While Italian cinema has long been popular with international audiences, a surprising unfamiliarity remains regarding the rich traditions from which its most fascinating moments arose. Directory of World Cinema: Italy aims to offer a wide film and cultural context for Italian cinema’s key aspects, from political radicalism to opera, from the art house to popular cinema. Essays by leading academics about prominent genres, directors, and themes provide insight into the cinema of Italy and are bolstered by reviews of significant titles. From the silent spectacle to the giallo, the spaghetti western to the neorealist masterworks of Rossellini, this book offers a comprehensive historical sweep of Italian cinema that will appeal to film scholars and cinephiles alike.
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About the Author
Louis Bayman completed his doctoral thesis on postwar Italian melodrama at King’s College London. He is currently researching theoretical approaches to the characteristics of popular cinema.
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Directory of World Cinema Italy
By Louis Bayman
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
FILM OF THE YEAR I
Io sono I'amore
I Am Love
Studio: Mikado Film, First Sun
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Producers: Luca Guadagnino Tilda Swinton Alessandro Usai Francesco Melzi d'Eril Marco Morabito Massimiliano Violante
Screenwriters: Barbara Alberti Ivan Cotroneo Walter Fasano Luca Guadagnino
Cinematographer: Yorick Le Saux
Art Director: Francesco di Mottola
Editor: Walter Fasano
Music: John Adams
Duration: 119 minutes
Cast: Tilda Swinton Flavio Parenti Edoardo Gabbriellini Alba Rohrwacher Pippo Delbono
Milan, winter. At a dinner party at the mansion of the wealthy and powerful Recchi family, patriarch Edoardo announces that he is handing on the reins of the family textile company – to be run jointly by his son Tancredi and grandson Edoardo Jr (Edo). That night, Edo is brought a present of a cake by Antonio, a chef who has beaten him in a rowing race. Edo and Antonio subsequently become firm friends, and Edo helps him set up his own restaurant in the city.
Spring: Tancredi's Russian-born wife Emma learns by chance that her daughter Betta is lesbian. Visiting Antonio's restaurant with her mother-in-law Allegra, Emma falls in love with Antonio's cuisine. Meeting Antonio by chance in San Remo, Emma joins him at his farm in the country, and the two embark on a passionate affair. When the family business is sold to an international corporation, the Recchis hold a dinner, which Antonio caters. As a result, a tragic turn of events affects the fate of the entire family.
When premiered in Venice in 2009, Luca Guadagnino's Io sono l'amore was the very epitome of a festival discovery: a third fiction feature by a hitherto little-noticed director, programmed in an unobtrusive non-competition slot. Few festival-goers – outside those with a specialist interest in Italian cinema – were expecting revelations, but Guadagnino's film was hailed by the international press as arguably the most significant film of the festival. It was one of those films that not only present a strikingly-talented new director, but also reveal possibilities – of expression, scope, intensity – that had otherwise seemed underexplored in narrative cinema.
Guadagnino had previously made a low-budget meta-thriller, The Protagonists (1999), with Io sono l'amore star Tilda Swinton, and a commercially-successful softcore youth-sex drama, Melissa P (2005), based on an Italian bestseller. But if anything in his filmography gave a clue to the tenor of his breakthrough film, it was probably his 2004 documentary Cuoco Contadino, a portrait of chef Paolo Maseiri (a real-life model for Antonio), not to mention his knowingly-glamorous promo shorts for fashion house Fendi, their detached chic underlaid with premonitions of the Lawrentian raptures of Io sono l'amore. (The fashion house's leading light Silvia Venturini Fendi is associate producer on Io sono l'amore, which features both Fendi and Jil Sander in its wardrobe.)
Io sono l'amore nonetheless had its detractors, and what offended them in no small part was the film's unapologetic opulence – a very unfashionable quality in contemporary European art cinema. The Recchi mansion is a place of regal proportions and gleaming finish, a place where not a single surface does not signify wealth, power and lofty social discretion. But Guadagnino's film also explores an opulence of depth, of the senses, that allows this initially glacial film to burgeon gradually into a radiant extended swoon. Tilda Swinton dubbed this operatic, highly romantic narrative 'Visconti on acid', but there is much Antonioni in it too: not just the early 1960s period evoked in the overture's snowbound Milan but also the more warmly melodramatic director of the 1950s. The shades of both Italian masters hover over the film, betokened by the casting of Gabriele Ferzetti, from Antonioni's L'avventura (1960), and Marisa Berenson, from Visconti's Morte a Venezia/Death in Venice (1971).
Io sono l'amore could loosely be described as a family saga, although it increasingly veers away from the other family members to focus on Emma (whose name unavoidably echoes Madame Bovary). Arranged in a series of seasonal acts, the film progresses from its chilly wintry overture to spring, as Emma becomes the story's focus. When Emma samples Antonio's food, she is instantly transformed: a baroque confection of prawns, seen in radiantly succulent close-up, makes her whole being explode in ravishment. Few films have so intensely evoked the combined experience of the taste, smell and sight of food; Io sono l'amore achieves a genuine sense of erotic synaesthesia. It is not long before Emma falls into an altogether amorous rapture, joining Antonio in a Chatterley-style bucolic coupling amid sunlight, greenery and extreme close-ups of skin surfaces, raspberries and insects on moss.
Some have balked at the euphoric overload of such sequences, but Guadagnino's commitment to a visual language of emotional intensity transcends accusations of kitsch. He aims for the amplified emotional sweep, and the formal stylization, of grand opera. A climactic sequence of revelation and shockingly-abrupt calamity leads to a stark climax as Emma faces Tancredi – whose terse but brutally-conclusive malediction effectively wipes her off the face of the earth: 'Tu non esisti' (You do not exist). Staged in a vast, echoing chapel, this austere confrontation scene takes the film beyond opera, and into the stark realm of classical tragedy. The film's dramatic power, its sometimes-ceremonial formality, are boosted by the extensive use of music by John Adams, with Guadagnino sampling his score from right across the American composer's repertoire, including the operas The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China.
One of the most striking aspects of Io sono l'amore is Emma's gradual emergence as tragic centre. At first, although the female head of the house, she seems less mistress than administrator, supervising an army of servants as they lay places for the film's opening dinner. Much of the time, she seems an onlooker in her own home: when Edo holds a poolside party, it is shot from the point of view of Emma, observing discreetly from an upstairs room. It is only later that we learn Emma was born in Russia, and remade as a Recchi by her husband Tancredi. Her Russian identity reinforces her credentials as a tragic adulterous heroine, à la Anna Karenina, and supplies an essential link between her and Edo. She used to make her son a special Russian fish soup, and it is Antonio's bespoke version of that soup that triggers a fateful realization for Edo at the film's climactic dinner.
This is also a political film about class and exclusion. The family member most akin to Emma is her daughter Betta, who similarly rebels sexually, embracing her lesbianism. But it is Betta, ironically, who displays the callous class instinct for exclusion, snubbing her rejected boyfriend with a brusqueness that is the true mark of the Recchis. And when the final dramatic axe falls, Emma is not the only outcast: it is wordlessly suggested that Edo's fiancée Eva has also been shut out of the family. The drama revolves around reactions to an outsider, Antonio; the clan's collapse begins, in fact, with the news that a Recchi has been beaten in a competition by a commoner. Never mind that Emma is sleeping with Antonio, it is already the discreet beginning of a scandal that she even addresses him at his restaurant with friendly intimacy.
Emma is a personality to be unravelled slowly, revealing a succession of selves in conflict, and Tilda Swinton's performance comes across as a series of modulations, a complex solo part in an orchestral score. The role calls both for hyper-formal decorum as the society matriarch, and for a vivid evocation of Emma's physicality – culminating in a moment of physical and emotional exhaustion as this tragic heroine is entirely consumed, burned up by her destiny. Towards the end, a thunderstruck Emma stands like a floppy mannequin, a body emptied of its self.
Walter Fasano (also credited as co-writer) offers subtle and complex editing: note the superbly tense, altogether Hitchcockian sequence in which Emma trails Antonio through the streets of Sanremo; a wonderfully devious trick scene that convinces us the lovers are about to be discovered in flagrante delicto; and the cleverly developed use of an intermittent MacGuffin, a book on colour in art.
The film's director of photography, Yorick le Saux – a regular collaborator of Olivier Assayas – is acutely, analytically attentive to surfaces, interior and exterior, rural and urban (note the way his lens flattens the Gothic geometry of Milan's Duomo). His camera movements elegantly rhyme with the way that people glide in this world of precision and decorum: in particular, a dizzy piece of circling Steadicam choreography linking kitchen and dining room at the film's climactic meal.
Jonathan RomneyCHAPTER 2
FILM OF THE YEAR II
Le quattro volte
Studio/Distributor: Vivo Film
Director: Michelangelo Frammartino
Producers: Marta Donzelli Gregorio Paonessa Susanne Marian Philippe Bober Gabriella Manfrè Elda Guidinetti Andres Pfaeffli
Screenwriter: Michelangelo Frammartino
Cinematographer: Andrea Locatelli
Art Director: Matthew Broussard
Editors: Benni Atria Maurizio Grillo
Duration: 88 minutes
Cast: Giuseppe Fuda Bruno Timpano Nazareno Timpano
An elderly goatherd takes his flock out to pasture every day helped by his dog. He has a chronic cough but every night drinks water mixed with dust swept up from the church. One day he drops the packet of dust and that night is unable to wake anyone in the church. He is discovered dead on the day of the village's Calvary procession. Someone else takes over his herd. A kid goat gets left behind and dies. A tree is cut down and used as a maypole, before being converted to carbon, which the villagers use in their homes.
There is a very long take half-way through Le quattro volte that is its turning point, and in more ways than one. It is literally so: it includes two pans, the camera turning on its axis. Like the camera movement, the take points backwards and forwards, to what has gone before and what is to come. In its imagery it encapsulates the film's concerns, in its restraint and deliberation its stance.
The camera is positioned high above the village in which, together with the surrounding countryside, the film takes place. On the lower left, at the outset, is the pen where the old man keeps his goats. A van drives up and two Roman centurions jump out; one shoves a stone under the back wheel of the van to prevent it sliding on the steep slope and both run off into the village, the goatherd's dog barking at them. After some time, a Calvary procession emerges, including the two centurions, and the camera pans right to follow it as it makes its way out of the village; on a hill in the distance, two crucifixes stand out in silhouette; the dog runs after the procession barking, but then runs back to the village, the camera panning back with it. A girl comes running from the village, evidently late for the procession; she is intimidated by the dog's barking but eventually manoeuvres her way round it and runs after the procession, the dog following her, the camera panning with them; in the distance there is now a third crucifix. Again the dog, and the camera, return to the village, and the dog removes the stone from the back of the van in its jaws, causing the van to run back down the slope, crashing into the goats' pen.
This take, even within its own bounds, creates the sense of the mysterious within detachedly-observed everyday life. The bizarrerie of Roman centurions jumping out of a van lingers until it is explained by the emergence of the procession. We had no prior knowledge of this, though it at once explains a strange, earlier moment in the film, shot from the same position, in which a priest and a girl seem to discuss a veil and she practices genuflecting: only now is it evident they were rehearsing for the Calvary procession (and she may well be the girl late for the procession). Earlier, too, we had seen a man dragging a length of wood which we can now see was the spine for a crucifix. In these instances, the take points narratively backwards, but it also points forwards. The two crucifixes in the distance indicate that a third is to come; this appears, disclosed by the camera on its second pan to the right, but it is not feasible that the procession could have reached the hill and erected the crucifix in the time it is out of view. One might consider this a sleight of hand, but that would not be characteristic of the film and its appearance as much suggests mystery, and the holiness of mystery in Christian tradition.
A different anticipation of what is to come centres on the dog. Why does it remove the stone from the van? (As striking as the action is the logistics of training the dog to remove the stone after barking and running back and forth and before the shot comes to an end: it took 22 takes.) Why indeed is it barking all the time? – it knows the people; the Calvary procession is unlikely to be a novelty. However, by causing the van to crash into the pen, the dog allows the goats to get out. By mysterious instinct, the goats make their way to the goatherd's home. He is dead. Presumably the dog has been trying to tell the village people.
Events in the film are explained and yet they still retain a sense of mystery. There is a luminous shot early on of dust dancing in a beam of light streaming into the church. A cleaning woman sweeps up and then, at the altar, tears a strip from a magazine, puts a small quantity of dust on it, neatly folds the strip around it, mutters some words and gives the package to the goatherd. He gives her a bottle of milk and says thank you. This is, significantly, the only audible dialogue in the film: 'grazie' (thank you) and 'Grazia' (Grace) are virtually the same word. A little later we see the man drinking the dust stirred into water. So far, it seems like observation of a folk Christian superstition. A little later, a packet of dust drops out of the man's back pocket; the strip has by chance been torn so that an image of a pair of eyes fills one side; it lies in the undergrowth while ants work away underneath, making the packet and the eyes move, entirely explicably and yet also mysteriously. That night, without the dust, he dies – because he was not able to ingest the holy infusion?
This is one of four deaths in the film – the four times of the title: him, Christ, a kid goat and the world. The kid is one that gets left behind as the man who has taken over the herd leads them out to pasture; there is no sign of the dog – before, it or the old man would have rescued the kid. This is in miniature the pattern of care for nature that has been broken.
There are those who read the film in terms of the cyclicality of nature and even reincarnation. This is plausible: the film opens and closes with charcoal burning, a kid dies but one is born, Christ rose from the dead. Yet it seems to me there is an altogether bleaker vision at work. The dog disappears, the kid is left behind and the birdsong diminishes as the film proceeds. A beautiful tree is cut down, stripped of its branches and erected as a maypole, with its cut-off tip affixed to the top of the pole, a pathetic last glimpse of its beauty. Then it comes down again and is turned into charcoal. The last ten minutes or so of the film show the process of charcoal-making in (fascinating) detail. The tree is cut and burnt, the charcoal is delivered to the villagers' home; the last shot of the film is smoke rising from the chimneys. Renewal – or the finality of death, the gradual attrition of nature?
Richard DyerCHAPTER 3
INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT VALERIO JALONGO INTERVIEW
Valerio Jalongo is one of the founding members of the 'Centoautori' film movement and, in 2009, released the film Di me cosa ne sai/What Do You Know About Me, a documentary into the current state of the Italian film industry.
Your film begins with veteran film director Bernardo Bertolucci asking the question 'would [Pasolini's 1975 film] Salò be possible today?' Why this is an important question for the Italian film industry?
When we started working on Di me cosa ne sai back in 2005, we were asking ourselves what freedom, what degree of independence does Italian cinema have now compared to the past?
Italian cinema allowed a great degree of diversity, producing films that dared to be original and controversial, films that became part of world cinema while representing Italy to the Italians. Film-makers' work ranged from experimental to a variety of genre films, while the auteurs enjoyed great freedom. I am using the past tense because, unfortunately, the answer to Bertolucci's question is that no one today would have the courage to finance a film like Salò. What in the mid-1970s was dubbed 'free TV' – that is commercial TV based on a somewhat grotesque version of American television – killed one of the most vital film industries in the world, substituting it with a media system that is less competitive and unable to produce the same quality. I believe our political system and our democracy are gravely affected by the cultural conformism of our TV system, by its lack of freedom, by the simplification in storytelling that it has bestowed on our country.
Excerpted from Directory of World Cinema Italy by Louis Bayman. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgements
Introduction by the Editor
Film of the Year I: lo sono l’amore
Film of the Year II: Le quattro volte
Industry Spotlight: Valerio Jalongo Interview
Cultural Crossover: Opera and Cinema
Test Your Knowledge
Notes on Contributors