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Italian Cinema

It’s a question of having the feeling for reality.

- Federico Fellini, in an interview

The political and cultural developments of Italy over the past half-century are also the developments of a cinema. But just as the defining traits of other national cinemas (for instance, the New Waves in France, Czechoslovakia, and Iran; the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s, etc.) emerged in response to particular historical moments and transformations, Italian cinema accumulated most of its underlying thematic interests in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

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Following the war, a tumultuous economic situation within Italy had, by 1947, increased the nation’s living costs dramatically, producing an unemployed population of nearly two million and a steadily rising inflation rate that became a carrier for public disillusionment with the De Gasperi government. By 1958, the economy’s protectionist policies were relaxed, industrial competition was encouraged, generous lending rates attracted investors, and the beginning of Italy’s so-called “economic miracle” renewed a national consciousness that had been evaporating since the Marshall Plan. Significant shifts in economic and political policies during much of the 1960s, as well as the increased attention to class conflict and leftist sensibilities, became opportunities for rapid political activity and demonstration, culminating in the autunno caldo (or “hot autumn”) workers strikes of 1969.

As Paul Ginsborg indicates in his study, A History of Contemporary Italy (published in 2003), Italian social and political life has, since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the nation’s subsequent unification, been given continuity by a stock of “themes of issues” that are consistently returned to throughout its history. These include: “the weakness and inefficiency of the state; the strength of the Catholic church in Italian society; the class consciousness of significant sections of Italian urban and rural workers; [and] the enduring problems of the South.” Ginsborg adds the influence of the family on Italian cultural and social life to this list, indicating lastly the “attachment to the family has probably been a more constant and less evanescent element in Italian popular consciousness than any other.”

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The family – in its complicated and omnipotent form – appears throughout Italian cinema as a thematic device, as a means of acknowledging rifts and tensions within the culture. Some notable examples: Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned, Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket, Wertmuller’s The Seduction of Mimi, each of which also contribute to more broad discussions about Italian society at large (in this way, Vicsconti’s film is just as much a polemic about the status of the Italian family as it is a cinematic treatise on the “southern question” and the growth of northern industry and labor; likewise is Germi’s film an anthology of all kinds of concerns about the influence of the Catholic church as it is of the ideological traditions and limitations of family life).

Ginsborg’s “themes and issues” of Italian history engage with one another; they create cross-sections and points of conversion from which these films might be read and thought about. But while these kinds of concerns – the role of the family, the influence of religious and conservative political ideology, class consciousness, the struggles of a growing middle class – have made themselves visible throughout much of Italian cinema’s one-hundred and ten-year history (Vittorio Calcina’s Umberto and Margherita of Savoy Walking in a Park, considered the country’s first film, is dated at 1896), they do not lend themselves to any one particular aesthetic movement or sensibility. The anxieties of isolation and listlessness of post-war Italy that preoccupy Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., for instance (both films being exemplars of Italian Neorealism), are continued and further developed in the work of filmmakers as aesthetically divergent as Pasolini, Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni, Moretti, etc.

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That is not to say that the movements of other national cinemas have always made such distinctions between aesthetics and content, although I’d be pressed to find thematic links between the works of French Impressionist filmmakers of the 1920s and that country’s New Wave pioneers in the Sixties (this can be similarly said of distinctions between German Expressionist cinema and the 1970s output of filmmakers like Fassbinder, Herzog, Kluge, Schlöndorff, Wenders, von Trotta, et al. That is, German Expressionism and New German Cinema are “movements” precisely because their outputs differ in ideological and aesthetic attitudes; the political and cultural moment existing during the release of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) influenced that film’s thematic preoccupations in ways that cannot influence, say, Volkor Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) [although a clever interpreter may certainly indicate thematic similarities between the two, this should not be a prerequisite for understanding and appreciating these films]).

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How might a “movement” in the arts be constituted? Do movements function as a teleological progression towards an aesthetic end, as something that can and should push formal qualities to a “logical conclusion” (i.e. Greenberg)?* Are movements efforts in adding stability to ideological attitudes? Is a movement an opportunity for moral action, a kind of selectivity for political convictions and feeling? I do not believe that movements are processes of improving or adapting the aesthetic of their predecessors; art is not necessarily renovation, it doesn’t have to be. However, I do believe that a keen historical and cultural awareness is required for one to identify themselves or unify their work within the domain of a “movement” (intersections do exist between disparate aesthetic sensibilities, and there are such things as influences. In the White Paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and black canvases of Ad Reinhardt, one finds Malevich and the Suprematists; the music of Pierre Boulez imbues the chance operations of John Cage; the free-verse of Ezra Pound is found in the poetry Louis Zukofsky and the Objectivists; Harry Callahan’s flattened compositions are in the empty street and museum portraits of Thomas Struth; Visconti can be found in Bertolucci, et al.).

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While Italian cinema is marked by various aesthetic shifts and experiments, its thematic preoccupations have remained, for the most part, consistent. One can think of the nation’s cinema as a collection of “movements,” distinct in their manipulation of cinematic devices and techniques, given unification by a stock set of interests: the family, religion, labor, and class conflict. Compare to: the shifts in content and form between the Impressionist films and those of the New Wave in France. This continuity between films – films spanning decades and eras – allows a nation to be reveled; across one hundred years, the cinema of Italy anthologizes the feelings and ideas of a culture. The movement is within its history.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema will begin June 8 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

* In The Crisis of the Easel Picture, Greenberg elaborates: “The evolution of modernist painting, beginning with Manet, is constituted in good part by the evolution toward… a compromise. Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, the orthodox Impressionists, attacked the essential principles of the easel painting through the consistency with which they applied divided colors… The consequences of orthodox Impressionism did not work themselves out coherently in time. Seurat pushed divisionism to a logical conclusion, making something almost mechanically systematic out of it” (Clement Greenberg, Art And Culture: Critical Essays, 154).


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