Italian Films

Viaggio in Italia – Or How an Italian Trip can be the Opposite of Romantic

I normally ignore what critics have said about the films in the 1001 movies list unless I’ve already formed my own opinion and would like to give my readers a little more context. In the case of Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (A Voyage to Italy), this wasn’t possible because… well, because I had little opinion, one way or another. I found it to be pretty much a blah film, without much to say either way, good or bad.

Apparently, I was perfectly right to feel that way… and also utterly wrong.

On the blah side, critics and moviegoers of the era didn’t like this one. The film was a box office flop and a critical non-darling. It’s not hard to see why: it isn’t fun, it isn’t tragic, it isn’t shocking, and it isn’t romantic. It’s neorealism without the weight of high human drama thrown in… as the stakes here are, apparently, the end of a marriage that isn’t that inspiring to begin with. And all despite Ingrid Bergman.

But then you read what the film historians say and come to understand that the film is supremely influential in the genesis of the modern drama and is now considered a great film.

While I can’t disagree with the historians about its influence, I would stop short of calling it great. In my opinion, a film should stand on its own, with any influences being a secondary consideration. If it can’t then it shouldn’t be on this list.

This one can’t. Worse, it influenced decades of other boring films, so it should be struck forthwith. One to watch only if you’re a film historian, in my opinion.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own forays into real life include the collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death. Unlike Rossellini, Bondoni concentrates mainly on the important parts. You can check it out here.

Umberto D., or the Redemption of Vittorio De Sica

After suffering through the awful, political Ladri de Bicicletti, I’m actually quite grateful that I only learned that today’s subject, Umberto D. was directed by the same man after I watched it.

If I’d known they were both directed by Vittorio De Sicca, I would probably have suffered through Umberto D’, waiting for something unspeakably awful to happen to one of the two sympathetic characters (or to the dog).

But if you go in blind, the film feels strangely positive. Despite the suffering of the old man (the film’s main character) and the pregnant teenage maid who knows she will lose her position and income once her patroness learns about her condition (the film’s most sympathetic character, even if she isn’t the smartest), it somehow feels like everything will be all right in the end for some reason. There’s a certain fatalistic determination to be as happy as the situation permits and not to brood on the troubles that lifts this one above the usual socially conscious films of the time… and makes it enjoyable.

Of course, the message is still there, but as we always say here: there’s nothing wrong with a message, the problem is when the message is ham-fistedly delivered (if you want to learn about ham-fisted messaging, you can look here or, conversely, pick up any diversity-politics-obsessed science fiction book from the 21st century. You won’t enjoy it, but I did warn you.

This one is done well, however, and is easy to enjoy. Just let yourself be transported to postwar Italy and let your mind wander and just enjoy the texture of the place. The plot is simple enough that you won’t miss much. I linked to the film on YouTube above (that one has English subtitles). I recommend it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a wild romp through the Ural mountains pursued by monsters. Genetically modified dinosaurs, mutant giant arachnids and monsters in human form make it a deadly adventure. You can check out Test Site Horror here.

Ingrid Bergman was Taller than Everyone Else

Read the title of this post and remember that the review it entitles is supposed to be about a great, unforgettable film. The title tells you exactly the thing I found most interesting about this movie.

I’ve watched a certain amount of Roberto Rossellini’s filmography, which you can read about here and here, but Europa ’51 was a particularly interesting film to me because it was the first of his that moved away from war-related neorealism to look at a slightly more melodramatic subject.

I expected this to be a crazy celebration of life… or something. But it seemed like a film that wan’t entirely certain as to what it was trying to say and for that reason, lost its capacity to be memorable. It isn’t as dense as other melodramatic films. It isn’t as annoying as other films with political content. Even though it kills a child almost at the very beginning, it is neither particularly sad nor uplifting.

Apparently, Rossellini wanted to create a deep religious allegory, but if you want to know whether that was successful, you’ll likely need to ask someone who is much more religious than I am.

Yes, there are elements of this film which should make it great. There’s a scene with a cheerful woman who has too many kids and is still happy. There’s some interesting discussion about how work and jobs are glorified by the political movements of the time… but none of that is looked at in depth.

And the ending, which is framed as being one of those colossal injustices of which man, in his eternal blindness, is capable of, just seems like the right way for this particular character to end up… for her own good.

If Rossellini’s intent was to be cooler than everyone else and make audiences shrug, he was a genius. If, instead, he aimed at depth and memorability, he went wide of the mark.

But at least it’s easy to see how tall Bergman is. Maybe not shooting to make her co-stars seem taller is what Rossellini meant by realism.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who generally writes things that are very much non-realistic. For his realist work, check out Love and Death, a series of linked stories that intertwine the lives of a brilliant cast of characters are they go though pivotal moments in their lives. You can check it out here.

Stealing Your Happiness… The Most Communist Movie Ever

In watching the 1001 movies in order, I will admit that, every once in a while, you come across a film that makes you ask why anyone would film it.  Did the director hate other human beings?  Did he belong to some sect that believes that humanity can only be saved it it falls into the deepest pit of utter despair?

The answers are never forthcoming, but all I can say is that Vittorio de Sica‘s Ladri de Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) is one of those films.  It took me a couple of days to drag myself out of bed after watching it (OK, I’m exaggerating, but not all that much).

Ladri de Bicicletti

An Italian realist film in the mold of Roma, Citta Aperta, it has little of that film’s historical interest.  This one does have some interesting shots of postwar Rome, and looks at the lives of its citizens, but that’s about it.

What it does have, unfortunately, is melodrama by the trowel-load. Heaping one “woe is me” cliché onto the next, it meanders from suffering to suffering until it ends with a walk-away scene lifted straight from The Little Tramp.  Subtle, this thing was not.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s glance at the checklist.  Father who needs a job to support his young family?  Check.  Supportive wife who does everything she can to help, but is about to fly apart under the strain? Check.  Young boy who puts a brave face on everything, both the stuff he understands and the stuff he doesn’t, and also helps to support the family by working 12 hours at a service station?  Check.  Indifferent world that crushes everyone under its wheels?  Oh, yeah.

Ladri de Bicicletti Film Poster

Critics, of course, loved it.  They called it the best movie ever, and have been calling it one of the best since (which scares me a bit, because the fact that it lost first place must mean there’s something even more depressing out there).  They called it a very adult movie (which I kind of agree with; kids would be ruined by it forever) and also the most communist movie ever (which is interesting since communism is something more associated with idealistic adolescents than with adults).

Anyway, unless you’re planning to be a film director, give this one a miss and do something less depressing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose debut novel, Siege, has garnered good reviews (and one notable terrible review).  You can check it out here.

Rossellini Reality

Yes… more neorealism.

Roberto Rossellini Paisà Movie Poster

But unlike Brief Encounter, Rossellini’s Paisan seems to benefit from his adoption of the neorealist aesthetic, to the point where I was about to write that, while the British film was fiction, Paisan is actually a documentary.  It’s not, of course.  It’s just as fictional as other films in the genre, it somehow feels real.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of the great Italian’s filmmaking genius, or maybe the subject matter–Italy during WWII–lends itself to neorealism unlike any other time and place in history.

That second argument certainly made itself very present in Rossellini’s earlier neorealist movie on the same subject, Rome, Open City.  But unlike Open City, Paisan does away with both politics and melodrama.  It is a film composed of a series of vignettes that are extremely sad, but never falls into the typical trap of trying to drive the point of the character’s suffering into the audience with a sledgehammer.  The situations are simply presented as they are, and the sadness often comes from the audience knowing more about the situation than the characters do.

The sparse approach to the material works perfectly, and though it doesn’t escape from the bane of realist art (namely, the sense that it just presents situations and answers no questions and offers no fulfillment), at least it isn’t maudlin realism, where you are invited to dwell upon the futility of existence and the fact that only suffering can break the monotony.

So, while this isn’t a film you’d watch to get your spirits up after a breakup, it’s still the apogee of neorealism and probably the only one you need to see to get a sense for the aesthetics and sensibilities of that particular postwar phenomenon.  It will not uplift you, but it will edify.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini

The nicely weird thing we can report is that Rossellini’s three realist films were the ones that inspired Ingrid Bergman to write to him offering he services.  While initially wanting to act for him, they eventually became the cover of the scandal sheets… in the fifties, two people who had a high-profile affair while married to others caused a lot of comment.

Of course, eventually, Rossellini left Ingrid for another married woman, and caused an even bigger scandal (and got himself thrown out of India)… but that’s a story for another day.

 

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Eventually, the War Ended

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Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

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The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

The Postman Sometimes Rings in Italian

Ossessione film still

Our quest to watch (and comment upon) the 1001 movies we’re supposed to see before we die continues apace, and this time we are presenting an Italian film from 1943, entitled Ossessione.  This film, directed by Luchino Visconti is one of those hugely influential films that was seen by nearly no one when it was released.

The Postman Always Rings Twice First Edition

The reasons for this lack of exposure lie mainly with the fact that the film was based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Within the context of Italy’s fascist regime, the adulterous relationship portrayed in the film was simply unacceptable to some sectors, causing it to be banned within Italy.  It then subsequently encountered legal problems in international distribution: due to the ongoing World War, no one had thought to negotiate the rights to the novel, which meant that when the war ended, the film couldn’t be distributed outside of italy.

Despite these setbacks, the movie managed to earn itself a spot on the list, and a deserved one, at that.  The film is brilliantly conceived and filmed, with the plot moving forward swiftly except in those cases where Visconti allows it to slow down in order to heighten an emotion or – even more telling – a philosophical point about society.  The emotional breaks are jagged and raw, without falling into melodrama, which is something that could so easily have happened to this particular story.

Luchino Visconti

More than that, Ossessione foreshadows the Italian Neorealist movement which gave us such great films as Roma Citta Aperta, and characterized directors such as Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini.  You can see the seeds of the movement everywhere, but most especially in small pauses where Visconti lets us catch a glimpse of how things really are – even when they have no bearing on the plot.  Of course, the movement’s working class ethic is represented by the character of Gino the tramp – even though he is an outsider to the true life of the worker.

Worth watching, even if you already know the plot – and we believe the comparison to the newer US version of the film will be interesting, once we reach that point in the list.

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