Cinema of Italy

The history of Italian cinema began just a few months after the Lumière brothers had patented their Cinematographe, when Pope Leo XIII was filmed for a few seconds in the act of blessing the camera.

Movie Premiere on Saint Mark's Square

Contents

Early years

The Italian film industry took shape between 1903 and 1908, led by three major organizations - Cines, based in Rome; and the Turin-based companies Ambrosio and Itala Film. Other companies were soon to follow in Milan and Naples, and these early companies quickly attained a respectable production quality and were able to market their products both within Italy and abroad.

Historical films were an early focus in Italy; the first work in the genre was Filoteo Alberini's 1905 film La presa di Roma ("The Capture of Rome"). Other films portrayed historical figures including Nero, Messalina, Spartacus, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Arturo Ambrosio's Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1908, "The Last Days of Pompeii") quickly became famous, so famous that it was remade three times in 1913. In 1913 Enrico Guazzoni directed the widely-distributed Marcantonio e Cleopatra (Mark Antony and Cleopatra).

Actresses Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini and Pina Menichelli were the first "divas" (stars), specialising in passionate tragedies. Bertini became the first "star" of cinema, and is noted for being the first major actress to play a scene partially unclothed. Emilio Ghione was one of the biggest male stars, with his French apache Za La Mort. Former docker Bartolomeo Pagano made his first appearance as the strongman Maciste in Cabiria, leading onto a series of popular films, which were produced until 1924.

Other early films featured social themes, often based on published literature. The 1916 film Cenere (Ash) was based on Grazia Deledda's book, and featured stage actress Eleonora Duse.

Avant-garde

Between 1911 and 1919, Italy was the first country to start a new avant-garde movement in the cinema production, inspired by the Futurism movement in that country. The 1916 Manifesto of Futuristic Cinematography was signed by Filippo Marinetti, Armando Ginna, Bruno Corra, Giacomo Balla and others. To the futurists, cinema was an ideal art form, being a fresh medium, and able to be manipulated by speed, special effects and editing. Most of the futuristic-themed films of this period have been lost, but critics cite Thais by Anton Giulio Bragaglia (1917) as one of the most influential, serving as the main inspiration for the upcoming German Expressionist cinema.

Cinecittà

By the 1930s, Italian fascism had created a review board for popular culture. This administration suggested, with Mussolini's full approval, the creation of some important structures for Italian cinema. An area was founded in southeast Rome to build a town exclusively for cinema, dubbed the Cinecittà. The town was conceived in order to provide everything necessary for filmmaking: theaters, technical services, and even a cinematography school for younger apprentices. Even today, many films are shot entirely in Cinecittà. At the same time Vittorio Mussolini created a national production company and organized the work of noted authors, directors and actors (including even some political opponents), thereby creating an interesting communication network among them, which produced several noted friendships and stimulated cultural interaction. Directors who worked at Cinecitta include Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Neorealism

With the approaching war, many works were produced for propaganda purposes. The term Neorealism was used for the first time for Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943): it is considered by many to be the first Italian neorealist film. Nevertheless, in 1942, Alessandro Blasetti produced his Quattro passi fra le nuvole (Four Steps in the Clouds), the story of a humble employee, considered by many others as the first neorealist work.

Neorealism exploded soon after the war, with unforgettable works such as Rossellini's trilogy Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948), and with extraordinary actors such as Anna Magnani, as an attempt to describe the difficult economic and moral conditions of Italy and the changes in public mentality in everyday life. Also, because Cinecittà was occupied by refugees, films were shot outdoors, on the devastated roads of a defeated country. This genre soon also became an important political tool, although in most cases directors were able to keep a distinguishing barrier between art and politics.

Poetry and cruelty of life were harmonically combined in the works that Vittorio De Sica wrote and directed together with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini: among them, Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Miracle in Milan (1951). The 1952 film Umberto D. showed a poor old man with his little dog, who must beg for alms against his dignity in the loneliness of the new society. This work is perhaps De Sica's masterpiece and one of the most important works in Italian cinema. It was not a commercial success and since then it has been shown on Italian television only a few times. Yet it is perhaps the most violent attack, in the apparent quietness of the action, against the rules of the new economy, the new mentality, the new values, and it embodies both a conservative and a progressive view.

Pink neorealism and comedy

It has been said that after Umberto D. nothing more could be added to neorealism. Possibly because of this, neorealism effectively ended with that film; subsequent works turned toward lighter atmospheres, perhaps more coherent with the improving conditions of the country, and this genre has been called pink neorealism. This trend allowed better-"equipped" actresses to become real celebrities, such as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Pampanini, Lucia Bosé, Barbara Bouchet, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Silvana Mangano, Claudia Cardinale, and Stefania Sandrelli. Soon pink neorealism was replaced by the Commedia all'italiana, a unique genre that, born on an ideally humouristic line, talked instead very seriously about important social themes.

At this time, on the more commercial side of production, the phenomenon of Totò, a Neapolitan actor who is acclaimed as the major Italian comic, exploded. His films (often with Peppino De Filippo and almost always with Mario Castellani) expressed a sort of neorealistic satire, in the means of a guitto (a "hammy" actor) as well as with the art of the great dramatic actor he also was. A "film-machine" who produced dozens of titles per year, his repertoire was frequently repeated. His personal story (a prince born in the poorest rione (section of the city) of Naples), his unique twisted face, his special mimic expressions and his gestures, created an inimitable personage and made him one of the most beloved Italians of the 1960s.

Italian Comedy is generally considered to have started with Mario Monicelli's I soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) and derives its name from the title of Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'Italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961). For a long time this definition was used with a derogatory intention.

Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Alberto Sordi, Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti and Nino Manfredi were among the stars of these movies, that described the years of the economical reprise and investigated Italian customs, a sort of self-ethnological research.

In 1961 Dino Risi directed Il sorpasso, now a cult-movie, then Una vita difficile (A Difficult Life), I Mostri (The Monsters, also known as 15 From Rome), In nome del Popolo Italiano (In the Name of the Italian People) and Profumo di donna (Scent of a Woman).

Monicelli's works include La grande guerra (The Great War), I compagni (Comrades, also known as The Organizer), L'Armata Brancaleone, Vogliamo i colonnelli (We Want the Colonels), Romanzo popolare (Popular Novel) and the Amici miei series.

Peplum (aka Sword and Sandal)

With the release of 1958's Hercules, starring American bodybuilder Steve Reeves, the Italian film industry gained entree to the American film market. These films, many with mythological or Bible themes, were low-budget costume/adventure dramas, and had immediate appeal with both European and American audiences. Besides the many films starring a variety of muscle men as Hercules, heroes such as Sampson and Italian fictional hero Maciste were common. Sometimes dismissed as low-quality escapist fare, the Peplums allowed newer directors such as Sergio Leone and Mario Bava, a means of breaking into the film industry. Some, such as Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World (Italian: Ercole Al Centro Della Terra) are considered seminal works in their own right. As the genre matured, budgets sometimes increased, as evidenced in 1962's I sette gladiatori (Gladiator Seven in 1964 US release), a wide-screen epic with impressive sets and matte-painting work. Most Peplum films were in color, whereas previous Italian efforts had often been black and white.

The Spaghetti Western

On the heels of the Sword and Sandal craze, a related genre, the Spaghetti Western arose and was popular both in Italy and elsewhere. These films differed from traditional westerns by being filmed in Italy on limited budgets, but featured vivid cinematography.

The most popular Spaghetti Westerns were those of Sergio Leone, whose Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), featuring Clint Eastwood and scores by Ennio Morricone, came to define the genre along with Once Upon a Time in the West.

Also considered Spaghetti Westerns is a film genre which combined traditional western ambiance with a Commedia all'italiana-type comedy; films including They Call Me Trinity and Trinity Is STILL My Name!, which featured Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, the stage names of Carlo Pedersoli and Mario Girotti.

Auteurs

Fellini, la Grande Parade exposition on the work of Federico Fellini in the musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris

Italy has produced many important cinematography auteurs, including Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Ettore Scola, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mario Bava, Sergio Corbucci, Lucio Fulci, Mario Monicelli, Marco Ferreri, Elio Petri, Ermanno Olmi, Umberto Lenzi, Lina Wertmüller, and Luchino Visconti. These directors' works often span many decades and genres. Present auteurs include Giuseppe Tornatore, Marco Bellocchio, Nanni Moretti, Gabriele Salvatores, Gianni Amelio and Paolo Sorrentino.

Sophia Loren's Academy Award

In 1961 Sophia Loren won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as a woman who is raped in World War II, along with her adolescent daughter, in Vittorio De Sica's Two Women. She was the first actress to win an Academy Award for a performance in any foreign language, and the second Italian leading lady Oscar-winner (after Anna Magnani).

Thriller/Horror

During the 1960s and 70s, Italian filmmakers Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti and Dario Argento developed horror films that become classics and influenced the genre in other countries. Representative films include: Black Sunday, Castle of Blood, Twitch of the Death Nerve, L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, Profondo rosso and Suspiria.

Following the 1960s boom of shockumentary "Mondo films" such as Gualtiero Jacopetti's Mondo Cane, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Italian cinema became internationally synonymous with violent horror films. These films were primarily produced for the video market and were credited with fueling the "video nasty" era in the United Kingdom.

Directors in this genre included Lucio Fulci, Joe D'Amato, Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato. Some of their films faced legal challenges in the United Kingdom; after the Video Recordings Act of 1984, it became a legal offense to sell a copy of such films as Cannibal Holocaust and SS Experiment Camp. Italian films of this period are usually grouped together as exploitation films.

Several countries charged Italian studios with exceeding the boundaries of acceptability with their late-1970s Nazi exploitation films, inspired by American movies such as Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. The Italian works included the notorious but comparatively tame SS Experiment Camp and the far more graphic Last Orgy of the Third Reich (Italian: L'ultima orgia del III Reich). These films showed, in great detail, sexual crimes against prisoners at concentration camps. These films may still be banned in the United Kingdom and other countries.

The 1980s crisis

Between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, Italian cinema was in crisis; "art films" became increasingly isolated, separating from the mainstream Italian cinema.

Among the major artistic films of this era were La città delle donne, E la nave va, Ginger and Fred by Fellini, L'albero degli zoccoli by Ermanno Olmi (winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival), La notte di San Lorenzo by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Antonioni's Identificazione di una donna, and Bianca and La messa è finita by Nanni Moretti. Although not entirely Italian, Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, winner of 9 Oscars, and Once Upon a Time in America of Sergio Leone came out of this period also.

During this time, "trash films" were popular in Italy. Films of little artistic value, these comedies reached their popularity by confronting Italian social taboos, most notably in the sexual sphere. Actors such as Lino Banfi, Diego Abatantuono, Alvaro Vitali, Gloria Guida, Barbara Bouchet and Edwige Fenech owe much of their popularity to these films.

Also considered part of the trash genre are films which feature Fantozzi, a comic personage invented by Paolo Villaggio. Although Villaggio's movies tend to bridge trash comedy with a more elevated social satire; this character had a great impact on Italian society, to such a degree that the adjective fantozziano entered the lexicon. Of the many films telling of Fantozzi's misadventures, the most notable were Fantozzi and Il secondo tragico Fantozzi.

1990 to present

A new generation of directors has helped return Italian cinema to a healthy level since the end of the 1980s. Probably the most noted film of the period is Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, for which Giuseppe Tornatore won a 1990 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. This award was followed in 1992, when Gabriele Salvatores's Mediterraneo won the same prize. Another exploit was in 1998 when Roberto Benigni won three oscars for his movie Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella) (Best Actor, Best Foreign Film, Best Music). In 2001 Nanni Moretti's film The Son's Room (La stanza del figlio) received the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Other noteworthy recent Italian films include: Jona che visse nella balena directed by Roberto Faenza, Il grande cocomero by Francesca Archibugi, Il mestiere delle armi by Olmi, L'ora di religione by Marco Bellocchio, Il ladro di bambini, Lamerica, Le chiavi di casa by Gianni Amelio, Io non ho paura by Gabriele Salvatores, Le fate ignoranti, La finestra di fronte by Ferzan Özpetek, La bestia nel cuore by Cristina Comencini.

In 2007 American director Quentin Tarantino said "New Italian cinema is just depressing. Recent films I've seen are all the same. They talk about boys growing up, or girls growing up, or couples having a crisis, or vacations of the mentally impaired." He received criticism from the Italian media and actress Sophia Loren who said "How dare he talk about Italian cinema when he doesn't know anything about American cinema?"[1]

In 2008 Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, a biographical film based on the life of Giulio Andreotti, won the Jury prize and Gomorra, a crime drama film, directed by Matteo Garrone won the Gran Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

See also

References

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  • Morandini, Morando. 1997. ' Vittorio de Sica' . Nowell-Smith Geoffrey Ed : Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
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  • Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 3rd edition. Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute
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