by William HOPE
Italian cinema experienced several golden eras during the course of the 20th century, periods during which the artistic vision and expertise of Italian film-makers and technicians were unparalleled. The opulent mise-en-scène of early works such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), the stark stylistic originality of the neorealist era from the mid-1940s onwards, and the lavish cinematography of Oscar-winning works such as Giuseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1989) and Gabriele Salvatores’s Mediterraneo (1991) – these latter films revisiting, sometimes nostalgically, the community life and interpersonal solidarity of former generations –consolidated Italy’s position as an epicentre of cinematic innovation. While Italian cinema no longer boasts auteurs of the status of Fellini, Rossellini and Antonioni, an overview of its evolution during the first decade of the 21st century reveals a myriad of styles and themes whose relevance transcends their Italian contexts to strike a chord with viewers across the developed world. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s distinction between the central position of cinematic auteurs during earlier eras of Italian cinema and the “authorial voices” that periodically make themselves heard from the margins of new millennium cinematic culture (1), summarizes perfectly the position of certain contemporary Italian directors whose work will be explored in this article, film-makers such as Silvio Soldini and Carlo Mazzacurati who rose to prominence in the 1990s, and whose discernible authorial style has continued into the new millennium.
The films of Soldini and Mazzacurati are often linked by the narrative mechanism of a journey through which the screen protagonists, who experience some degree of socio-economic alienation or marginalization from their social contexts, attain a greater degree of self-awareness and/or self-realization. Mazzacurati’s 21st century films are visually evocative in their depictions of provincial life, frequently that of the Veneto region in north-east Italy, but are often severe in their evaluations of the narrow-minded values of the provinces where circumstances precipitate two non-conformist characters into each other’s company – the petty criminals in La lingua del santo (Holy Tongue, 2000) and in A cavallo della tigre (Riding the Tiger, 2002), the ill-fated couple Giovanni and Maria in the period piece L’amore ritrovato (An Italian Romance, 2004) and the young teacher Mara and Hassan, a north African migrant, in La giusta distanza (The Right Distance, 2007).
The wistful nostalgia for former modes of existence that often permeates the mindsets of the outsiders portrayed by Mazzacurati contrasts with the emotional highs and lows and slightly higher social strata of Soldini’s protagonists. Soldini portrays a generation restless with its socio-economic and existential destiny, composed of individuals who invariably nurture a talent, passion, quirky ambition or cultural heritage that is incompatible with the exigencies of routine within the developed world’s capitalist societies. In Pane e tulipani (Bread and Tulips, 2000), Rosalba, a housewife, reactivates her passion for accordion music and for more rewarding social relations after befriending an Icelandic waiter in Venice. In Brucio nel vento (Burning in the Wind, 2002), the Eastern European cultural identity and former life of Tobias, an alienated migrant worker in Switzerland, is articulated through close viewer alignment with the character and by folkloric musical refrains. The Almodòvar-influenced Agata e la tempesta (Agata and the Storm, 2004) with its vibrant, polychromatic mise-en-scène, flawed but sensuous middle-aged female protagonist, choral cast to generate storylines of attraction and confusion between the sexes, Mediterranean ambience and melodramatic plot twists, depicts characters such as Romeo with his idiosyncratic desire to possess a trout farm, while young Benedetto learns knife-throwing skills, a family tradition, from a grandfather he never knew he had. In the darker Giorni e nuvole (Days and Clouds, 2007), which charts a bourgeois couple’s descent into an inferno of poverty and unemployment, it is Elsa’s passion for medieval art and fresco restoration that is depicted as the key to a future rapprochement with her husband Michele.
Among Italy’s promising younger directors, Daniele Vicari has emerged as a film-maker with markedly creative approaches to characterization, genre and aesthetics. In an intelligent reworking of the Western, Velocità massima (Maximum Velocity, 2002) portrays the rapport between Stefano, a mechanic, and young Claudio whose technical skills and computer expertise give Stefano an advantage in the illegal high-speed nocturnal car races in which he participates, before they fall out over the same girl. In Vicari’s words, L’orizzonte degli eventi (The Horizon of Events, 2005) re-articulates the science fiction genre, partly because the protagonist, Max, is a researcher conducting experiments within a bunker inside a mountain in the Abruzzo region of eastern Italy, but mainly through the narrative mechanism of depositing him, via a car crash, into a seemingly extraterrestrial world, that of the Albanian shepherds who live a feudal existence in the same region. The opening sequence of L’orizzonte degli eventi is a flash forward to its ending, with viewers being pitched into the subjectivity of Bajram, a shepherd, who knifes a Albanian mafioso after the latter sets fire to Bajram’s passport. A disorienting point-of-view shot from the shepherd’s perspective as he runs away in terror through the bleak landscape immediately plunges the viewer into a parallel world with which no contact is normally made. By casting Valerio Mastandrea – rather than one of his peers such as Riccardo Scamarcio, who would unwittingly bring the unwanted baggage of his media heart-throb role with him – in both leading roles, an actor with an understated but broodingly powerful screen presence, Vicari is able to explore the ways in which 21st century masculinity is besieged and effectively evirated by socioeconomic constraints that threaten to drive characters like Stefano out of business and which compel Max to falsify results for fear of losing research funding.
Of the many filmic portraits of opportunistic male ambition in modern Italy that have emerged over the past decade, a theme reflecting the ascent of various amoral individuals within Italy’s politico-economic élite, perhaps the most chilling representation is found in Vincenzo Marra’s L’ora di punta (The Trial Begins, 2007) as a corrupt policeman turns property developer, wreaking emotional and economic havoc in his wake. However, there is a further strand to Marra’s work, notably his stark and perceptive depictions of life in the Naples area, and this reflects the enduring appeal of Italy’s regions for contemporary directors. With their depictions of the cultural transformation of specific areas, film-makers are able to draw attention to the often imperceptible socio-economic changes affecting the country as a whole, and the following sections of this article examine filmic depictions of the southern Italian regions of Campania and Apulia as examples of this.
Although Italy’s network of regional film commissions provides logistical assistance primarily to directors who hail from other areas of the peninsula, some of the most striking films of the new millennium have been made by directors with an intimate knowledge of their home regions. Vincenzo Marra’s drama Vento di terra (Land Wind , 2004) immediately pitches viewers into the alternative reality of the Neapolitan hinterland of Secondigliano, with a slow 360° camera pan taking in the encroaching tower blocks and the reverberations of amplified music emanating across housing estates; significantly though, the narrative “portrays the events in the life of a socially marginalized individual without the slightest hint of rhetoric or melodrama” (2). This understated, aphoristic approach, a form of realism eschewing the emotional thrall within which other contemporary narratives are often mired, reemerges in Marra’s documentary L’udienza è aperta (The Session is Open, 2006). Its lingering interior shots highlight the dilapidated, underequipped buildings in which magistrates and judges of all political persuasions initiate Mafia trials, the film exploding, en passant, the media myth that they work to left-wing agendas.
The region of Apulia in south-east Italy has been innovatively depicted by directors such as Sergio Rubini and Edoardo Winspeare, although there is a stylistic demarcation between their techniques. The work of Rubini, an actor/director, is character driven and typified by a self-conscious, performative style that often lurches into the comic grotesque. Tutto l’amore che c’è (All the Love There Is, 2000) revisits provincial Apulia in the 1970s to outline the impact of the arrival of a Milanese engineer and his three emancipated daughters upon a local community; L’anima gemella (Soul Mate, 2002), a fable evoking the mysticism of folklore in which a jealous woman uses a spell to transform her physiognomy into that of her rival, is an ingenious meditation on appearance forms and the modern propensity to remodel one’s external features rather than confront one’s inner demons. Rubini’s reworking of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamasov, La terra (Our Land, 2006), depicts the insidiousness of provincial life in drawing émigrés back into its seething passions and rivalries during their rare visits home, while L’uomo nero (The Black Man, 2009), a semi-autobiographical period piece set in Apulia in the late 1960s and featuring local actor Riccardo Scamarcio, relates how a station master’s artistic aspirations are met by local prejudice.
With regard to the function of landscapes in cinema, Sandro Bernardi conceives of them as having symbolic functions through which culture can be expressed; he links his research to branches of philosophy that focus on art’s anthropological significance and ability to elicit reflection on humanity’s rapport with its surroundings. This notion recurs in Edoardo Winspeare’s depictions of the Apulia region, notably in Sangue vivo (Life Blood, 2000) with its tracking shots of arid olive groves and crumbling trulli – traditional conical huts – interspersed with images of the construction of opulent villas. This encapsulates the visual juxtapositions – often also found in Rubini’s films – of a brash, modern materialism supplanting Apulia’s local socio-economic and cultural traditions, a concept elaborated in the film’s narrative when, during a social evening, the protagonist Pino and his band of traditional musicians are humiliatingly told to stop playing because the guests “want to dance to something else”.
This sensation of individuals being at the centre of oppressively converging social, economic and political forces, and having diminishing opportunities and space for self-realization, typifies the ambiences of many new millennium films. Italian directors are increasingly using their screen protagonists to highlight the sense of alienation and estrangement experienced by individuals as the certainties of the past and its traditions, such as community solidarity and stability, are eroded by phenomena such as the precarization of labour and social fragmentation. With the Italian film industry also facing a problematic future as a consequence of increasingly limited funding and distribution opportunities, the challenge for Italy’s many talented directors in the 21st century is arguably that of continuing to make their voices heard.
1. G. Nowell-Smith, Foreword, Italian Film Directors in the New Millennium ed. by W. Hope (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), x.
2. R. Nepoti, “Stile, stili”, in La meglio gioventù–Nuovo Cinema Italiano 2000-2006, ed. by V. Zagarrio (Venice: Marsiglio, 2006), 75-82 (80).
About the Author
William Hope lectures in Italian language and cinema at the University of Salford, G.B. He has published the monographs Curzio Malaparte – The Narrative Contract Strained and Giuseppe Tornatore: Emotion, Cognition, Cinema, and edited the volume Italian Film Directors in the New Millennium in 2010. He is a member of the editorial board of Studies in European Cinema and is currently coordinating a research project entitled “A New Italian Political Cinema?”.