«My omen for the future – said Jean Rouch during the 1979 Venice Festival meeting on ’Cinema for the coming 80s’ – is for a cinema of amateurs who not only will love what they do but will dedicate themselves to the teenager corruption and they’ll trip up those going along too much obvious paths thus breaking up too much consacrated balances».
I’m so pleased you asked me for some notes on the Young Italian Cinema and I salute your interest like a sign of passionate friendship both for Italy and the cinema.
But don’t expect from me any critical mumbo-jumbo on the list of films you’re going to see and judge by yourselves. I would rather drive you throu the ambiental developing of this fresh trend in our exhausted cinema, which is fatally aging with his historic authors and adventurous producers of the golden age of the Sixties: for many of them the screen of life turned definitely dark and silent. I’m actually on vacation in my Venetian buen retiro of the Giudecca island and my spirit it’s so light and free that it will be real fun to talk to my far Swedish cinematic friends in a way which at the moment could be rather embarassing in Italy: pointing out facts, instead of blah-blah rhetoric.
I hope those notes will help many of you to focus on the work and personality of our young authors when integrated with the immediate and personal feeling you’ll catch from the screening.
Almost any important city in Italy got some unique and special feature for which is proverbially reknown. People’s wit in ages resumed it in a sort of motto. As for Cremona, a rich northern town laying just on the border between the industrial district of Lombardia and the agricoltural one of Emilia-Romagna, the motto used to say (in local dialect): ”Toròn, toràzz, tetàzz”. The torrone or nougat (”toròn”), the ancient barbican (”toràzz”), and the Cremonese women’s big boobs (”tetàzz”) being the local specialties.
Lately, since at least one generation, the motto changed into ”Toròn, Tognàzz e tetàzz”, because of the nationwide popularity achieved by the late Ugo Tognazzi, beloved comic actor, who was born in Cremona and througout his long career on stage and cinema and tv always expressed both the good nature of the cremonese countrymen and the provincial wit of tipical northern Italy metropolitan dweller. Tognazzi, together with Alberto Sordi, is the typical hero of the happy Italian Comedy era of the 60s.
No wonder when one of Ugo Tognazzi’s son, Ricky, decided to start a career in the movies directing La scorta (The escort). The name itself sounded as a guarantee. It has been a normal occurrence in the 80s the debut of a whole generation of ”sons of art”, grown up descendants of outstanding personalities of the Italian showbiz, the latest being Sophia Loren’s son staging a drama in Spoleto on july this year : the entire family Ponti-Loren was there to applaud the greenhorn.
Before going any further, let’s settle down some pretty easy schematic references.
You can tell three different geographical, economical and political areas in Italy where the so called Young Italian Cinema eventually sprouted out.
They are: North, South, Deep South. And namely Milano, Rome, Naples/Palermo/Catania.
But I’d rather distinguish these areas as: On the Navigli (i.e. on the canals encircling Milano, designed by Leonardo da Vinci’s genius); On the Tevere, the ”blonde river” flowing under the bridges of Rome; Under the Volcanos (the Vesuvio overhanging Neaples, the Etna in Sicily).
Historic origins of cinema in Italy are located in the industrial northern area of Italy, namely in Torino, where in a huge museum (unique in Italy) are gathered all the instruments and documents of these early experiences. Here it took place the first documented shooting, the early studios were built and glorious production companies established. At the end of the 19th century, in a still mainly agricoltural nation, Torino was the main industrial centre, crowded with engineers and feverish with technical research. That’s why the amazing invention imported from the near France was immediately adopted and developed.
On recurrent periods of industrial and economic prosperity, Milano as always expressed cinematic talents. Even if many of them (Lattuada, Visconti, Risi) migrated to Rome, other remained and a common ground for them to flourish has constantly been some corporate communication department or an advertising organization. This was the destiny of Ermanno Olmi in the early 60s: employee in the local Edison Electricity Company, he was in charge of periodically shooting the great works of mountain dams for water powered plants. Later on he eventually produced Il posto.
But let’s come closer, to the early 1980. After the terrible decade of the 70s, dominated by terrorism and blood-stained extremisms (Piazza Fontana massacre in 1969 marked the beginning of it all), Milano was slowly recovering from the so called ”anni di piombo”, the years of lead, with the illusion of entering a new era when Bettino Craxi, milanese and socialist leader, was elected as prime minister.
It seemed the sign for a new start in economy, the market suddenly peaked up and a widespread fever of activity pushed any business up. Especially the advertising businness, mainly based in Milan where many multi-national ad agencies were operating, lived an extraordinary moment of affluence and effervescence. A famous ad claimed at the time: ”Milano da bere”, Milano to be sipped, thus stressing both the advertised drink excellence and the leading role that Milano was taking up in the forthcoming spirited Craxian society.
In those days a former building contractor turns into multimedia impresario and starts to build up an independent tv network, taking advantage from the vacancy of anti-trust rules in that field. He’s Silvio Berlusconi, Bettino Craxi’s close friend. Out-of-use film studios in Milan are quickly readapted as tv studios and brought to new life by the magic touch of Berlusconi’s Fininvest Group. (See Federico Fellini’s L’intervista and Ginger & Fred, to understand how arrogant and devastating was that building of a tv network empire with the support of political power and the complicity of the overflooding advertising biz, eager to conquer new territories where to expand the uncontainable consumistic urge of the moment.)
Maurizio Nichetti, a young scriptwriter, employee by Bozzetto Film Company, in his free time used to participate in an amateur mime group, ”Quelli di Grock”. One day he asked his boss the permission to shoot some footage with his friends mimes. He shot some gags, he edited a double heads and went to to Rome to show it over to Franco Cristaldi, the only one surviving and still operating in Italy, of a bunch of brave and adventurous producers and talent scouts who made the Italian cinema great in the golden days (just to name some of them: Peppino Amato, Carlo Ponti, Dino De Laurentiis, Angelo Rizzoli).
Cristaldi had a flair for good ideas (years later he discovered Giuseppe Tornatore, produced Nuovo cinema Paradiso, and led him to win an Oscar) and helped Maurizio to produce his low budget opera prima, a lively pantomime (in which of course he plaid the leading role) full of gags and surprising events like a cartoon film. In the soundtrack, only sound effects . The title itself sounded like a drums break: Ratataplàn. Presented at the Venice Film Festival, was a big success for a small film, so fresh and innocent.
Nichetti then wrote, directed, interpreted and produced (with his independent company, Bamboo Film Co.) a series of films on the conflict between the common man and the devastating consumism: among them Volere volare (Willing to Fly), a love story in mixed technique, live action and cartoon, and Ladri di saponette (Toilette-soaps Thieves) updating the neorealistic poorness of De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette up to consumistic rich days: in fact the film was conceived like a volley of absurd commercials occasionally interrupted by the story of a low class neorealistic family.
Maurizio ended up featuring himself as popular tv show entertainer as well.
Commercial films and mime experiences helped Nichetti to show out. In fact he wasn’t an absolute beginner, but rather a typical product of a Milanese advertising side effect.
Almost the same effect launched in a different way the career of Gabriele Salvatores, a young stage producer working with a Milanese off theatre group, Il teatro dell’Elfo. Friend to one of the owners of an important commercial production company, Politecne Cinematogafica, Gabriele convinced him to make a film version of his musical stage production of A Midsummer Night Dream. Very ambitious plan indeed, to shoot a coreographic musical in the streets of Milan, by night, with an amateurs cast. In fact, it resulted in a fiasco: mainly because of the poor technical quality of the music score and the desperate attempts to synch-edit it with the playback shooting: eventually the shooting was in 24 f.p.s. while the sound was running on a 25 f.p.s. speed.
But this first encounter with the camera conquered Gabriele to a new medium to express his talent with. Together with the bunch of Elfo and Ciak Theatres actors (namely Diego Abatantuono, Antonio Cederna, Aldo Bisio), Gabriele founded the Colorado Film Co. in Milan and produced a series of film centered on the dismays of the post-68 generation (his own generation in fact), the fall of ideologies, the troubles of often conflicting love and friendship: he’s now living with his best friend’s wife while the same friend has married Gabriele ex wife. (Or something entangled like that, as the gossip says). So appeared on the screen such minimalistic films as Marrakesh Express, Turné, Puerto Escondido and the lucky Mediterraneo, Oscar winner. They can all be considered variations on the theme ”close friendship is forever”.
At the moment he’s editing his first sci-fi colossal, Nirvana, due on screen by fall: curious enough, after so many efforts to contrast with all that uncontainable invasion from the USA, buddhist Gabriele has decided to defy the enemy on his own ground. We’ll see what will happen.
We’ve considered how the affluent avertising environment on the Navigli generated cinema and independent authors-producers as side effects. Let’s see now how Milanese amateur filmmakers turned into feature film authors, always with the side complicity of the advertising milieu and commercial sponsoring.
At the Anteo Cinema d’Essai every year takes place the Milan Film Makers Exhibition and Contest, once for 8 mm and super-8 films, later on for 16 mm as well as for any format of video productions. It has been sponsored by the local authority together with private companies like Prevost and Fumeo (editing tables and projector manufacturers) and Sony Italy, in order to give young and unknown authors a screen for a first showing of their works during the festival week.
One of this event saluted the debut of Silvio Soldini with a 16mm b/w film (a love story, I can’t remember the title) and eventually Luca Bigazzi, the son of a friend and colleague of mine, an advertising film director. Luca was seven years old when he first appeared in a Nestlé commercial shot by his dad, biting a bar of chocolate with his big marmot teeth. He was still a teenager when borrowing from Union Film (where he worked as assistant to his father) some spotlights, an old 16 mm camera and tripod, some out of date b/w virgin footage boxes, drove in the winter fog to join his friend Silvio and shoot every other night for two months in a chilling deserted villa outside Milan. Now Luca is an outstanding and internationally reknown professional photography director (see Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica as one of the best films he photographed).
The actual debut of both Silvio and Luca was L’aria serena dell’Ovest (The Western Clear Air) a 35 mm color movie, a tale on the apparent easy life in the consumistic metropolitan Milan, a harsh love affair between a nurse and a marketing researcher. The film was presented at Venice, found a distribution, appeared on screens and at the tv and at last was widely distributed in video-cassettes. Soldini’s style (Silvio is an Italian Swiss) resents from Goddard’s lesson as well from Antonioni style: the thin and almost absent minded atmosphere of narration is there to confirm it. Eventually, the intimistic and shy Soldini has not yet taken off from his early film maker origins.
We’ll see what a difference it made on the banks of the Tevere.
Lot of water flowed under the bridges on the Tevere in Rome, since Mussolini opened the Cinecittà studios: a huge sign hanging across the entrance read Cinematography, the weapon of regime.
The Roman cinema, so close to power and authority, has always been, since then, a cinema of regimes – in order to achieve benefits of law and easy financing from subsequent governments – yet remaining mostly a disguised opponent of the regime itself and often succeeding in walking around the censorship’s gates and traps.
During the 80s the Italian motion picture industry started to suffer by a deep crisis. For years, during the anni di piombo, the cinemagoers were scared to go out by night, with the risk of being involved in some shooting or bombing. On the other hand a striking wave of commercial tvs overflowed the domestic videos and the Italian secluded domestic evenings. Many halls were closed or transformed into one more supermarket: Tornatore’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso as well as Splendid by Ettore Scola both stressed these aspects of the structural crisis in which the cinema, thats never been a solid industrial organisation in Italy but rather an impresarios’ businness, was involved.
Cinecittà invaded by commercial film companies from Milan was a poor sight indeed: once again refer to Fellini’s L’intervista (The interview). But it helped the studios to survive.
In those years the survival for the Italian cinema depended mostly on an obsolete, bureaucratically complicated Cinema Bill. Referring to art. 28 of that bill, funds for producing new authors’ first work of social and artistic interest could be assigned by a number of ministerial committees in charge of examing projects and screen-plays. Those boards were carefully controlled by dominating party power, thus the funds went their way mostly on the basis of political opportunity. It must be said that the Craxian socialist party played the lion role with the ”art. 28”. Distribution, and sometimes co-production was in control of Italnoleggio Cinematografico, a state corporation under strict political control.
As art.28 debutant, Ricky Tognazzi choose to surf the wave of the enormous, overwhelming emotive wave raised nationwide by the mafia massacre of the judges Falcone and Borsellino. The script of La scorta (The escort) is due to the fast pen of Ricky’s wife Simona Izzo.
Stressing the drama of policemen’s young lives continuously overexposed to mortal danger together with the targeted personalities they were ordered to protect, the film would apparently be a tribute both to the myth of the anonymous heroes and to the epic of those desperate youngmen, mostly coming up from the Deep South of Italy agonizing with unemployment, servicing in the police just to make a life out of challenging death.
The audience didn’t react like the box office eventually expected. Too close was the fiction to the real events. Anyway La scorta revealed a young actor’s new face, whose luck has continuously increased since then: Claudio Amendola.
Quite different was the debut of a good water-polo player Nanni Moretti. Years before he went around presenting in alternative film makers clubs his 8mm Io sono un autarchico (I’m an Autarkic) and 16mm Ecce Bombo, later on blown up in 35mm for the commercial circuit.
Moretti’s last film Caro diario (Dear diary), following both the metamorphosis of La cosa (The Thing) from the PCI (Italian Communist Party) into PDS (Left Democratic Party), and a long lasting, misterious disease Nanni suffered for, marks a sort of coming back to the original autarky of feelings and thoughts on the changing political panorama. The visit to Pier Paolo Pasolini memorial, that horrible concrete monument on the shore where he was murdered, seems to mark the very land’s end for a hope of moral dignity and civil poetry . He has recovered from his strange illness, but a subtile malady is affecting and endangering the life of the nation in the middle of a dead season waiting for a new springtime.
Since he established the independent production company Sacher Film together with Angelo Barbagallo, Nanni promoted many young talents debuts: like Lucchetti (Il portaborse, The Yes Man) and Mazzacurati (Notte italiana, Italian Night) among the other still coming up. Nanni’s maturity and innate pedagogical attitude make of him a master of cinema for a whole new generation, even if it won’t show out as a personalized school but it rather looks like a sort of happy workshop, a Renaissance bottega dell’arte, where each apprentice keeps growing under his maestro eyes, expressing the best of his own fresh personality.
Gianni Amelio and Giuseppe Bertolucci, brother of celebrated Bernardo, can be as well classified as ex young cinematographers, now turned into mature masters. It was Giuseppe that discovered in a small village in Tuscany the unchained verve of a short, spare countryman, a sort of marionette, whose name was Roberto Benigni. Giuseppe brought him to Milan, he presented him on a cabaret stage, performing one of his endless monologue, and it was a success. Giuseppe then wrote and produced for him a tv show on the national network: TeleVacca (Cow Tv). It was conceived like a pirate tv, directly broadcasting from a cowshed, where peasant Roberto, his favourite cow and his neighbour Monna carried on a crazy rapid-fire of witty inventions and arguments on whatever passed throu their minds, displaying their entire Tuscan madness repertory.
Since those far days of the late 70s, the spirited Roberto has entered the Italian hall of fame for there to stay as a sort of national Mr. Natural, or better a real revived shakespearian Fool. The nation needed such a relief.
After Giuseppe Bertolucci’s Berlinguer ti voglio bene (I love you, Berlinguer), where he performed his usual character, refining the irresistible lampoon verve, and after a funny oversea experience with his friend Jarmish in Down by law (in Italy, Daunbailò), Roberto debuted at last like performer/director in Il piccolo diavolo (Little devil).
In Johnny Stecchino (Johnny Toothpick) and in the most recent Il mostro (The monster), Benigni pulls bitter laughs out from two frontpage matters: mafia and sexual abuse.
A telluric reality hides under the dead ashes of two Italian volcanos, urging to find its way out to erupt. It’s the bloody pressure of organized criminality and the unbearable social disease for the widespread unemployement plague. It’s the so called questione del Mezzogiorno, the problem of Italy Deep South.
Born at the feet of the Vesuvio, in Pomigliano d’Arco, Salvatore Piscicelli shot his first film, Immacolata e Concetta, just on location in his birthtown. Immacolata meets Concetta in jail, where one is restrained for attempted murder, the other for instigation to prostitution. They fall in love each other. But Immacolata is married and mother of a kid. She makes love to a meat wholesaler for some businness sake. When she gets pregnant and asks her passionate female lover to help her to abort, Concetta kills her.
A dramatic harsh tinted plot, quite close to those popular gender sagas called sceneggiata they play in off (and real down) street theatres in downtown Naples. But Salvatore’s detached glance on those two women’s affair avoids any pietistical approach and his freehand drawing of their humanity is strong and fast.
In Locarno, Sorrento, Cannes, wherever Immacolata e Concetta was screened, Piscicelli has polemically underlined that his film, ”meridionalistic” as for the involved cultural data, the location, the amosphere, has finally remained by far at large from the commoplaces of the ”meridionalistic ideology”. In fact it carefully avoids any pietistical glance, any documentaristic ”cult for poorness”, any ethnographical sociologism, so often close to sheer folklore when it comes to the intellectual and cinematographic approach to the great, ”silent” (for quite often nobody is really listening to the periodical ”cries”) reality of the Italian Mezzogiorno.
Salvatore’s Le tentazioni di Rosa (Rosa’s temptations) later on confirmed his peculiar attitude of story teller on the edge of the volcano, building the telluric character of Rosa, tempted by the consumistic allurement in the drug plagued suburban Neaples. And revealing a new actress, the impressive southern beauty Marina Suma.
Absolute beginner as movie author/director, but coming from a successful career as off theater player in downtown Naples where he performed in a trio called La smorfia and some appearances in national tv comic shows, is late Massimo Troisi, another son of the Vesuvio, born in San Giorgio a Cremano, now cult birthplace after he died at the end of the shooting of Il postino (The postman), recently selected at the Academy Awards Foreign Film short list.
Massimo’s first film Ricomincio da tre (I’ll start again from three) has been a courageous vernacular experiment in the Italian movie panorama of the 80s. Shot with direct sound in strict Neapolitan dialect (and in addition, a very local suburban dialect) it resulted in a sort of talk/silent film, where the vivid mimical personality of Troisi appeared throughout Italy (and eventually even abroad) to be even more meaningful than a common understandable dialogue acting. With his dismayed yet eager to-live-and-love characters, Massimo has greatly contributed in cancelling lot of resentful Northern commoplaces against ”the Merdionals”.
If we move even southward, till the slopes of the Etna we find Marco Risi, son of Dino, one of the few surviving real maestros of the Italian screen. After some training as documentarist, he choose to debut with a ”under the volcano story” and moved from Rome down to Palermo to shoot his first feature film, Meri per sempre (Mary forever), a dramatically true story on juvenile delinquency in Sicily, where the mafia fishes out from the waste marsh of unemployement for hands to shoot and spread drugs or bombs, crowding up the jails of teenagers.
Meri is a so called ”femminiello” (a transsexual) in a reformatory classroom held by a sensitive teacher (played by Michele Placido). He/she falls in love with the teacher and that means one more trouble to face in the troubleful try to help the youngsters out of the desperate attitude to crime.
With the only exception for the leading role of the teacher, all the young prisoners were actual juvenile criminals sentenced for minor crimes. And unfortunately, most of them, after the illusion of a career in the movies, went back on street delinquency in Palermo. Which tells how hot was the stuff Marco choosed to handle.
Gianni Amelio’s Ladro di bambini (Kidnapper) is another solitary raid on a plagued territory: one more try to extend a bridge of social awareness from the rich North to the troubled but splendored South of Italy. Escorting the kids of a sentenced criminal, gives a young carabiniere the opportunity for a trip back home to the South. Troubled between the duty and the sweet home smell, he shares with his little prisoners some moment of sunny happiness.
Gianni’s sensitivity doesn’t know any border: his passionate glance frames with the same warmth the young Milanese Terrorista , the southerner Ladro and those desperate Albanians of Lamerica.
Every day of my vacations in Venice, when I go to the Lido beach, I pass by the Palazzo del Cinema, which is under the usual revamping schedule in sight of the next 54th International Film Exhibition.
I wonder if this will be the year we’ll salute many new unexpected names to be add to the list of the still growing Young Italian Cinema. Great expectations are on recently elected Culture Minister Walter Veltroni’s plans for a re-birth of the Italian cinema: at last new laws will settle an acceptable balance between national and imported productions (they talk about binding foreign corporations to reinvest a percentage of the profits raised in Italy in Italian productions) as well as between cinema and tv competition.
In few word, what we all expect is once again an era of sheer normality and common sense, things we have been eagerly searching for in these last years.
Livio Mazzotti, Venice, August 1996