Friday, March 18, 2016

The Early Days of Italian Cinema

 Actress Assia Noris in a 1938 "Telefono Bianchi" film
My discovery last December of the Italian silent film by Francesca Bertini made me curious about other lesser known genres of Italian cinema. That curiosity led me on a cinema adventure in which I discovered a whole world of films I never knew existed such as Italian Futurism, Telefoni Bianchi and Propaganda films.

Let’s first recap Bertini's film and visit the Silent era of Italian cinema. Assunta Spina is a 1915 silent film that boasts a beautiful, melodic soundtrack with stunning cinematography, capturing the Bay of Naples during an era in which most of our America-bound grandparents and great grandparents were passing through. Filmmakers Francesca Bertini and Gustavo Serena created a timeless story of love, passion and envy. The restored version shows images of Naples that are surprising clear for being shot 100 years ago. Assunta Spina was way ahead of its time, and Bertini was not shy in acknowledging it. In 1982 at the age of 90, she said in an interview, "It had been my idea to wander around Naples taking ordinary people from the streets. Now everyone’s invented Neorealism! The real Neorealist film is Assunta Spina." However, some may argue that point and it's important to hear other perspectives. I spoke with David Morea, the director of the new documentary, Before Neorealism. According to him, "the idea of "Neorealism" as we know it may be unjustly limited to the period that comes directly after the Second World War and it's understandable that Bertini would have such an attitude. But we should not confuse the use of realist aesthetics in films like Assunta Spina with full-blown neorealism, which has a definite historical collocation and specific political qualities."

The newly restored version of Assunta Spina is available for purchase right here by Cineteca di Bologna. If you don't live in Italy and have the required social security number to purchase the film, you can view the restored version with English subtitles on YouTube. It is a truly remarkable film and I highly recommend watching it.

The silent era of Italian cinema had a profound impact on cinema worldwide. Martin Scorsese has praised the work of Giovanni Pastrone, director of the epic 1914 Cabiria. He says that with this work, Pastrone invented the epic movie and deserves credit for attributes such as "extensive use of a moving camera"which has often been given to D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Set in Sicily, Carthage and Cirta during the Second Punic War, which took place from 218-202 BC, the film was actually shot in Torino. The story follows a child named Cabiria who has been abducted and through her eyes, we see this incredible cinematic world of the tumultuous Mt. Etna, North African religious rituals and the historic battles of the ancient Roman fleet.

The notable predecessor to Cabiria is Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis?, which features 5,000 extras and has been called "the first blockbuster in the history of cinema." Due to its worldwide success, it was the first film to be projected at a mainstream Broadway theater. Guazzoni enjoyed a whopping 9-month run of his film in New York from April to December of 1913. According to silent film expert Thomas Gladys, founder of the Louise Brooks Society,  not only the big spectacles like those mentioned above made it to American shores, but also some smaller filmswere shown in neighborhood and ethnic theaters in the big cities. Then, consider our beloved Rudolph Valentino, and it's safe to say that Italy greatly affected cinema in America.

Regarding these first blockbusters, Morea said, Quo Vadis is arguably the first global blockbuster, and it inspired generations of filmmakers for its grandiose vision. I would argue that, from an aesthetic point of view, Cabiria is more influential, especially if we compare it to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. But Quo Vadis? set the bar for all cinematic superspectacles."

Both Cabiria and Quo Vadis? are available with English subtitles on YouTube. Watch Cabiria by Giovanni Pastrone. You can also purchase the DVD on Amazon.

Watch Quo Vadis? by Enrico Guazzoni..

Although short-lived, the next era to emerge was Italian futurism, a film movement which lasted roughly from 1916 to 1919.

The strongest characteristic of these films is undoubebly the set design, which followed in the steps of the futurism art, of which Mario Verdone, Italian cinema film critic and father of Carlo verdone, was a huge admirer. The sets featured "geometric shapes with black and white contrasts" and abstract characters and illusions. Most of these films were unfortunately lost except for one, Thaïs, which is actually available to watch on YouTube. 

Read about Futurism art at the Center for Modern Art in New York City.

Thaïs, also known as Perfido incanto, was made in 1917 by Anton Giulio Bragaglia, a leading silent film director of his time. Based on the novel by Anatole France, the plot follows Thaïs, a seductress that goes after married men. She is frivolous in her escapades until she seduces her best friend’s husband, which ultimately leads to the woman’s death. Overwhelmed by guilt and regret, Thaïs decides to take her own life in a dramatic final scene. Being the only surviving film of the Futurism genre, Thaïs is safely being held at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which houses one of the most comprehensive cinema archives in the world. I watched the 35-minute film and found it interesting that in the opening credits, we see the George Eastman House, which makes me wonder why the film is no longer under their care. The quality is pretty low but it’s fascinating to see if just for the historic value. Watch Thaïs on YouTube..

While Italy's Fascist government was working on the construction of Cinecittà, it was also producing its own propaganda films, which are referred to as Telefoni Bianchi (White Telephones). This genre rose to fame in the 1930's and featured upper class, wealthy families with pristine-looking children adorned with "Shirley Temple curls". The sets were just as beautiful as the characters and featured the namesake white telephones. Quoting Wikipedia, "The films tended to be socially conservative, promoting family values, respect for authority, a rigid class hierarchy, and country life, all stances perfectly in line with the ideology of the fascist regime."
Morea offered some intersting insight on this genre. "The telefoni bianchi films were a series of escapist comedy films that were used as a means to control the consensus and dictate policy in a palatable way; they portrayed fascist society in a light that was acceptable to the regime: the men were athletic and the women were modern and self-sufficient yet both were confined to a working-class bubble that was penetrated merely by coincidence or happenstance which allowed them to experience the life of the upper-class bourgeoisie; a class which was greatly frowned upon by the regime—much as it is by any authoritarian government. The protagonists would meet a group of people whose interest deviated from that of the political and ideological interests of the regime and at the end of the films, they always choose the working-class love interest. Was it the intent of the filmmakers at the time? I don't think so—they couldn't really produce stories outside of this theme and, at times, they would self-censure because they knew the protocol which they had to adhere to. The response, in terms of Neorealism, was a literal and drastic aesthetic disconnect from the confinement that they had to follow in order to simply get a film made."

Propaganda fascista in una foto dall'Archivio storico dell'Istituto Luce
Morea went on to tell me about another sort of genre that I knew nothing about. "I think the most important kind of film to remember (apart from the telefoni bianchi films) are the documentaries and newsreels by the Istituto LUCE which, in terms of propaganda, were the driving force of imposing the ideals of the regime and celebrating their efforts; be it construction of a train station or a sporting event."
I asked Morea if any of these propaganda films made it to American shores. "I'm not sure how many (very few if any) of these films made it state-side during this time; even though Mussolini made proud comments about how many Italian immigrants were in the United States. Either way, if they did make it to the US, they certainly weren't successful. We have to remember that America not only had its own escapist propaganda at the time and was also at war against the Nazis and as Italy's involvement with Germany developed, an anti-Italian sentiment increased in the US."
I also talked with director Peter Miller, whose follow-up to the heart-wrenching documentary film Sacco and Vanzetti just premiered at Lincoln Center in New York and will be shown at the end of the month at the Jewish Community Center in New York. Projections of America features a virtually unknown American propaganda film featuring the Italian expat composer, Arturo Toscanini. The film was shown all over Italy shortly after the fall of Mussolini. I asked him about the similarities between the propaganda films of Italy and the United States. "The (propaganda films) of America were made by liberal American filmmakers who envisioned a pluralistic, democratic, multi-ethnic America- one that presented their nation as it could be if it were to live up to its ideals. I'm sure the Projections of America films were a contrast to the kinds of conservative cinema that Italian audiences were accustomed to from the fascist era, and they stood in great contrast to the Nazi propaganda films that were forced upon occupied European audiences."

I'll talk with more with Peter Miller next week about his film and how its message still resonates today. Watch the trailer for Peter Miller's Projections of America..

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