This article first appeared in the last issue of Pica~Post, but seeing as those swanky suede Superga pumps have just landed, we thought it was a good time for a bit of a look at Italian cinema. Grab some tomato and basil flavoured popcorn and give this a read…
If you happen to run into Martin Scorsese while walking to Tesco or something, and you ask him which country has contributed the most to cinema, I reckon he might just say Italy.
While it’s easy to see why he may have a bias (his family emigrated from Sicily, and he grew up in N.Y.C.‘s Little Italy), when you have a ganders at the evidence, he’s hard to dispute. He also has more Oscars than you, so I wouldn’t try to argue.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at some of The Boot’s finest cinematic outputs…
LADRI DI BICICLETTE (BICYCLE THIEVES), VITTORIO DE SICA – 1948
First up we've got one of the greatest films of all time, and the pinnacle of Italian neorealism: Bicycle Thieves.
Bicycle Thieves is the story of a destitute father desperately searching post-WW2 Rome for his stolen bicycle. Without his bike, he'll lose his job, which in a country that was recently bombed to all hell during a big ol' war, were hard to come by.
For those not sure what the term 'Italian neorealism' means, I'll explain: Italian neorealism was a cinematic movement born after Italy's defeat in the Second World War. Unlike the Telefoni Bianchi ‘white telephone’ films of the 30s, which were usually populated by upper-class characters promoting conservative values, neorealist films dealt with working class people overcoming extreme everyday hardships, with a more left-wing, humanist slant to their politics.
The directors of the neorealist movement used non-professional actors and shot on location. This was partly due to the fact that all the film studios had been destroyed during the war, but also due to a desire to tell stories from new perspectives, and film them in a gritty, realistic way.
Bicycle Thieves' impact was huge, and influenced countless other cinematic movements and still continues to be a source of inspiration for today's filmmakers. Not bad for a film about pinching bikes.
DIVOZIO ALL’ITALIANA (DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE), PIETRO GERMI – 1961
One of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, and one of the greatest uses of a Hawaiian shirt in cinema, here’s Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce Italian Style.
Divorce Italian Style is the darkly comic tale of an impoverished Sicilian baron who comes up with a remarkably convoluted scheme to do away with his wife so he can legally marry his cousin. The film gleefully pokes fun at male chauvinism and an Italian society that prohibited divorce, but allowed light sentences for ‘honour killing’ (murdering a spouse that was unfaithful).
This film is a part of, and takes its name from the Commedia all’italiana ‘Italian style comedy’ genre that booted off in the late 50s. These films took aim on ‘spicy’ social issues and used comedy as a method of offering social critique, taking shots at everything from the country’s rapidly growing middle class, to the sexual mores of contemporary Italy.
If you’re either after belly laughs aplenty, or advice on how to do away with your missus so you can marry your 16 year-old cousin, Divorce Italian Style might be the film for you.
PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), SERGIO LEONE – 1964
Does this one need an introduction? Clint Eastwood’s breakout roll… the defining film of the Spaghetti Western genre… a rip-off of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo… you best believe it’s A Fistful of Dollars!
A Fistful of Dollars concerns itself with The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) as he enters the town of San Miguel and plays two warring crime families against each other in order to bring them down.
Due to the ‘peplum’ (or ‘sword and sandals’ films, American-produced low-budget epics shot in Italy) films of the 50s, which opened the possibility of Italian films receiving American financing and distribution, the spaghetti western was born. The name was coined by Spanish journalist Alfonso Sánchez due to the fact that these films were directed primarily by Italians, shot in places like Spain and Italy and featured copious amounts of blood and gore.
After a couple of years being unknown (AFOD’s distribution in America was halted because Sergio Leone and his producers were being sued by Akira Kurosawa and Toho… for, you know, stealing their film) A Fistful of Dollars was internationally embraced, spawned countless sequels and remakes, and launched the careers of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood (who was an unknown TV actor at the time).
We don’t like to condone plagiarism, but if you’re going to do it, take a tip from A Fistful of Dollars’ handbook and do it well!
SUSPIRIA (SIGHS), DARIO ARGENTO – 1977
Probably the best-looking horror movie ever committed to celluloid and the cause of soiled trousers aplenty, here’s the art-house masterpiece Suspiria.
Based on Thomas De Quincey’s essay Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), Suspiria is the story of American ballet student Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper) who transfers to a dance academy in Germany. When a bunch of the academy’s staff and students end up dead in various grisly ways, Suzy comes to the conclusion that the academy is a front for something far more sinister and supernatural.
Suspiria is considered to be the crowning jewel of a sub-genre of Italian horror called ‘giallo’. Giallo means yellow in Italian, and takes its name from a series of cheap paperback mystery novels with yellow covers that were popular in post-fascist Italy. Giallo films are, at their core, mystery films that incorporate elements of the supernatural, and take influence from psychological horror, body horror, slasher and sexploitation cinema. Basically, a smorgasbord of things you wouldn’t want to watch with your mother (I should hope).
However, Suspiria is just as much an art-house film as it is a giallo film. Rather than devote it’s running time to story and plot, the film focuses on the visuals and sound, creating a haunting, sensory, hallucinogenic experience.
… which is all well and good on paper, but when you’re actually watching it, the film is a lot less intellectually stimulating and more trouser-wetting-ly terrifying.
GOMORRA (GOMORRAH) MATTEO GARRONE – 2008
Finally we’ve got Gomorrah, a film so brutal and bleak in its depiction of organised crime, it’ll make you painfully regret every hard-earned pound you spent on Scarface or Goodfellas posters.
Gomorrah is an adaptation of undercover reporter Roberto Saviano’s best-selling exposé of the Naples Mafia. Gomorrah reveals how many facets of contemporary Italian society the hand of the mafia touches, from waste ‘disposal’ to the world of haute couture.
While not explicitly a ‘cinematic movement’ Gomorrah (the title combines Sodom’s sister city and the Neapolitan Mafia ‘Camorra’) can be thought of as a reaction to American gangster movies. Unlike films like Goodfellas or The Godfather that romanticise mafia activities, or at least look at them with rose-tinted glasses, Gomorrah shows how the mafia as it really is – mind-numbingly dull, brutal and impersonal.
The film reveals just how many lives the Comorra clan has destroyed and barely gives its characters a morsel of likeability. There’s no Michael Corleone, there’s no families, no anti-heroes, no redemption and there’s certainly no scenes of ridiculous grenade launchers being fired at inanimate objects… oh wait, no, there is. My bad.
Right. Hope you enjoyed that grand Italian cinematic voyage. If there’s ever a pub quiz at your local on Italian cinema, you should be more than equipped to answer at least five of the questions. Arrivederci amici!
See this on paper in the latest issue of Pica~Post. Illustrations courtesy of Stuart Fear.