Now Playing: Politics

An overview of contemporary Italian films starring the State

By William HOPE

The stimuli fuelling the creation of politicized cinema in Italy in the new millennium are arguably sporadic, and have difficulty in coalescing into a coherent force compared with periods of the 20th century in which cinema and politics converged with a greater sense of collective purpose. In periods such as the 1960s, the work of film-makers was influenced as much by the political ferment caused by decolonisation in areas of South America and Africa as by the battles for emancipation and collective rights within Italy itself. Socio-political upheaval in remote areas of the world was perceived as profoundly relevant to domestic struggle within an advanced capitalist economic context, and from a cinematic perspective, it gave rise to films such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s La battaglia di Algeri (1966), while Ansano Giannarelli’s Sierra Maestra (1969) related the story of an Italian journalist arrested in Venezuela for supporting rebels, a scenario that reflected the position of certain European intellectuals who were uncertain, in Marina Piperno’s words, ‘whether to stay in Europe and focus on local politics or go out there and engage in guerilla warfare’ (Fantoni Minnella, 2004: 336).

Decades later, despite the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, revolts against worsening living conditions and against unaccountable, corrupt political elites, the populations of countries like Italy have struggled to feel any great affinity with this revolutionary moment. The underlying dynamic of the way Italian film-makers now derive meaning from events in remote areas of the world has also changed drastically. Inspiration is no longer drawn from revolutionary activity abroad as in the 1960s, but rather from the way narratives can be used to unveil the extent of the subjugation of the inhabitants of distant regions – as in feature films such as Gianni Amelio’s La stella che non c’è (2006), in which an Italian engineer witnesses the disturbing side of Chinese industrialization; Francesca Archibugi’s Lezioni di volo (2007), which charts the immersion of two middle-class adolescents from Rome into the destitution of India’s metropolises, and in lesser-known documentaries such as Filippo Ticozzi’s Lettere dal Guatemala (2006), which sheds light on the fate of many Guatemalans under the dictatorship of Rios Montt.

But Italian directors have arguably been more incisive in their depictions of Italy’s domestic socio-political contexts, representing the increasing inequality of the struggle between Capital and Labour as a consequence of worsening working and living conditions across the peninsula. Capital has altered its appearance forms and modes of subjugation, as memorably depicted in a scene in Paolo Virzì’s Tutta la vita davanti (2008) where the telephonist Sonia (Micaela Ramazzotti) is dismissed and quickly escorted out of a call centre by an immaculately dressed, silent enforcer. Films such as Tutta la vita davanti and also Fuga dal call center (Federico Rizzo, 2008) also emphasize how management uses tactics such as formal dress codes, first name terms, and prestigious job titles in environments such as call centres as a means of concealing the precarious workforce’s subjugation and as a way of blurring distinctions between different class interests, a tactic assisted by many workforces themselves who have lost any semblance of class consciousness and solidarity.

Within Italian cinema as a whole, glimmers of personal ‘impegno’, or socio-political commitment, illuminate the more progressive sectors of the industry, but without being galvanized by an external political momentum of the kind that characterized the 1960s. The work of directors such as Daniele Vicari strikes an engaging balance between acute political dissections of events that have shaped Italian society and the way these experiences have been internalized within people’s micro histories – phenomena such as the mass redundancies at FIAT in the early 1980s (Non mi basta mai, 1999); State brutality in Genoa at the G8 summit in 2001 (Diaz – Non pulire questo sangue, 2012); and the mass migration of Albanians to Apulia in the early 1990s – (La nave dolce, 2012). A growing number of actors are also shaping their careers around discernibly political projects, while – in turn – shaping such projects themselves. Toni Servillo’s film career, for example, has moved beyond socially aware films exploring phenomena such as the implications of organized crime on individuals, e.g. Paolo Sorrentino’s Le conseguenze dell’amore (2004), and Claudio Cupellini’s Una vita tranquilla (2010), to more intricate roles that require Servillo to internalize and somehow articulate complex and often overwhelming political forces (Il divo, Paolo Sorrentino, 2008; Noi credevamo, Mario Martone, 2010; Bella addormentata, Marco Bellocchio, 2012; Viva la libertà, Roberto Andò, 2013).

To ensure the production of featurelength films with politicized themes that would have difficulty in reaching the public domain, or which would remain at the level of short films, other actors have taken directorial roles and used their profiles to galvanize what have clearly become heartfelt projects, for example Luigi Lo Cascio’s depiction of an ecologist’s confrontation with the establishment in La città ideale (2013) and Valeria Golino’s meditation on euthanasia in Miele (2013). Production and distribution companies such as Domenico Procacci’s Fandango have provided important outlets for challenging cinematic work by directors such as Daniele Vicari and for artists such as Sabina Guzzanti (Le ragioni dell’aragosta, 2007) who have had other forms of media such as television closed to them as a result of political influence. Sacher Film has continued to perform a similar role for the anti-establishment critiques of Nanni Moretti, the company constituting a model of what can be achieved when politicized filmwriting, acting, direction, and production coalesce.

The main criterion fuelling the creation of many of the films mentioned in this article has been a perceived necessity – sometimes urgent – to generate a greater visibility for given questions that have often been obscured by a discernible political design. Many of these films are calculatedly counter-hegemonic, rooted in opposition to the prevailing societal emphasis on materialism, individualism and the depoliticization of past and present, and they reject escapism in favour of open confrontation. Ultimately it is only confrontation that will bring about change, and a cinema that is “able to modify the relationship between the spectator and reality” (Fantoni Minnella, 2004: 144) – a political cinema for the new millennium – has a vital role to play in this process.

Quotations translated and taken from Maurizio Fantoni Minnella (2004) Non riconciliati: politica e società nel cinema italiano dal neorealismo a oggi, Torino: UTET libreria. This article is taken from the forthcoming volume Un nuovo cinema politico italiano? Volume 2, edited by William Hope and published by Troubador Publishing.]

About the Author

Columnists 2 Hope

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 co-ordinating a research project entitled “A New Italian Political Cinema?”. http://italianpoliticalcinema.