In his painstakingly researched and lovingly told book, The History of Italian Cinema, Gian Piero Brunetta takes us on a wonderful journey from the first years of the 20th century right up to present times, as he illustrates the most important films and filmmakers of Italy during that period. Commenting on the famous directors (Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica et al) and the not so famous (Ettore Scola, Giuseppe De Santis), the author explains not only the visual and spoken messages of the most influential films, he also describes the social changes Italy was going through at the time those works were released. Always informative and engagingly told, this is a journey well worth taking. (The excellent English translation is by Jeremy Parzen.)
Brunetta, professor of history and criticism of cinema at the University of Padua, writes about Italian films in an encyclopedic approach, detailing not only particular works but also specific details on the business of Italian cinema at various periods of time; we are told how many films were made during certain decades or how many theaters opened or closed. Film studios such as Luce and Cinécitta and their contributions are important entries in this book. Brunetta understands that specific works of art never stand alone; they must be inspected carefully as a reflection of the time they were made. His take on comedies is especially insightful; in the author’s opinion, Italian comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s focused on common attitudes and were remedies to the challenges of everday life during that period.
No doubt, it is the Neorealist films produced just after the end of the Second World War that remain Italy’s most valuable contribution to the history of international cinema and Brunetta devotes many pages to these works. In films such as Roma città aperta, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica broke new ground with films that told the everyday experiences of Italian life; these films were usually cast with non-actors, as the filmmakers believed these performers could best express both the beauty and banality that surrounded them. Critics from around the world heaped praise upon these works; this body of work was clearly a turning point in the country’s cinematic reach. For the author, the influence within Italy was perhaps even more important than foreign opinion; he writes, “The neoralist gaze was inclusive and overreaching. It sought to give a voice to every Italian dialect and to embrace all of Italy.”
Brunetta does a wonderful job putting the great filmmakers into perspective. What I love is not only his treatment of what each film meant, but what each director’s cinematic philosophy represented. Speaking about Rosselini, he writes, “the visible was an allegory and metaphor for an outer space where the individual sought answers to the meaning of life and destiny.” Regarding De Sica, he notes,” perhaps he appeals to us also because of his ability to make a seemingly insignificant story into a dramatic adventure.” As for Federico Fellini, whose films moved away from Neorealism into more personal, psychological grounds, the author writes, “Fellini saw the world with a third eye: an inner eye that fished for images in the subconsious, in dreams and in memory.”
There are literally hundreds of directors whose works are covered here; many of them will be known only to the most devoted fan of Italian cinema. Elio Petri, who specialized in police thrillers and political films in the 1960s and 1970s such as L’assassino and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion receives nice coverage as do other lesser-known filmmakers such as Florestano Vancini, Gianfranco Mingozzi and brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.
Brunetta also devotes a good deal of text to the technicians who worked on films over the last 40 years and how their work gave a new look and sound to cinema in general. Among thse are the cinematographers Giusepe Rotunno and Vittorio Storaro (the latter a winner of three Oscars), composers Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone as well as production designers (Dante Ferretti) and costume designers (Milena Canonero). Screenwriters are not forgotten either, especially Cesare Zavattini, who collaborated with Vittorio De Sica on several of his most influential films.
Sadly, Brunetta has to deal with the reality of Italian cinema today and in his opinion, it’s not very healthy. “Italian directors have progressively lost their ability to tell stories that go beyond their own personal experiences,” he writes. “Today, a collection of restored silent Italian films has a better chance of successfully touring the United States than do current Italian films of even being screened outside of Italy, let alone across the Atlantic.”
There have been many factors that have led to this decline, according to Brunetta. One reason is that celebrities today in Italy are often not film stars, but politicians, fashion designers or athletes. Secondly, the world of Italian cinema was not prepared to produce blockbusters, which have changed movie going habits around the world since Hollywood efforts from the 1970s such as The Godfather or Jaws. The author also cites the lack of connection between Italian filmmakers and Italian audiences; this has led to a drastic number of movie theater closings in the country over the past decade.
Still Brunetta does find some positives, mentioning the successes of Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) and others; he praises the work of Gabriele Salvatores (his Mediterraneo won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1991); writing that he, “is the most restless director of his generation and the most open to change, curiosity and experimentation.”
Brunetta also writes about some new talent that has made some impressive debuts recently with made-for-television films and opines that until the bigger picture is fixed, the most creative Italian cinema may appear on the small screen.
So for Brunetta, the classic days may be gone, but they are most definitely not forgotten. Some of his most loving prose deals with the incredible period of Neorealist films just after the end of the Second World War. Rossellini’s Roma città aperta was a groundbreaking work and the author includes an essay from writer Alberto Asor Rosa that encapsulates his thoughts while viewing this film in a local theater with his neighbors in 1945. In an email, Jeremy Parzen told me that this particular text was, “among the most moving passages I’ve ever translated.” Here is a brief excerpt of that essay:
The audience was no longer prompted to dream about what could happen in a situation analogous to the one it saw on the screen. Instead the audience saw itself… In the theater, there were the same people with their cheap clothes and pale faces, with their cheekbones showing from hunger, their cork-soled shoes falling to pieces, their suits made of light cotton, their worn jackets. This was the same poverty of the characters… This story was more or less the same of the audience in the theater…
Capturing these moments and emotions is just one reason why The History of Italian Cinema is so highly recommended.
The History of Italian Cinema
Gian Piero Brunetta
Princeton University Press
Italian version, 2003
English version translated by Jeremy Parzen, 2009
($35.00 - buy here)
P.S. One final note. At the end of the book, there are two indexes- one is of the names of the individuals written about in the book, while the second is of the film titles themselves. This not only makes it easier to navigate this book, it is also a thoughtful inclusion on part of the editor. Not all film books are this well organized.