Vittorio De Sica b.02 Roberto Rossellini b.06 Luchino Visconti b.06 Michelangelo Antonioni b.12 Gillo Pontecorvo b.19 Federico Fellini b.20 Francesco Rosi b.22 Pier Paolo Pasolini (70) b.22 Mauro Bolognini b.22 Vittorio De Seta b.23 Valerio Zurlini b.26 Elio Petri b.29 Ermanno Olmi b.31, Marco Bellocchio b.39 Bernardo Bertolucci (72) b.40
NB Luchino Visconti (1965), Federico Fellini (1966), Michelangelo Antonioni (1968) Francesco Rosi (1968), Pier Paolo Pasolini (1970) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1972) were chosen among the five directors of the year selected by International Film Guide in the years listed after their name. For further explanation of IFG’s role in promoting international art cinema CLICK ON THIS LINK to read the first essay in this series.
The Italian neo-realists were the first to confront the form and content of the Hollywood style that, with a few exceptions, was the universal film-making style in the 30s and early 40s. For them this style was part of the burden of history and culture they needed to cast off at the end of World War II.
The initial post-war phase in the growth of an art cinema was initiated by Italian neo-realism spanning a decade or so beginning in 1942, seminal films being Rome Open City (1946), Paisà (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) in the international influence of this outbreak in the precipitousness conditions of war.
The neo-realists, in theory at least, would develop a new relationship between camera and subject, and so between audience and film. Their success was only partial, because the one element that needed to be expunged from the text, sentimentality – the unwarranted, unfulfillable, irresolvable attachment of viewer to fictional presence – remained […] Nevertheless, the neo-realists drew attention to the figure in the environment in such a way as to affect all cinema to come.” (Kolker Introduction ‘Bernado Bertolucci’ 1-14)
They drew on the otherness of the world they were filming (Visconti, amidst the social and economic complexity of Sicily, Rossellini in Nazi occupied Rome) developing expressive narrative strategies in what André Bazin identified as a break with conventional realism (“a new moral attitude”) from which a modernist cinema arose. From this flowed the various new waves of the 1960s and of the 1980s. Like the neo-realists, filmmakers in Europe, Japan, Taiwan and the Americas “worked out solutions to problems in representation posed by the local (historical) situation.” (D.Andrews Film in the Aura of Art p.viii)
“The continuing interest in neo-realism lies in that it was neither a straightforwardly homogeneous nor unitary phenomenon but successfully crossed the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow, tradition and modernity, engagement and pleasure” (Simona Monticelli).
|Rome Open City|
While Roy Armes endorses the historian’s perspective of neo-realism as a movement he contends that ;
“the filmmakers themselves lacked any sense of intense participation in a collective enterprise - they remained individuals with their own personal styles and concerns - and from their point of view neo-realism was in fact a discipline. It imposed on them an obligation to confront the immediate problems of postwar Italy, and while social reality does provide a rich terrain for the artist to explore, it can equally prove eventually to be something of a strait jacket “(195) .
After what Mira Liehm refers to as the inertia in the 1950s, in the sixties art films not only brought prestige to Italian cinema internationally but were also often commercially successful. Four master auteurs -Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni and Rossellini - in the words of Peter Bondanello, “transcended their neo-realist origins to develop highly personal cinematic styles” (196), in the process showing that great art and profits were not incompatible.
P. Adams Sitney nominates 1960 as annus mirabilis “the most remarkable for film premieres in the history of Italian cinema.” In February La dolce vita created immediate controversy concerning its alleged ‘immorality” to become “the most successful film in the then 65 year history of the native industry.” At Cannes in April L’Avventura “scandalised traditionalists and mobilised support of an international core of emergent modernists.” In September Rocco e i suoi fratelli signalled the return of Visconti to pre-eminence and ignited further heated debate over censorship. Finally in January 1961 La Notte “confirmed the artistic triumph of Italian cinema” (109).
The legacy of neo-realism: social, and ultimately, psychological realism destined to merge into an “indecomposable whole” in modernist art cinema, a term proposed by Antonioni in his preface to the published screenplays of his path-breaking trilogy. (1963) See Part 6 (20) of this series to follow.
Part 1 Luchino Visconti : forging a new style
Born into a wealthy aristocratic family Luchino Visconti (1906-76) became involved early in left wing politics. After being introduced to Jean Renoir in the mid 30s at the time of the emergent left-wing Popular Front, Visconti assisted him on Partie de Campagne. As a young man coming from a Fascist country Visconti acknowledged that this contact had a profound influence on his political and aesthetic ideas.
Returning to Italy Visconti made Ossessione/Obsession (1942) adapted from an American thriller ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ written in hard-boiled naturalist style in a subjective first person narrative by James M Cain that is discarded in the film. It was first suggested to Visconti by Renoir as a possible source, re-conceived and filmed by Visconti in Po Valley locations. It occupies a pivotal place in the history of Italian cinema “because it simultaneously reflects the convergence of so many […] different cultural and intellectual experiences, and establishes itself as great art rather than as an ideological manifesto” (Bondanella 26) as it was originally conceived at the script stage signed by Visconti and four others and revised by Alberto Moravia in keeping with the left wing “Cinema group.” The original title was Palude (Marsh). The group members were all active in the underground anti-fascist movement (Liehm 52).
The choice of the source for Visconti’s first feature also reflected the influence of American fiction on Italian culture at the time recognised as an important external stimulus to the rise of neo-realism (Bondanella 25). In the process of placing it in an Italian ambience Visconti delivered an interpretation much superior to the 1946 American version and two French adaptations, the irony verging at times on the absurd in the novel, in the film the Italian landscape is “transformed into a stage for violent passions and burning sensuality presented with a tragic intensity that had almost been forgotten on the Italian screen” (ibid 29).
Visconti thus directly challenged then Italian culture under Fascism; Ossessione was severely mutilated and shortened after being threatened with an outright ban (the censorship involving the Church) to be released in its intended form only after the war. Although then lacking political and historical perspective, as Nowell-Smith points out, it is often seen in unqualified terms as a precursor to neo-realism. “This in itself is sufficient to mark it off from all Visconti’s later films on the one hand, and the bulk of neo-realist production on the other “ (30 Visconti ‘Cinema One’). Visconti maintained that the term neo-realism was first coined simply to describe his first feature, connecting it to the realist stream in French 30s cinema and exemplified in the work of Renoir by films such as La Chienne (1931) and Toni (1935). Ossessione is pre-neo-realist in anticipating certain of the themes and styles but for good historical reasons, Nowell-Smith suggests, misses out on others. It is, one might say, neo-realism without the neo” (ibid 32).
Nowell-Smith further points out that “political content and unequivocal commitment imposed themselves naturally in the years 1943-50, even on Rossellini with his waywardness with respect to what he saw as the constrictions of fictional narrative. “Without this impetus neo-realism would not have acquired its specific character” (ibid). The connection for Rossellini between realism and political commitment was contingent on certain unrepeatable events, “a realistic and immediate treatment of something which he felt of direct interest uneasily masked a set of fairly constant moral imperatives.” He remained a realist but the focus of interest changed over time.
Visconti also changed over time but in a different direction. He stands at the opposite end of the spectrum to Rossellini who at this stage was always an immediate witness to contemporary events even to the point of stylistically establishing a ‘presentness’ in the realistic evocation of the past. From the beginning, “unlike Rossellini, Visconti believed in a shaped narrative that shows development of plot and character over a period of time” (Armes 120). For him “realism appears as incidental and direct interest expressing itself only in the form of certain recurring themes and motifs.” So Nowell-Smith concludes that “their paths coincided very little; first in the general concern of any artist for the truth of the situation, real or imagined; and secondly in their brief association with a moment of social realism in the Italian cinema […] Visconti [became] more profoundly political but stylistically less of a realist, and Rossellini [became] an apparent political opportunist but morally and aesthetically consistent with what he [had] always been (ibid 30).”
|La Terra Trema|
Visconti followed Ossessione with La terra trema/The Earth Trembles (1948) closely adapted from a realist novel ‘I Malavoglia’ by Giovanni Verga whose writing had long engaged him as a Marxist and follower of Antonio Gramsci. What synthesised for him was the way the apolitical Verga, writing c1880, captured the continuing intricate self-contradictions of Sicily. Initially the film, technically backed by a private short lived production company, La terra trema was initially funded by the Communist Party. It was originally planned as three short self-contained episodes each with revolutionary content dealing with social problem industries - fishing, mining and agriculture - confronting post-war Sicily. According to Roy Armes Visconti returned the money to the CP and financed it himself.
Only the first story, Episodio del mare, retitled La terra trema as Armes describes it “in part a documentary on crafts and faces […] with a plot development that takes more than two and a half hours to run,” an epic family based drama resembling Greek tragedy. Visconti achieves a remarkable formal cohesion drawing inspiration from the novelist without showing discernible theatrical influence, “a study of defeat and not an affirmation of victory through class solidarity” in the context of the struggles of a Sicilian fishing community stressed by economic exploitation but lacking the collective will to deal with it. With his next film, six years later, “the trajectory of Visconti’s career sweeps in a wide arc round the area generally known as neo-realism.” Although seen as a founding neo-realist film, in the perspective of his emerging career La terra trema set Visconti on a new path.
|La Terra Trema|
In Ossessione “a film about the destructive power of passion” Visconti modified the crude ironies of poetic justice in the novel, forging a totally new narrative style. This heightened his concern with the formal visual aspects in his first post war film matched by a sparse score of natural and informal music-making that “gave the Italian cinema one of its masterpieces with La terra trema” (Armes). In the other stream of his work in the theatre which ran side by side with that in the cinema, Visconti fused the two streams together with a realistic production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 1952 on the stage and in the cinema with the infusion of the operatic in Senso in 1954. “This new and enriched style took Visconti beyond the bounds of neo-realism, though his characteristic themes and obsessions and the chosen means of expression were still realistic in the wider sense of the word” (Armes 119).
In Senso Visconti’s operatic sense of style is synthesised with an external historical world here adapted from an ‘undistinguished’ novel by Camillo Biotto as a point of departure. Visconti preferred to work from a literary source with maximum freedom to develop a critical realism set in a time of historical upheaval marked by major shifts in cultural values usually in Visconti’s films within the confines of the dissolution and destruction of a single family, as previously noted. “In this way he achieves “a certain economy of historical explanation” (Bondanella 197) dramatically evoking the clash of value systems in vanished eras.
Senso begins in 1863 in the last months of the Austrian occupation of Venetian provinces. The affair between Franz, a corrupt and cowardly Austrian officer ultimately destroyed by his self-deceit, and an older woman, an Italian countess married to a high dignitary but loyal to the Garibaldian partisans through her cousin Ussoni. Their affair is a personal melodrama interwoven with historical forces. Her masochistic submission verging on madness, ends in guilt, betrayal and seeming moral annihilation. The film ends with the Italian government forces, after rejecting the involvement of the partisans, defeated by the otherwise retreating Austrians at the battle of Custoza in 1866. The Italian government that emerged from the upheaval was not substantially different from what it had been before, one elite replacing another, the two suspiciously alike. While Franz is “representative of a dying class, what Livia represents is not so simple. Her character is all her own, the conflicting external determinations are not sufficient to fit her into any mould. At least she has the freedom to abuse, which Franz never has.” (Nowell-Smith ‘Visconti' Cinema One 87). Encountering production problems (several scenes were cut at an early stage), and censorship and distribution difficulties resulting in further cuts, Senso was not released in the form Visconti intended.
He brings to the fore a tendency in his films for the dialogue to generate violent emotions that even his operatic vision can barely contain. Visconti revealed his ambivalence about the attempts to define neo-realism, insisting that it was “first and foremost a question of content” and not of form. However, Mira Liehm notes that Senso (1954) was the first Italian film in which colour is used to convey characters’ emotions, Visconti anticipating Antonioni in The Red Desert by a decade. Music (Bruckner’s ‘Seventh Symphony’ and Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’) also plays an integral part. A central characteristic of Visconti’s films, as Bondanella notes, is the distinctive style of set design, costuming and photography.
In an interview with Cahiers critics Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Jean Domarchi (republished Sight and Sound, Summer 1959) Visconti said he “tried to make [Senso] with maximum realism, at the same time giving it an element of Italian melodrama." Liehm sees this as “not an exact image of reality but a staged hallucination of this world and its most devastating passions, creating a powerful impression of reality through overt melodramatic imagery and an operatic character. Avoiding any attempt to reconstruct the phenomena of a historical epoch, he captured its spirit” (148).
In contrast, Visconti in The Leopard (1963) is set in Sicily at the same historical time of the Risorgimento - the political unification of Italy. The treatment of a similar theme to that of Senso is elegiac in mood - sexual and political betrayal with an ambiguous underlying thematic of the survival or otherwise of class or family groupings in the context of historical change. As Nowell-Smith points out, uniquely in Visconti’s films, the Prince in The Leopard is the only character to remain permanently above the action. Visconti’s own position in seemingly identifying with the Prince, remains equivocal while viewing the Risorgimento as a revolution that failed.
The social concerns of La Terra Trema are transmuted into episodic family melodrama against the background of Italy's Southern problem in Rocco & His Brothers (1960) with a more optimistic short epilogue, the children surviving to make their own lives. White Nights (1957) and Vaghe stella dell'Orsa/Sandra (1966), in contrast to Rocco, are both aesthetically and emotively confined to more intimate canvases, one based on Dostoevsky's short story (also forming the basis of films by Ivan Pyryev and Robert Bresson) in Visconti’s film “hovering between reality and dreams” (David Melville, Senses of Cinema). Sandra, a family melodrama in a modern setting, is densely psychoanalytic, the family destroyed by internal forces. However, as with the children in Rocco,the daughter Sandra does survive with the suggestion that there is a future for her and other family members.
In Visconti’s later films such as his self-described German trilogy - The Damned (1969), Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1972) - baroque melodrama is sustained only by each being set in their own present with no sense of a past or future, reflecting what Nowell-Smith identifies as Visconti’s increasing scepticism “about history as a progressive development.” Mark Cousins notes Pasolini’s ultimately tragic attempt “to live outside modern Italy’s sexual and moral norms by focussing on times and people whom he felt were untouched by sexually (sic) repression, his aristocratic fellow-director did the opposite.” In the trilogy, in each film Visconti uses “a German theme or source material to find something fatal in repressed homosexuality.” (The Story of Film 331).
“Despite his pessimism and his fascination with decadence Visconti never abandoned the Marxist convictions he had formed in his youth” (Nowell-Smith in ‘History of World Cinema’). The aesthetic effect, as noted, can be politically equivocal.
Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links