4 ‘Real’ Italian Films

In studying film at uni over the last couple of years, one of the things I have been exposed to is the movement known as Italian neo-realism. This, rather small, group of films is discussed in academic circles as much as any other in cinema’s history. The movement was borne out of the painful experience of WWII and sought to depict the plight of immediate post-war Italy and its social conditions. This is a look at three of the films and one contemporary film which was clearly influenced by the movement. Don’t let this intro put you off – this is not an academic piece, and a couple of these films are well worth a watch.

Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) is generally considered to be the first great (and most would say first overall) film of the neo-realist movement. The film chronicles the inner workings of a Roman resistance effort against the occupying Nazi forces during WWII. The desperation of the common man in the city is starkly illustrated early on with scenes of residents ransacking bakeries and families living on top of each other. The realism of the film is plain to see. Generally the camera is relatively still and editing within scenes is minimalistic. And this style succeeds in relating the desperate state of a people downtrodden after years of fascist rule, UN sanctions and now the War. The film also contains lashings of gallows humour in what is anything but a humorous setting. The reflections of a drunken Nazi officer are one such example of this. Life is not easy for the residents of Rome, as one character remarks “Many things are bad for us but we do them anyway.” The film is full of characters risking all or being forced into actions they do not wish to carry out. Predominately these actions take place in claustrophobic interiors giving the sense at times that there is no escape. Another omnipresent in the film is religion. Heroic priests, a questioning of faith (“Doesn’t Christ see us”), churches and the sanctity of confession are all touched on and explored in this film.

However, for some reason the film at times felt more like a collection of these aspects than an overall film to me. I was surprised at the lack of emotion I felt whilst viewing. When the pregnant Pina is gunned down, in what should be the film’s great emotional punch to the guts, I was strangely unmoved. This ties in to the fact that the film feels a little rushed to me and as a result I was not invested enough in the character to feel what I should have. This sense of being a little rushed, can probably be explained away by the fact the film was begun in secret whilst Italy was still occupied by the Nazis. This is rectified somewhat by the conclusion of the film with the execution of Don Pietro Pellegrini, a powerful moment. Still though, at this point I felt my feelings were somewhat muted. I also found the film somewhat incoherent, especially in the early going. The cavalcade of characters being introduced was hard to keep up with. Whether this is more a comment on my viewing skills rather than the film itself I am not sure.

Don’t get me wrong this is a very good film with a clearly influential style. It is gritty in a way which I don’t think any other film of this vintage that I have seen is and it explores grand themes in its WWII setting. It just lacked an emotional connection for me though. Perhaps the conventions of neo-realism call for more understated characterisation which helps to explain this.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

Preceding Open City by two years is Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). Whilst not sharing the wartime settings and concerns that characterised much of Italian neo-realism, it does feature stylistic ticks such as naturalistic settings and performances that were a feature of the form. This film has a more prominent soundtrack though than other neo-realist films, with less of a focus on ‘real-world’ sound effects and also utilises the odd fancy editing device such as a cross-fades.

This film is based on James M. Cain’s classic hardboiled fiction novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. In a tale similar to the fate that almost befell Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), permission was not sought from the publishers before making the film. That, and disapproval by the ruling fascists meant only the fact Visconti kept a copy of the negative means we are able to watch this film today. The focus early on in establishing the setting, which feels incredibly authentic. The bustle of the trattoria that Bragana and his wife run, and the excitement over rumours of five kilo eels being caught convey everyday village life. The story concerns Gino, a drifter, who arrives and begins an adulterous relationship with Bragana’s wife Giovanna. Gino begs her to come away with him so they can be together, but she cannot bear to risk returning to the life of poverty that she escaped through her marriage. So the two part. Gino ends up on the coast, working in the markets with his new friend Lo Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo upon hearing Gino’s situation and his admittance that he cannot live without Giovanna, urges him to get as far away from the situation as possibly by going to sea because “the sea will drive out those ideas”. Even though he is not onscreen for long, Lo Spanuolo is a great character, and a truly wonderful friend to Gino. Invariably though, Gino can not bring himself to take to the sea, and one day Bragana and Giovanna turn up at the portside market where he is working. Bragana and Giovanna convince him to return home with them. Any aficionado of hardboiled fiction/film noir will know what is coming. If not then beware, spoiler ahoy – Gino and Giovanna murder Bragana so they can continue their passionate affair, however the suspicions of the police are immediately aroused. Obviously all is not rosy following murder, and the change and guilt that these characters undergo is conveyed by Visconti in a nuanced and interesting manner. Gino, wallows in drink, seemingly unable to love the woman he killed for. Giovanna is quietly broken and distraught at the way things have turned out, this is brilliantly conveyed by Clara Calamai. The film’s finale is shattering. Another spoiler coming up – just when it appears that the two have found happiness and freedom, Giovanna (and her unborn child) are killed in a car accident. The manner in which Visconti dangles the possibility of a new life for the (murderous) couple we are cheering for, and then quickly withdraws the offer is brilliant and not cheap like it could so easily have been.

One of the more interesting aspects of Ossessione is the manner in which it both engages with and diverges from noir/hardboiled conventions. James M. Cain is one of ‘the’ hardboiled fiction writers of all time. Possibly only Chandler was a more prominent purveyor of the genre. But it was a distinctly American genre, which was a massive influence of the distinctly American film genre film noir (of Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice was filmed twice in the states, and Double Indemnity was turned into a film classic by Billy Wilder). Nowhere is the conflict between American noir and Italian neo-realism conflict more evident than in the main characters of Giovanna and Gino. It is suggested that Giovanna, in a femme fatale classic move, knew of her husband’s life insurance policy, so she seduced Gino to collect. But there is no doubt that she loves him throughout the film. Usually a femme fatale uses, then discards the unwitting schmuck but she is desperate to hold on to her man. Gino is no desperate schmuck either, happily flirting and seducing other women, instead of pining for Giovanna. The narrative, like the protagonists, also fits this contrast. The setup is typical hardboiled fiction – unhappy marriage, attractive & seductive woman, a husband who conveniently and repeatedly mentions his will. But other aspects of the story provide more interest. The fact that even though in typical fashion, neither of them get away with it, the couple find contentment and dare I say it love in one another before meeting their fate. I haven’t read Cain’s book, so do not know if this plot point is his or Visconti’s, but it is masterful, turning the entire story on its head. In all honesty the second half of the film is somewhat less absorbing than the first, but these final sequences really lift the film overall.

This film is not really about performances, but the two leads are good. Their chemistry works, driven by Clara Calamai’s come hither looks and barely suppressed, bubbling sexuality. Possibly the best characterisation in the film is that of Bragana. Generally in noir, the husband who is knocked off is of little interest to the viewer. He is a shallow, narrative necessity. But in this film conflicted feelings are derived for the portly husband. Initially, he is mean spirited and discriminatory toward Gino. Later, when he realises they were both soldiers he welcomes the drifter, into his home, offering him work, food and board. Whilst he never attains the viewer’s real sympathies, mainly due to his attitude towards Giovanna, nevertheless he does not deserve the fate the narrative delivers to him. Whilst I’ve mentioned that this film is at times a bit more bold stylistically than other films of its ilk, Visconti does still exercise a lot of restraint in this regard. For example the use of zooms and close-ups is limited to a couple of examples in the film, and as a result has real impact. The first is during the first meeting of the lovers when a zoom into Giovanna’s face shows her instant connection and desire toward the mysterious drifter. Similarly, the only use of close-ups I can recall is when Giovanna is pleading desperately for Gino to stay with her, and the novelty of the shot length reinforces her love and desperation.

This film will probably not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is quite long and takes its time. If you are a fan of hardboiled fiction or film noir I would definitely recommend you check it out. It is a really well made film and a most enjoyable piece of filmmaking from a director who is really savvy, and has an interesting non-Hollywood style.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

According to my lecturer Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) is the absolute pinnacle of Italian neo-realism. The same lecturer provided the DVD commentary on the Madman release that I watched so he is either really biased, or really knows what he is talking about. The film also essentially signalled the close of neo-realism as a movement, and it’s a fitting note to close on.

The opening scene depicts a protest march by a group of pensioners agitating for an increase to pensions. This scene is representative of the rest of the film which is concerned with one pensioner, the titular Umberto D and his fight for both survival and dignity. The film opens with him utterly broke, trying to sell of the last of his meagre possessions to get by, and dealing with a mole of a landlady who is trying to kick him out onto the street. His plight at times reminded me of the modern day life of a uni student, doing anything to get by and fighting for respect. At one point life gets so hard for Umberto that he intentionally has himself admitted to hospital so he has a place to stay and food for a couple of days. The film’s emotional ‘highpoint’ in terms of plot arrives when Umberto returns from the hospital to discover his beloved dog, “a mutt with intelligent eyes” as he describes him, has been lost. The sequences of the man’s desperate search for his canine friend are harrowing, and reach their climax in a scene that takes place in the city pound. Of these Italian films that I have watched, this is definitely the most ‘real’. One of the best sequences is a couple of minute long scene of the cleaning lady Maria boiling water in the kitchen. It is timed just as the act would be in everyday life, and is so beautiful in reminds one of the inherent beauty that surrounds us everyday, even in the mundane. If this sounds boring as hell, then you’re probably not going to enjoy this film. Which is fair enough because it is not exactly to everyone’s taste. But if what I’ve described sounds intriguing, it is, and you should definitely track this one down. Despite not dealing with the issues as explicitly as a film such as Open City above, Umberto D manages to evoke the reality of post-war Italian life in a manner which is nothing short of masterful. Umberto was formerly a career-long public servant, and he feels abandoned by the system and society that he served for so long in this post-war world.

Part of the issue with appraising performances in this kind of film, is that they are meant to be almost not performances at all, rather striving for some level of life-like authenticity. In this regard Maria Pia Casilio who plays Maria the cleaner in Umberto’s apartment building manages to succeed at an almost unfathomable level. Her ability to be authentic, natural and engaging is truly something to behold, and should be held up as an example to all those who feel that a performance needs to be over the top and flashy to also qualify as being brilliant. The relationship between her and Umberto illustrates De Sica’s mastery of the human side of every day life. Theres is a simple, beautiful friendship. Despite the fact that she has the attentions of numerous male suitors around town, Maria can only really trust her older friend Umberto. She opens up to him regarding her pregnancy, complicated in immediate post-war Italy by the fact she is not married, nor does she even know who the father is. Umberto’s paternal instinct extends to an offer to interrogate the two men Maria suspects may be responsible. In his own quiet way the presumably unmarried Umberto is able to counsel her through this, despite his initial moral outrage. De Sica builds toward the final goodbye between these two in a manner that is nothing short of brilliant. Every day, Maria watches from the window and waves to her lovers below. It is an exalted daily ritual. And on the day Umberto is finally forced to leave the house, she watches her friend leave from exactly the same spot. It is a touching, thought provoking moment. Carlo Battisti in the leading role delivers a subtle yet engaging performance and is able to convey the character’s desperation and anger at the world he finds himself in. Tension in films can come from the most unlikely sources. This is seen in Umberto D in a scene where Battisti really excels, as he depicts a man torn between putting his hand out to beg for alms, or not and retain the last of his dignity. This is a defining moment in the arc of the film’s protagonist.

Technically the film is assured, but the camera is used to enhance the realism rather than to wow stylistically. It is not at all busy, often staying stationery throughout long takes, like an observer not wishing to intrude on the action taking place before it. De Sica does on the odd occasion impose himself on the action though. When Umberto returns home one night to discover his landlady has started knocking down his wall there is a fantastic, horrified Hitchcockian zoom into the hole in the wall. But again, as with other directors from the same school, De Sica’s restraint makes this shot much more meaningful because he is not compelled to show off throughout the film with other examples of similar flashiness so it stands out when it is deployed.

This is a great film. Films are great for different reasons, some due to their stylistic innovation, some due to their wondrous narrative. This is great because it is close to a perfect reflection of life. Despite the fact it is very specific to a time and place, this is life that we all can relate to. Everyone has their struggles. Everyone has their ‘cleaning ladies’ that we engage with. Everyone sees the beauty in the everyday. And occasionally, everyone dreams of walking away from it all as Umberto D does in the end, hopefully with a faithful companion like the one that follows him.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Many new Italian films when they are released are likened to Italian neo-realist works. This may be done by the filmmakers in an attempt to legitimise their work, after all the neo-realist period is generally regarded as Italy’s greatest filmmaking time. Or it may also be done by critics, complimenting the film, or highlighting its clear inspiration from neo-realism.

One such recent film which had clear connections with the movement was Matteo Garrone’s very popular gangster film Gomorrah (2008). Based on a controversial, non-fiction book by Roberto Saviano, the film attempts to capture the filthy gangland underbelly of contemporary Naples. Much of the time it succeeds, and the film is most interesting when sticking to its neo-realist roots. The film offers a realistic immersion in life on the streets of Naples without initially providing any strong narrative. Rather a sea of characters is established, as is a general sense of danger, that bad things occur on these streets which are depicted as making up a stark concrete jungle. The violence is straightforward and unflinching to look at, with numerous cold-blooded gangland hits being taken out onscreen. Another affinity the film shares with neo-realism is its determination not to rush the plot. The action crawls along at times, enhancing a sense of real-life immersion, but possibly not a sense of enjoyment. Gradually, from this sea of characters, the main ones and the narrative crystallises as we are introduced in more detail to people such as two young wannabe gangsters trying to break their way into the Camorra (mafia). This is definitely not a neo-realist film though. With the music way too intrusive and a bit too much camera flashiness for starters. I’m not saying these are necessarily bad things, however the distinction must be made between a film influenced by neo-realism (which this is) and a film attempting to be part of that genre (which this definitely is not). As a genre piece, this is a straight up gangster flick. Family honour, money, drugs and guns all dominate. All the gangster standards dominate, but they are not presented in the usual Hollywood manner, just as Ossessione presents a hardboiled crime classic in a non-standard manner.

I think where the film loses its way somewhat is with the over convoluted plot. The film attempts to follow six different stories, all of people effected by the Camorra. This means that the stories are spread too thin. The tales do not overlap, so it can be some time between the parts of each episode. So long that by the time a story is returned to you have often forgotten what was happening. It also means that some of the most interesting characters in the whole film, the tailor for example, only have the surface of their story scratched. On the other hand other threads such as the one concerning two wannabe gangsters are dealt with in much more detail. I think the film would have been much stronger, though less ambitious, if less stories were told. I would love to see whole films devoted to some of these stories. In this way the film plays like a compendium of short films, rather than a coherent stand-alone narrative and this structure lets the story down. It also makes any core narrative difficult to follow. I had general notions of a gang-war being carried out as the violence escalated, but it was difficult to establish exactly who belonged on which side. I’m guessing that the structure comes out of the film’s non-fiction book roots. And I can see that working in that medium, but more tweaking was necessary to bring it to screen in an entirely satisfying way.

For a ‘world’ cinema release this film got a fair bit of hype at the time it came out. For me, it did not entirely live up to that. But it is interesting to see the hallmarks of neo-realism in a film released 50 years after the ‘death’ of the movement and the depictions of a modern, dirt soaked Italy are worth a look. Ultimately though the jarring narrative structure means any real engagement with either the characters or story is difficult to come by. Also somewhat jarring for me were the figures quoted during the end-credits concerning the massive impact of the Camorra and their shady investments. I don’t think this is really reflected in the film, which is really just a (admittedly crime-centric) vignette of daily life in Naples.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

Progress: 31/1001

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