For many cinephiles, Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the directors most identified with the concept of ‘European art cinema’, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s. His career started early as a writer and then director in the 1940s when neo-realism was beginning to develop. In the 1970s he worked outside Italy for Hollywood (Zabriskie Point 1970) and for European producers, but with American and British players in The Passenger (1975). Antonioni had a 60 year filmmaking career but it is perhaps the three films he made between 1960 and 1962 which are most responsible for the art cinema designation. L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse are films which share the same director, writers and various crew members. They each star leading Italian and French actors and Monica Vitti appears in all three films. She also leads in Red Desert in 1964 – a film sometimes bracketed with the other three films, although it is in colour. The key terms to describe these narratives seem to be alienation, isolation and existentialism. Put crudely, in La notte critics see the decay and possible collapse of the marriage of two intelligent (and wealthy) people reflected in some way by their responses to both the kind of society they encounter (and are part of) and the buildings and technologies of the new world of affluence for the haute-bourgeoisie whose interest is aroused by a writer’s celebrity. I’m not saying this is a ‘wrong’ reading, but there seem to be several other ways of thinking about the film. On the Wikipedia page for the film, the following statement appears in the introduction:
The film continues Antonioni’s tradition of abandoning traditional storytelling in favour of visual composition.
This is a helpful observation but it also potentially misleads. Antonioni doesn’t abandon traditional storytelling, but he does place more emphasis on cinema’s unique capacity to tell stories through setting, camerawork, editing, music etc. as well as dialogue. He doesn’t deploy the conventions of Hollywood storytelling in terms of pacing or the linear ‘drive’ of the narrative. But he does utilises stars. The elements of a story are all there but they are presented in a way that some audiences will perhaps find off-putting and unsatisfactory – or the story itself will not be of enough interest. A film is an art object, preserved like amber, and must be seen in its context of production and reception. Many of us will read it differently today than audiences did in 1961. But others will attempt to read it as timeless because ‘great art’ doesn’t age. These differences are interesting for me.
Time and space
The setting of La notte is contemporary Milan. The narrative involves a married couple, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) who first visit a dying friend in a swish modern private clinic – more like an up-market hotel or apartment block. They leave and drive through the streets, arriving at a party being given in Giovanni’s honour on the occasion of the publication of his latest novel. A greeting suggests it is still morning when they arrive. Giovanni is the centre of attention. Lidia becomes bored and wanders out to walk among the lunchtime crowds. It’s a warm summer’s day and she enjoys observing people. Eventually she hires a cab and ends up in the district where she lived with Giovanni when they first married. It is a more open area, perhaps on the edge of the city? Giovanni goes back to their apartment in the centre and falls asleep on his day bed. Later, Lidia rings him and he collects her. She wants to go out in the evening and they visit a night club and then move onto a party outside the city given by a very wealthy industrialist. Giovanni is again the centre of attention and Lidia feels marginalised. Later at the party, Giovanni spends time with the industrialist’s daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti) and Lidia leaves for a short time with a man from the party. At dawn Giovanni and Lidia are together again and they wander out onto the private golf course on the estate. They admit to each other that their marriage is facing a crisis. The camera moves away from them and the film ends.
It occurs to me that Antonioni’s choice of locations in his three films is very similar to De Sica’s choices for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Italy-France 1963). I suspect it was a popular headline around that time. De Sica told three stories featuring the same actors playing a couple in Naples (‘Yesterday’), Rome (‘Today’) and Milan (‘Tomorrow’). Marcello Mastroianni is the man and Sophia Loren is the woman. Antonioni chooses Sicily for L’avventura, Rome for L’eclisse and Milan for La notte. My impression is that at this time, the differences between Italian regions and especially between ‘South’ and ‘North’ were very great. They still are to some extent I think. One of the best indications of this is developed by Visconti in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a film also set in Milan and a film which I thought about while watching La notte, especially when Lidia is on her own on the outskirts of the city. I also thought about Fellini’s La dolce vita (Italy 1960). OK that is set in Rome but it’s the helicopter that is the link. It appears a couple of times in La notte with that angry buzzing sound somehow proclaiming the modern city. It also suggests on the one hand surveillance of the population if you are working class or the freedom to take to the air if you have the money. Thinking about that helicopter now – i.e. as it flies over my house – I’m aware that, apart from its use for real emergencies, it also signifies a polluting object, something that would not occur to anyone in 1961.
Time – story time, screen time, narrative time – is important in La notte and as part of Antonioni’s approach to his storytelling. The narrative time, the time covered by the events on screen, appears to be about twenty hours, from 10.00 am through to around 6.00 am the following morning. The actual screen time is just over two hours but the full story time is several years. How long have Giovanni and Lidia known Tommaso, the man dying in the clinic? Was he Giovanni’s friend first or Lidia’s? Given the books displayed at the publisher’s launch party, Giovanni has been writing for a long time. But the sequence in which Lidia returns to the area in which they first lived suggests that although she comes from a wealthy family, the young couple might have had a relatively ‘normal’ early married life during the 1950s when Milan was growing as an industrial centre. These ‘inferred’ events give a rather different perspective on the behaviour of Giovanni and Lidia at the industrialist’s party.
In an essay on the Criterion website, Richard Brody discusses Antonioni’s focus on architecture and his “irrepressible delight in the oppressive and desolate forms of technological modernity”. It is certainly true that as I watched the film, I was most conscious of cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo’s framings and compositions Milan’s architecture. The credit sequence begins with a slow descent down the walls of a high-rise building and there are many later images when we see the couple framed in interesting ways, by internal and external features of the various buildings they visit. Brody also refers to the industrialist’s claim during his party that he always sees his businesses as works of art – and that is conformed for us not only by the modernity of Milan’s architecture but by the abstract patterns of the industrialist’s house and grounds. Brody argues that: “The city of the living future is utterly alien to nature”. His suggestion is that what is inferred isn’t only the past but the future as well. The relationship between Giovanni and Lidia seems trapped between what has been lost and what is to come.
Both Mastroianni and Moreau were well-known actors in Europe in 1961. Were they ‘stars’? Moreau had certainly been in many films, some of them notable successes by this point, especially her films for Louis Malle, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and Les amants, both in 1958, but she hadn’t yet achieved the string of notable performances throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. She does present a strong star persona in La notte. She doesn’t say much and she often appears quite solemn, but I feel like I could watch her walking through streets for a long time, marvelling at just how she moves, how she holds herself, even simply how she wears her costumes. She was only in her early 30s when she made this film but she seems older. The narrative depends to some extent on Monica Vitti’s youthfulness by comparison. But Vitti was actually less than four years younger than Moreau. I did notice that in the contest about who sported the thinnest spaghetti straps on her little black dress Vitti did win. I think what really interests me here is the extent to which our readings change over time. Do we now feel much more for Lidia and the way she seems to be pushed out by Giovanni’s celebrity? Looking back, Moreau and Mastroianni were of equal status but he is the agent of the narrative. Moreau as Lidia does get screen time on her own and she acts in ways that reveal things about herself as well as commenting on her relationship with Giovanni. She also introduces aspects of a critique of Italian bourgeois society in 1961. Mastroianni is a beautiful man but in many roles he appears weak and vulnerable. Although as Giovanni his actions structure the events of the day – the couple go to the book launch and the party where he is a significant figure – he seems to be being manipulated and played with, especially by Valentina and her father.
The ending of the film is quite shocking in some ways. I’ve outlined the events of the film but I won’t spoil the conclusion by describing it in detail. What intrigues me is that watching the film in 2022 I want the film to be about Lidia and I’m not so interested in Giovanni. I’m conscious about the way Giovanni’s talent is being possibly wasted but it is Lidia I want to see breaking free. Is this because so much emphasis is now placed on the agency of the female character? Is it because of Moreau’s performance or is it that this is always how the film has been read? I can’t remember what I thought when I first saw the film as a young man 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve seen several more films featuring Moreau or Mastroianni since then. Does that mean I read La notte differently now? Perhaps it is because Antonioni is less interested in the conventional modes of storytelling that he opens up the space to think about how these men and women behave? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but I did enjoy watching the film and I’d like to visit Milan.
La notte is currently streaming on MUBI and BFI (subscribers only).
This is the second of the Italian police films – poliziotteschi – in a five film package from Arrow. I’ve included some background on Italian police thrillers in my post on the first film in that collection, Savage Three (1975). You might want to read that first to get a more informed perspective on this second film. As we would expect it shares many elements with Savage Three. Once again we have a trio of almost nihilistic killers but this time the trio comprises two men and a woman. The woman, Sylvia (Annarita Grapputo), is just as vicious as the men. The second difference is the social class context. The leader of the trio is Tony (Cesare Barro), the son of a super-rich local ‘businessman’ Enrico Ardenghi who is able to buy local officials and ‘fix’ most problems. I’m not sure about the translation of the Italian title. My own attempt at translating it produces ‘Like Hot/Spicy/Angry Dogs’ – I know only that arrabbiata is a dish which offers a chili and tomato sauce with penne pasta. ‘Rabid’ suggests that the trio are almost crazy with rage. At moments they may be, but not throughout. Arrabbiata is said to be associated with the Lazio region around Rome and I assume that is where the narrative is located. The third member of the trio appears completely underdeveloped as a character. His function seems to be simply an indicator of the sexual tension/excitement of violence in the trio as he watches Sylvia and Tony together.
The local police inspector who hopes to find a way to both arrest Enrico and solve the murders and thefts is Commissario Paulo Muzzi (Jean-Pierre Sabagh aka Piero Santi). He is a younger man than in the first film and is in a relationship with a uniformed female police officer Germana (Paola Senatore). Following the convention of ‘personal contact’ between the Commissario and the principal suspects, Paulo meets both the father and son in various social situations. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plot (in the moral sense) is that Paulo is prepared to ask Germana to dress as a prostitute in an attempt to entrap Enrico (who regularly visits a favourite sex worker in the local red light district). It is a dangerous ploy. Later Paulo ‘allows’ himself to be seduced by Sylvia. There is more overt sexual activity in this film than Savage Three. The earlier film included some scenes where sexual display was part of setting up violent action but in this film sex is used more as an attractive/exploitative element in its own right. Both the female leads and the three actors playing female victims are stripped for the camera almost as a given. (I understand that the director Mario Imperoli was better known for sex comedies.) The trio also attack a gay couple at one point. There are car chases, a motor racing track, a football ground, Sylvia on a motorbike etc. Overall it is a slicker but much more conventional film than Savage Three. It is presented in Techniscope and runs for nearly 100 minutes. The music seems more generic and less startling than that in Savage Three.
Poliziotteschi developed during the period of violent political unrest in Italy and Arrow presumably linked these two titles because they both present narratives that appear to ignore obvious political questions and instead to focus on the more general idea of a society out of control in which younger characters wilfully commit horrendous crimes. I’ve seen one review which suggests that this is a ‘juvenile delinquent’ picture. I don’t buy this the trio are too old and too privileged. Savage Three has an underlying intelligence and a clever play with metaphors but Like Rabid Dogs seems simply an exploitation film, even if it makes a gesture towards a political dimension in the narrative climax. There is an earlier film by Mario Bava, one of the most celebrated directors of popular Italian cinema, titled Cani arrabbiati (Rabid Dogs, Italy 1974) which is also available from Arrow. I haven’t seen it but it sounds a much more interesting film. Like Rabid Dogs, co-written and directed by Mario Imperoli seems to demonstrate an industrial imperative to exploit a currently successful genre cycle. I’m grateful to be aware of this kind of exploitation cinema as distinctive in a period of cinema history, but it has little to commend it to modern audiences. However, I still think the Arrow box set is a worthwhile venture based on these first two films and the selection of interviews.
A couple of months ago, Arrow released a Blu-ray entitled ‘Years of Lead, Five Classic Italian Crime Thrillers 1973-77’. The box set also includes extensive extra material including introductions, substantial interviews and a printed booklet. In doing so they pleased a significant group of fans of poliziotteschi, the term generally used by anglophone audiences to cover this mode of Italian popular cinema. They also provided film teachers and scholars with some useful study texts raising a whole set of questions about popular cinema more generally. In this post I want to explore some of the issues these kinds of films raise, using just one of the titles that I’ll discuss in some detail.
Italian popular cinema developed rapidly from the late 1950s onwards fuelling a growth in audiences that saw Italy move up the league table of European film productions and cinema admissions. In addition, the films produced were exported to other countries to a much greater extent than previously, sometimes because the films themselves were co-productions, especially with France, but also with West Germany and Spain – the Italian crime films are sometimes discussed as part of a group of ‘Eurocrime films’. Further, the stylistic and thematic innovations of these films began to influence productions elsewhere. The best-known example of this in anglophone cinema was the popularity of so-called ‘spaghetti Westerns’ and the impact some of these films had on Hollywood. The American connection was very important since it was the ‘runaway productions’ set up by independent Hollywood producers in Italy from the 1950s that was one of the factors in the growth of Italian popular film production. Italian Westerns often used American actors and developed ideas that challenged the Hollywood conception of the Western genre. But the cycle of European Westerns began to run down from the late 1960s and producers shifted to crime thrillers.
Crime films have long been popular in all cinemas and production contexts. The films that emerged in Italy from the late 1960s had three elements that made them distinctive. First, possibly as part of the development of the co-production trend, they can be seen as linked to the French crime film, the polar. Second, they were influenced by changes in the Hollywood crime film in the same period with the drive towards greater realism and the decline of the ‘production code’ which loosened restraints on the depiction of violence, sex and drug use etc. Third, they engaged with the chaos and confusion in Italian public life and particularly in political violence. This was the period which became known as the ‘Years of Lead’ with high profile acts of political violence committed by both left-wing and right-wing groups as well as an upsurge in Mafia activity and a general breakdown in other aspects of social life. The period lasted from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.
Savage Three is an interesting example of a poliziottesco, partly because it questions the suggestion that ‘political violence’ might be the cause of problems with policing during the 1970s – or rather what that relationship might be about. The plot concerns a group of three young men who commit a series of crimes with escalating amounts of violence. The police authorities assume that the crimes must be committed for political reasons. Because we see the actions from the criminals’ perspective this seems ludicrous, but the clues the police find are open to interpretation. The inciting incident for the narrative is literally ‘inciting’ because the three men at a football game in Turin are involved in starting a riot in the stands and during the mêlée that ensues one man is killed and many others injured. Leaving the stadium early without getting further involved, the trio steal a car (even though they have one parked outside the stadium) and two further acts follow soon after, one leading to shocking violence.
The three men work in a new glass-walled building housing a computer facility. 1975 is very early in the use of computers in business, administration and industry and this is a large office building filled with tape, disc and punched card machines. These are educated young men and the dominant character Oviedo is played by Joe Dallesandro, the star of the Andy Warhol-produced films, Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970), both directed by Paul Morrissey. Dallesandro spent most of the 1970s appearing in Italian and French productions. In Savage Three, Oviedo is married to Alba (Martine Brochard) a junior doctor obsessed with her career and with little time for her husband. The youngest member of the trio, Pepe (Guido De Carli) is a Southern migrant and the whole North-South divide is an issue in the film. I was reminded of the Luchino Visconti film Rocco and His Brothers (Italy 1960). The migration from the South was a real social issue in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy but the prejudices are still there to some extent in Italian narratives today. The third member of the trio is Giacomo (Gianfranco De Grassi ) who says little – which may make him the most dangerous of the three. The narrative of Savage Three hurtles along in its relatively short 85 minutes but what structures it in the end is the relationship between Oviedo and Commissario Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno), a disgraced older detective who has been taken off the the major crime squad. He is the one who doesn’t believe the political connection and in his own investigation begins to explore what he calls ‘ecological crime’. By this he means crimes that arise from everyday incidents and general frustrations with everyday life rather than the traditional motives of greed, sex, revenge etc. Such crimes are much more difficult to investigate, but here we see the influence of the polar in which it is often important that the police detective and the criminal know each other and develop a relationship. Commissario Santagà meets Oviedo when the police teams visit the computer facility to learn what computers might offer to police investigations. The Commissario persuades Oviedo to help him in what seems an innocent experiment to predict winning lottery numbers and through this process he learns a little about Oviedo’s behaviour.
Savage Three is classified as an ’18’ certificate package on Blu-ray. The film was not released in the UK in the 1970s. There is some censorship of ‘animal cruelty’ images involving mice in a laboratory at the computer facility, but otherwise the film is uncut. There are violent murders and one involves rape. Perhaps the violence is made even more shocking because much of it is seemingly random, carried out opportunistically and almost playfully. The film also includes squealing tyres and cars being driven recklessly. On the other hand, apart from the rape and other violence towards women, there is less overt sexual activity than might be expected in this kind of exploitation film. The Blu-ray (I rented two films on one disc) includes a long interview with writer-director Vittorio Salerno, the younger brother of Enrico, and Martine Brochard. Salerno explains that after the 1973-4 oil crisis, budgets for Italian films were much lower and he helped to set up a filmmakers’ co-op venture which eventually linked up with the big distributor Titanus in an attempt to secure future work for filmmakers. Unfortunately Titanus didn’t like any of the story ideas the co-op put to them until Salerno turned to an unproduced script by Ernesto Gastaldi. Everyone liked this and Salerno then adapted it, drawing on his own archive research that unearthed the real-life crimes which appear so outrageous in the finished film.
Although in the UK we saw relatively few of these ‘Eurocrime films’, they were widely released elsewhere and there is considerable fan interest in the films, resulting in lists of titles compiled and presented on YouTube and Letterboxd. Another ‘way in’ to the films is to look for specific actors, directors and producers. For Savage Three the key may be Enrico Maria Salerno who was clearly a major star of the period. He also played a Commissario investigating a serial killer in Dario Argento’s first film The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (Italy 1970). This film is usually classified as a giallo, a ‘mystery horror’, but the links to Eurocrime are evident. Argento is perhaps the director who provided me with a way into these films via Profundo Rosso (1975) and Suspiria (1977) which I actually watched in the 1990s. I was struck by the music score of Suspiria featuring the band Goblin and I note that Savage Three features some heavy rock music as part of the score by Franco Campanino. The ‘theme song’ at the beginning and end of the film appears to be a track titled ‘Boiling Mud’ which translates into Italian as the film’s title Fango bollente. Perhaps this refers to the state of society that can throw up this seemingly random violence?
A further aspect of Italian popular cinema is discussed in my posting on Piero Vivarelli, Life as a B Movie (Italy 2019) and there has been a limited but important amount of academic work on Italian popular films in Anglo-American film studies. I think it could be argued that in the 1960s and 1970s these films were of considerable importance. They provided employment for a large number of filmmakers and a constant stream of popular films for audiences within Italy as well as across many other film territories in Europe and further afield. Their influence on Anglo-American cinema was profound and this period saw dubbed films showing in cinemas in the UK and the US to a much greater extent than before or since. They reversed a trend in which European actors always travelled to the UK or US to get work and for a brief period, a significant number of anglophone actors worked consistently in Europe. In terms of the genres involved, these Italian-led productions introduced innovations in both the themes and the presentations of familiar narrative forms. They challenged previous censorship regimes and they also challenged ideas about ‘exploitation pictures’. Amongst the hundreds of titles, significant numbers of films stood out as worthy of more detailed study by fans and scholars. Christopher Frayling’s magisterial work on Italian Westerns is just one example of the kinds of possible scholarly work (Spaghetti Westerns, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1981). It also became apparent that the dividing line between ‘popular’ and ‘arthouse’ Italian cinema was increasingly blurred in this period, allowing several Italian directors to emerge as international figures such as the horror/giallo directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento and others like Sergio Leone who worked across several genres. In industrial terms, the openings created by the popularity of Italian films also benefited established directors such as Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci who were able to find bigger budgets and more access to markets. In short, Italian popular films in the 1960s and 1970s helped to make cinema more ‘international’.
I welcome the opportunity to see Savage Three in its original Italian presentation. I found it was well-made and intelligent. The central idea of a narrative in which a general shift in society values and working practices can be explored through a familiar genre structure is intriguing and, for me, successful. I have seen a few more related productions which I hope to write about in future. I hesitate to comment on the representation issues in these films because I haven’t yet seen enough. The sexism of the films and of Italian society more generally is one possible line of enquiry. I do find that the presentation of stunningly beautiful/sexually attractive women is a feature of Italian cinema from the 1930s up until the present (e.g. in the Inspector Montalbano films shown on UK TV). Whether the female characters in these popular genre films have more or less agency than their sisters in Anglo-American productions is open to question. Ovidio’s wife Alba is a career woman whose job and her aspiration to succeed entails her involvement in the corruption rife in Italian public life. This is another aspect of the ‘political’ in the film. The sexual violence portrayed in this film would have been controversial in 1975 and is perhaps even more so now. Nevertheless, on the basis of Savage Three, I would recommend the Arrow box set as a useful introduction to a significant genre within Italian popular cinema. Here’s the Arrow Trailer for the box set:
The winner of two prizes at Venice in 2020, Thou Shalt Not Hate is another film to divide audiences. It won ‘Best Italian Film’ – an outstanding achievement for the début feature film from writer-director Mauro Mancini, working with Davide Lisino. Its star Alessandro Gassmann is very well known so it was less of a surprise that he should win ‘Best Actor’. Still, despite these awards, the relatively small number of reviews I have found include several that are completely dismissive as well as others praising the film highly. I’m still thinking about the film and several aspects of the narrative still puzzle me.
The film begins and ends at the same location, a beautiful lake in what I assume is the foothills of the Dolomites in Friuli Venezia Giulia. A small boy is coerced by his father into a cruel act at the beginning of the narrative. At the end a man visits the same spot to reflect on what has happened in the last few weeks. The scenes by the lake are stunning in their visual splendour with the shots of the mountains almost hyper-real. The ‘inciting incident’, which takes place immediately after the prologue, see a middle-aged, but very fit man, kayaking along a river when he hears the sound of an impending crash on the road that runs parallel to the river. He reaches the accident and finding an injured man in the driver’s seat he phones for an ambulance and starts to fashion a tourniquet to prevent further bleeding. But in doing so he notices the injured man’s Nazi tattoos and pulls back. Clearly he feels guilty when the accident victim later dies. But what is odd is that the ‘good samaritan’ had already told the hospital that he is a doctor and has abdicated his responsibility to try to save a dying man. Would he not be questioned about this? There is instead a line of dialogue in which the doctor says he is sorry, but he “couldn’t do it”. It isn’t clear if he says this to the police at the scene or simply to himself.
The kayaking doctor is Simone, a surgeon at a local hospital in Trieste. More to the point he is a Jewish surgeon who we learn later has recently lost his father, a concentration camp survivor who was forced to work as a dentist for the Nazis. He begins to investigate the aftermath of what turns out to be a ‘hit and run’ driving accident in which the dead man was Antonio who has left three children, Marica 27, Marcello 17 and Paulo 11. Here again I wasn’t quite sure if Simone engineers the appointment of Marica (Sara Serraiocco) as his cleaner or if what follows is partly a matter of chance. Overall this is a film with relatively little dialogue, employing a strategy of ‘showing’ without explanation. Simone seems to be reasserting his Jewishness, partly because of the accident and partly because he must clear his father’s house and in doing so stir up memories. The two families, his own and Antonio’s are both missing a mother figure. The narrative overall resembles a melodrama with a carefully orchestrated musical score and some rather heavy symbolism alongside the photography. Trieste appears almost deserted in a series of long shots. The pacing is slow and Gassmann as Simone is dour and focused throughout. These latter features almost suggest an anti-melodrama. Perhaps instead this is a ‘moral tale’ about guilt and responsibility?
One of the most striking shots in the film is of a large empty synagogue that Simone enters. I did wonder if Simone’s father had been a refugee from Poland after 1945? The film is a co-production with Poland and the theme of immigration would tie in with aspects of Marica’s behaviour. She does not have the Neo-Nazi fervour of her brother Marcello (Luka Zunic) but her negative attitudes to migrants are presented in quite subtle ways. Simone too, at one point gets angry with the migrants on the street who attempt to clean car windscreens of any car that stops at traffic lights.
Overall I thought this was an impressive début feature with strong performances and some interesting images by Polish cinematographer Mike Stern Sterzynski, who like the director seemed to be making his features début. North-Eastern Italy is an interesting region that doesn’t tend to appear that often in the Italian films that make it to the UK and I was engaged with the narrative throughout. The film has just left MUBI and at the moment doesn’t seem to be available on streamers. If it does turn up I think it is worth watching for its exploration of father-son and family relationships, even if it can’t quite work through everything it sets up. The ‘Made in Italy’ season has been interesting to explore on MUBI but the short window of availability is a difficult proposition.
The Ties is another of MUBI’s ‘Made in Italy’ films. I chose this one because it stars Alba Rohrwacher who I have admired in films by her sister Alice and in other films. As the title implies this is a film about a long term relationship. The Italian title actually refers to shoelaces and a scene that presents a metaphor about the relationships between parents and children. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Domenico Starnone, whose first screenplay La scoula (1995), based on two of his novels, was filmed by Daniele Luchetti, the director of Lacci. Starnone is a well-known Neapolitan writer who has been identified as one possible source of the identity of the best-selling but pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. Starnone is married to translator and journalist Anita Raja and another possibility is that ‘Ferrante’ is actually husband and wife working together.
The Ferrante question may be one of the reasons why Lacci was chosen to open the 2020 Venice Festival which lost its usual Hollywood headliners as a result of the pandemic. Lacci was immediately seen by English-speaking critics as a response to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (US 2019). This gave an extra frisson to an opening film but I haven’t seen the American film so no comparisons here. In any event, Lacci seems to be rooted in the experiences or observations of Starnone and Raja. The narrative begins in the 1980s and ends some time nearer the present. We first meet Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher) and Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) at a celebration with their two small children, Anna and Sandro, in the early 1980s. They all dance joyfully in the opening credit sequence and make their way to their apartment nearby. Aldo seems like a loving father in a bathtime scene and in his storytelling but after the children are asleep he suddenly tells Vanda he has been unfaithful. She doesn’t know what to make of his statement and he doesn’t see very clear about why he made it. Vanda follows him to Rome where he makes regular radio appearances as a reader and later as a literary commentator. On the stairs in the RAI building Vanda meets Lidia (Linda Caridi), a striking younger woman. Nothing is said as the two stare at each other.
The irony of the situation is that Aldo, praised for the quality of his speaking voice, fails to communicate as he faces Vanda. She (a teacher, it later transpires, though we never see her in a classroom), rather than articulating her anger, makes increasingly dramatic gestures. I thought at this point I was going to witness a full-bloodied family melodrama but after the early highly-charged scenes the narrative shifts gear. Aldo decides to stay in Rome and concedes full custody of the children to Vanda. Forward a few years and Aldo seems to want to see the children again. At this point, the dance music from the opening re-appears and Luchetti engineers a transition to the near present that threw me until I went back and replayed it – what has streaming done to my viewing? A different pair of actors, Laura Morante and Silvio Orlando, play Vanda and Aldo some thirty years later and they appear to be living together and bickering as they prepare to go on holiday. Now the narrative will start to ‘loop’, much like the shoelaces of the title, returning to the early 1980s and the slightly later period to reveal something about how Aldo and Lidia were as a couple and what happened during his meetings with his children. The final section of the narrative then offers a rather different perspective on the marriage through an extended scene which again comes through the link of the dance music tune from the opening. There is a ‘reveal’ here that made me think about those films where middle-class assumptions about people’s behaviour often lead to unfortunate conclusions.
The reviews of the film are mixed. Several describe the narrative as dealing in ‘misery’. One references Philip Larkin. On the other hand, several scenes seemed quite ‘real’ to me and represented aspects of long term relationships – relationships we grow into that generate different kinds of love and affection as well as irritability and quite possibly mental cruelty. As a film narrative it certainly made me think. Someone described it as ‘handsome’ and that seems a good call for a presentation in ‘Scope in often warm colours and with rather fetching 1980s outfits. The central quartet of actors are very good. I recognised the other three alongside Alba Rorwacher and later realised that I had seen them in various earlier films. The two children are played by three different sets of actors, all well cast I thought. Having said that, in every case my initial reaction was that the characters at different ages didn’t look like they were the same person. But on reflection the casting does work, I think I was just thrown by the editing – which isn’t a criticism. Luigi Lo Cascio as the younger Aldo was one of the quartet in The Dinner (Italy 2014). I mention that film for two reasons. First, it questions the behaviour of a middle-class family and second it is a successful and award-winning Italian film which I don’t think made it into UK distribution. I fear that the same may be true for Lacci. In The Dinner, Luigi Lo Cascio’s wife is played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno who is cast as the grown-up version of his daughter Anna in Lacci. It must be a different experience watching Lacci in Italy when the actors are so well-known.
I think Lacci is definitely a film to seek out if you can find it (there is just one day left of its brief stint on MUBI in the UK). Cineuropa carries an interview with director Luchetti in which he makes some interesting comments about earlier generations of parents and particularly fathers in Italian society.
Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.
The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.
Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.
The documentary’s directors offer this statement:
To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.
Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.
Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli
Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.
Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.
I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.