Like most platitudes, “they don’t make them like they used to” is usually uttered with scant regard for empirical evidence but it holds very true for Italian cinema. There once was a time when the peninsula produced the greatest, most vibrant and varied films in Europe, and possibly the world. While Italian cinema has seen a noticeable resurgence in recent years after a few decades of sharp decline, it is still a far cry from the glory days that ran from the 1940s to the late 1970s. The films from those days seem as irrevocably part of a different world as the great studio films turned out by Hollywood at the same time. The prospect of watching any Italian film from that era fills me with an excitement that few other films can match – be it one of Fellini’s early comedies or later frescos, Antonioni’s glacial pageants of solitude and alienation, Elio Petri’s political thrillers, Pasolini’s dialectical dramas or the comedies of Dino Risi and Luigi Comencini. Even better, no matter how canonical you think your knowledge of Italian cinema might be, there will always emerge gems that you never knew existed and have all the greater force for their surprise value. Earlier this year I wandered into a Paris cinema to watch Alessandro Blasetti’s 1955 comedy Too Bad She’s Bad (Peccato che sia una caniglia) knowing little about it other than its impressive cast (Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica). It turned out to be one of the most perfect comedies I have ever seen, on a par with the pinnacles of Hawks, Capra, Sturges and Lubitsch, yet I had, for some reason, never heard of it before.
A number of factors helped Italian cinema became what it was in the post-war period. The industrial prosperity that Italy, like much of Western Europe, was one. As was the infrastructure that was already in place – Mussolini had established Cinecittà in 1937 and it survived the war years and reconstruction. The country also had enough big-name producers – Carlo Ponti, Dino de Laurentiis, Mario Cecchi Gori, Alberto Grimaldi, among others – whose financial clout allowed for grand lucrative spectacles while being adventurous enough to also fund riskier projects. There was also a continuity with the Fascist pre-war era – Mussolini’s regime, repressive and censorious as it was, was less heavy-handed in regulating film production than the Nazis or other continental fascist regimes were. Unlike in Germany, there was no brain drain of talent from Italy’s film industry and most of the great post-war careers began under Fascism.
The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948)
Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)
Neorealism was the movement most closely associated with Italian cinema immediately after the war and like many artistic movements, it was over almost as soon as it began. De Sica’s films recounting the travails of humble folk gave way to more commercial work. Visconti similarly moved to a bigger canvas after his early works Ossessione and La Terra Trema. Rossellini remained supremely humanistic throughout his career but after the two jarringly personal films he made with Ingrid Bergman as their marriage declined – Voyage to Italy and Stromboli – he turned his attention away from the contemporary world to history. In a way, neorealism didn’t survive the success of its filmmakers’ success; Césare Zavattini, de Sica’s regular screenwriter, said that neorealism was over once its creators stopped taking public transport. But if it had a short lifespan, its influence remained strong. Michelangelo Antonioni, after some early neorealist documentaries and rather conventional middle-class dramas, fused both genres in L’Avventura (1959) to create the style that would dominate international arthouse cinema for decades to come. Like many Italian films of the postwar period, what is striking about L’Avventura is how modern it still seems. For all the period trappings, it looks like it could have been made last week. And though its narrative obliqueness – the disappearance of a main character which is soon forgotten about – has been replicated many times, it still seems strangely new. Like other avatars of late modernism – Le Corbusier, Beckett and Rothko – Antonioni’s middle period seems both out of its own time and more radical than ours.
L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1959)
La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
But Italian cinema was about more than “the sick soul of Europe”, as Pauline Kael famously dismissed Antonioni’s La Notte and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. There was a popular seam that was never fully appreciated in the English-speaking world. Spaghetti westerns may have briefly reinvigorated the genre and the gialli horror films of the 1970s acquired cult status outside of Italy but the popular comedies were often ignored. Blasetti’s Too Bad She’s Bad, which I mentioned earlier, is barely known internationally even though it had everything to become a classic – some laugh-out-loud gags and brilliantly measured performances from Mastroianni as the beleaguered but earnest cab driver and de Sica and Loren as the father-and-daughter con-artists that lead him up the garden path. Dino Risi’s The Easy Life (Il Sorpasso) is similarly neglected (though Martin Scorsese counts it among his favourite films). In this bittersweet but ultimately sombre comedy, a bookish law student played by Jean-Louis Trintignant is dragged away from his studies on Ferragosto by an older charismatic braggart (Vittorio Gassman). Like many of the other Comedie all’italiana, contemporary Italian society, with its changing mores and rising consumerism, is prevalent throughout Risi’s film.
Too Bad She’s Bad (Alessandro Blassetti, 1955)
Il Sorpasso/The Easy Life (Dino Risi, 1962)
And that contemporary society was intensely political. Italy was never really shorn of its Fascist elements after the war and a deep left-right divide fed into the terrorism of the Anni di piombo and later the media-society of Berlusconi. Many figures of Italian cinema were implicated in Fascist-era filmmaking – Rossellini made a wartime trilogy that amounted more or less to official propaganda while Antonioni, as Marcel Ophuls pointed out in his filmed memoir Ain’t Misbehavin’, gave an effusive review to the notorious Nazi film The Jew Süss while a critic in the 1930s. Many of the big names of the 1960s and 70s were explicitly aligned with the left – Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Pontecorvo, Rosi and Petri – but the country was ruled almost throughout by the Christian Democrats. Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, a tale of migrant poverty in Turin was criticised by the government for showing Italy in a negative light while Pasolini was quite likely murdered for having offered a less-than-reverent account of Italy’s Fascist past in Salò.
Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)
Accatone (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961)
Some of the greatest joys of all these films lie in the incidentals – the clothes, the beat music, the locations. The latter could be the splendour of Rome or the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean in L’Avventura but they could just as often be the interzones of wasteland that surrounded Italy’s new housing developments. Antonioni and Pasolini in particular filmed them as mysterious locales imbued with a character all their own. Valerio Zurlini’s Girl with a Suitcase (1961) even put some shaggy scrubland on the poster. The strength of Italy’s visual culture made the films from these times so visually striking. So why did they decline so rapidly after the 1970s?
The main reason might simply be a golden generation ended – Visconti, Rossellini, de Sica and Pasolini all died in that decade while Antonioni suffered a stroke and Bertolucci increasingly made films outside of Italy. A younger generation of filmmakers such as the Taviani brothers, Fernando Rosi, Nanni Moretti and Marco Bellochio were solid auteurs but lacked the ambition or the visual flair of their forebears. The comedies became increasingly garish and frothy and the country’s most successful exports were picturesque middle-brow dramas such as Giovanni Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo (1991), Michael Radford’s Il Postino (1994) and Valeria Golino’s Respiro (2002). The rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset empire is also blamed for coarsening Italian popular taste and aesthetics (prior to becoming prime minister, Berlusconi was a co-producer of the Oscar-winning Mediterraneo).
Reality (Matteo Garrone, 2012)
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010)
Mediaset is now as pervasive in contemporary Italian cinema in a way Marxism and Catholicism were in those of the postwar period. Its production arm Medusa Films is the country’s most powerful and the shadow of Berlusconi’s Italy looms over contemporary films such as Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah and Reality, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and even his Giuilio Andreotti biopic Il Divo. Berlusconi has also haunted the later career of Nanni Moretti, driving him to make a film about the mogul-turned-statesman Il Caimano, which inevitably fell short. The new Italian cinema deals with a world shaped, changed and distorted by Berlusconi’s influence but it nonetheless a cinema that is more vibrant than it has been in a long time. While there has yet to emerge a distinct movement to compare to the mid-century Italian cinema, there is a new confidence with Sorrentino, Garrone, Gianfranco Rosi, Daniele Luchetti, Michelangelo Frammartino and Alice Rohrwacher among those producing impressive work. Older hands such as Bellochio and the Tavianis have also found new life in what appears to be a more receptive environment. It is, of course, impossible to will the Italian cinema of old back into existence, but things are certainly brighter now than they have been for decades.