspiration for D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. A 1957 film of similar name (Le Notti di Cabiria) starred Giulietta Masina on the threshold of her career. The poster for the earlier film is appropriately striking. Scarlet flames reach up to a black sky with all the grace and vine-like vigour one would expect from a poster artist influenced by art nouveau. With this exhibition, unsung designers get their day in the sun. Here, Leopoldo Metlicovitz - one of Italy's finest - has painted arms that are scorched by the heat, yet hold safe the swooning form of Princess Cabiria. Crossed swords at the base of the fire - one snapped in two - represent the conflict that set off the conflagration. Like King Kong cupping Fay Wray in the palm of his hand, the image suggests red-hot emotions and elemental forces.

Once the influence of fascism on Italian film-making had waned, poster art was free to herald a new era. The style of the poster for Luchino Visconti's first feature film, Ossessione (1942), reflects a clear-sighted realism. It is a story of sexual obsession and murder - always a favourite with the Italians. But Visconti's use of real locations and his study of life among the working classes made for a startling and gritty aesthetic that was not immediately popular. The style of the poster reflects this new realism. The unflattering close-up of downtrodden Clara Calamai daringly seedy. With her uncombed hair and heavy-lidded eyes, she is a woman up against it. Joan Crawford, making similar films in Hollywood, would never have permitted herself to be photographed in such disarray.

Calamai's suffering is echoed in the poster for another masterpiece of the neo-realist movement. The Germans had vacated Rome only two months before Roberto Rossellini began shooting Rome, Open City. The silhouette of a Nazi soldier looms in the foreground, his rifle cuts across the pained features of Anna Magnani - the great leading lady of neo-realism. Vittorio de Sica continued experimenting in the documentary style with Ladri di Biciclette (1948). The words, "La vita degli umili in un 'opera d'arte'" ("the lives of the humble in a work of art") scroll across the image of our hero - an unemployed man whose bicycle has been stolen. The poster - an impressionistic watercolour - is as modest as the subject matter of the film itself. Hollywood could not fail to recognise the power of such self-effacement. Ercole Brini's delicate brushwork was called upon by the makers of Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Great Dictator.

However, illicit passion comes to the fore in the design for Stromboli (1949). Ingrid Bergman, who had scandalised Hollywood by leaving her husband for Rossellini, plays a war refugee from Lithuania so desperate to escape an internment camp that she accepts a proposal of marriage from a fisherman who lives on a remote island. Tears fall down her unmade-up face as she languishes on a cold rock face while a volcano rages behind her. At least she's wearing her wedding ring.

But you can't keep a provocative woman down. In Riso Amaro (1949), Silvana Mangano plays a rice farmworker. Wearing the briefest of hot pants, she does not look as though she's been slaving in the rice paddies for 12 hours a day. Defiantly busty, she stares out of the poster, her fellow cast members relegated to grey cameos around her. Female sexuality is the major selling point of Italian cinema: even Michelangelo Antonioni - a director who redefined narrative cinema, rejecting action for mood - couldn't resist the allure of a simmeringly sexy diva.

Il Deserto Rosso (1964) features the cool and enigmatic Monica Vitti. The poster conveys her gradual loss of identity. Shades of grey and a scarlet backdrop dwarf Vitti's co-star Richard Harris, looking hot and bothered in a buttoned-up shirt. Inspired by contemporary abstract art, the poster's design suggests Antonioni's intentions by showing Vitti with her fingers splayed holding an egg.

The trend towards abstraction culminates in 1963 with Federico Fellini's 8f, inspired by the creative block he was suffering. The poster takes us inside the head of his fictional director, played by Marcello Mastroianni - a complex scaffolding towers precariously behind him. Mastroianni wears glasses that reflect the lights of a film set - a reminder that his face was a cipher for Fellini's message.

But the posters that really stand out from this period are the rugged, brash drawings for Pasolini's work. The realism of films like Mamma Roma (1962) stunned critics and audiences with their brutality. If La Lollobrigida was Italy's "most beautiful housewife", Anna Magnani was perhaps its "most beautifully suffering housewife". Magnani stars as a Roman prostitute trying to create a new life for herself. Her tortured face startles the viewer as she stands against a backdrop of Roman ruins. The aqueducts that brought vital water supplies into Rome are now joined by borgate (housing estates), which in turn bring workers into the capital.

The brashness continues in the posters advertising spaghetti westerns - rough-hewn graphics for rough-hewn men, and more significantly for a new political realism typified by Francesco Rosi's work. In its directness, his style bordered on journalism. As the creator of the new political tragedy, Rosi became one of the major figures of Italian cinema. The poster for Cadaveri Eccellenti (1976) is one of the last in an exhibition and marks a sad end to a grand tradition. The film itself explores murder and corruption in high places. The poster, moving in its understatement, depicts an insignificant fellow in a shabby raincoat with a puckered brow, while a grainy still behind him illustrates an act of police brutality, and a corpse lies where it fell above the film's title.

"Cinema Italia: classic Italian film posters" is at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London N1 (020 7704 9522) until 25 January 2004