This list includes the best films I have seen from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece—or those I consider to be the one hundred best on a particular day. The list is chronological, except that multiple entries for a given year appear in order of preference. The list considers films through 2006. (Some of the films on this list also are given fuller consideration in essays categorized as film reviews elsewhere on my blogsite.)
1. LAS HURDES. Luis Buñuel’s Spanish documentary, known in the States as Land Without Bread, is a portrait of backward lives barely surviving in abject poverty. The Hurdanos are mountain villagers in a remote, nearly inaccessible region of Spain near Portugal. This study in “human geography,” though, isn’t what it seems.
To reach Las Hurdes, Buñuel’s expedition must pass through La Alberca, a village the front of whose church is uninvitingly decked with two human skulls, and where men engage in an annual ritual in which they tear heads off roosters. At the end of the film, an ancient woman tells us, “There is nothing better to keep you awake than to think always of death.”
The contrast between monotonous voiceover and bold images of human stupidity, as well as dire poverty, alerts us to Buñuel’s ironical method. When the commentary notes how religious the Hurdanos are, but Christian rather than barbaric, but Christian and seemingly barbaric, Buñuel discloses his thematic purpose. His target isn’t the inhabitants of La Alberca and Las Hurdes, nor is he out and about to bleed willing hearts over the difficulty of their lives—although he certainly wouldn’t disparage the amelioration of that as a collateral boon. His target is forward, not backward, non-primitive Spain, whose infatuation with Roman Catholicism, with all its attendant superstition and occult ritual, the more primitive existence of his ostensible subjects reflects. Call Las Hurdes, then, an unmercifully ribbing backdoor satire. It is part of the film’s overwhelming greatness that not one jot of the humanity of the Hurdanos is sacrificed in the process. But part of its causal analysis is that Spain’s allegiance to Christianity maintains its pockets of cruel poverty.
And what of those roosters that get their heads torn off? How does that reflect on civilization? Think: War.
2. 1860. Risorgimento: the period, 1848-1870, when partitioned Italy was unified, provides the basis for Alessandro Blasetti’s patriotic 1860, which culminates in the Battle of Calatafimi. A Sicilian village, under oppressive Bourbon occupation, rebels. Carmine, a young shepherd, travels to Genoa to solicit support for the local cause from the movement’s leader, Italy’s liberator, Giuseppe Garibaldi. The location shooting, the nonprofessional cast, the focus on an ordinary villager rather than, say, Garibaldi, and the national portrait that Blasetti achieves through Carmine all look ahead to neorealismo and, specifically, Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (see 1946). But the artful finish Blasetti applies to his film and its grand historical sweep also look ahead to Luchino Visconti’s two treatments of Risorgimento: Senso (1954) and Il Gattopardo (see 1963).
The opening is indeed worthy of Visconti: a bare tree, its branches knotted and twisted, symbolizes Italy in foreign hands before unification; soldiers on horseback imperiously gallop, the camera low and tilted upward, with martial music soft, insistent on the soundtrack; one soldier pokes with a pole a dead peasant on the ground; another drags a peasant, his prisoner. The camera surveys the desolate land and shows fire and then water: a rushing stream symbolizing hope. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, villagers appear on foot and attack the mounted monsters. The rebellion has not been extinguished; the people have not been conquered. Perspective on village losses is given, though, by what follows: a tracking shot across the ground—a scene of slaughter. 1860’s opening movement may even have inspired Sergei M. Eisenstein in the making of Alexander Nevsky (1938).
As perhaps did the Battle of Calatafimi, the tree now in bloom, at film’s end. 1860 isn’t in all respects a great film (its middle is largely pedestrian), but it is bookended by two passages of gripping poetry.
3. OSSESSIONE. Aristocrat and also Communist, Luchino Visconti combines elegance and earthiness in Obsession, a languorous melodrama of adultery and murder involving a drifter (Massimo Girotti), an innkeeper and his wife (Clara Calamai, astounding). Visconti had apprenticed in the 1930s to Jean Renoir, whose liberated use of camera Visconti adopted, and whose Toni (1934) is an especial thematic influence. Ossessione is the first great work of neorealismo, here blended with the moody fatalism of French poetic realism.
Neorealism revitalized Italian cinema. Use of northern landscape, close attention to human behavior, a focus on the downtrodden, the human cost of poverty and economic marginalization: these supply neorealist credentials to Ossessione.
One of the contributors to the script, Angelo Pietrangeli, would write about it: “Ferrara, its squares, its gray and deserted streets; Ancona and its San Ciriaco Fair; the Po and its sandy banks; a landscape streaked with a rubble of cars and men along the network of highways. Against this backdrop are silhouetted the wandering merchants, mechanics, prostitutes and inn boys who have all the typical innocent exuberances, beset by violent proletarian love affairs, primitive anger, and the sins that flesh is heir to.” The somewhat grandiose nature of this description perfectly suits Visconti’s film, with its operatic sense of spectacle and its grand passions—all, here at least, given compelling form by Visconti’s artistic rigor.
Unfortunately, trouble with censors and with copyright laws delayed the film’s appearance worldwide, leaving the false impression that others were more instrumental in inventing Italian neorealism than Visconti, and helping to obscure Renoir’s contribution. Ossessione is an “illegal” adaptation of James M. Cain’s American novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Hollywood would badly film twice (1946, 1981), but which György Fehér, in Hungary, would again lift to the level of art in Szenvedély (Passion, 1998).
4. PEOPLE OF THE PO VALLEY. Released in 1947, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Gente del Po is a documentary, some of whose material involving a woman’s care of her sick young daughter feels scripted, possibly “reconstructed.” Luchino Visconti’s documentary-like, also nonprofessionally cast La terra trema (1948), about struggling Sicilian fishermen, surely was influenced by Gente del Po, which with its lyrical river barges itself looks back to Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), and ahead to Antonioni’s fictional Il grido (1957), also set amidst melancholy gray landscapes in the Po Valley.
Numerous shots divide the frame, such as the overhead one of a barge, center-left, proceeding forward, displacing water while still untouched water appears ahead. Humanity, even when invisible, is the key; we are conscious of the human activity involved in the barge’s motion and use. In another “divided shot,” a barge proceeds screen-right, with water below and land, including houses, above: a summation of the environment in which people, also excluded here, live and work.
Human figures appear in both long-shot and closeup, communally and as individuals. In an extreme long-shot from the vantage of the river, a solitary galloping horse projects an otherwise unavailable freedom and possibly reflects on the German occupation. In a bravura shot the camera moves leftward like a barge, but on land, as women under large white hats rake the ground. Down below on the barge “Milano,” the mother feeds her child medicine as an identical hat hangs on the wall.
The tremendous final movement depicts a gathering storm, with its dire potential for flood. People now move quickly to their homes, disrupting the rhythms to which the film has accustomed us. The storm subsides, but the impression of human vulnerability lingers. This conclusion owes something to the snowstorm in Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922).
5. ROME, OPEN CITY. With Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (see 1948), Roberto Rossellini’s strikingly beautiful Rome, Open City is the signature work of Italian Neorealism. Like Rossellini’s Paisà (see 1946), it is a national epic.
Rome, 1943-44; the Nazis are in control of the city. The opening shot is of German soldiers loudly marching in goosestep through the streets, singing. Its fearsome echo brings unexpected poignancy to a later shot of rambuctious boys loudly playing in the streets, symbolically juxtaposing the aspiration for freedom and the constriction of freedom that the occupation represents. The film focuses on resistance, both underground and above ground, on the Gestapo’s dragnet efforts to capture members of the Resistance, and on the ordinary citizens of Rome, who embrace resistance fighters as their surrogates as well as countrymen by hiding them and otherwise lending support. Filming began while the Germans were still there; the film itself is a ringing act of solidarity.
“We shot [the film],” Rossellini would say, “in the same settings in which the events we re-created had taken place.” The film’s realism, its present-tenseness, is potent, demonstrating the affinity for documentary of a certain kind of fiction. Rome, Open City reminds us that fiction and documentary, although opposite poles on a continuum of artistic expression, intermingle and blend their elements in individual works. Even melodramatic chords (to which a Rossellini film at that time was never immune) become a part of the film’s raw fabric—exposed nerves of heightened drama that stress the dire, distorted reality that the German occupation imposed.
The film is populated by nonprofessionals, but not exclusively. Two professionals contributed legendary performances: Aldo Fabrizi, as the priest, and Anna Magnani as Pina. Both characters, like so many others in the film, exemplify the heroism to which ordinary people can rise.
6. PAISÀ. Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan) is a composite film each of whose six episodes reflects on the Battle of Italy (1943-45) in a different region of the country, among them, Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence and the Po Valley. The result is an epic national portrait. Was Rossellini influenced by the preceding year’s Battle of the Rails, by René Clément, which consists of vignettes of the French Resistance—a rare French neorealist work? Regardless, Paisà’s final episode, which depicts a slaughter of partisans, achieves the sledgehammer force of Rome, Open City (see #5), which very nearly ends with the execution of a priest sympathetic to the Resistance. Paisà shimmers with a tragic sense of the cost of Italy’s struggle against the Germans before, during and after liberation.
The Naples episode involves an African-American soldier, a military police officer, whose boots are stolen by a shoeshine boy. When he goes to the boy’s “home” to retrieve his property, the young soldier discovers the impoverished world the war-orphaned child inhabits. The soldier has told the boy that his American home is a shack to which he doesn’t want to return; he, too, is familiar with desperate poverty. He leaves the boots.
Another episode also involves an American soldier. During the liberation of Rome, he meets an innocent girl, Francesca. Later, without recognizing her, he becomes her john. But the film reverses chronology, presenting the earlier time as a flashback, the soldier’s reminiscence, when he is with the prostitute. He tells her how much he wants to meet Francesca again. She tells him she can arrange it—although, in a sense, she cannot. In any case, he doesn’t show up for the arranged reunion.
Paisà is radical in its formal aim. Rossellini contests traditional “plottedness”; the film’s episodic nature reduces “story” by multiplying it.
7. TO LIVE IN PEACE. Wouldn’t peace be wonderful? But Luigi Zampa’s film takes place during the German occupation, and there is no real peace to be had. Tigna (Aldo Fabrizi, who contributed to the script, excellent), a farmer, somewhat reluctantly hides two American soldiers, one of whom is wounded, in the cellar. Drunk, the wounded soldier, who is black, one night reveals himself to Tigna’s guest, a German official, who, himself drunk, mistakes what he sees as meaning thank goodness! the war is over. Discarding Nazi racism, the official takes to the streets with the American—two instant comrades and noisy celebrants. Their mood is contagious, waking up Tigna’s neighbors; thank goodness! the war is over. Only, of course, it isn’t, and eventually Tigna and the German, attempting to flee, are both murdered by the SS.
There is no escaping war and its effects. This idea is formally and tonally rendered in an ingenious way: the film’s comedy passes into tragedy; hope for peace resolves into death by war. (Also, one might say that human simplicity is extinguished by the complications that war imposes.) Before this happens, the German expresses his kinship with the protagonist by noting that he, too, if he had his way would be farming back home.
One can see the influence of To Live in Peace in any number of war-set Italian tragicomedies, including Mario Monicelli’s The Great War (1959) and Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1998). But there is still more to Zampa’s achievement—an irony beyond the scope of the action, provided by the world in which the film was first exhibited. The war is over now, but its ravages are residual. Ordinary postwar Italian citizens yet might sigh, Vivere in pace.
8. GERMANY, YEAR ZERO. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #45.
9. CITY STREETCLEANERS. Rome, 1948. Night evaporates as dawn’s light steals in. Human figures are dense shadows and anonymous. A train, marking time and infinity, passes through; substance translates into evanescence beneath a solemn sky. Slight camera movements suggest time’s sweep. An angled overhead shot shows men sweeping steps in a public square. Influenced by Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), the delightful, rhythmic magic of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Nettezza urbana, starkly photographed in black and white and jazzily scored by Giovanni Fusco, has begun.
With daylight, our view becomes clear. We see the faces of individual streetcleaners, as well as the faces of others in the streets. We also take in the integral role that streetcleaners play—their interaction with the rest of the city. Someone throws something out of her apartment window and it becomes part of what the streetcleaner sweeps up below.
In the course of the film, we see persons at other mundane work in the streets, with everyone contributing to the great symphony of Rome. Antonioni’s film is poetic, associative, elastic. It purges its glimpse of laboring men of the overt socioeconomic context, relegating this to an invisible realm of inference—the maintenance we observe accumulates into a metaphor for Italy’s postwar reconstruction—and thereby creating a complex double vision of (implicit) economic hardship in the present and (explicit) nuts-and-bolts activity that looks ahead, quietly and without fanfare or heightened rhetoric, to an employed, stabilized Italy in the future.
10. BICYCLE THIEVES. Once voted by critics worldwide the best film ever made, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves still retains a great measure of affection. Scenarist Cesare Zavattini and De Sica focus on Italy’s postwar employment squeeze. In Rome, a poor man, Antonio, finally gets a job posting signs, for which he needs a bicycle to transport him from site to site. When it is stolen, he searches for the bicycle throughout the city, accompanied by his young son; spotting the thief, Antonio pursues the boy to his home. Epileptic, desperately impoverished, the thief is protected by family and neighbors. Outside a sports stadium, Antonio himself steals a bicycle but is caught and then let go. Ashamed, he holds on to his son’s hand for emotional support.
Famously, the film’s title, which translates in the plural, was changed in the States to Bicycle Thief, thus obscuring De Sica’s social vision. This isn’t an American film touting independence and individual responsibility; poverty and desperation have turned Rome into a city of thieves and potential thieves, charlatans and prostitutes. Ironic: squabbling father and son are able to “steal” a rare moment of contentment dining at a black market restaurant.
Orson Welles marveled at De Sica’s ability to make his camera disappear. Few today, however, would describe De Sica’s camera as invisible. Rather, there is a gentle sweep of sadness to this mostly gray film, even a trace of melancholy, correlative to the plight of people doing their best to get by with dwindling resources. (It would be left to John Schlesinger, addressing hard luck and squalor in Midnight Cowboy, 1969, to inflate this style into grotesque sentimentality.) A memorable point-of-view shot, in a friend’s truck as windshield wipers tackle rain, maintains De Sica’s sensible aim even while departing from the film’s stylistic procedure.
11. LA TERRA TREMA. The Valastro family of Acitrezza are among Sicily’s hardworking subsistence poor. The two eldest sons fish the sea, to which their father has been lost. They are exploited by canotieri, the wholesale fish merchants who maximize profits by conspiring to offer fishermen little for their catches. ’Ntoni, the eldest son, considers himself an enemy of injustice. He attempts to organize a strike and mortgages the family home to secure his own boat and become independent of the prevailing system. In a storm, he loses the boat; the bank evicts the family, and the canotieri refuse to hire him. When they acquiesce, the proud boy is unwilling to become again a “beast of burden.” Eventually he capitulates, and life goes on; someday, he muses, workers will unite for the common good against such exploitation.
The Earth Trembles was shot amidst Acitrezza’s rough land and rough waters using the inhabitants rather than actors; an actual canotiero plays a canotiero! They all speak in Sicilian dialect. (Luchino Visconti contributes voiceover commentary in Italian.) Visconti has created a sober, gritty, stormy, powerful Neorealist masterpiece about an environment as oppressive as the name of Mussolini on the wall at hiring headquarters. The film is based on a novel by Giovanni Verga, I Malavoglia.
The imagery Visconti and his black-and-white cinematographer, G. R. Aldo, achieve is tremendous: long shots of the rocky coast in which people appear as tiny and helpless; faintly luminous dawn, when the fishermen return after a night’s labor; the black ocean at night, as vast nets are dropped and raised, each boat equipped with a lamp to attract fish; upon their return, the men on the ground, appearing trapped in the mesh, repairing the nets; ’Ntoni casting the canotiero’s scale into the sea, inspiring other workers to follow suit.
12. STROMBOLI. A pat, simplistic film in the version released in the States, in the version that Roberto Rossellini surreptitiously shot using RKO equipment, which was distributed in continental Europe, Stromboli is magnificent.
Again Rossellini took up the issue of postwar dislocation at the heart of Germany,Year Zero (see 1947), only, in this instance, powerfully mining its spiritual fallout. Ingrid Bergman, who had replaced Anna Magnani as his muse, beautifully plays a cultured bourgeois who resists feeling humbled by her camp status as a displaced refugee after the Second World War. To exit her confinement, Karen opportunistically marries a simple island fisherman, and a process of humiliation and rehumanization is begun. Karen comes to embody a paralyzed Europe at a crossroads between selfish material survival and selfless spiritual survival, with no path in sight to strike a balance between the two. Rossellini essays class differences that, persisting even in a shattered Europe, make all the more elusive the task of making Europe “whole again.” Thus the mesmerizing passages of the fishermen at work—it is not surprising that the first of the Rossellini-Bergmans should be the one with deepest Neorealist roots—disclose a world that Karen resists by bourgeois breeding as well as by temperament. The sea is an alien place for her—a fact Rossellini stresses when, making an honest attempt to bridge the gap between them, Karen briefly joins her husband for a work break.
Unlike Luchino Visconti in La terra trema (see 1948), Rossellini isn’t driven by Marxist principle to ennoble Karen’s spouse or the other fishermen; he sees them straight on, in ordinary light. Crisis can be a great leveler, and neither the traditional villagers nor Karen, who chafes under their conservatism, seem capable of prevailing over the stormy currents to which European lives have been tossed.
13. FRANCESCO, GIULLARE DI DIO. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #46.
14. BELLISSIMA. Maddalena (Anna Magnani, brilliant) enters little Maria in a contest for a movie role. There’s no question who dreams of stardom. The day of the Roman cattle-call at Cinecittà, Maddalena is desperate to find her daughter, who has slipped away. At the initial interview, we see both standing in the same frame, each with her hand on a hip; just who is the one being interviewed? The joke is sealed when Maria gives the wrong family name and her mother steps in to set the matter right: “Cecconi.” Indeed, Maria hardly speaks at all as Mama takes over.
The Cecconis make ends meet. Spartaco, a laborer, is a wage-slave (note the name). Maddalena herself gives insulin injections. These people aren’t about to starve. But they live in a dreary, dilapidated apartment dwelling, where neighbors are fed up with the couple’s vehement quarrels. While Maddalena plays stage-mother, Spartaco is trying to marshal financial resources so they can all move into their own place. Bellissima is about dreams and how their fervent attempt to remediate unpleasant reality seldom succeeds. Countless children audition for the one available role. Bellissima is an hilarious satire that segues into family—by extension, social—heartbreak before, happily, regaining its comedic foothold.
Maria’s screen test proves disastrous. The judges laugh at her appearance and inability, unaware that Maddalena is eavesdropping. Maternal instincts kicking in, Maddalena reveals herself and lambasts everyone. Now the men scurry to sign Maria to avert the PR crisis that would result if Maddalena went public with their mockery of the sanctity of Italian children and family; but Maddalena has come to her senses. Her daughter is not for sale.
Interweaving neorealismo and Maddalena’s fabulous ambitions, sobriety and giddiness, nonprofessional and professional cast members, Luchino Visconti has made one of his greatest films.
15. UMBERTO D. Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. begins with an overhead long shot of a city street, up which moves an orderly mass of people—retirees demonstrating for a raise in their pensions. Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a retired civil servant, participates. (Umberto was the name of De Sica’s father, a retired bank clerk to whom his son dedicates the film.) Police cars enter, scattering panicking protesters. Organizers had applied for the necessary permit but were denied. Municipal authorities had thus calculated in advance their basis for aborting the march. Claiming the majority’s right to normal traffic flow, they seek to isolate demonstrators from their fellow citizenry, whose sense of justice the demonstrators need to engage in order to marshal the political clout necessary to achieve a raise in their pensions. Authorities, then, seek to contain protestors within the status quo. Interruption of the march hopes to shift public attention from the marchers’ legitimate cause—for Ferrari, who is about to be evicted for being in arrears on his rent, it is a life-and-death matter—to the fact of the disruption. The original message gets lost and another takes its place: the bogus issue of civil order—bogus, because the “disruption” of it was so deliberately contained and limited by the organizers and demonstrators themselves out of a need to strike a precarious balance between getting public attention and not irritating or enraging the public against their cause.
Almost all of the rest of the film deals with a single individual, “Umberto D.,” but the social and political context De Sica has established accompanies the character throughout the film. De Sica pays close attention to the peculiar details of Ferrari’s individual circumstance—details which speak to the film’s humanity no less than the context that confers on Ferrari a representative identity.
16. EUROPA ’51. See 100 Greatest English-Language Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #47.
17. ROME, 11 O’CLOCK. The splendid Neorealist opening of Bitter Rice (1949) yielded to a flashy, melodramatic result, but Rome, 11 O’Clock, also by Giuseppe De Santis, is the last great work of Italian Neorealism.
The film is based on journalist Elio Petri’s account of an actual 1951 incident—a tragedy resulting from Italy’s postwar job squeeze. Some two hundred female applicants for a secretarial job crowd an old building waiting for an interview, causing the stairway to collapse. The film essays the fates of five: four of the injured, and the applicant, Luciana, whose rushing movement triggered the event.
De Santis stresses causality: the consequences of the disaster and its relation to capitalism. Burdened by guilt, Luciana contemplates suicide; her sense of responsibility, as grotesque as it is sincere, throws into relief what she herself is missing: the tragedy’s underlying causes. The same analytical method is applied throughout as characters cope with the immediate hardship of their lives and we contextualize this in light of the film’s argument. Three of the victims—victims of both the system and the event—are trying to “start over”: a prostitute; a servant girl; the pregnant wife of an unemployed factory worker now striking out on her own. The remaining major character is not proletarian, but her marriage to an impoverished artist has set her relatives against her—an exposure of classism that reflects on the sociopolitical boat that all the main characters are in.
In 1949, Italy joined NATO and passed the Andreotti Law, which aimed to sweep its social problems—the meat and potatoes of neorealismo—away from international view and shift its filmmaking to the political right. In 1952, the effects kicked in, additionally pressured by the U.S., whose Hollywood raged against the financial success of a handful of Neorealist films.
18. VOYAGE IN ITALY. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #51.
19. I VITELLONI. The twentysomething slackers in I vitelloni (literally, The Overgrown Calves) compose an affectionate portrait of provincial young maledom. The point isn’t how bad, but how stunted, these boys are—perhaps for being cut off from The City. Only one, Moraldo, will make it out of Rimini.
This is Federico Fellini’s most heartfelt film. It opens with one of cinema’s most haunting images: four of the boys, then all five, arms around one another, zigzagging through Rimini’s deserted streets late at night. Trust Fellini to come up with a long shot that locates in imaginative space the point where documentary incident—if you will, neorealismo—yields to recollection and poetic reverie. The odd boy out who belatedly joins the others? That might be Moraldo—Fellini. Moraldo’s being something of an outsider would foretell his singular escape.
The group’s “leader and spiritual guide,” brother-in-law Moraldo’s voiceover tells us, is Fausto, who is forced by family into marriage and into a job of his father-in-law’s choosing. Fausto, chafing under his conventional collar, will get fired, rob his former employer in retaliation, practice infidelity. We don’t exactly blame him.
Carnival Time—Fellini Time—comes to Rimini. (Music therein links the film to Chaplin’s Modern Times, disclosing Fellini’s spiritual guide!) Alberto’s sister, who financially supported the family, leaves, enforcing responsibility on her brother and evidencing the possibility of escape. Will Leopoldo, a budding playwright, also escape when, later on, a famous actor visits Rimini and reads his play? The whole strange episode invents the Felliniesque.
Moraldo’s leavetaking by train is unbearably moving by one less jot than what follows: the boy—symbolically, the part of Moraldo that always will remain in Remini—balancing himself, sometimes falling off, as he walks a rail away from us, accompanied only by Nino Rota’s poignant musical theme.
20. LA STRADA. Federico Fellini’s beautifully acted La strada conveys life on the road and the rootlessness of lonely persons: Zampanò, a circus strongman; Gelsomina, his assistant; the tightrope acrobat called Il Matto, “The Fool.”
Their itinerant world is worn and strange. Encapsulating it is an early image. Zampanò has abandoned Gelsomina for a night’s pleasure. Sleepless, alone, she is on a dark, empty street down which inexplicably trots a horse, riderless, saddleless, the sound of its hoofbeats, interrupting silence, a measured clock of the soul. This haunting epiphany finds time forlornly blending into vacant eternity.
How have the three come to live on the road? His nature has led the boy there; his is the congenital homelessness of capricious spirit. Walking a tightrope for a living expresses The Fool’s prescient grasp of human mortality. His flippancy, his main defense against mortal awareness, reflects also powerlessness to direct his own destiny. The selfish brute Zampanò—where else would he be but the road? Perhaps prison, for normal society dare not risk taking him in. Gelsomina’s issue is poverty. With other, younger children to raise, her mother, a widow, has had to sell her to Zampanò, even though the rock-hard life Zampanò offers, coupled with his uncaring nature, will likely result in Gelsomina’s death. All three characters lack the protection of material, familial and social enclosure, not to mention the comfortable myth of self-determination. Barely surviving in an inhospitable cosmos, they’re driven “Still like the thistleball, no bar,/ Onward, whenever light winds blow.”
What threads this odyssey? Two things: departing from dogma, the film’s creation of its own myth of fall and redemption; a wistful trumpeted tune. Nino Rota’s cherished theme: I hear it now.
Otello Martelli’s drab, faded black-and-white cinematography helps Fellini create the melancholy poetry that is the film’s hallmark.
21. IL BIDONE. In The Swindle, one of Federico Fellini’s best films, Augusto fleeces peasants. The con man ends up alone on a hillside, beaten in every sense, after concealing money from accomplices that he intended to give his teenaged daughter so she could go to college and realize her dream of becoming a teacher. Augusto (Broderick Crawford, wonderful) has no dreams of his own.
His “original” accomplices, who abandoned him a year or two earlier, include Carlo, who is called Picasso because he paints; Carlo’s wife, Iris, seems to want him to paint more than he wants to, perhaps to bring him back to an original desire of his that reflects the man she fell in love with. But it is principally fear that motivates the boy to quit his criminal connection to Augusto: fear that Iris will leave him, taking with her the light of his life, Silvana, their young daughter. Roberto, the other accomplice, dreams of becoming the Italian Johnnie Ray, the U.S. entertainer popular in the fifties for crybaby wailing aimed at overcoming deafness when he sang. Roberto’s risking exposure by an application of light fingers at a New Year’s party suggests another facet of his identification with Ray: Roberto also may be a closeted homosexual.
Augusto is sufficiently old that these “original” accomplices are themselves replacements.
Tonally, this is perhaps Fellini’s most agile and complex accomplishment. Whether Augusto is bilking the poor posing as a monsignor or a housing commissioner, Fellini takes pains to aim ridicule at the Church, and the superstitious devotion it encourages, and postwar bureaucracy, not the poor. Fellini’s ambivalence toward Iris (Giulietta Masina, his wife) may reflect pressures on him to hew to neorealismo!
Hauntingly, the film crosses paths with its Fellinidom predecessor, La strada (1954), at least thrice.
22. THE NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria is brilliantly acted by wife Giulietta Masina as the unselfpitying Roman prostitute Cabiria, whom they introduced in The White Sheik (1952). Cabiria tells co-workers she might not join them on a religious pilgrimage, but when a procession of singing pilgrims passes through the scene, moved by the example of their hopefulness, she follows.
Cabiria’s path crosses that of a man who ministers to the poor who live in caves. At the time of the film’s original release the Roman Catholic Church pressed for the deletion of this passage owing to the contrast it draws between the anonymous individual’s mission and the nonsensical pilgrimage, a moneymaking operation exploiting people’s hopes and fears, which brings participants to a pitch of hysteria in a packed, poorly ventilated church, and, as Cabiria herself points out afterwards, changes nothing and nobody. Fellini expresses outrage at the Church’s exploitation of the poor and the sick. The stage hypnosis of Cabiria, which leaves her angry and humiliated, is a metaphor for the corrupt pilgrimage and the Church’s manipulation of the masses.
Cabiria’s fiancé steals her life’s savings and abandons her. A high camera follows as she walks back, alone, through the dark woods. Suddenly young revelers playing musical instruments surround her—children who have thus crashed the barrier between artifice and reality, for the music we have been hearing on the soundtrack now has a visible, realistic origin. Weaving around her, the children are smiling; Cabiria also smiles, and for a quick instant finds us, anonymous humanity, by looking directly into the camera. We are complicit in her ambiguous fate. We have a job to do, and perhaps Cabiria will join us in this endeavor. The world is unjust, and people need our kindness and our help.
23. WHITE NIGHTS. Bellissima proved to be Luchino Visconti’s last Neorealist film. A purplish forbidden romance, Senso (1954), followed—a work of visual splendor that nonetheless leaves me cold. White Nights, based on the same Dostoievski story that Robert Bresson would film as Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), was considered at the time a letdown. It remains one of my favorite Visconti films.
What Visconti described as “Neo-romanticism” resembles French poetic realism. But atmosphere, the correlative to European fatalism as Nazism threatened and devoured the continent in the real world, no longer is the repository of the film’s urgency; this has shifted to Natalia and Mario (Maria Schell and Marcello Mastroianni, both tremendous), who meet on a canal bridge one night and begin to bond, on their date, the next night.
The romance is doomed from the start. Natalia haunts the bridge, awaiting the return of her lover, who failed to keep their rendezvous a year after his departure. Ironically, Natalia tries to duck her date with Mario in an unconscious replay of what her lover has done to her—an indication of how deeply her spirit remains embedded in the past with the man who has apparently ditched her. At first, Mario contests the unreality of Natalia’s persistent hope for her lover’s return but is then drawn into it, helping her compose a letter to him, just to keep her in his life. But Visconti’s Marxist side lets us see another barrier between the two; Mario is a lowly clerk, while Natalia is a bourgeois whose family has devolved into genteel poverty.
Exquisite artificial sets, the painted sky, the voluminous darkness of Giuseppe Rotunno’s superb black-and-white cinematography: all these shift reality to the young pair and to Natalia’s oblivious joy when her lover returns at last, shattering Mario.
24. IL GRIDO. Mechanic Aldo abandons lover Irma, taking their child, when she refuses to marry him upon news of her husband’s death. Aldo drifts through gray industrial landscapes in northern Italy.
The Cry’s depiction of a man’s life at loose ends finds Michelangelo Antonioni unhinging conventional narrative in order to invent a more flexible and poetic cinematic form stressing human behavior and the environmental factors contributing to it—Neorealist aims, but considerably less tied to the requirements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century storytelling. Perhaps the melancholy landscapes may be too refined to counter with sufficient gusto the tyranny of plot (L’avventura—see 1960—will complete the task); but the insinuative background of workers demonstrating against a proposed American airbase, not to mention the use of a poster advertising national integrity, doubles as a sly kick at the Hollywood way of pushing a plot line forward to connect a series of formulaic dots.
In retrospect, we see from whence Antonioni came; at the same time we grasp more fully at what his inspiration, Roberto Rossellini, was aiming with his composite portrait, in Paisà (see 1946), of a regionally varied national character. A brisk move away from traditional “plottedness,” Paisà’s episodic nature reduces “story” by multiplying it—a method achieving especial grace and beauty in Francesco, giullare di Dio (see 1950), where the episodes are less like miniature stories or films, as in Paisà, and more like impressionistic brush strokes. Whereas Paisà resembles a completed jigsaw puzzle whose piece outlines remain discernible, Francesco is more than the sum of its parts, and a distinct whole that has thoroughly absorbed the pieces it comprises. This marks a formal departure from Neorealism that Antonioni, Rossellini’s heir, brings to fruition even as his work keeps addressing contemporary themes and (for now) the lives of ordinary people.
25. THE USUAL UNIDENTIFIED THIEVES. When I was thirteen, my parents, Uncle Joe, Aunt Estelle and I wept with nearly nonstop laughter through a television viewing of Mario Monicelli’s I Soliti ignoti, a.k.a. The Big Deal on Madonna Street. Uncle Joe, who was born in Italy, loved Italian films—even those whose politics and social mores were far more liberal than his own. But who doesn’t love this heist spoof, a riotous send-up of Jules Dassin’s somber Rififi (1955)?
Thieves begins with an attempted car theft in the wee hours. The horn gets stuck in its sounding mode. As the thief tries to vacate the scene, his coat gets caught in the door. Cut to prison, to what will become a visual refrain: a chain of incarcerated men in a military quick-step. Thief to lawyer: “I’ve got to get out right away. I have a job to pull that will get me sent up for life!” Solution: someone has to be hired to confess to the crime and take the thief’s place. But it must be a first-time offender so he gets only six months. Does anyone know such an innocent?
Peppe, an inept boxer, gets into prison all right, but somehow the actual criminal isn’t let out—and poor Peppe is sentenced to three years! Frustrated, the thief shares with Peppe the big job he has planned. Now in the know, Peppe tells the fellow the truth: he got a one-year suspended sentence. Released, Peppe recruits his buddies for the perfect, easy crime. But what bumblers they all turn out to be!
The splendid script is by Monicelli, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, and the team of Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli. And the cast is to die for: Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, a luscious teenaged Claudia Cardinale, and Totò.
26. L’AVVENTURA. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #17.
27. ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS. Italy produces the most trenchant films about brothers. Among these are Valerio Zurlini’s Family Diary (see 1962), Francesco Rosi’s Three Brothers (see 1981), Gianni Amelio’s The Way We Laughed (1998)—and, of course, Luchino Visconti’s massive Rocco and His Brothers, inspired by Giovanni Testori’s novel Il Ponte della Ghisolfa, and a somewhat extravagant sequel of sorts to La terra trema (see 1948).
The film opens with the arrival by train of widowed Rosaria and four of her sons. Poverty has driven them from southern Italy to industrial Milan, where the family reunites with Vincenzo, a fifth son and brother, struggles, and two of the boys, saintly Rocco and obstreperous Simone (Alain Delon and Renato Salvatori, both tremendous), fall out over Nadia, the prostitute they both love. The atmosphere accompanying this last aspect of the film seems closer to Dostoievski than Visconti’s earlier White Nights (see 1957), while the film’s episodic structure formally embodies the family’s disintegration.
“It’s hard to find a job in Milan.” Rosaria, Simone, Rocco, Ciro and Luca move into the basement of an apartment block, and the first work the boys do, shoveling pavement, is occasioned by a snowfall. Such fortuitous piecemeal labor, however, is insufficient to sustain them. Simone becomes a boxer; Rocco takes a job in a dry cleaner’s. Eventually, after serving in the army, Rocco also becomes a boxer, signing a long-term contract, sacrificing himself in a complicated scheme of events for the sake of Simone, who would otherwise go to prison for theft. The burden of fraternal obligation undoes them both.
Visconti succeeds at describing, though not penetrating, a disastrous immigrant experience, adhering, rather, to Matthew Arnold’s dictum, “Not deep the poet sees, but wide.” The different degrees to which family members assimilate are fascinating to chart and compare.
28. TWO WOMEN. With the exception of The Roof (1957), Vittorio De Sica had occupied himself with trivial works following Umberto D. (see 1951). With La Ciociara, from Alberto Moravia’s novel, he directed one of his most trenchant films.
Allied forces are bombing Rome. Cesira flees with Rosetta, her teenaged daughter, to the country village of her birth. There is no escaping the war, however, the two discover.
The genre of the road film absorbs the spectacle of disruption and dislocation that war imposes. Mother and daughter both get raped by soldiers inside the presumed sanctuary of a church. Her innocence taken from her, Rosetta suits her subsequent behavior to her grief and self-disgust, provoking from Cesira an impassioned spanking—a futile gesture aimed at restoring a broken childhood. Roberto Rossellini’s General della Rovere (1959), about wartime courage, to which De Sica contributed a brilliant lead performance, had briefly restored De Sica to a sober and serious mode.
There are three especially compelling aspects. One is the ferocious passage depicting the two rapes. The shock into which the event throws Cesira is most convincing; here is a grueling portrait of a parent’s loss of the capacity to protect her child. Another is the beautiful (perhaps dubbed) performance by Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michele, a young idealist and Communist who is attracted to Rosetta. But above all is the film’s anecdotal nature, purging the drama of melodramatic exaggeration and consigning it to a nation’s haunted and heartbroken memory. Italy was recovering from the war economically; but to have been emotionally shattered is to remain so forever.
Carefully guided by mentor De Sica, Sophia Loren gives a rare good performance as Cesira. Only one preposterous element is attached to it: the rumor that the actress was originally considered for the role of Rosetta.
29. VIRIDIANA. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #22.
30. LA NOTTE. In his trilogy, Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte occupies the dead-center between the hopefulness with which L’avventura (see 1960) ends and the utter desolation of L’eclisse (see 1962), which begins and ends with the end of a relationship. It is a gray, weathered film that ends with a standstill in love that may yet be set back into motion. We certainly hope that life is still possible in Giovanni and Lidia’s marriage, and we appreciate their courteous, civilized treatment of one another in this troubled time of theirs. Their humanity, then, forms the basis for our hope that the couple may yet prevail. In retrospect, the conclusion of the trilogy, although it deals with a different (and unmarried) couple, eclipses all such hope.
Giovanni and Lidia visit Milan to see Tommaso, a dying friend, in hospital. From this we can see their decency and compassion; few filmmakers have such fondness for their characters as Antonioni does. But, also, Tommaso functions symbolically to suggest the emotional and spiritual exhaustion that each of the marital partners feels. It is after Lidia learns of Tommaso’s death that she tells Giovanni she no longer loves him. She feels this way not because of anything that Giovanni has done but because of what he hasn’t done; exhausted himself, he hasn’t been able to pull her out of her doldrums. In Antonioni, a marriage isn’t an island; Giovanni and Lidia are affected, severely, by the alienating modern world in which they find themselves. Antonioni wouldn’t think of cheapening the moment with sentimentality, so it is all the more heartrending when he reveals that Giovanni, a writer, is so lost to himself that he fails to recognize his most intimate words as his own.
Marcello Mastroianni is wonderful as Giovanni.
Night is Antonioni’s most moving film.
31. SALVATORE GIULIANO. Francesco Rosi had been making films for a decade when he revolutionized cinema with Salvatore Giuliano, which drew upon Neorealism, purging it of sentimentality and didacticism. (Rosi began as an assistant on Visconti’s La terra trema; see 1948.) The film opens in 1950 with an overhead shot of the murdered corpse, in a courtyard, of Salvatore Giuliano, Sicilian folk hero and Mafia associate. A documentary inquiry, without guidance of voiceover or an individual investigator, creates a mosaic fleshing out the import of that shot. During the postwar fight for Sicilian independence, Giuliano is an activist whose partisans, the pisciotti, attack Italy’s military police (which retaliates with equal brutality in the village of Montelepre) and massacre Communists at Portella della Ginestra. Giuliano eludes authorities, but Giuliano’s close associate, Gaspare Pisciotti, is put on trial in Viterbo. Rosi’s film, a painstaking reconstruction of events in Sicily and southern Italy, paved the way for Roberto Rossellini’s present-tense histories and Gillo Pontecorvo’s combustible The Battle of Algiers (see 1965), to whose script Franco Solinas again contributed.
Salvatore Giuliano eludes us as well as authorities; his face is rarely shown, and when the character is shown it is most often as a figure in white fleeing across white mountainous terrain. Beautiful pans of the landscape alternate between evoking the watchful eyes of partisans and searching for Giuliano. He is folk phantom and real boy, his mother’s wailing over his dead body attesting to the latter. Using just two professional actors (neither plays Giuliano) in a sea of actual Sicilian villagers many of whom were reliving events in which they had actually participated, Rosi achieves a fantastic degree of realism. The scene in which a wailing mass of women floods the streets in protest to the military round-up of their men is exceptionally powerful.
32. IL POSTO—literally, The Job, but released in the U.S. as The Sound of Trumpets to discourage, for commercial reasons, the notion that the film has anything to do with work. But writer-director Ermanno Olmi’s film has everything to do with work.
Domenico, 15, is out in the job market because his younger brother is in school and the family needs whatever it can get. In their apartment in Meda, a village in Lombardy, Domenico sleeps in the kitchen and his brother does homework at the kitchen table. This is not a family of means.
Domenico applies for a clerical post at a large company in Milan. With a host of others, he is taking a general examination including an aptitude test. His father has told him that a job at this company, however little it pays, is a job for life.
The film, wonderfully acted by nonprofessionals, resurrects a Neorealist line. The key is subdued, and the style, rigorously documentary. There isn’t even a score on the soundtrack.
The film is divided into two parts, one in which Domenico tries to get the job, and one in which he holds a job. The enormity of the palace of employment, coupled with the practiced subservience of those who work there, suggests that employment is a gift. It turns out, despite job advertisements, nobody will be hired as a clerk; because he did well on the tests, Domenico is hired as a messenger—a position too low to bolster the shy boy’s confidence to pursue Magali, who has been hired as a typist. (Oh my!) A fortuitous death, probably the result of work monotony, opens a clerical position that Domenico gets to fill, thus becoming one of a roomful of robots. Few films slip so easily from realism into satirical expressionism.
33. L’ECLISSE. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #5.
34. THE FIANCÉS. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #62.
35. FAMILY DIARY. From Vasco Pratolini’s autobiographical novel (Pratolini contributed to the script), Valerio Zurlini’s Cronaca familiare follows Florentine brothers Enrico and Lorenzo Corsi. Zurlini emphasizes universality, in particular, the grandmother’s love for the boys (Sylvie’s performance is tremendous), and the elder brother’s contemplation of the eternal mystery, for him, of Lorenzo’s nature—a mystery ultimately sealed in the latter’s youthful death from an ailment itself so mysterious that it comes to seem a projection of Enrico’s limited capacity to fathom Lorenzo.
The film opens in 1945, in a newsroom in Rome, where Enrico (Marcello Mastroianni, deeply affecting), a struggling journalist, is informed that a piece of his will be published. But news he receives by telephone robs the moment of joy: Enrico’s younger brother, in his twenties, died yesterday. The different course of their lives consigned Lorenzo to relative wealth and Enrico to poverty and squalor. Tubercular, why isn’t he the one to have died? In an outdoor long shot, slowly moving down a street against a continuous backdrop of immense buildings on both sides, Enrico seems like the narrowly entombed walking dead.
When Enrico returns to his meager accommodations, Zurlini slips into using a subjective camera. The emptiness confronting Enrico (empty chair, unpopulated desk) reflects his vacant feeling. He is separated forever from the treasure of his brother’s company and love. He has finally caught up with Italy’s postwar mood of bereavement, exhaustion, defeat. He withdraws into memory, the years of the boys’ separation owing to their father’s war-wrought absence and their mother’s death, the baby’s adoption by another family, contrasts (example: Lorenzo, Fascist; Enrico, anti-Fascist), and then unlikely reunion and gradually reignited love.
The film is literary but heartrending. The jury that awarded it the top prize at Venice: “delicious, powerful evocation of feelings filtered by memory.”
36. IL GATTOPARDO. 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #63.
37. LES CARABINIERS. 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #64.
38. HANDS OVER THE CITY. In Naples, disaster strikes. How closely adjacent to a slum building is the new apartment building that was being constructed? The former has collapsed, killing two and robbing a boy of his legs. The real estate developer responsible for the new construction, Edoardo Nottola, sits on the City Council. The public land had been sold to him, and his development of it ignored urban planning law, including safety regulations. With the next municipal election one month away, an investigation is launched into governmental responsibility, but each agency admits to only the narrowest handprint on the project, declaring itself innocent of all irregularities. Someone else is to blame; but, as a both-serving political alliance is forged between Nottola’s right wing and the center, all responsible hands are absolved and Nottola, following re-election, is made City Commissioner! One cover-up covers up another.
With documentary realism and poker-faced satire, former journalist Francesco Rosi’s Le mani sulla città achieves brilliant, absorbing, sometimes thrilling results. It is a film of hands. Hilariously, after the accident, city councilmen—and at this point in patriarchic Italy they are all men—throw up their hands as a sign of having hands that are clean of the building disaster. Other shots involve a sea of hands; in another, in the street, they belong to impoverished tenants who have been evicted as the city poses as though it were conducting itself responsibly. Where will these people—and in this group there are countless women—go?
Toward and at the end, two shots of epic withdrawal, one inside the City Council chamber and the other outdoors, as another construction project is christened that will make Nottola even richer, one by dollie, one by reverse zoom lens, challenge us: Step back, and see what’s going on!
39. IL DESERTO ROSSO. 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #67.
40. IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO. When Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew was first released here, it disappointed my sister-in-law. All the buzz about a Marxist filming of the Christian gospel had her expecting what today we would call a communist “spin” on the material. This she did not find; this, no one would be able to find. Indeed, the film doesn’t impose a communist complexion onto the Gospel. Rather, by allowing the text to speak for itself, in the context that the images provide, Pasolini’s film shows that, translated into twentieth-century political terms, Jesus was a communist. Humanistically and non-ideologically, the film presents the character that the Gospel indicates.
Pasolini came from the right country to accomplish this. Christianity, humanism and neorealismo all converged to enable this son of Italy to make this particular film. Beautifully shot in gritty black and white—the cinematographer is Tonino delli Colli—over rough terrain, the Gospel does complete justice to the hardship endured by those whom history would anoint as the first Christians. Here is the finest, most profound film about Jesus, perhaps surpassing even the wonderful material about Jesus included in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book (1919). It may also be, apart from Francesco, giullare di Dio (see above), cinema’s finest instance of applying neorealismo to the past—and without the addition of fabulous elements that partially shift Rossellini’s (greater) film to somewhat different expressive territory. In its attempt to unite Marxism with his deep religious feeling, moreover, it may also be Pasolini’s most personal work.
The Gospel is nonprofessionally cast. I do not quite know what to make of the fact that Pasolini gave his own mother, Susanna Pasolini, the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. For the record, though, her performance is brilliant.
41. BEFORE THE REVOLUTION. “Those who didn’t live in the eighteenth century before the [French] Revolution will never be able to know the sweetness of life.” — Talleyrand
At 22 Bernardo Bertolucci made Prima della rivoluzione. Fabrizio, his young protagonist, concludes there’s no escaping his bourgeois past, no matter his Leftist political leanings. The oppressed whom he would help liberate aspire to be members of the middle class! Meanwhile, he has an affair with Aunt Gina, whom as a little boy he enjoyed watching dress. “I always laugh, I always cry,” says this encapsulation of Mother Church. She breaks down after being taunted by a child—I presume a Puckish image of herself—obliviously singing up in a tree. “You are happy,” she says aloud as Fabrizio (whom we glimpse through a window) dances in the street. “But it won’t last . . . you’ll forget me. You’ll hate me.” At Fabrizio’s wedding send-off, Gina (Adriana Asti, terrific) is tearfully showering with kisses a younger nephew.
Inspired by Godard and Resnais’s Marienbad (1961), Bertolucci tries everything: zooms; a moving car camera, attached either to the front or the side; dissolves within a scene—if you will, “soft” jump-cuts; hard jump-cuts; misty lyrical poetry by a lake. This movie is in love with movies and movie-making.
It is also one of the most important films for understanding the sixties. Its lovely incest (seven years before Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart) reaches for a synthesis derived from thesis (family, structure, order) and antithesis (the pleasure of doing one’s own thing). In the States we knew on the basis of this reconciliation that revolution would never happen here.
Or, perhaps, anywhere else in the postwar West. A schoolteacher tells Fabrizio, “[Y]ou can argue only with people who have the same ideas.”
Devastating; irreplaceable; phenomenal.
42. VAGHE STELLE DELL’ORSO. Misty Stars of the Great Bear (called Sandra in the U.S.) took the top prize, the Golden Lion of St. Mark, at Venice. It is Luchino Visconti’s starkest film and among his most brilliant ones.
Claudia visits Volterra, in Tuscany, with her American husband. The occasion: a ceremony honoring her Jewish father, who perished at Auschwitz. She and her brother, Gianni, suspect that their still-living mother and stepfather denounced their father. They determine to pursue this and extract justice. Their own close relationship, the subject of a novel he is writing, constitutes a memory Gianni cherishes, but Claudia is perplexed and nearly traumatized by it. Just what happened so many years ago, on both fronts?
As he did in Il Gattopardo (see #42) and would do again in The Damned (see 1969), Visconti explores the decay and collapse of an aristocratic family as a reflection of national history. Both Claudia and Gianni feel driven to connect the dots of family history. Their stirring up a cauldron of secrets and suspiciousness ultimately shatters one of them, who commits suicide. Mourning may become Electra, but Claudia heads back to America—in its simplicity, heartlessness and obliviousness (qualities represented by her spouse), a refuge from her obsessions with father, brother, Italy, the past.
We have, then, a skeletons-in-the-closet film, one that generates ancient echoes through its absorption and delicate rendering of the Electra myth. Italy has made many haunted films about its Fascist past and the German occupation, but this may be the most gripping. Armando Nannuzzi’s black-and-white cinematography encompasses claustrophobic darkness and sorely ironic ravishing light. It befits an operatic mood-piece about unsettled and unsettling events, both familial and national.
Claudia Cardinale and Marie Bell memorably play daughter and mother, while Jean Sorel functions as an Alain Delon substitute.
43. FISTS IN THE POCKET. In perhaps the most stunning debut in Italian cinema, 25-year-old writer-director Marco Bellocchio tackles the contemporary Italian family, suggesting the perverted mindset of Fascism, which, the film implies, proceeded from an obsession with family to the detriment of individualist consciousness and behavior. Augusto’s fiancée, Lucia, has received a threatening anonymous note from, they believe, his sister, Giulia, telling her to back off because she is pregnant with his child. The presumed motive: to keep Augusto at home, in part to help take care of their blind mother. Meanwhile, Giulia has received a love letter from Alessandro, their brother, who (perhaps having read Of Mice and Men) gets miffed when their other brother, Leone, feeds the pet rabbits he considers his own. Who and what belongs to whom?: What isn’t mixed up now, twenty years after the war?
Ale—Alessandro—is the main character. He and Leone, who is retarded, are epileptic. We know things are just not right with Ale by the way he is introduced; he falls into the frame from above, presumably out of a tree. One of cinema’s greatest black comedies is in full gear.
Indeed, Ale owes something to the protagonist of cinema’s greatest black comedy, Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Ale kills, too—also from a surfeit of family feeling, you understand. Augusto, who at least seems normal, should not have to put up with this ratty family of his. One by one its members meet a horrible death, starting with Mom.
Lou Castel’s brilliant performance as Alessandro highlights this hilarious and frightening film. Paola Pitagora also is memorable as Giulia.
Castel’s Alessandro not only looks back to Bates but also ahead to River Phoenix’s heartrending narcoleptic Mike in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991).
44. THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. Gillo Pontecorvo, as a teenager, was a leader in Italy’s anti-Fascist underground movement. As a filmmaker, though, he proved dull and unadventurous (The Wide Blue Road, 1957). Although derivative of Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (see 1962) and Nanni Loy’s Four Days of Naples (1962), The Battle of Algiers marked his substantial improvement.
The Battle of Algiers, which ended in 1957, began the Algerian rebellion, 1954-1962, against longtime French colonial rule. Soldiers, dispatched to crush the rebellion and given a blank check in their methods, tortured and murdered, including vast numbers of innocents, claiming as many as a million Algerian lives. Pursuing their people’s independence, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) used violent means that today would brand them as terrorists.
Pontecorvo’s reconstruction of the street war, shot with hand-held cameras on black-and-white newsreel stock in the actual locations, has such raw urgency that the film announces upfront—boasts, really—that no newsreel or documentary footage was used. The brilliant cinematography is by Marcello Gatti.
Commissioned by the ultimately victorious FLN, the film is passionately anticolonialist. There is a passage that shows an FLN member, a young woman, coolly blowing up a restaurant, before which she and the camera survey innocent French Algerian patrons, including children; some viewers go with this and other moments to claim for the film a “balanced” approach. The tone of the film admits no such possibility. Clearly, Pontecorvo feels that the situation—colonialist rule, now exacerbated by military terror—gives the African Algerians a moral blank check in their pursuit of independence. It is the French whose catalogue of terrorism, in the service of the status quo, overwhelms with its viciousness.
President Jacques Chirac, a soldier in Algeria, has thus counseled George W. Bush against repeating in Iraq France’s mistakes.
45. LE SOLDATESSE. Valerio Zurlini’s The Camp Followers, from Ugo Pirro’s novel, is about the armed transport of a convoy of women, prostitutes because of the poverty war has imposed, to service Italian soldiers in brothels in the 1940s during World War II. The action begins in Athens, Greece, and proceeds north. The truck ride over treacherous mountainous terrain evolves into a metaphor for war.
Three soldiers are in charge of the transport: Lieutenant Gaetano Martino (Tomas Milian, magnificent), a sergeant, and Major Castagnoli. The perfect image of unbending military authority, the last is the only one not to change as a result of the ordeal. He embodies the monstrousness of war. The sergeant seems almost oblivious to war, while Martino is sick of it—heartsick, and sick to the bone. He and Castagnoli collide.
Eftichia (Marie Laforêt, striking) is the most brooding and miserable of the prostitutes; young Martino falls in love with Elenitza (Anna Karina, poignant), the group’s apparent leader and warmest member.
Whereas the women are shot to stress their solidarity as a group (for instance, the camera picks them up all facing the camera), the men, particularly Martino and Castagnoli, converse often without looking at one another, sometimes facing in opposite directions.
During the firing squad deaths of a handful of “traitors,” Eftichia responds as though she also were being shot. Earlier, the group is attacked. One of the stricken women lies on the ground, dead. Martino covers the corpse with a blanket. His hand solemnly, caringly weighs in gently on the blanket. A long shot immediately follows: a panoramic view of the truck as it continues on its winding mission—at such a distance, a moving dot. We see what appears to be a gigantic handprint in the massive rock. It is the impression of war.
46. THE HAWKS AND THE SPARROWS. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s rambunctious comedy The Hawks and the Sparrows is an ideological fable.
An old man and his son are walking down a vacant road. They pass through a slum punctuated by billboards, each identifying an individual but also a widespread problem: an unemployed man; a child who ran away. Down the road they meet a black crow, a self-described Leftist intellectual. The crow says his parents are Conscience and Doubt. The crow accompanies the pair.
Suddenly the men are transported to the thirteenth century, where they are friars. St. Francis charges them with preaching God’s love to hawks and sparrows and converting the birds to Christianity. This they do amidst hilarious chirping; the hawks convert to consolidate their power, while the sparrows convert out of desperation. When the sparrows explain they need wheat and millet, they are told to fast! But the friars burst into tears when a hawk assaults and kills a sparrow. God’s love, apparently, is insufficient to counter class warfare. The two report back to St. Francis, who chides the friars for misunderstanding history and foretells the Coming of the Messiah: Karl Marx!
Back in the present, the father utilizes an outhouse for a bowel movement. He and his son are told to take their shit with them. They refuse; they are shot at. Ownership and property lead to strife and battles.
Now the two are a landlord and his goon. They invade the shack of an impoverished couple and threaten to confiscate their home for nonpayment of rent. For four days running, the woman has convinced her children to stay in bed because she has nothing to feed them. She is cooking a bird’s nest for her spouse. So recently victims themselves, our pair are unmoved.
Food for thought.
47. THE HUNT. Three businessmen go rabbit hunting one day thirty years after being fascist compatriots in the Spanish Civil War. They start bickering from the get-go, kill animals, and end up shooting and killing each other.
With Carlos Saura directing from a brilliant script by himself and Angelino Fons, La Caza revolves around the metaphor of the hunt as a revival of the war from the vantage of Franco’s winners, disconsolate men burdened somehow by the past despite victory. Another of their old group, Arturo, became an embezzler and committed suicide—an act they cannot comprehend; yet doesn’t their new bloodbath comprise their own suicides by proxy? Many shots show trapped animals: caged pet ferrets; a rabbit attacked in its hole by one of the released ferrets; a beetle, in closeup, transported to a wall of rock, where it’s shot to smithereens. But the hunters themselves are trapped in that earlier time, when they hunted Loyalists instead of rabbits, and they can’t escape. One has brought along his brother-in-law, Enrique, who is way too young to have fought in the war; but he, too, it turns out, chokes on the symbolic noxious fumes that are the result of the war’s tragic outcome. Sardonically, Saura traps him in a conclusive freeze frame in mid-flight from the scene of carnage.
In one of the close mines a skeleton resides—as one of the hunters explains, a likely veteran of the war. Are any of these men really alive, or do they creep like guilty things in the shadow of blood they long ago shed? The infected rabbits symbolize the sick Spain that the war’s outcome consolidated. The desolate black-and-white landscape: the radio’s rock ’n’ roll desecrates this hallowed ground.
Enrique is warned: “Be careful. Aim at the rabbits.”
48. THE STRANGER. Albert Camus, who wrote the 1942 novel L’Etranger had been born to pieds-noirs in Algeria. His protagonist, a clerk, is a Frenchman who also lives in Algeria. In Luchino Visconti’s film, Meursault is played by Marcello Mastroianni, who was a dozen years too old for the part and way too emotionally accessible: a fortuitous stroke of monumental miscasting, for Mastroianni seems to be showing us Meursault (simultaneously) both outside and in-. In book and film, Meursault reminds one of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, whose ready response to any instruction or possibility of behavior is, “I prefer not to.” Meursault’s unintended assault on bourgeois sensibility when he fails to cry at his mother’s funeral is why he is tried and sentenced to beheading for the shooting death of an Arab man in the desert. His explanation for the act is the blazing, dizzying sun. The way Visconti shoots the scene is fiercely literal; it locates the absurdity of the act in the metaphysical conjoining of the death’s finality and Meursault’s casual, throwaway (though not quite flippant) explanation. Visconti is enormously convincing here.
Indeed, Visconti is close to brilliant throughout, succeeding in making both the Arab victim and a neighbor’s loved/hated, talked-about scabby dog somehow seem broken images of Meursault himself. It is a broken world, in fact, in which Meursault endeavors to rely on himself for integrity.
Lo Straniero reminds one how incredibly funny Visconti can be. The scene where Meursault’s avowed atheism causes the Prosecutor to go ballistic is hilarious. The film’s greatest shot, though, is anything but funny: the camera surveying Arabs in the dark holding cell after Meursault, arrested, answers, “I killed an Arab,” when asked by someone there what crime he committed. Here, we are very far from the ambiguating sunlight in the dunes.
49. WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY. Caustic, brilliantly exciting, Elio Petri’s A ciascuno il suo—literally, To Each His Own—finds a plethora of rumors at a funeral and a wedding addressing a Sicilian tangle of politics, corruption, Mafia, murders, extramarital sex, incest, and the Church. Anything-goes in its dazzling variety of shots, electrically paced and beautifully acted, the film is an adaptation of Leonardo Sciascia’s novel. Petri and Ugo Pirro took the best screenplay prizes at Cannes and from the Italian critics, who also named Petri best director and the film’s superlative star, Gian Maria Volontè, best actor.
Volontè plays thirtysomething Paolo Laurana, a university professor, bachelor and, like Petri himself, former Communist who, suspicious of the official arrests, takes upon himself the investigation of the murders of two men, both of whom he knew, during an early morning hunt in the hills. The “felling” of the pharmacist, who had been receiving anonymous death threats in the mail for weeks, and Dr. Roscio following the gun-blasting of one bird after another from the sky is both frightening and hilarious—like much of the film. Paolo slips ever deeper into paranoia, a reflection of Italy’s mood in the mid-1960s.
Americans are apt to chuckle (nervously!) when someone compares Sicily, because of the violence, to U.S. cities, specifically, Chicago and Dallas.
Co[s]mic fate, we realize, may have had a hand in the mayhem inasmuch as Dr. Roscio’s grieving father, a former eye doctor, is blind now.
Paolo, although slow on the romantic draw, falls for Roscio’s widow, Luisa (Irene Papas, stunning—and uproariously ambiguous), is warned away from her by Luisa’s cousin, a powerful attorney, and starts getting death threats himself. Oops.
The approaching darkening mass of people turns bride’s white to widow’s black in the closing shot.
50. TEOREMA. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Marxism, religious feeling, gayness and penchant for startling visual poetry combine for a heady brew in Theorem, a surreal allegory about a handsome no-name stranger (Terence Stamp) who inexplicably visits a bourgeois Milanese family and proceeds to seduce maid, son, Mom, daughter and Dad before departing. This is The Gospel According to Sinner Pier Paolo. The Vatican condemned it, and Pasolini was actually tried for obscenity. Thank God he prevailed!
Dad (Massimo Girotti) owns a factory. He gets it in the behind last because he is the pièce de résistance. Upshot: Dad turns over his factory to the workers. Well and good; but Pasolini reflects upon a possible adverse consequence: that the working class itself might turn bourgeois. Pasolini: “[A]nything done by the bourgeoisie, however sincere, profound, and noble it is, is always on the wrong side of the track.”
The opening shot is of an expanse of seemingly ancient barren land, upon which is superimposed a quote from Exodus to the effect that God led the people by way of the wilderness. This is followed by shots of the factory complex, followed by the owner’s chauffeured entrance into the complex. Shots of the wilderness are interspersed. The factory owner thus appears as the modern diminution of God, while the factory, “civilization,” has replaced the wilderness. A shot of the owner with his family at the dinner table implies that “home” is an extension of “factory.” With its touch of wildness/wilderness, the anonymous stranger’s pansexuality is bound to shake things up.
The stranger’s first conquest is the maid (Laura Betti, brilliant), who simply adores him. She ends up, miraculously, suspended in air, arms outstretched, herself an object of adoration. Wow!
Despite efforts to condemn Pasolini, his film is chaste: bare male buttocks—no genitalia.