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August 19, 2007

Bellissima: Luchino Visconti

Bellissima: Luchino Visconti (1951)

Bellissima outside Cinecitta

A bleak view of Cinecitta as Maddalena and Maria return from the screenings with hopes dashed


(Visit Visconti web-hub)

Introduction

The September 2007 release of Bellissima (1951) by Luchino Visconti in the ‘Masters of Cinema series from Eureka video is nothing short of a red letter day for followers and students of Visconti and his oeuvre. It is a film which is sadly underwritten in English. Before any critical comment is made it is important to note that this film makes for excellent viewing. Visconti's direction is superb and Anna Magnani excels in the leading role.  

The well known post-war history Italian Cinema by Peter Bondanella surprisingly fails to mention the film at all. This film is very important for a number of reasons. It marks a transition from Neorealism to post-neorealism within Italian cinema; it is a meta-cinematic film which deals in a biting comedy a critique of the institution of cinema itself – it thus predates Fellini’s well known La Dolce Vita (1959) by several years; it can be taken as a strong indirect critique of the political direction Italy was taking at the time as well as a critique of the Christian Democratic government's relationship to America  it gives many insights into the way Visconti worked as a director with his performers (Anna Magnani & Alessandro Blasetti); lastly and by no means least as a film it is good viewing – it appears as a favourite of Richard Dyer’s in one of Sight & Sound's surveys about favourite films of critics.

This article cum review of the DVD will firstly place the film in its historical context and then provide a brief synopsis of the film. I will then follow this with an analysis in relation to the key writing in English on Bellissima by the leading critics Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Henry Bacon and Millicent Marcus all of whom are very positive about the film in general whilst all providing a range of different insights into Bellissima. I will then provide a few comments on the Eureka DVD itself which contains a useful booklet with comments from Nowell-Smith amongst others as well as a documentary as an extra. I have also provided a webliography based upon a ‘Google’ up to page 20 of a search in English only. The results are generally disappointing and reinforce the notion that this film is much underwritten in the English speaking world. Hopefully this posting and the DVD will encourage more engagement with Visconti’s work and also provide some impetus for translation from the work of Italian critics making this available to a global audience. Nowell-Smith commented many years ago that this film was underwritten perhaps because it is the most ‘Italian’ of Visconti’s films. He has commented that this is to miss out on an important film:

But it is the most subtle and elusive thing of all, the element of self-criticism and irony and the expense of its own ‘Italian’ quality, which has most effectively prevented it from being assimilated and appreciated by foreign audiences.” (Nowell-Smith, 2003, p 45).

Generically Bellissima is a sub-genre of comedy which is called neorealism rosa or pink neorealism. As such it makes for good viewing and importantly helps to undermine the commonly held stereotypes within the discourse which has developed around Visconti. This is a point which Nowell-Smith brought out in the first edition of his book many years ago:

The commonly held stereotypes about Visconti are that he is totally humourless and incapable of self-irony, that his imagination is sensual rather than intellectual, and that he is a crude social-realist with a taste for ‘positive’ heroes, and an anti-feminist who neither likes nor understands his women characters. (Ibid)

These aren’t stereotypes that I recognise within Visconti’s oeuvre however if these are widely held today then this welcome release of Bellissima will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of a director whose contribution to the development of cinema has yet to be fully recognised in the English speaking world. Certainly Eureka has done the world a favour by releasing this film in its most prestigious series giving Visconti the recognition he fully deserves.


Italian Cultural Policy & Political Context

Out of the three main critics referred to here Henry Bacon has usefully provided the contextual background to Bellissima. Released over three years after La terra trema (1948) Italy had undergone significant political change which strongly effected the cultural policy background of the production of Bellissima, indeed Bellissima can be read as an indirect political response to this changed political environment.

The Christian Democrats had won the 1948 elections. At the same time the Vatican excommunicated all those who had voted communist or had collaborated with communism – one wonders if they cared! – Films with a left-wing social agenda were now deemed to be very risky investments without government support; furthermore, there was a strong risk of the film being confiscated by the authorities. The Christian Democrats controlled the production grants and also the mechanisms for exporting film. Overall this control acted as a de facto form of censorship. The neorealist movement was itself branded as left-wing despite the fact that directors such as Roberto Rossellini were politically quite close to the Christian Democrats. The then Undersecretary of State Giulio Andreotti specifically attacked De Sica’s Umberto D as unpatriotic:

…De Sica has done a disservice to his country, if people around the World begin to think that Italy in the twentieth century is the same as Umberto D. (Cited Bacon, 1998 p53).

Neorealism as a form was also under attack from elements of the Left. The great Soviet filmmaker Pudovkin took the Stalinist social realist approach to filmmaking at a meeting in Perugia exhorting filmmakers to focus on content rather than from and to generate ‘positive heroes’.

As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, a key problem for the Italian industry as a whole as well as the neorealist elements was the rapidly increasing domination of the cinema by Hollywood productions. In 1946 Italy had managed to produce 65 films even in the aftermath of the war. By 1948 this had dropped to 49. Between1945-1950 they controlled 60%-75% of the market share.

One response of Italian filmmakers to this changing environment was to use aspects of Hollywood within their own cinema. Increasingly the features of Hollywood gangster movies appeared in post-neorealist films. Another important development was the development of a comedy sub-genre called neorealism rosa (pink neorealism). It was a genre with its roots in pre-war light comedy of the fascist period and according to Bacon had a similar social message which was keep to the status quo and forget ideas of social mobility and egalitarian society. This sub-genre developed the use of highly eroticised stars such as Gin Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren. Bacon comments that the films were rather more successful than true neorealist films in creating a wide audience for Italian cinema.

During the period between La terra trema and Bellissima Visconti had returned to the theatre. Bacon (p 51) suggests that this was because …he wanted to create something grandiose , to take some distance from realism. Visconti was accused by the purist wing of the neorealists of betraying neorealism however Visconti himself saw neorealism as a method and in response called for the use of fantasy as a complete display of liberty (Bacon, 1998 p 52). It was during this period that Visconti met Thomas Mann, a writer Visconti held in enormous respect. Visconti gained Mann’s permission to create an opera-ballet using Mann’s novella Mario & the Magician. Sadly this was postponed several times by La Scala and was only finally put into production after Mann’s death.


Synopsis




Bellissima Maddalena and Maria

Maddelena (Anna Magnani) is projecting her desires for success onto her daughter Maria




Working class Maddelena Cecconi hears a request from the film director Allessandro Blasetti for the prettiest young girl in Rome to star in a film he is making. Maddelena takes her child Maria to Cinecitta and joins the crowds of middle class mothers and their daughters in the herd to get an audition. Maria is chosen as a finalist and Maddelena sacrifices everything to train Maria up for the audition including lessons in acting and ballet. She also goes to dressmakers and hairdressers to prepare Maria for the big day to put Maria on a par with her better off peers. During this time she has fallen in with a local hustler who promises to get her the right contacts for a fee. He then starts to make sexual advances towards Maddelena. All the time relations with her non-aspirational husband deteriorate. Maddelena gains access to the projection booth during the viewing of Maria’s screen test. Maria is in tears and the film production team watching become intensely derisive of the small girl. Maddalena is outraged and despite the part being offered to Maria Maddelena has had an epiphany and understands that she has ignored the needs of her daughter by substituting her own desires. She refuses to sign the contract and returns chastened to the family home.




Bellissima Ballet Lessons

The scene in which Maddalena takes Maria to get ballet dancing lessons is very poignant. Maria is identified as being only 5 in the film whilst the casting is for a little girl of between seven and eight. This age and size difference becomes a visual trope throughout the film to emphasise the impossibility and impracticality of Maddalena's desires.  This impossibility is emphasised in the ballet school by the tiny figure of Maria at the bar. The emphasis within the mise en scene between Maddalena and the fashionably dressed middle class mothers who have been taking their daughters to ballet lessons for three years emphasises the class divide which is at the core of this film. It is the illusion of possibility of entering this world of illusion as a route out of poverty which is being thoroughly critiqued. It is a theme which Visconti would return to when dealing with the illusions of boxing in Rocco and His Brothers (1960).














Critical Analysis

For a person who can't keep up with very fast often histrionic Italian which has many local references to such things as the local Rome football teams having this film available on DVD is a huge benefit. The possibility to return quickly to repeat particularly dynamic moments of interaction is essential. In this sense Nowell-Smith's explanation that this film is the most 'Italian' of Visconti's films and most difficult for a non-Italian to watch is relevant. 

The film itself is a joy to watch. The power and charisma of Magnani in full-flight drags the film along in her wake, however, this power is more than just a diva taking control and totally dominating, it is a performance which brings out the best in those around her. For those who have seen Rome Open City (1945, Rossellini) or the later Mamma Roma (Pasolini, 1962) this will come as no surprise.   Visconti himself notes this in his interview with Michele Gandin:

...Magnani's improvisatory flare has natural instinct behind it, not theatrical artifice. Moreover she knows how to place herself on the same level as her fellow performers, and she also knows how to carry them along with her - how to raise them up to her level as it were. I wnated this particualr - and extraordinary aspect of her personality, and I got it. (Bellissima booklet p 24) 

Metacinema


Bellissima is the first of the postwar Italian films to be metacinematic in others words to be providing a critique of the institution of cinema itself. Fellini and Lattuada's film Variety Lights (1950), had already begun a reflexive exploration of the illusion / reality of performance and entertainment exploring the creation of an opportunistic singer to become a stage diva.  Much of Fellini's later work was to continue in this reflexive vein commenting critically on film and media, perhaps most notably in La Dolce Vita (1959). Of course Godard's Le Mepris(1963) is also a metacinematic representation, dealing with divisma and an inceasingly tawdry Cinecitta as well.

Bellissima was very much the initiative Salvo d’Angelo who had lost money on La terra trema, nevertheless he still retained confidence in Visconti’s abilities as a filmmaker. Initially Visconti was disinterested in the project and wasn’t impressed by Zavattini’s original script, however when he was offered the opportunity to work with Anna Magnani the much loved Pina in Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945). The inclusion of Magnani as the leading lady:

…would allow him to build a self-conscious reflection on the workings of divismo (stardom) and the power of spectacle into the very structure of his film. (Marcus, 2002, p 40).

The inclusion of Magnani would also help to target a much wider audience for she was widely identified as a ‘woman of the people’ after her role as Pina. Using her as a lead would help considerably in subverting the neorealism rosa and using comedy: in a way that is consistent with the director’s ethical commitment. (Bacon,1998, p 54).

The Importance of Performance & the Role of Anna Magnani

Of the three critics referred to here it is Marcus who draws out the importance of the use of Maganani most effectively and she specifically cites an interview with Visconti which shows the underlying importance of Magnani to the project:

“I was interested in working with an authentic “character”, with whom many more interior and meaningful things could be expressed. And I was also interested in knowing what relationship would be born between myself as director and the “diva”Magnani. The result was very felicitous.” (Visconti cited Marcus, 2002, p 40).

(This interview is available on this Eureka DVD in a new translation).  

Henry Bacon also refers to the importance of Magnani to the success of Visconti's wider project of providing a critique of the illusory aspects of mainstream cinema: “On the whole, Magnani amply demonstrates how theatricality and stylization can be used to reveal aspects of reality that might otherwise remain hidden. (P 57).

The tension between mainstream Hollywood cinema - which Maddelena is besotted with - and the losing struggle of Italian cinema especially the neorealist ideal is highlighted when Maddelena is watching Howard Hawks' Red River from the yard outside their basement flat where they can overlook screenings of an outside cinema. This outside cinema firmly places the importance of cinema in the lives of working class people and shows the illusory  and exotic world which can be projected. It is a theme which reappears in Umberto D (1951) which was also scripted by Zavattini.  It is clear that some of those involved with the neorealist movement were adapting to the political shifts and cultural in Italian society and fighting something of a rearguard action against the incursions of Hollywood. 

Visconti is astutely working within this tension and the use of Italy's most universally loved star allows Visconti to make a very powerful film which would be full of very specific meanings for the contemporary local audiences. Magnani herself is clearly aware of the ironies for her own position as a diva was clearly threatened by the increasing incursions of Hollywood into mainstream culture and corresponding shrinkage of the Italian industry. Her own background was from the working class and her own history of success within the entertainment industry undoubtedly gives her an edge in this performance. At the time her personal life with Rossellini who had gone off with Hollywood Star Ingrid Bergman providews another very personal take on the powers of Hollywood. 

Another point  which was probably attractive to Visconti was that Magnani was the epitome of the organic intellectual in Gramscian terms. With a working class background and total dedication to  professionalism she was the embodiment of a popular figure rather than a populist one. Visconti was highly sceptical of  idealist versions of neorealism which solely promoted the use of the non-professional actor. More minor characters such as Spartaco (Maddalena's husband were ordinary people. Walter Chiari (The Hustler) was a rising star and according to the DVD documentary interviews with Zefirelli and others from the production team Chiari was needed as Maganani at that time didn't have the pulling power any longer.  


The Politics of Mise en Scene 

The importance of mise en scene within Visconti's political critique is very marked. The working class environment of Maddelena's home in a basement where she can be spied upon by boys in the neighbourhood and which is full of blaring loud music raises the general attitude of the environment to a cacophony at times (it is an early version of the banlieu in Kassowitz's La Haine).In Bellissima escape is provided by the outdoor cinema, whilst in La Haine the lads attempt a more physical escape. The protagonists are in both films faced with class barriers. 

Maddelena is differentiated immediately from the middle class mothers and their children who flock to  Cinecitta to propress the future of their daughters. The size and age of Maria in contrast to the middle class girls one of whom was eleven in the first audition emphasises class difference. The representations of Cinecitta itself as a tawdry site of dream production can be contrasted to representations of Hollywood where entrance to the studios is always guarded and stars appear in chauffeur driven cars driving through gilded gates. The dreams manufactured in Cinecitta can only be second rate ones anyway, Visconti seems to be implying.

The basement flat which Maddelena's family occupies is bare of food and comforts. They are planning to escape as a family anyway as they want to move into a new house symbolised by plans. The patients whom Maddelena administers injections to are a mixture of genuine cases and pampered hypochondriacs. It appears as though Maddalena as a nurse isn't paid on a regular salary but on the work completed. Administering another course of anti-biotics will allow her to buy a coat. Her income  is unstable and insecure and this seems to link intertextually to Bicycle Thieves (De Sica: 1948). There is an important point to be made here because several of the critical writings have identified Maddalena as somebody who just goes around giving  injections to diabetics and associate her with a kind of charlatanism which is just as illusory as cinema itself. Certainly the dressmakers are cynical about what she does a reference to a scene where she administers an unnecessary injection to a lazy and overfed woman who lies around in bed a lot who Maddalena teases mercillesly in a scene played for laughs. Then she has to go to see the Commendatore a diabetic who also needs a course of streptyomycin prescribed by the doctor. This will allow her to afford a coat. 

The use of cinematic spaces - particularly the ballet class scenes alluded to above - emphasise the huge class differences and the real lack of social mobility within the system. This can be read as a clear critique of the Christian Democrats who have deliberately and systematically closed down the routes to social equality which were ideals at the heart of the solidarity combining national identity and meritocracy at the heart of the neorealist idyll. Again the use of particular stars and their performance is all part of mise en scene understood in its wider meaning. The star persona of Magnani  precisely embodied the possibilities of social mobility and success which she had achieved in her own life adding a rich layer of interpretive possibilities for audiences who would have been highly aware of these changes in the Italian environment as well as the filmic references.


Visconti's Ending & Zavattini's Ending

The ending of the film really emphasises Visconti's political agenda and shows how the whole film uses cinema itself as a synechdoche for the changed class and power relations in Italy. His ending is in marked contrast to Zavattini's original script. Zavattini's approach often seemed to be pessimistic and fatalistic with the structures of society set to overwhelm individual agency forever leaving the suffering individual on the margins of society. Nowhere does this seem so marked as in Umberto D. The original script of Bellissima written by Zavattini was generally pessimistic. Maria was to be turned down by Blasetti end of story.

Visconti's ending was far better. Not only did it give Maddelena moral power at a personal level but this power needs to be understood as an embodiment of national identity for it is  precisely her iconic status as the visual trademark of neorealism (Marcus, 2002 p 41) which she earned as the character of Pina being ruthlessly gunned down by the Nazis in Rome Open City which allows her to become a form of critique in itself. In this sense Bellissima is where her star status carries over character martyrdom to elide into a personal martyrdom in her relationship with Rossellini ousted by a Hollywood star. Magnani as off screen persona / on-screen persona is a double signifier of invasion and a compromising of Italian identity firstly with the Nazis and then with the power of the USA and its influences on Italian society in the immediate postwar period as it helped to undermine the communist and left political agandas. 




Bellissima Maddalena and Maria Projection Room


Here Maddalena and Maria are pictured in the projection room secretly watching the initial screenings of the children for the role. The is the second part of Maddalena's initiation into the workings of the cinema as an institution. The editor Iris who has smuggled them in had herself played minor roles but explained to Maddalena that this was luck and that she had been consigned to the editing room. clearly this is a possible outcome for Maria. 

The whole of Maria's screen-test is fascinating as it leads Maddalena towards her epihany. Maria is too small to blow out the candles on a cake. The gradual snuffing out of the candles a projection of Maddalena's emotions as her dreams are slowly snuffed out as well. She isn't going to taste the cake of success just beyond her reach. Then the mood changes from disappointment to one of shock as Maria bursts into tears because she has forgotten the lines of her poem. This creates a ripple of ruthless laughter around the theatre amongst the men in power. The mood again shifts as an  enraged Maddalena bursts in on Blasetti and his production team. Maddalena's barging past is again an intertextual reference to Rome Open City where the Nazis line up the occupants of the appartment block to conduct a search and ther is much pushing and shoving. 






Visconti's ending resulted in Blasetti offering the role to Maria. Maddelena turns down the contract. At one level this gives her a moral credibility on a par with Pina as Marcus has noted. However it goes much further than this, because the ending isn't just a simple closure. It leaves the audience with the question as the the last shot focuses upon the sleeping innocent child: what will the future then be for Maria? - again her role is synechdocal for the future of Italy itself. This shot can also be read intertextually for the role of children and the closing shot of children in Rome Open City as the way to the future is clearly referenced. 

Rather than struggling to join a world of petit-bourgeois parents endlessly scrapping to crawl up the ladder using their children there has to be a way which doesn't complacently accept the status quo in the way that Maddalena's husband is doing, nor does it mean sacrificing the genuine needs of ones children to the illusory world of show business and entertainment parasitically built on the dreams and incomes of the working classes. The promise Maddalena makes to her husband is that she will work hard on her own merits to earn them their new house. There is of course a jokey reference made to giving the population of Rome diabetes but this can be overread as a form of illusion on a par with cinema. 

The end scenes have an even greater irony in them than intended because as Maddalena jokes about Burt Lancaster as being such a nice star to tease her husband about her recently lost fantasies about Hollywood today's audience is aware of how Burt Lancaster was initially foisted onto Visconti to play the lead role in The Leopard (1963).Lancaster again appeared in Conversation Piece (1974) this time as a friend of Visconti's. 

It seems that Visconti is thowing problems at the audience, they are being seduced in the short-term, but there is no clear future for Italy if they follow this path. The path for the country is dependent upon solidarity and hard work but it will provide more stability and more satisfaction in the future.  The open ending requires the audiences to participate in making thier own future or else the illusionists would pull the strings. This reading of the ending differs considerably from Nowell-Smith's who reads the film  as  a  straightforward criticism  of the cinema  as an industrial  and social process (Nowel-Smith, 2003 p 55). Nowell-Smith then argues that Visconti doesn't have the open endings of the type which Antonioni uses rather he relies on a rigid and self-contained structure. (ibid). Here Nowell-Smith reads the husband as a concrete pole of attraction which allows Visconti to clearly treat the central theme. Bacon too argues that the ending is one of family unity, unique amongst Visconti's films. Here I would suggest that it is a return to class and that a sense of solidarity is represented through the family which would seem to be an excellent way of passing on a coded political message in a censorious cultural environment promoting 'family values'. Here it would be interesting to undrstand how audiences of the time read this. 


Gender Relations


One issue which none of the three main critics of this film writing in English have dealt with in depth is that of gender relations. Maddalena clearly suffers some degree of physical abuse although this is unseen.  There is a furious argument in the flat when the dress is delivered and in front of the other women in the flats who come to rescue her she complains of being bruised. Again in the final scene she admits defeat to the husband and says that he can give her the usual four slaps.

Unsurprisingly it is Marcus who raises the issue of gender and notes that Visconti exposes the self-serving notions of motherhood by reversing the gender roles in the Cecconi household... (2002, p52-53).  Certainly superficially he takes some care of Maria, undressing her and promising ice-cream but for him there is no discussion about Maria's future he doesn't say that that Maria's future should be in the school, rather it is Maria who wants to go back there. Rather it is better to read Spartaco's role as one of acceptance of the status quo with a few dreams about a better place to live if he works steadily. This isn't an Italy that Visconti wanted any more than an Italy in thrall to America (it must be remembered here that the "Economic Miracle" was underpinned by Marshall aid).


Spagnolo’s survey on the consequences of this American conception of economic assistance on home affairs is straightforward. The CDs’ role accounts for the economic policy they attained in the short run. U.S. grants were used to fund productive investments rather than to foster industrial investments with a clear employment-creating effect as the American authorities in Europe suggested.  (Selva  2004 p 4).

Marcus talks of Maddalena's parental failure, but rather than failure it is a missplaced energy put into illusions of cinema which we can see as an allusion to Christian Democracy and its American backers. It is the false dreams of American capitalism as Visconti saw it which was the core issue. Arguably it was less Maddalena living vicariously through her daughter as a genuine but missplaced attempt to ensure a better future for her daughter. Her reaction when Iris the editor tells her of her failure to become an actress and her being cast aside that genuine doubt emerges and a recognition that all is not what it seems becomes apparent. Bacon notes that the role of Iris was played by Liliana Mancini and that this was very much what had happened to Mancini in real life. (Bacon 1998 p 57).   

Gendering is clearly apparent in the control of power in the film and here the industry / country is clearly run by men. Arguably here Visconti is again challenging the return to family values being promoted by the Christian Democrats in which women are returned to the family by utilising the iconic status of Magnani again. Solidarity in Rome Open City was through both genders as epitomised by Magnani.  Again the dynamism of Magnani and her committment to the future of Maria / Italy meant that she would be developing a different route, not selling out to Cinecitta / American capitalist ethics.  


Conclusion

There are many more things which can be discussed about this film and Marcus, Nowell-Smith and Bacon all provide useful insights. The suggestion that there is a class position being indirectly  proposed  is my own.  Whatever thoughts turn out to be if you are interested in Italian cinema or european cinema at all the release of the imprtant DVD for the English market is an opportunity not to be missed. 



The Eureka Masters of Cinema DVD of Bellissima


bellissima_10.jpg


Section under construction awaiting copy of the DVD 

Advertised Extras include:

A PROPOSITO DI BELLISSIMA [31:42]. This is a useful documentary and consists of interviews with the Rosi, Zefirelli, Ceccho D'Amico and others on the processes of making Bellissima

• Video interview with Bellissima co-screenwriter and assistant director Francesco Rosi [10:31]. This interview is a useful extract taken from a longer interview with Rosi who also worked with Visconti on La terra trema. It gives some useful insights into neorealism.

• Original theatrical trailer [3:51]

• 32-page illustrated booklet containing the chapter by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith from the 2003 3rd edition of his well known book on Visconti. This is an important and useful bonus. The booklet also features a short interview with Visconti with Michele Gandin in a new translation by Bert Cardullo, Professor of American Culture and Literature and author of Vittorio De Sica:Director, Actor,Screenwriter. 




Key Production Details (taken from Henry Bacon, 1998)

First performance: Italy, December 28th, 1951

Length: 3,162 metres

Duration 113 minutes

Director: Luchino Visconti

Assistant Directors: Francesco Rosi, Franco Zeffirelli

Scriptwriters: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Francesco Rosi, Luchino Visconti. (NB Interestingly Bacon has acknowledged Zavattini as being the original scriptwriter in the text but hasn’t included him in this list presumably because as he points out the final script moved so far away from the original and included so much improvisation that Zavattini’s contribution was obviated.)

Leading Actors: Anna Magnani (Maddalena Cecconi), Walter Chiari (Alberto Annovazzi), Tina Apicella (Maria Cecconi), Alessandro Blasetti (As himself).

Bibliography


Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty & Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59960-1 (Pbk)

Marcus, Millicent. 2002. After Fellini. Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6847-5 (Pbk)

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 (3re). Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute. ISBN 0-85170-961-3 (Pbk) 

Selva, Simone. 2004.State and Economy in Italy before the EconomicMiracle: Economic Policy and International Constraints from the Reconstruction through the Pre-Boom Years. Business and Economic History Online.



Webliography


http://eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/catalogue/bellissima/


http://www.italica.rai.it/eng/cinema/film/bellissima.htm


http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/26611?view=credit


http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/visconti/filmography.html


http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/visconti/resources.html


http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=65606


http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0015-1386(196021)13%3A3%3C11%3ALVATIC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-S


http://www.altfg.com/blog/film-festivals/anna-magnani-at-lacma/


http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/italian/courses/ugrad/it9.html


http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/rosi.html


http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/26/journey_italian.html


http://www.italiamia.com/cinema_magnani.html


Return to Visconti Web-hub






July 08, 2007

Francois Truffaut's New Wave Films: Issues of Youth, Sex, Stars & Gender

Introduction



Of all the new young French directors who came to prominence between 1958-1964 Francois Truffaut is currently the most written about. Truffaut’s key films from this period are 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jules et Jim (1961). In 400 Blows the character Antoine Doinel a schoolboy, who is at odds with his parents, school and society  is introduced. The film won Truffaut the best director’s  prize at Cannes in 1959 and firmly placed him on the map of French film directors.  Below some of the circumstances of these films are explored. Firstly the article notes the position of the changing representations of youth, it then develops some issue, themes and concerns within Truaffaut's three key films of the Nouvelle Vague. Finally the article relates these films to issues of gender and the specific kind of femininity represented in the New Wave. It also questions whether Truffaut's films can be understood as being misogynistic.  

A Celebration of Youth Begins

In Europe  and the USA the phenomenon of youth as having a separate cultural identity had started. 400 Blows gains much of its vibrancy from a representation of youth which is totally different to anything which had come before. How far its elements are autobiographical are unclear however this to some extent irrelevant for Doinel acts as an allegory for the position of youth in France. France in this representation was seen as repressive and thoroughly hierarchical suffering the hangovers of an imperialist nation which had been invaded and was undergoing severe post-war stress as problems in Algeria and Vietnam started to emerge.   

There is something of the freshness and vigour of both Vigo the pre-war French director and the neo-realist approach of Roberto Rossellini in Truffaut’s approach - Truffaut had worked for Rossellini who was even a witness at his marriage.  In Rossellini's Roma Citta Aperta (1945) a young tearaway and his followers played an important role in symbolising resistance to Nazi occupation and the closing scene of children walking into a future Italy was symbolically powerful. 

400 Blows is not so clearly optimistic as Roma citta aperta. It challenges the audience through its open ending.  Antoine having successfully escaped from the institution and standing at the seaside is in a state of confusion: where next? is the question posed by the closing shot on his face. The shot begs the question what is the future of this boy. Does the audience want him to go back to the reform school, how do they want Antoine’s life to proceed? are his parent’s good influences? There are no straightforward answers for Antoine is in a very confused and ambiguous position. Antoine has been mistreated, yet at times is dishonest as the interview with the psychologist makes clear. It is the underlying quest of the film to place the audience in a position of reflexivity which makes the film so effective and makes it a part of a distinctly modern tradition. The film thus  poses a question for France. Its politics are thus linked to its form.



400 Blows


Doinel appears as a character in many of Truffaut’s subsequent films. There are strong autobiographical references in this film and it is claimed that the film contributed to the divorce of Truffaut’s parents.  Apparently they were very upset by the contents as Doinel’s parents are very unsympathetic characters. Apparently Albert Remy who played the father bore quite a strong resemblance to Truffaut’s father. Gillain points out that interviews with Truffaut revealed two contradictory positions on the film’s status as autobiographical having claimed that he had experienced all the hardships represented in the film and denied that the film was his autobiography. Gillain argues that the denial was down to aesthetic reasons.

Just as the world view of a director, especially an auteurist one, will operate at both a conscious and unconscious level, it is possible to over-read a text and construct it as totally autobiographically determined:

The need to understand oneself better, the desire to establish one’s unique identity or the urge to interpret one’s life- all these motives account for the autobiographical impulse. In order to treat the self as a narrative object, the author must select the facts that he or she recalls to reconstruct the unity of his or her life. The author must also impose an order on its individual events and bestow upon them narrative coherence , as well as achieve the creation of an imaginary self.


Truffaut’s autobiography can be seen as being spread over twenty-one feature length films. Although each film is self-contained an auteur structuralist perspective argues that the whole of his _oeuvre_ can be read in the light of each being a part of a greater whole. Gillain’s (2000) contention is that all Truffaut’s films offer a variation along themes of repression and secret aspects of the self in what she describes as a ‘Script of Delinquency’.

In 400 Blows a spatially organised set of relationships can be discerned which revolves around a binary opposition between outside and inside. Inside, whether at home or at school the shots are mainly static and in close-up, whilst outside there is mobility and a sense of freedom. The streets and the outside come to represent freedom of thought, action and movement.

Stylistically 400 Blows is influenced by the camera-person Henri Decae. The camerawork is fluid and combines ...a modern mobility with classical depth in many of the location shots suggests Neupert (2002) as the filming of the rotor ride sequence indicates. Gillain takes a more psychoanalytically inflected analysis of the rotor scene suggesting the space is womb-like and represents a compensation for lack of affection.

The narrative style constructs the film as a series of separate scenes or segments. This is very different to the continuity codes of the classical Hollywood cinema. This use of segmentation opens the text up so that the audience can quickly recognise that these activities and scenarios are everyday ones, in which there is no single cause and event structure, rather, the life of Antoine is consistently one of being alienated from the institutions and his parents. That he ultimately gets into trouble for stealing a typewriter - clearly an act driven by some level of internal frustration rather than maliciousness or even to try and make money - spurs the drift into his institutionalisation. In France at that time parents were able to ask the French authorities to take their children into reformatory care if they thought that they were behaving in a very uncontrollable manner and Doinel’s father did this. 

The film acts as an opportunity for liberal modern reflection upon an archaic disciplinary structure which has no place in contemporary French society, and transcends the purely autobiographical, moving from the micro ethnographical approach to the everyday. In doing this it serves to create a meaning which challenges the dominant discourses based upon the discipline of the time.  This trend can be seen in a wider context across western countries with the disciplinarity of imperialistically minded discourses. Resistance against the system was represented in the British New Wave by The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for example.


Behind the Production   

400 Blows was co-produced by Truffaut’s father in law who was a mainstream producer and distributor in the French film industry. 400 Blows proved a critical and popular success as well as a financial one. The American rights were sold for between $50,000 - $100,000 (depending on which version is listened to). The film was also the fifth largest grossing one in the French box office that year. This catapulted Truffaut from being one of the best known young critics to the best known young film maker. It enabled him to engage in new feature length projects as well as putting him in a position to help influence producers to back other projects from the emergent new wave directors.

Shoot the Piano Player

Shoot the Piano Player was Truffaut’s next project. It was based on a pulp fiction American novel Down There. Here it is important to note that Truffaut hadn’t been against literary adaptations as such but the treatment of adaptations by the French studio system which prioritised a visual syntax that was explanatory of the words in the book rather than trying to translate the book into what Truffaut understood to be a properly cinematic language to convey the essence and spirit of the original. Truffaut and the other participants of the French New Wave prioritised a visual and cinematic language as a means of expression.

Shoot the Piano Player was a parodic take on the American 'B' movie thriller and for several reasons was unpopular with both critics and the audiences alike at the time. Sellier argues that it is a modernist work by being both critical of established Bourgeois culture of the quotidian but also of the mass culture of entertainment.

bq. Analysing mass market American films the Cahiers du cinema critics - by emphasising the most abstract aspects of their  mise en scene and by disregarding the socio-cultural context of their production and consumption - gave impetus to the modernist, distanced gaze on cinema that the most innovative  films of the New Wave worked to mobilise' (Sellier, Genevieve, 2001, p127)


It is in retrospect that the qualities of the film emerge Neupert (2002) describes it fulsomely as ...one of Truffaut’s great stylistic triumphs and one of the freshest, loosest and even funniest films of his career. Truffaut used Raoul Couthard who had worked on Godard’s a Bout de souffle as the camera-person which helped give the film a grittier less polished feel to it. 

Truffaut’s editing was also a fundamental part of the film's aesthetic. There were shifting visual rhythms moving from the long takes, favoured by Andre Bazin, to discontinuous montages far distant from the Bazinian naturalist aesthetic. The text also plays with genre systems of narrative which has encouraged some in need of a publication to suggest that the film is in some sense ‘postmodern’ however this is taken as mere critical discursive construction, for it is in this that the film is decisively modern in its approach.  

As Sellier  argues the film takes a modernist mode, of what Astruc describes as cinecriture, to construct and represent a wounded masculine subjectivity. Sellier describes the process as one of an admixture between the modernist sensibility and the romanticist one leading to a dual cultural inheritance that was to strongly mark the aesthetics of the New Wave. 

The Political Context

The film became beset by political problems. In the post production phase Truffaut's editor Cecile Decugis was arrested for allowing her flat to be used by the Algerian resistance movement. Truffaut used several thousand dollars from the production budget to establish a defence fund. Truffaut also signed the ’Manifesto of the 121’ encouraging soldiers to desert rather than fight the Algerian war. It had soon been signed by 400 intellectuals, artists and other well known people, including Truffaut. As a response the state owned media prohibited the appearance of the signatories which reduced Truffaut’s opportunities for publicity. The right dubbed Truffaut as ‘anti-French’, although the left-wing cinema journal Positif were led to revaluate their position on Truffaut.

Jules et Jim


Jeanne Moreau Jules et Jim 1

Truffaut’s next film was in the mould of an historical melodrama, however, it could hardly be described as ‘generic’. Jules et Jim came from Henri Pierre Roche’s novel of the same title  . The film was shot on a budget that was high by New Wave standards of $280,000, nevertheless with the death of his father in law Morgernstern during production there was an increased level of financial vulnerability.

As a result, shooting was in borrowed locations with costs pared as far as possible. The film is based upon a menage a trois consisting of: Jules, an Austrian living in Paris; Jim, a writer who meets Jules in Paris; Catherine who becomes their muse.  Catherine  resembles a Greek statue which they saw together on a spontaneous trip after seeing a slide show and becoming fascinated by it. Jules eventually marries Catherine, then World War 1 breaks out and Jules and Jim fight on opposite sides.

After the war Jim visits Jules and Catherine who by this time has a daughter Sabine. Catherine is unsettled and has taken on other lovers and is currently having an affair with Albert the person who showed Jules et Jim the slide show in the first place. Catherine seduces Jules who has always wanted her and the menage live in the same chalet for a few weeks together. Catherine gets bored with her romance with Jim and seduces Jules again. The men pretend that they aren’t jealous of each other although one evening it comes out that they are. 

Catherine is represented as wanting to have men on her terms and as being mentally unstable. (how often is this the case when men are wanting women on thier terms?) Jim eventually returns to Paris but wants to be with Catherine who has declared that she wants to marry him and have children. Jules who has given up hope of a stable relationship with Catherine favours this as he can’t bear the idea of losing Catherine altogether.

From Paris Jim corresponds with Catherine whilst being with Ghilberte who  is represented as being little more than somebody who brings Catherine’s letters to Jim and is wetly prepared to accept her lot. The relationship between Jules and Catherine seems to have broken down irretrievably when Catherine who is pregnant by Jules has a miscarriage. By ‘chance’ Jules and Jim meet up in Paris and Jules goes to meet Catherine again in the mill house near Paris where she and Jules have moved to. Jules is determined to try and break the spell and announces that he is going to marry his girlfriend Ghilberte whereupon Catherine draws a revolver and threatens to kill him .

Later, there is a seeming attempted rapprochement when Jules, Jim and Katherine go out for a drive together in Catherine’s car.  Catherine asks Jules to come with her for a drive and asks Jim to watch them carefully. Catherine then proceeds to drives them both off an bridge which has no central section and they both drown. It was a film about amour fou or mad love.

The use of Jeanne Moreau and the nature of the story were good marketing ploys. It was criticised by the Catholic church in France and the Legion of Decency in America which might well have helped its success.  The film employed  long takes and montages alongside freeze framing, handheld wide screen shooting, and 360 degree pans. This combination of techniques break decisively with the ‘cinema of quality’s’ approach to the historical melodrama. 

The larger budget also allowed for more refined lighting techniques and more sophisticated work on the soundtrack so in this sense the film was moving away from the rougher edged early films. Many critics see the film as the beginning of the end of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague ) as many of directors gradually became part of a different structure of cinema.

Issues of Stars and Gender in Jules et Jim


Jeanne Moreau Jules et Jim


It is worthwhile reading Jules et Jim through the lenses of both gender and star criticism. Here the work of Sellier and Vincendeau is especially useful in beginning to open up the discourse. The typical new wave film coming from ex-Cahiers critics can be seen as being an aesthetic project which was highly critical - at times vituperative in Truffaut’s case - towards the establishment. The aesthetic also functioned from a necessity born of material limitations.

In a move typical of rebellious youth, Truffaut had announced that he wasn’t prepared to work with established stars such as Michele Morgan and Pierre Gabin on the grounds that they influenced the mise en scene by demanding close ups in accordance with their status as stars. An argument that was more polemically based than factual.

It was an argument which Godard would effectively dispel in Le Mepris which critiqued the role of the producers and their control of the financial package to ensure that the audience were given what they ‘wanted’ as the key determinant. (Godard's treatment including the ways in which Bardot was filmed will be dealt with elsewhere(.   Nevertheless, in relation to the issue of the usage of stars Truffaut made an aesthetic vision the rationale for not being able to afford well established actors.

The Eroticised Star of the New Wave

Of course this very materially influenced approach to film-making brought forward new actors. Less established women actors such as Jeanne Moreau and entirely new women such as Anna Karina became central to the French New Wave. In a tradition that emanated from 19th century romanticism the leading women were often associated with the directors. In Moreau’s case with firstly Louis Malle and then Truffaut and in Karina’s case with Godard.

Vincendeau perceptively places Moreau as central in this process for Moreau was associated with Malle in the prefigurations of the New Wave in Lift to the Scaffold, and then Les Amants. This was followed by her work with Antonioni in La Notte (1961). Moreau then played a key role as Catherine in Jules et Jim.





Jeanne Moreau La Notte


Above Jeanne Moreau in Antonioni's La Notte




Moreau had been firstly reconstructed by Malle and her early acting work within the mainstream played down. As Catherine, Moreau fits in well with one of the trends in the representation of women in which they are objects of desire who function to lead the male protagonists to their downfall. Moreau played this role in Lift to the Scaffold (1958), Les Amants and Jules et Jim. Truffaut can be identified along with Malle by establishing this approach in Tirez sur le pianiste as well.




les_amants_2.jpg

Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's Les Amants(1958)










The attraction of Moreau is that through her performances she helped to establish a new definition of femininity which was an essential part of liberalising modernity. It was a representation that was fresh, alluring and different suggests Vincendeau.

This wasn’t a position solely occupied by the French New Wave for the ‘phantasmic male projection’ of new woman was also created in Britain through the character of Julie Christie. Unlike Moreau, Christie was to gain international star status in films such as Dr Zhivago moving on from the ‘will o the wispish’ persona exemplified in Billy Liar (1963).

Christie can also be associated with the more gamine actresses associated with the New Wave such as Karina and Jean Seberg. Moreau’s role as a slightly older actress was to reflect the sophisticated, intellectual mood of the films. But all echoed the ideology of the New Wave: authenticity, modernity and sensuality. In Jules et Jim, Moreau was positioned in a different hierarchy to mainstream cinema as the star wasn’t dominant in the mise en scene, just an element within it.

In common with other films from the New Wave such as A Bout de souffle and Bande a parte, both by Godard, there was a different regime of the look in which a less sexually but more erotically inscribed construction of femininity was installed. Vincendeau compares this look with that of Bardot: New wave actresses were young, good-looking and sexy, but not too overtly glamorous. Bardot was so extraordinary that her beauty conceptualised as an effect of  surface, became the theme of her films. In the New Wave films committed to authenticity and depth, beauty appeared more ‘realistic’ coming ‘from within’.  Vincendeau argues that in contrast to the female nudity increasingly exploited by the mainstream the New Wave achieved a more erotic effect by shifting the focus of attention from women’s bodies to their faces.

This attention to ‘surface modernity’  of the stars also fitted well with the liberalising modernity of modernising France which was moving to a consumption based model of capitalism as the more classically bourgeois fourth republic, which was also a moment of post-war reconstruction and austerity, gave way to TVs, holidays and cars a harbinger of greater leisure as the post-war boom progressed and the bonds of empire began to fall away.

In terms of space and the representations of women in the city  the New Wave saw Jean Seberg in a Bout de souffle follow Moreau’s roam through the city firstly in Lift to the Scaffold and then in La Notte. This public space was still fraught with danger that accompanied those who tried to became a sort of flaneuse.  Moreau was taken as a prostitute on occasion and Seberg ended up being chatted up by a thief and a murderer. In that sense these representations of modernising women were rather more conservative than that of Julie Christie in Billy Liar for it is she who travels everywhere, even to France (perhaps a reference to the new wave representation of women?), by hitch-hiking on lorries if necessary.

New Wave Directors as Misogynists

Christie represents the fearlessness of modern female youth in a world apparently without danger. She is contrasted with the dreaming Billy Liar who is unable to turn his fantasies into reality. By contrast the French representations of femininity end in the misogyny of the femme fatale of a neurotic Catherine in Jules et Jim, a femininity based upon a romanticist notion that it is women through their deadly sexuality who foil the projects of the heroic male. 

The final sentence of Vincendeau’s article encapsulates the gendered limitations of the New wave directors take on liberal modernity: Concentrating the values of romantic love, sensuality, sensitivity and modernity, Moreau brought a feminised surface to the New Wave which superimposed itself on its male and misogynist foundations.  

If Jules et Jim  epitomises a masculinised notion of freedom through the carefree images of an idealised woman and set of relationships in its first part the darkening mood of the film could be seen to represent a post-First World War in which the mechanised killing fields mean that nothing is ever quite the same again. It is a position which relates to the expressionist mood of early Weimar cinema. As a story of amour fou looked at in hindsight the film seems somewhat vacuous. Characterisations are thin and inconsistent and Catherine as an object of desire is constructed through the look rather than through any intellectual or emotional capacities.

Enigmatic Romanticism and the Suspension of Materiality


In Jules et Jim this enigmatic romanticism was constituted around an enigmatic statue of a woman in a way which establishes an essential female eroticism which transcends both time and space and inscribes femininity with both an exotic and erotic otherness fundamental to romantic thought. The film also suspends materiality, for Catherine manages to afford her own car at a time when to have a car meant to be extremely well off yet she has no obvious independent income. Jules as a hermit style ecologist in his post-war character can hardly afford that.

The audience is informed that Catherine has both an aristocratic and a commoner background however this is not expanded. The voice-over narration is used to describe the feelings of the characters functioning to allowing the mise en-scene a certain amount of autonomy. In that sense the film is working as a part of New Wave aesthetics. Unlike La Dolce Vita (1959) the film tends to ignore society, and it fails to achieve the necessary depth in its characterisations. Its romanticised modernism doesn’t go as far as Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) in terms of alienation and the difficulties of communication between people but it is nonetheless following this path.

All these films feature suicides which is the ultimate breakdown of interpersonal communications and alienation and still a feature of contemporary life. In hindsight the explanation from Tartan video’s opening that the film is a ‘cult’ classic is probably fitting. Whilst it was a massively important contribution to a defining cultural moment in French cinema it ultimately fails to satisfy as a piece of art when set alongside the contemporary contributions from Italy. 


Bibliographical Note

References here can be accessed in the bibliogaphies section of the blog in the French bibliography.  


June 16, 2007

British Cinema: Social Realism – Webliography

Introduction


This page functions as a portal into the important strand of British filmmaking described as social realist. Laid out chronologically this portal will be particularly useful for:
* Those unfamiliar with the history of the British cinema 
* Students following undergraduate film studies course to provide an overview before tackiling more in depth work 
* 'A' level media students following the current (2006 /07) OCR Media A2 Unit on Media Issues & Debates: Contemporary British Cinema. For the OCR unit it will historically contextualise the continuing use of social realism as a successful film form
* The WJEC Film Studies A level "British & Irish Cinema" Unit.




Overview


Social realism has played an important role in both British cinema and TV. The British documentary movement which developed under the leadership of John Grierson  was enormously influential in stimulating what became a strand of fiction film described as social realism.

Humphrey Jennings who started out with this movement brought a sense of the surreality of popular culture in everyday life to his work. His wartime docu-dramas and documentary work are exemplary pieces of art working across genres to produce some of the best work ever made by a British director.

Jennings was an inspiration to Lindsay Anderson and those who gathered around him in the British 'Free Cinema'. Technical discoveries by cameraman Walter Lassally were to influence the work of the French New Wave Filmmakers and cinematographers. 

Free Cinema DVD from BFI

The documentary work made by them led into the 'British New Wave' at the beginning of the 1960s.

This in turn led to social realist films and TV documentaries in the mid to late sixties with Ken Loach and Producer Tony Garnett being exemplary. Cathy Come Home was a TV drama which heldped the housing charity Shelter to set up. Poor Cow and Kes are classic Loach films from this period.


While the 1970s and 1980s saw less work of this style films such as Meantime by Mike Leigh were very influential. The actor Gary Oldman was outstanding in this and returned to this form as a director in Nil by Mouth made in the late 1990s.


There was a return to popularity for this kind of film in the 1990s particularly by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. This has continued up until 2006 with Ken Loach winning the Palm d'or at the Cannes festival for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) combining social realism with history.

Brtish social realism has also been strongly influential in other types of films which have combined genres into hybrids such as social-realist / comedy. The Full Monty (1997) and Brassed Off (1996) are good examples of this. Perhaps the first hybrid of this type was Billy Liar (1963) at the end of the British New Wave. This film provided a bridge into the 'Swinging Sixties' particularly in the next film by John Schlesinger Darling which starred Julie Christie  as well.

The BFI "Screenonline article on comedy" cites several films which also appear  elsewhere as social realistically inflected. Films dealing with changing British identity often combine social realist aspects of life with comedy including East is East (1999) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002).


Webliography laid out chronologically

This covers the British documentary movement and via Free Cinema moves into British Social Realism 


John Grierson Trust


John Grierson Director Page


Empire Marketing Board


Documentary Film Units and Film Sponsorship

BFI Screenonline Biography of Paul Rotha


Humphrey Jennings


Kinoeye:  Humphrey Jennings page.

Links previously on this page are now on the above page plus many more. The page is still under development and further links to analysies of his films are in the pipeline.  

Lindsay Anderson director page.

From Lindsay Anderson to the Free Cinema

The British New Wave: Social Realist film of the 1960s




The Impact and Influence of Social Realism in British Cinema a useful Screenonline article.


Tony Aldgate of the Open University discusses British Social Realism

Social Realists in British Cinema from 1990


These two directors have a reputation for working mainly within the social realist tradition although the approaches are still very different. Loach tends to be more macro whilst Leigh is more micro with a style closer to Kammerspiele or chamber plays.

Ken Loach

Mike Leigh


Other British Directors who have used social realism

These directors have made films at times which have been strongly influenced by social realism:

Stephen Frears with Dirty Pretty Things, 2002

Lynne Ramsey Ratcatcher

Michael Winterbottom Welcome to Sarajevo (1998) is a social realist influenced film based upon a true story. His recent The Road to Guantanamo (2006) is a political response to the events and aftermath of 9/11.

Some Social Realist Films From 1990


Life is Sweet, 1990: Mike Leigh. It is marketed as a 'bittersweet comedy" which is quite a good description of many of the social realist / comedy hybrid films

Raining Stones, 1993: Dir Ken Loach

Nil by Mouth 1997: dir Gary Oldman


Authors of British Social Realist Films


Alan Sillitoe


Here is a link to Alan Sillitoe author of Saturday Night Sunday Morning commenting recently on the coming ban on smoking in public places


May 28, 2007

The Leopard in Historical Context, (1963): Luchino Visconti

The Historical Context of The Leopard, (1963):director Luchino Visconti


Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned


The Leopard Poster 1963

Preface

Visconti needs to be recognised as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century. Visconti's aesthetic approach is fascinating and other themes such as homosexuality are very important to his oeuvre but it is the way in which Visconti develops these themes within an overarching intellectual framework which I think will ultimately lead to a wider recognition of his greatness. Some of Visconti's greatness stems from his treatment of history itself. Something which Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has commented upon:  

It is in the quality of his meditation on history that Visconti distinguishes himself from all other film-makers, past or present. There have been great film-makers who have occasionally delved into the past for one reason or another... But none of these, not even Eisenstein, applies to his re-creation of the past a serious and thought through theory of history... Perhaps it is because we  no longer expect movie-makers to be profound thinkers that Visconti's greatness is no longer appreciated as it should be. (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 216)

Sometimes it is only in retrospect that true greatness can be appreciated. Even Nowell-Smith one of the most important commentators writing in English on Visconti admits that his original criticism of Death in Venice missed many things of importance. If only all critics could be so honest about their errors accordingly. 



Introduction: The representation of history 

This posting functions only as a brief synopsis and introduction to Visconti’s film The Leopard (1963). a full synopsis will be provided in a different posting. This posting is primarily concerened with establishing the background  history to the film and providing an analysis based upon this. This piece was part of a presentation which argues that The Leopard can be bracketed with The Damned (1979). Taken as a pair of films I argue that amongst other things Visconti is seeking to examine the limited modernising role of Liberalism through its use of nationalism and the contradictory nature of this Liberalism which always has the potential to revert into a non-modernising political formation through nationalism. The Damned and its representation of Nazism epitomises this potential.

Nationalism for Visconti on this reading is therefore within a doomed or even negative dialectic in which the progressive impetus originally embedded within Nationalism as a political force which could overthrow the Ancien Regime will become compromised by that regime and ultimately become a reactionary force within society.

My presentation argued that the two films can usefully be compared as representing the flawed  highpoint of 19th century Liberal / National revolutions The Risorgimento through The Leopard whilst The Damned shows the ultimate dangers of nationalism through the barbarism of Nazism. Thus Visconti has framed an important period of European history in a bracket of attitudes to nationalism. Many of his future films sought to combine a cultural and political historical approach to this period eschewing historical approaches which tend to separate the two strands of history. For Visconti it appears as though they are strongly intertwined. 


Frequently the reviews of these films largely miss the exploration of the mechanisms of history which Visconti was keen to represent and at times are considered firstly as 'heritage' films as in the case of  The Leopard. Heritage films are reliant upon costume drama for their mise en scene set in an historical period different to our own but make little or no claims upon historical authenticity neither do they examine the mechanisms of history.

By comparison The Damned has been understood as a slightly aberrant and 'melodramatic' exploration into the sexual depravities surrounding Nazism in The Damned. This  does the film an injustice by dehistoricising it. 




The Battle of Palermo


Garibaldi's Redshirts at the battle for Palermo

Visconti is renowned for his attention to detail. These shirts were soaked in tea and left in the sun in order to replicate the fading of the originals which would have happened during the course of the campaign.




Historical Background to The  Leopard

Visconti made two historical films about the period of the Risorgimento (This translates as Resurgence / Rebirth) which is the process of the unification of Italy during the 19th century. The first stirrings of nationalism can be discerned as early as the late 18th century during the period when Napoleon Bonaparte governed Italy. The overthrow of Napoleon led to Italy being carved up at the Congress of Vienna (1815) when the great powers allotted the regions of Venetia and Lombardy to direct control of Austria to ensure that France didn’t have an easy invasion route into Italy again.

Before Napoleon Italy had never been a unified state. It was comprised of eight separate regions with their own Princes (The Pope controlling the Papal States) and each area with a distinctive dialect, rather than a regional accent, which many can still speak today. As a language Italian was underdeveloped and certainly didn’t exist as a form of ‘Received’ language and pronunciation.

After the Congress of Vienna a number of secret societies formed called the Carbonari (Charcoal Burners). They weren’t especially well educated, neither was there a clear manifesto, and the elements comprising this movement were fairly heterogeneous. They were loosely linked by a desire to unify Italy and get rid of foreign powers although whether the Italy of their dreams should be a widely enfranchised democracy or just a liberal bourgeois regime united behind a constitutional monarch was an underlying polarisation which was to continue throughout the whole of the unification process. The unification process was drawn out not being completed until 1870.

Historical Perspectives

There are a range of historical perspectives on the Risorgimento which were strongly political. Visconti was well aware of these and was making his films in such a way as to challenge right wing nationalist views on the period.

The key historiographical positions which have developed are usefully outlined by Martin Clark 1984 who also stresses that historical writing in Italy is very clearly ‘committed’ ‘to cheer on their own team’. Much historical writing is then hagiographic, or denunciatory, or ‘Whig’.

The Liberals

They have tended to be dominant within academia. Their major influence has been taken from Benedetto Croce with an ‘ethico-political’ approach. Croce stressed men and ideas and spent little time on either social structures or economic issues. In the 1950s historians like Rosario Romeo opened up the economic history arena challenging the Marxist historians of the time. Liberals like others, suggests Clark, have moved towards an overemphasis upon documents and ‘facts’ rather than interpretation and synthesis.

The Radicals

Another leading school was mentored by Salvemini and Gobbetti. Denis Mack Smith a British historian is their best known exponent. They are anti-Facist, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and to some extent anti-Liberal. This is because they criticise weakness of liberal governments, lack of popular support and a a ready acceptance of Southern corruption. Radicals are ‘delightfully pessimistic’ (whatever that is meant to mean) don’t write ‘total history’ but do reach a huge audience.

Mainstream Marxists

Clark argues that this school has been perhaps the most influential since 1945. Grouped around the journal Studi Storici . The main influence upon this group has been Gramsci whose work was published in Italy in 1945 after the end of the war. Gramsci’s main influence has been on the examination of the development of hegemony and consensus as a governing practice oiling the wheels of social change. Furthermore, the role of the intellectual as a disseminator of ideas of social change was emphasised. Gramsci also focused on the political importance of the peasantry as well.

Clark suggests that this school of Marxist thought had its limitations for they were ‘strangely uninterested in class divisions’. For them working class history usually meant a history of working class leaders. ‘Abstract entities , like proletariats and petty bourgeois, filled their pages; real workers and peasants rarely appeared, much less details of factory work, labouring skills or farming implements’. One can compare this attitude to that of British historians influenced by Marxism such as Hobsbawm and E. P Thompson).

Visconti’s Risorgimento Films: Senso (1954) / The Leopard (1963)

Visconti produced two films about the Risorgimento. At the time he made these the main historiographical perspectives were as outlined above. As a Marxist he was by now strongly influenced by Gramsci but also some of the work of the Radicals such as Gobbetti. His film Senso was strongly attacked by the army and there was a huge battle with censorship as well as with the producers. Even the final product went down as a political storm for it was very critical about the dominant way in which the Risorgimento was being represented.

Between 1949 & 1954 there were twelve films with the Risorgimento as their central theme made. Only Senso made a critique of the dominant position which was that Italian Unification had been brought by a spirit of self sacrifice. That passions were high on this subject as well as an underlying need to represent a united Italy following the take-over by Christian Democrats in 1948 is evidenced by the critical reception by one Italian historian of Dennis Mack’s (Radical) Italy a Modern History (1959) a few years later. ‘ The Risorgimento was not due to fortunate circumstances or to selfish interests ... It was a spirit of sacrifice, it was suffering in the way of exile and in the galleys, it was the blood of Italian youth on the battlefields ... It was the passion of a people for its Italian identity’. (quote taken from an ‘A’ level textbook and naughtily not sourced).

Senso

Senso was about the victory of the Austrians over the Italian army near Custoza (June 1866). Due to general mismanagement and incompetence based upon a story by Boito which recounts the infidelities of a Countess both to her husband and to the nationalist cause by falling for an Austrian officer. Visconti’s adaptation was very different but incomplete because of censorship. The historical reality was that France had made different secret deals with both Prussia and Austria by then at war with each other. In both cases Napoleon III promised to remain neutral provided that the winners passed Venetia firstly to him and with the understanding that it would then be passed to the Italian kingdom which had come about in 1861. In reality the Prussian victory at Sadowa meant that Venetia was passed to France and thence to Italy without the Italians being able to win it, much to the chagrin of the Italians.

This story wasn’t what was required at the time the film was made. It would have had contemporary resonances of the Allies being the primary liberators of Italy and undermine the myths of resistance and national solidarity which were being strongly promoted. As the Communists had been cut out of government by then there were clearly strong underlying political stakes. Senso is probably best seen as a cultural political intervention within the politics of the moment.

The Leopard

The Leopard is a less melodramatic film in the English sense of the term but it is deeply suffused with a sense of history at the meta level. Visconti manages to combine a range of intellectual influences into this film which perhaps will come in due course to gain the full recognition it deserves. It is informed by Marx and Gramsci at the level of history as well as by Lukacs whose sense of realism revolves around the character type. For Lukacs this means a character who is someone entirely of their class but who embodies the contradictions of history most fully.

Without once representing the working and peasant classes as a fundamental force of progress The Leopard combines a deep level of class analysis with an understand of the contradictory forces of history. The Prince understands along with Don Calogero, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) and of course Tancredi (Alain Delon) that Italy is at a turning point. Tancredi’s youth, dandyism and vigour as well as being a nephew from a more impoverished branch of the aristocracy thus slightly outside of the establishment have led him to understand that the invasion of Garibaldi’s 1,000 in Sicily gives him an opportunity to break away from the static society of Sicily where his only hope for the future would be marriage to the shy Concetta his cousin and daughter of the Prince. This would perpetuate the physical and cultural inbreeding of the Sicilian gentry which, Visconti implies, is gradually sapping the elite of its vigour.

Tancredi quickly persuades his uncle the Prince of Salina that everything must change on the surface so that fundamental social relations don’t change. There is no loyalty to the new young King of Naples who has failed to respond positively to the winds of change emanating from Piedmont and who is effectively allied with Austria. Tancredi is attracted to the romanticism and panache of the adventurist Garibaldian ‘Redshirts’. The Prince even gives him some money to help him on his way. The Prince has quickly realised that the fundamental social order will not be changed in a revolutionary manner but that a reordering of sorts is necessary in order for his class to survive.

The Prince has an important discussion with the priest in his study surrounded by telescopes. These function as a metaphor for farsightedness, they are redolent of Galileo and his relationship to the Church, and they establish the Prince as a man of Enlightenment, an intellectual. This is contrasted with the house of another of the Sicilian aristocracy where the ball scene is held at the end of the film. 




Arrival at Donnafugata

Here the Prince and his family are greeted on their arrival by the inhabitants of his summer retreat in Donnafugata.







The film shifts to the fighting in Palermo where the Redshirts win. The film moves to the Prince’s summer residence in Donnafugata away from the hotter Palermo area. They have already gained a travel permit from the Garibaldians. Many of the Garibaldian officers are from a similar class background to Tancredi. Tancredi’s position as a captain in the Garibaldian army allows them to get through a roadblock whilst the peasants are noticeably not allowed to pass. This is a clear indicator of the social limits of the revolution against the Bourbons.

In Donnafugata the processes by which a new social elite is recomposed from a mixture of old and new elements is represented. Don Calogero is the mayor and a scheming businessman who like a Hyena preys upon the needs of a distressed aristocracy, buying up some of their lands when they are desperate for some cash to support their old ways of living. Throughout the film Don Calogero is portrayed as a man who is Dickensian in many ways knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Don Calogero has a beautiful daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) who he introduces into polite society when invited with other petit bourgeois locals to dinner with the Prince. Sexually and erotically Tancredi is swept of his feet much to the disgust of Concetta who wants Tancredi. The prince goes into the background of Angelica’s family and quickly realises that Angelica would be a suitable match for Tancredi and vows to help him.



Angelica and Tancredi together in the old part of the palace


Here Tancredi has been courting Angelica in an old part of the Prince's palace. Angelica is playing hard to get. As a potential member of the rising bouregois class allied to the aristocracy she knows her virginity is a key  part of her road to success. She is clearly not interested in  having an illegitimate child with a member of the local aristocracy. Here mise en scene, in which actor performance is an essential part, has been raised by Visconti's direction to a level in which the history of class and sexuality in terms of power and history is literally embodied in a single scene. 




To do this he has to overcome the protestations of both his wife and don Ciccio the Church organist who is an honest and faithful loyalist to the now deposed Bourbon dynasty. It is he who makes it clear to the Prince that the plebiscite in October 1860 was rigged by Don Calogero. The Prince is determined to make it as easy as possible for Tancredi and overrides these protestations. It is the Prince who has the foresight to be able to act in the interests of his class.

It is important to make a voluntary match of a dynamic couple bringing in new blood as well as money for his fortune must already be split seven ways. A match with Concetta would not be a happy one. The Prince also recognises that a match with another of Sicily’s inbred aristocrats would not be happy or financially fruitful. The other aristocratic families would not think of Tancredi as a ‘good catch’ as he has little inheritance as it was squandered by his father.

Throughout Visconti makes it plain that ‘being in love’ is more of a social mechanism than a permanent state of being. Throughout the film Concetta cannot get over Tancredi although he has never signalled any direct intentions towards her. She turns down other opportunities, and towards the end Angelica tells her that she needs to be more pragmatic and change her views. Concetta is stuck in a demure Catholicised torpor and shows none of the flirtatious dynamism required of Angelica if she is to make the grade in the new society. Concetta represents the fading world of the aristocracy of the past whilst Tancredi backed by the Prince recognises the mechanisms of social change and the need to adapt to survive.

Although many make a point of the Prince’s tiredness and awareness of death it is as a synecdoche of a fading class. The other family members are also highlighted like this at the ball for when the Prince is rejuvenated by his dance with Angelica; Concetta, her brother and mother look on totally enervated. They don’t appear to have the vibrancy to take a full place in the developing new Italy. By comparison just as the Prince is leaving the ball Tancredi tells him that he is going to be a candidate for the new government in Turin.

A role in government of the new order is something that the Prince recognises he cannot become involved in even when he is offered a place in the senate by Chevalley who is a representative of the Liberal regime under King Victor Emmanuel II. The Prince isn’t temperamentally trained or suited to making legislation and he also recognises that he is a part of the old order and someone who is sympathetic to it. Chevalley is disappointed and astounded, he is a Liberal idealist and he doesn’t at all like the suggestion of Segaro (Don Calogero) who he knows to be totally opportunistic and unscrupulous taking a political position. Nothing will change he argues. When Chevalley leaves the Prince famously comes out with the statement that the Lions and Leopards (the Aristocrats) will be replaced by Hyenas and Jackals. This is a reference to don Calogero’s abilities to gradually pick off the weaker aristocracy by gaining their land and then a weaker aristocrat (Tancredi) by marrying into the status (symbolic capital of the aristocracy). It was something that Visconti was familiar with from his own background.

Visconti’s representation of the Risorgimento

The film continuously critiques the myth of the Risorgimento as a homogenous struggle of the popular masses. It was a myth which the Italian centre and rightwing had long promoted and their resistance had led to Senso running foul of the censors. In The Leopard Tancredi and his officer friends who were Garibaldians have by the winter following their victory in Palermo changed their uniforms from Garibaldi’s Redshirts to being officers in the new Piedmontese army. They reappear at Donnafugata after November 1860 when Garibaldi would have entered Naples in triumph accompanying King Victor Emmanuel.

It was at this time that Garibaldi was offered the rank of Major General along with various privileges. These he turned down as he thought that his Redshirts were being badly treated by the Victor Emmanuel. Tancredi now represents the ruling elites who had been incorporated into the official forces. Some critics such as Bacon, have seen Tancredi as opportunistic ‘whereas Tancredi’s portrayal is nothing if not critical , that of the prince is quite the opposite...’ (p 94).

However Tancredi made clear at the outset that his allegiance was to Victor Emmanuel and that he was only a Garibaldian volunteer because there was no other option. The Prince has always understood the contradictions. In historical reality those who marched with Garibaldi were never an homogenous political grouping representing only a loose political alliance. Many Mazzinian republicans fought with Garibaldi working to a more radical agenda than Garibaldi would have supported.

It was another factor which caused the mistrust of Garibaldi amongst the elites as well as his adventurist approach in general. I argue that Tancredi is entirely true to his class position. By recognising that his material position isn’t good he is acting in both his own as well as his class interests this is why the Prince of Salina is supporting him. Concetta is entirely unable to understand the social and class dynamics of events. When Tancredi says that the rabble who deserted to support Garibaldi were justly to be executed Concetta rightly turns on him and says he wouldn’t have talked like that earlier, but no officer of any military force is going to look favourably upon mutiny.

The Prince’s class needs people on the inside and the fact that Angelica recognises the role of the Prince while they are dancing reinforces the point.

Garibaldi’s adventurism is commented upon in the Ball sequence for there the regular officers of the new Army of the now King of Italy, (Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy in 1861), are talking about the Battle of Aspromante which happened in 1862.

The battle was between regular government troops and Garibaldi who had started a march on Rome from Sicily which was still a Papal State outside of Italy. The Garibaldi’s attack was entirely without government approval for they didn’t want France to become involved. Garibaldi was wounded and the few remaining troops were scattered. The officers in the ball sequence discuss the forthcoming execution of several soldiers who had deserted the regular army to join Garibaldi. In the closing shots we hear the volley and don Calogero says that there is a good army in control, the stage is clear for the steady rise of the new class.

This could lead to a false sentimentality for Garibaldi amongst audiences. Garibaldi himself was no radical politically. Despite appealing to the Sicilian peasantry by supporting land reform in the few weeks that he was in direct control of Sicily he put down several peasant uprisings when land reforms didn’t happen. He was very clear that he didn’t want social revolution just national unification. Here Bacon (p 82) for example is mistaken in his historical account where he argues that it was the minister Cavour who turned Garibaldi’s ‘republican victories into royalist conquests’. Furthermore Bacon conflates two separate moments with a considerable gap between them into one. He links Tancredi’s appearance in a new Royal uniform in Donnafugata (1860 winter) with the battle of Aspromante which was nearly two years later.

Where the film functions well is in showing how the state was prepared to act very firmly in the interests of Liberalism which had clear strategic aims and an agenda. Adventurists like Garibaldi tied to an idealist concept of Nationalism were not the people who were going to develop and embed the new political order. A period of stability was required to consolidate and Garibaldi was stopped.




Lancaster as Don Fabrizio Prince of Salina and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica the daughter of the rising bourgeois Don Calogero.

Here the Prince (Burt Lancaster) dances with Claudia Cardinale (Angelica) at the ball which takes approximately 40 minutes of the end of the film. It functions amongst other things as a public recognition of angelica as an arrivant. The scene cuts to the rest of the family watching the couple dance, with Concetta and her mother looking faded and draw. Again it is Visconti's use of mise en scene which encapsulates class relations and the underlying dynamics in an instant. This is part of the genius of Visconti.





Conclusion

Overall The Leopard makes it clear that nationalism as ‘the passion of a people for its Italian identity’ was never a reality. The Sicilian peasants needed deep seated social reforms. Visconti makes it implicitly clear rather than explicit that the rising power of the Jackals would do nothing to change the poverty which was endemic under the Bourbons. Chevalley represents modern social thinking which argues that good quality social administration would increase the lot of the poor. This was a position which was enacted for the first time under Bismarck of course. Visconti when interviewed later is firm on the point that his ‘pessimism’ within the film by not showing the rising peasantry leaves the intellectual space to imagine that something far greater than mere national unification is needed if social inequality is to be eradicated.

Elsewhere I will be posting an analysis of The Leopard combined with Visconti’s treatment of Nazism in The Damned (1969). In this I argue that Visconti has deliberately explored the failures of European Liberalism to be able to deliver the promise of social progress through a route which is dependent upon nationalism. It is nationalism which is ultimately irreconcilable with social progress and in its Liberal formulation is doomed to a failure marked by barbarism. Visconti by treating the Risorgimento as the highpoint of Liberal Nationalism is able to contrast it to the depths plumbed by Nazism. Interestingly  revolutions  of both a progressive and a  regressive nature tend to eat their children, a point made by Zizek in his foreward to the recently reprinted book by Adorno In Search of Wa,gner (Verso, 2005):

Is not the key paradox of every revolutionary process, in the course of which not only is violence needed to overcome the existing violence, but the revolution, in order to stabilise itself into a New Order, has to eat its children.  (Zizek, Slavoj, 2005 p xxvi).

This is something which Visconti clearly seems to understand for the closing scenes of The Leopard feature the sounds of the exectution of radical Garibaldians who have their opposite numbers in the slaughter of the SA in the 'Night of the Long Knives' which he depicts more openly in The Damned.


Webliography 


Link to  Tales of a Festival site with link to live Visconti interview en francais!


Link to Buffalo film Seminar Series on The Leopard. contains extracts from both Nowell-Smith and Bondanella on the film.

For other internal links see:


The Cinematographers of Neorealism and Beyond

Luchino Visconti

Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned




May 27, 2007

Umberto D, 1951. Directed by Vittorio De Sica

Neorealist Case study : Umberto D, 1951.  Directed by Vittorio de Sica

Vittoriol de Sica

Vittorio de Sica 



Carlo Battista and Flick

Carlo Battista who takes the lead role as the pensioner in Umberto D. The use of Battista fitted the neorealist ethic of using non-professional actors where possible. In his normal life he was a philosophy professor. 



Synopsis 

Umberto Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), is a pensioner living in Rome with his fox terrier Flick. As an ex-civil servant he finds the value of his tiny state pension being eroded by inflation as he desperately tries to manage to pay the rent on his one room with shared facilities.

The landlady is intent on getting rid of him as she is an aspiring petit-bourgeois who is consorting with a local cinema owner. Interestingly the cinema as an institution is worked into the film in a form of quiet critique of the Hollywood domination of Italian cinema. Hollywood is selling dreams of stars, set against the increasing levels of poverty amongst those least able to defend themselves. By comparison Italian cinema is struggling to represent things as they really are for large proportions of the population. 

Umberto attempts to raise money to keep his room by selling his prized possessions. Unlike some pensioners he is initially unwilling to start begging on the streets which would symbolise the destruction of his dignity. Eventually when this is the only possibility left to him he manages it extremely badly. As the film progresses thoughts of suicide gradually take over. The only thing which is stopping him is the problem of Flick the dog. Before he can consider suicide he must therefore find Flick a good home.

What is especially unusual about the way Umberto D is filmed is the way in which the spectator is distanced from Umberto. He has an air of self obsession which makes it hard to immediately sympathise with him as a character. Although the maid Maria has serious problems of her own he is generally unaware of these problems because he is so bound up in his own. Arguably this distancing has the effect of enabling the audience to read the film as something which is a structural problem in Italian society, not just a tale of an unfortunate individual. It is also a tale about the increasing lack of communication between people in Italian society.




Maria the Maid

The maid Maria (Maria pia Casilio)

Changing Cultural Policy

Coming in the early 1950s when a Christian Democratic government had managed to push the more left-wing elements of society into opposition since 1948, de Sica is effectively cinematically marking the end of the social solidarity of the immediate post-war period which was also a key raison d’etre for the neorealist movement.

It is the expendibility of older people which the film seeks to emphasise in its opening shots as a protest march of pensioners is broken up by the police because they haven’t been given a license to protest. The film produced with de Sica’s own money was a box office disaster according to Bondanella (2001).

The changing political scenario led to Giulio Andreotti the Undersecretary of Entertainment brought Italy into disrepute by bringing into the open problems of Italian society. Instead Andreotti proposed that Italian films should be embracing a more optimistic and constructive attitude promoting the best of Italy.

Analysis 

It is possible to read into Umberto D (de Sica 1952) a sense of the moment of neorealism coming to its end. Millicent Marcus suggests it is both a celebration of that moment and a lamentation of its death. There is a dialectic of generational compositions which in the opening film of neorealism - commonly accepted as Rome Open City - there is a parade of boys marching on Rome to reclaim the future. By comparison Umberto D opens with coverage of a march by pensioners trying to improve their plight for they have been left in poverty in post-war Italy. The film bears witness to the failure of social change to happen. Rather than being a society welded together around notions of social solidarity Umberto D can be read as being about a society at war with itself.


It is worth noting at this point Paul Ginsborg’s analysis of Italy which notes that the post fascist purification process Epurazione was largely a failure. The judiciary had remained largely untouched and even by 1960 62 out of 64 prefects (the government representatives in the provinces), had previously been fascist functionaries. The response of the authorities to the marchers seems to hark back to an authoritarianism based upon legalistic niceties rather than morals as the march is broken up because they didn’t ask permission to march.

Rather than solidarity the representation of old men marginalised to a soup kitchen - perhaps all tyrannised by an aspirant nouveau landlady in the same way as Umberto is - shows a lack of intra-generational solidarity between the old men when they are blamed for not getting a permit to march. In the meantime the nouveau landlady class has forgotten about the war like many of the cinema-going publics.


In some sense the film can be seen as a surrender by de Sica to the isolation of the human condition and the impossibility of true social solidarity. The public reception of the film itself was negative and the film made a loss. This in itself contributed to the difficulty of raising finance to fund further neorealist productions. However Marcus suggests that it wasn’t just external changes which contributed to the failure of the film in the box-office but the nature of the text itself.



Zavattini the Scriptwriter

Zavattini who wrote the script for Umberto D. Many see this film as his purest script within the neorealist tradition. 



Umberto D can be seen as having moved further towards Zavattini’s purer versions of neorealism in which a film was to be as devoid as possible of dramatic superstructure. Instead it should aim to dignify human existence by idealising any given moment of a human being’s quotidian existence by showing how striking that moment actually is. De Sica set out to make a film that was uncompromising. With Zavattini once again collaborating with him on the script they deliberately chose a subject that would have little immediate audience appeal. In Umberto D the old man is represented as closed and hostile to the outside world in ways specifically designed not to gain sympathy from the audience.

Umberto D 9

The film nevertheless stitches together moments taken from the quotidian to give a shape to Umberto’s experience of reality. Added to this there is a clear chronicling of the events in Maria’s life as she ends up pregnant and deserted, alongside the landlady who has an imminent marriage as she aims to clamber up the social scales. The film however de-dramatises events such as Maria’s announcement of her pregnancy (imagine East Enders doing it like that!!).

The film also features a pair of middle-class lovers who get to use Umberto’s room for their adulterous sex. They are portrayed in an almost un-melodramatic way as Marcus humorously notes: ‘It is as if a scene from another film found its way by mistake into Umberto D, serving in its incongruity, as a foil for de Sica’s resolutely un-dramatic storytelling mode.’ (Marcus: 1986: p 105).


Not only does the ethic of solidarity begin to break down during the film but the stylistic mode of neorealism itself undergoes a change. The zoom down to the street indicating the subjective desire of Umberto at that moment to finish it all, the shot of the fierce bulldog at the kennels presenting a subjective perspective (perhaps for ‘flick’ the dog) on the rest home as a mirror image of the snapping landlady moves us away from the more neutral cinematic practices central to classic neorealism. Marcus extends this analysis noting that there are a number of different perspectives developed about Umberto during the course of the film. At times he appears in a humorous light at other times pathetic whilst receiving critical treatment at other times.



Umberto D 3

Umberto unsuccessfully attempts to beg using Flick to hold out his hat as a begging bowl. 



Many of the shots combine with the mise-en-scene to interiorise the characters. The way Umberto is shot in his room is not done in a voyeuristic way. Instead the shot pulls the spectator into the mindset of the character. A similar process is taking place in Maria’s personal space in the kitchen. On one occasion she sees a cat wandering across roofs acting as a visual synecdoche for her own feelings of potential homelessness.

As a character Umberto is a self absorbed old man. At the kennels he has no sympathy for another dog owner who cannot afford to get his dog out and who knows the dog will be put down. Neither has Umberto any recognition that Maria has been abandoned. In the film poverty combines with pride resulting in that self absorption. Rather than helping to forge solidarity poverty is represented as dividing people. Marcus challenges what she saw as a consensus critical perspective that the film does offer hope in the end when Umberto plays with the dog, rather she likens it to a hysterical moment of forgetting the constraints of a grinding quotidian. She argues that the replacement of the human reconciliation between father and son at the end of Bicycle Thieves is negated by substituting with a dog who is precisely non human.

Marcus ends by suggesting that it is in the visual style of the film rather than its personal / political implications that a corrective is offered against the processes of atomisation and solitude within the modernising social order. Marcus also compares the didacticism of Rossellini’s screenplay for Rome: Open City with Umberto D. She argues that Umberto D must be viewed properly before any message can be deciphered. This is evidence that the neorealist moment of Rome: Open City is past. By comparison she suggests that Umberto D opens the door to the style about to be pioneered by Fellini and Antonioni and that narrative has been shifted to form as an agent of social change: ‘By making the form the new repository of neorealist meaning, de Sica and Zavattini put an end to the classical neorealism of content, and rendered possible instead Fellini’s, Antonioni’s and Visconti’s application of its stylistic precepts to subjects hitherto excluded from serious post-war cinematic treatment.


May 20, 2007

Italian Neorealism: An Introduction

Italian Neorealism: An Introduction

Ossessione Poster



Introduction

Immediately after the war Italy was deluged with Hollywood films which controlled between two thirds to three quarters of the Italian market 1945-1950. The importance for a strong relationship with the US government in the post-war stabilisation phase ensured that Hollywood wasn’t challenged by calls for protectionism or other measures to curb the flow. Eventually in 1951 an agreement was signed which capped the level of Hollywood imports to 225 per annum. The same period saw the flowering of  an Italian film movement called neorealism. This movement has become an important part of film history although it was based upon a relatively small number of films. The influence of these films has been out of all proportion to both the numbers of them made and their impact at the box-office at the time, for it was the Hollywood films which were pulling in the audiences. It was powerful aesthetic approach allied to a loose politically left position movement in Italy which has influenced film styles there for decades afterwards but it had a profound influences on other national cinemas particularly in Europe. It influenced French New Wave practitioners such as Godard and Truffaut and it also influenced the makers of the British new wave based upon social realism such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson.


Sitney (1995) has identified Italy as having two intensely productive periods when its cinema earned the respect of the world. He has named these periods as ones of ‘Vital Crises’ after the description of these by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The first period is identified as that of neorealism which is commonly understood as being a movement of the 1940s and is associated primarily with notions of Resistance and solidarity. The second period is associated with reflections upon the Italian ‘Economic Miracle’ which took place in the late 1950s until 1963. Sitney suggests that by 1964 this central vitality was beginning to wane. For Pasolini neorealism was a contradictory phenomenon: It is useless to delude oneself about it: neorealism was not a regeneration; it was only a vital crisis, however excessively optimistic and enthusiastic at the beginning...’ (Pasolini cited Sitney 1995: p 1).

Contemporary films in other coutries 


The Italian contribution to cinema as a whole needs to be set against the best of the American and European films of the time. US films of the time includedspellbound, The Best Years of Our Lives, Lady from Shanghai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. In the rest of Europe Britain made films from Powell and Pressburger such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. But these were based upon a studio inspired professionalism as were films by Bresson and Cocteau The Ladies of Bois du Boulogne and Beauty and the Beast respectively. In France Clement’s Battle of the Railroad bears a direct stylistic comparison as well as one by content but nevertheless the Italian contribution to original cinema:

lies in their stylistic organisation of elements of apparent rawness, their emotional intensity and their focus on current political and social problems. Sitney (1995: p 6)



The Political Background to Postwar Italy


Political background to postwar Italy

Throughout the late 1940s the possibility of revolutionary change from the Communists was perceived of as a constant threat by the incumbents of the Italian government and their backers in the US and GB. The Parri government of late 1945 had seen the Prime Minister also serve as Interior Minister. This was a strong indicator of the primary concerns of the government of the time. Parri was followed by the Christian Democrat leader De Gasperi in December 1945. Initially De Gasperi had a Socialist Interior minister who had suppressed Communist inspired revolts, however De Gasperi took over the job himself in his second government of July 1946 - Jan 1947. In May 1947 De Gasperi was able to form the first Italian postwar government without any participation of the far Left. The post of Interior Minister then went to the Sicilian Mario Scelba through the next 6 cabinets until 1953.

The coalition governments based upon the Christian Democrats as the largest party meant working with a range of right-wing parties including Liberals, Monarchists, and Uomo Qualunque (The Common Man) who were anti-centrist and largely composed of southern ex-Fascists.

Scelba organised a special anti-riot police force armed with sub machine-guns. They were used to good effect during the election campaign of 1948 when left inspired demonstrations were frequently broken up with demonstrators occasionally killed. It was at this time that the Uomo Qualunque movement dissolved itself and the MSI a nationally based neo-Fascist party was formed.

The 1946 elections had seen the socialist and communist parties gain nearly 40% of the vote. For the 1948 election they had decided to pool their resources in a popular front. However the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 lost them support as did a split in the Socialist Party itself. Spiritual threats from the Vatican and rather more materially based ones from the United States served to weaken the communist party's electoral base still further.

Sicily was a case study in its own right. The US had incorporated the use of gangster links through the Mafia to facilitate the invasion putting Mafiosa in political power. Ironically this undid the efforts of the Mussolini government to control and eradicate the Mafia. The Mafiosa tended towards separatism. This was overcome by De Gasperi by offering considerable concessions to them in terms of autonomy. When it was clear coming up to elections that the left still had the majority the Mafia supported the De Gasperi government but at a price of ensuring that anti-Mafia activities were minimised.

The Christian democrats maintained power throughout the 1950s. This had largely alienated the intellectual and artistic forces which had been so prominent during Italy’s immediate postwar period. In parallel the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was also losing the moral standing and respect which they had earned during the Resistance. Elio Vittorini broke with the PCI in 1947 and in 1949 Pier Paolo Pasolini was expelled for his homosexuality. Cultural Stalinism was exercising its grip. Eventually the revelations from Khruschev at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in 1956 lost it a lot of support. This was followed by the suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956. Following that the great writer Italo Calvino left the party in 1957.

The Christian Democrats didn’t benefit from this breakdown in the left. Its habitual use of excessive force to suppress strikes and demonstrations was alienating its own supporters. In 1953 the CD still led by De Gasperi tried to push through what became known as ‘The Swindle Law’. It was designed to allow a simple majority vote at an election to be translated into a two thirds majority at the National Assembly. It was eventually defeated by the slimmest of majorities - a minuscule 0.15%. It was the disturbingly fast growth of the neo-Fascists which helped to defeat this proposal. The CD managed to control Parliament until 1957 without the support of the neo-Fascists. But the price of this was what Ginsborg has described as ‘Immobilism’. This featured on the one hand, steady economic growth as postwar recovery through the Marshall plan came to fruition. On the other hand the ‘Byzantine’ system of public agencies controlled everything from transport and natural resources to culture and sport. This became a fundamental feature of the period. At the same time there was much evidence of scandal and corruption at the highest levels of the CD elites.

The cinema at this time was also a centre of scandal and gossip. In 1950 the pregnancy and subsequent marriage of Ingrid Bergman to Rossellini ‘attracted more attention than any of his films’ suggests Sitney. Cinecitta became an extension of Hollywood with its lower cost labour attracting producers to make extravagant spectaculars like Ben Hur.

The steady economic growth of the mid and early 1950s meant that Italy’s GDP was growing at a rate of 5.5% p.a. From 1959-1963 the years of the ‘economic miracle’ this leapt to a growth rate averaging 6.3 % seeing a doubling of industrial production.

Literary Origins of the Term Neorealism  

The term was coined by Arnaldo Bocelli in 1930 to describe the style which arose in reaction to elegiac introversion of the contemporary Italian letters. By comparison it offered a dramatic representation of a tormented human condition including the conventions of bourgeois life and the emptiness and boredom of existence. Some of Italy’s most illustrious pre and post war writers were associated with this movement including Alberto Moravia, Elio Vitorini, Cesar Pavese, and Vasco Pratolini .

Bondanella draws on the wider cultural milieu particularly in literature to note that there were several major works of neorealist fiction published between 1941-51 including Vittorini’s In Sicily (1945) Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). The novels had in common the resort to an aesthetic of social reality which drew on myth and symbol and used subjective narrators. This was in sharp contrast to the naturalist style of 19th century literary realism. Pavese paid homage to American fiction and its influence suggesting that the American novelists readjusted:

‘... Language to the new reality of the world in order to create in effect a new language, down-to-earth and symbolic...’ (Pavese, Cesar, cited Bondanella, 2002, p 34.)




What is Neorealism in Cinema?

The moment of ‘neorealism’ is consider by most critics as a very important moment in the development of cinema. Bondanella (2002 p 31) notes that neorealism is a confusing term and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (2003 pp27-28) notes that to characterise neorealism is very difficult. He argues that critics have settled upon five key characteristics of the films which belonged to the moment of what is described as the neorealist movement.

Nowell-Smith emphasises that few films ‘satisfied all these conditions together’. In summing up the key aspects of neorealism Nowell-Smith locates the resistance movement as the key focus of neo-realism. The conditions are:

  • A realist treatment of the story

  • A popular setting

  • Social content

  • Historical actuality

  • Political commitment

Anna Magnani about to be shot down



Henry Bacon (1998) also highlights that an essential aspect of neorealism was its anti-facist stance in which this new aesthetic movement and the new multi-party postwar government of Italy were linked. Bacon (1998 p 26) cites Alberto Lattuada a leading scriptwriter of the time:

The actor's costumes were those of the man on the street. Actresses became women again, for a moment. It was a poor but strong cinema, with many things to say in a hurry and in a loud voice without hypocrisy, in a brief vacation from censorship; and it was an unprejudiced cinema, personal and not industrial, a cinema full of real faith in the language of film, as a means of education and social progress.

Millicent Marcus prefers to go beyond technical considerations and sees neorealism as primarily a moral movement of the moment which finds a genuine consensus amongst the artists of the period.

However, if we go beyond technical considerations to the ethical impetus behind neorealism , we are apt to discover far more of a consensus among artists of the period and to find ample reason for grouping them together as upholders of a certain school , tendency, or style, broadly construed’. Indeed for many critics, neorealism is first and foremost a moral statement , “una nuova poesia morale” whose purpose was to promote a true objectivity - one that would force viewers to abandon the limitations of a strictly personal perspective and to embrace the reality of the ”others” , be they persons or things, with all the ethical responsibility that such a vision entails. (Marcus, Millicent, 1986: p23)

Marcus notes the neorealism has had vast cultural and ideological reverberations which:

may explain the seemingly disproportionate impact of a movement that lasted only seven years, generated only twenty-one films, failed at the box office, and fell short of its didactic and aesthetic aspirations. (Marcus:1986 :p xvi).



The films which can be described as neorealist have frequently been categorised as a ‘film movement’. The critic Andre Bazin has claimed that the development of the use of deep-focus photography in neorealism allowed a greater democracy for the eye by being closer to ‘reality’. Bazin associated an ontology or ‘beingness’ with the combination of the long take and the use of deep focus. Whilst as early as Visconti’s Ossessione this cinematic technique had come into use there is little evidence of a concerted attempt by the directors to do this. The exception is the scriptwriter Zavattini who wrote several statements espousing realism with its associated use of non-professional actors. Bondanella argues that too much has been made of the relationship to Italian social problems minimising the importance of the artifice that directors had added to the films.


Bondanella draws on the wider cultural milieu particularly in literature to note that there were several major works of neorealist fiction published between 1941-51 including Vittorini’s In Sicily (1945) Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). The novels had in common the resort to an aesthetic of social reality which drew on myth and symbol and used subjective narrators. This was in sharp contrast to the naturalist style of 19th century literary realism. Pavese paid homage to American fiction and its influence suggesting that the American novelists readjusted ‘... Language to the new reality of the world in order to create in effect a new language, down-to-earth and symbolic...’ (Pavese, Cesar cited Bondanella 2002, p 44).

Bondanella argues that neorealism wasn’t strictly a movement although the emphasis has been that the films deal with real problems, with believable characters found in everyday life:

However the great neorealist directors never forgot that the world they projected upon the silver screen was one produced by cinematic conventions rather than an ontological experience, and they were never so naive as to deny that the demands of an artistic medium such as film might be just as pressing as those from the world around Them. (My  emphasis; Bondanella, 2002, p 34).

Here one can note the  dramatic treatment of  the  Nazis  trying to catch an anti-fascist in the block of flats in Roma  citta aperta.  The intercutting between Nazi troops rushing up the stairs and the priest  hiding the anti-fascist  was using film language to heighten the drama. similarly in this film the overly Germanis mise en scene of the Gestapo cell block and the representation of the Gestapo officer as gay with his subordinate a vampish lesbian was the start of an association of Nazism with sexual perversion which Rossellini also explored in Germany Year Zero with a key character an unreconstructed Nazi pedophilic teacher. 


It is useful to note that the number of films which can be defined as neorealist produced 1945-1953 was about 10% of the total number of films produced which equates to about 90 out of the 822 produced overall. The critical and historical discourses have focused upon these as the key films aesthetically of the period however they were not that important in the context of the industrial system as a whole. The films were not great box office hits at the time despite becoming described as masterpieces now. Rossellini’s Rome, Open City achieved first place in the box office 1945-1946, after that even the most popular of the neorealist films slipped down the box office lists as the wartime concerns receded. By 1949 de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves could only achieve 11th place in the annual box-office returns. The films were often praised by critics abroad; this helped to create a small but financially useful internationalo market for these directors.




The Shift Towards Neorealism

Ossessione 1


The Italian neorealist movement is effectively bracketed by two films made by Visconti, Ossessione made in 1942 loosely based upon James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Ring’s Twice. This film transposed an American popular crime novel into an Italian setting with an aesthetic influenced by French Poetic Realism.  Visconti had worked with Renoir during his great poetic realist period of the interwar years and had gained some of Renoir's political outlook from this period. However, Nowell-Smith (2003 p 13) notes that the stylistic debt to Renoir was confined to this one film.

Visconti follows Renoir in a naturalistic way when he establishes the relationship of the character to the landscape. Where Renoir’s naturalism was influenced by Maupassant and Zola, Visconti’s was influenced by Giovanni Verga the Sicilian writer of the late 19th century who wrote in a style called Verismo which was a form of naturalism and a part of Italian regional literature. The beginning of the end of the neorealist movement is marked by La Terra Trema (1948).

La Terra Trema 1


Nowell-Smith argues that despite the many claims to associate Ossessione with neo-realism it was marked by realism without the 'neo', rather the film can be seen as a precursor of what was to come for it was missing the essential political elements although the style was present. In a similar vein La Terra Trema is marked by going beyond the central aspects of neo-realism. De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) is usually seen as the film which marks the end of this current. Nowell-Smith emphasises that:

The real heart of the neo-realist movement was the resistance film and the often agonisingly direct contact it re-established between the spectator and recent events, and the decline of this movement can be traced to the moment when this genre lost its immediacy and became at best reflective, at worst sentimental’ (Nowell-Smith, 2003: 29).


Visconti had belonged to an artistic resistance movement that had started to emerge in the early 1940s, although he was on the margins. At that time it seemed vital to go beyond the conformist cinema of Mussolini’s period and there was a growing shift towards the verismo aesthetic of Verga. However at this stage Ossessione was made directly under the government of Mussolini during 1942. The film was subject to the censors when it came out in 1943, although later in this year the invasion of Sicily by the Allies had happened and the Allies were beginning to control parts of the Italian mainland by the end of the year. It was the changing political circumstances which both allowed and demanded a different aesthetic and neo-realism is normally regarded as happening between 1943 -1950.


Ossessione 4


Ossessione is marked off from most of Visconti’s other films by having a lack of historical and political perspectives which also distinguishes it from most of the neo-realist films as well. However, with the script being written by four politically committed film critics and writers including both Visconti and de Santis, all of whom were based in the journal Cinema, it would be unwise to write it off as an entirely apolitical film. Whilst Cain’s novel appears to have provided the inspiration the story-line, the visual coding of the film and the more realist aesthetic can be interpreted as signs of cultural resistance at a time when Italy was still under full control of Mussolini during its making.

Perhaps, it is possible to read Ossessione as an allegory of the way in which Italy had become seduced by fascism. The crash at the end of the film could be seen to be the disaster that Italy was heading for at the time. Look carefully at the way in which Giovanna changes from a light flowery summery frock into a morbid black dress after making love with Gino the tramp for the first time. This is a powerful visual statement after a moment of high passion, that can be read as highly symbolical given the moment of the film’s production and its release. Note too the association of Gino and the husband frequently described as ‘boorish’, yet he is an affable and generous man and bonds with Gino the tramp when he realises that they have served in the same part of the military together, and were even trained by the same drill sergeant. Perhaps this can be seen as harking back to the national solidarity of the Risorgimento, as reworked into Mussolini’s notion of the ‘national popular’ .




Neorealism Proper


Origianl Poster Roma citta aperta


For Marcus (1986), Morandini (1997) and Bondanella (2002) the neo-realist movement proper starts with Rossellini’s Roma, citta aperta (Rome Open City, (1945).  Here the city can be seen as a synecdoche (a part that equals the whole) for the whole of the Italian nation. The film examines the consequences of the Nazi occupation of the city after Italy has declared itself as being on the side of the Allies after the arrest of Mussolini.  Of the neorealist core films two more  are by Rossellini Paisa (1946), Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero,1947). These three are sometimes known as his war trilogy. to these films can be added to three by de Sica: Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), Umberto D (1952). Morandini also includes Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), and Bellissima, 1951) as core films of the movement.

Bicycle Thieves 1



De Sica and the early Rossellini films although not strongly politically motivated like the work of De Santis still were attuned to the specifically politically sharpened moment of their making:

In Rossellini’s case his interest in the immediate realistic representation of actions and events attached itself to a situation that was one hundred per cent political, in which political action was immediate to an exceptional degree’ (Nowell-Smith, 2003:27)

Bondanella argues that the conditions of production under which Rossellini worked during the making of Roma citta aperta helped to create many of the myths surrounding neorealism. There was little studio work, the film stock was bought on the black market , often in short strips. The development of the film was done without the use of rushes and the post-synchronisation of the sound were all contributory factors to the myth-making of neorealism.

Roma citta aperta in its style was far more than just naturalistic including a range of styles moods through the use of documentary to the ‘most blatant melodrama’ comments Bondanella:

Beneath the surface of the work, which often seems to possess the texture of a documentary and frequently seems closer to a newsreel than to a fictional narrative there is a profoundly tragicomic vision of life which juxtaposes melodramatic moments or instances of comic relief and dark humour with the most tragic of human experience which reconstructs the reality of a moment in Italian history. (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, 38-39).


By comparison Paisa is closer to the conventions of a newsreel style documentary whilst going beyond the straightforward depiction of events. It is organised around several episodes going through the Allied invasion of Italy. It starts with the landings in Sicily, then moving to episodes in Naples and Rome, the struggle between the partisans and the Fascists for Florence, a visit of American chaplains to a monastery in the Apennines and finishing with the capture of a group of partisans and allied advisers in the Po valley.



Paisa 1


The name Paisa was a colloquial form of the word paesano meaning countryman, kinsman, neighbour or even friend. It was typically used as a form of greeting between the American GI’s and the local Italians. For Rossellini the deeper meanings become a route for exploring the Italo-American relationships in which ‘...linguistic barriers ...give way in the face of moral commitment.’ Suggests Bondanella in which the self-sacrifice of an American for his partisan comrades demonstrates a love of fellow man which links with Rossellini’s Christian humanism. Interestingly the episodes set in Florence and on the Po have an anti-British sentiment within them.

Germany Year Zero Poster




Germany Year Zero (1946) is dedicated to Rossellini’s young son who died in that year. It is based on the story of a young boy Edmund in his early teens. Edmund ultimately murders his sick father and eventually commits suicide. The film shows the breakdown in morality announced in a voice-over at the start of the film.


Bondanella argues that comparison of these three seminal works of neorealism by Rossellini  with the work of De Sica shows that:

it becomes abundantly clear that thee was no single or aesthetic programmatic approach to society in their works. (Bondanella, 2002 p 54)

Neorealism can be understood in both cinema and literature as a reaction against the classical and rhetorical stance of the arts of the Fascist period. In La Terra Trema Visconti chose as a model not only Verga but also the realism of the American 1930s. The naturalism and verismo fundamental to Ossessione are absent from La Terra Trema beyond the use of Verga for the initial story. Visconti’s had by then become influenced by Flaherty and Eisenstein. A fuller account of this film is present in a separate posting on this blog. Suffice it to say here the film is frequently understood as the last film made which can be attributed to the neorealist movement and moment. 



The Shift Away from Neorealism

Neorealism, never a film movement based upon a manifesto of strict conventions, began to decisively shift away from its aesthetic roots through films by De Sica and Rossellini which incorporated a realm of fantasy and imagination rather than a naturalistically based ‘reality’. De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1950) for example sees an escape from poverty symbolised by flying over Milan cathedral on a broomstick.

Other filmmakers like Visconti and Lizzani chose to explore the historical legacy of Italy and as such began to engage with the historical processes which brought about the fascist state through adaptations of literary texts. Visconti’s Senso (1954) is a film which is exploring history through a Gramscian inflected lens going beyond a reportage of events during the Risorgimento (the Italian movement for national liberation and unity of the 19th century) to explore the ideological differences and the outcomes of these in the form of fascism.

Visconti uses the format of operatic melodrama to explore this using the lives of individuals to intersect with what he envisioned as the motor of history. The use of Verdi in the opening scene was used to great effect to connect with the artist who in Italy best exemplifies notions of Italian patriotism and nationalism. Here Bazin’s critique of the film suggested that viewers were forced to engage more with their intellect rather than their emotions. Bondanella suggests that this disjunction was achieved through the creation of a sumptuous and meticulously researched mise en scene which lends ‘...the film a certain sterile splendour...  (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, 98).

The original release of Senso was very controversial, for Visconti had made it with the intention of drawing parallels between the failure of the Risorgimento and the antifascist resistance. The film was released at the Venice film festival whereupon the Ministry of Defence forced an important cut on the original:

...which confused Visconti’s original comparison of the Risorgimento and the Resistance, thus weakening much of the film’s political impact upon its public’. (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, p 99.)

As far as neorealism as a style was concerned the film was a combination of spectacle, melodrama and critical realism and represented a distinct shift away from the idealist version espoused by Zavattini.






Zavattini

Zavattini: Major scriptwriter within the neorealist framework often thought of as a purist as far as neorealism is concerned.







There are some interesting issues concerned with the film in terms of the general development of Italian cinema as an institution. It was the first colour film made by an Italian director, and marked a shift towards a level of dependence upon American financing. An American star Farley Granger was imposed upon Visconti - he had originally wanted Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando. Despite these attempts to make an international package the film failed to attract large overseas audiences. This seems largely due to their ignorance of the Risorgimento.

One important underlying issue is revealed by this. Lack of wider historical knowledge especially amongst American audiences vitiates against the success of even more expensively and well made films in the American marketplace. Some level of de-historicisation and a greater focus on the romance and melodrama might well be necessary to impress a genre constructed audience.


Perhaps the most obvious indicator of the shift away from neorealism came with the production of Love in the City (1953) made by Zavattini in conjunction with several other directors each doing an episode. Whilst Zavattini was the defender of the neorealist faith, trying to promote the film as something close to cinematic journalism, the contributions from Antonioni and Fellini pointed towards the move into highly abstract psychological representations of love affairs through the suicides of several women from Antonioni. Fellini’s contribution was based on a story-line about a client who wished a marriage bureau to advertise for wife willing to marry a werewolf.

Rossellini often regarded as the core neorealist, along with the younger Fellini and Antonioni, were moving away rapidly from the neorealist ‘mode of production’ based upon using ordinary people instead of actors. They were shifting to stories with more psychologically complex characters which required professional actors.




Voyage to Italy 1

George Sander and Ingrid Bergman in Rossellini's post neorealist Voyage to Italy






Rossellini was now having a public affair with Ingrid Bergman and made a range of films that were largely vehicles for her such as Stromboli (1949), Europea ’51 (1952) and Voyage in Italy (1953). The content tended to revolve around aspects of contemporary marriage, emotional alienation and despair. Whilst they were failures at the box office they were lauded by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema. Rossellini commented that

..life has changed, the war is over, the cities have been reconstructed. What we needed was a cinema of Reconstruction. (Rossellini cited Bondanella 2002 p 105)

The Cahiers critics considered Voyage in Italy to be one of the twelve best films of all time up to that date. In the recently re-released BFI version on DVD Laura Mulvey who provides a commentary says it is her favourite film. It tells the story of an English couple who visit Italy needing to dispose of an inherited property. It becomes a play on the stuffiness of the middle class English and the deep rooted passions of Italy which are quite literally in the case of a couple in Pompeii embedded in the soil. Alexander makes a visit to Capri renowned for the sexual exploits of Caligua and Tiberius where he fails to seduce an attractive woman he meets. It was a site later visited by Godard in Le Mepris, - perhaps a homage to Rossellini. Eventually the couple become reconciled meeting up at a religious festival. Bondanella suggests that the way the Anglo-Saxon speaking press treated Rossellini’s affair might have been a reason for this denunciation of English morality. The film itself received little critical attention outside of France.

Fellini had been closely involved with writing several scripts for Rossellini including Rome, Open City and Paisan. He also wrote scripts for Lattuada, Without Pity, and Mill on the Po. Fellini became co-director with Lattuada on Lights of Variety (1950). The film explored the seedy underside of the entertainment world, examining the charlatans and the opportunists. The leading female roles were played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, and Lattuada’s wife Carla Del Poggio. A complete break with any form of naturalism occurs when Checcho the leading impresario who has been trying to seduce Liliana (Del Poggio), has been had an argument with Liliana in which a reconciliation takes places. Checcho leaves the building in the early hours of the morning and walks up some steps to the sound of applause for in his imagination at least he has achieved his aims of making a successful variety show which will star Liliana and be toured in the biggest cities. It is this which will in his desire at least seal a truly loving relationship with Liliana. The laughter turns into the sound of a passing tram bringing the viewer at least back into reality.


The film is the start of one of Fellini’s major concerns of examining the reality behind performance and entertainment in Lights of Variety, celebrity the media and the growth of ‘infotainment’ in La dolce vita, and in 8 1/2 a reflection on filmmaking itself. A theme that was to be continued in the 1980s in Intervista (1987)

Case Studies

Umberto D, 1952: Directed Vittorio de Sica

A case study of Roma citta aperta will be added to this blog in due course. A link will be provided.


Webliography


For a small reference piece on the importance of specific Cinematographers of Neorealism 

You may also find it useful to access the Italian directors hub on this site  





Bibliography

All the references can be found in the Bibliograpy of Italian Cinema on this blog.  



Suggested Core Reading for Neorealism

General approaches

Bondanella, Peter. 2002 3rd Edition. Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present . Continuum. Probably your first port of call. Chapters 2 & 3 are useful reviews of the period.

Marcus, Millicent. 1986. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton University Press. Not only does this deal with neorealist films directly with very good chapters on Rome Open City, Bicycle Thief and Umberto D the rest of the book traces the powerful influence upon Italian cinema into the 1980s. There is also a useful discussion about realism as a set of ever changing artistic conventions. It is a very good in depth book.

Musico, Giuliana. 2004. Paisa / Paisan. In Bertellini, The Cinema of Italy . 2004. Wallflower Press is a useful article on Rossellini’s film.

Pierre Sorlin’s Italian National Cinema pp 83 - 114 places neorealism in the context of popular cinema as a whole.

Landy, Marcia. 2000. Italian Film. CUP has an interesting chapter which follows the theme of Landscape and Neorealism, Before and After. This is an engagement with a cinematic geography and is best left until you have more familiarity with the field.

Shiel, Mark 2006: Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City.  Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback

Sitney, P. Adams. 1995. Vital Crises in Italian Cinema. University of Texas Press. This provides useful chapters on Visconti, Rossellini de Sica and Zavattini.


Director Studies

Critical reviews of specific directors and their neorealist films include:

Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge University Press. This has sections on Ossessione, La Terra Trema. Bellissima.

Core films to view:

Roma, citta aperta : Rossellini

Paisa: Rossellini

Germany Year Zero: Rossellini

Bicycle Thieves: De Sica

Sciuscia (Shoeshine): De Sica

Miracolo a Milano: De Sica

Umberto D : De Sica

La Terra Trema: Visconti

Neorealist precursors

Ossessione : Visconti

I bambini ci guardano: De Sica









May 04, 2007

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others,2006: Dir Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A brief report and range of web links on this recently released film in the UK which was hugely successful in Germany and won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

Stasi Surveillance Operative Wiesel

This film about the practices of the Stasi, the communist East German secret police, won a "Lola" award for best film as well as in six other categories.

The recent release of The Lives of Others has prompted some interesting reviews on BBC News 24 and a very interesting article by Anna Funder the author of Stasiland (2003) in the May 07  edition of Sight & Sound the British Film institute monthly magazine. 

Sight and Sound cover

The purpose of this current posting is just to flag up the film and its importance not only to those interested in Central and Eastern European affairs but also in the possibilities of subversion and change. Funder's article explores the possibilities of whther Donnersmarck's film in allowing for the possibilities of change and redemption is overoptimistic.

In the film a Stasi officer Wiesler who is assigned to surveillance of a playright eventual starts to cover up the indiscretions of the playright. The surveillance is instituted by a jealous bureaucrat who wants the woman back from the playright. In reality the whole situation becomes one of human agents manipulating and  resisting systems of power.

The Lovers in Lives of Others

Inevitably there are comparisons with the Holocaust and the role of Schindler. Donnersmarck has apparently claimed that Schindler was partially an inspiration for the film. in an atmosphere where the memories of the hated Stasi are still strong and where many ex-Stasi members according to funder are openly defending their position and aggressively demonstrating against memorial institutions and those investigating the role of the Stasi. in the sight and sound article Funder notes the increasing 'belligerence' of these people and comments about their response on the launch of her book in Leipzig:

... a phalanx of ex-Stasi or Party members placed themselves in the front row, glaring at me during the proceedings, muttering aggressively and taking furious notes. At question time I expected a discussion, but they sidled out  before they could be engaged in debate. (Funder, Sight & Sound May 07 p 19).

Funder notes that the film has gained critics in Germany because they point out that Schindler wasn't part of the Nazi machine as such, he was a private citizen with a business which was forced to use slave labour. There was no Schindler in the real Stasi they say precisely because the Stasi was a state machine with all its members entirely ideologically controlled without a crack. 

At a theoretical level one can be reminded of Foucault's ruminations on power in which the possibility for the reversal of the flow of power is always available. At the theoretical level it allows for the possibility of human agency and the whole debate falls into the classic tension between structure and agency within society. amongst all the thousands of Stasi over the years it is hard to believe that some were not willing to turn a blind eye against infractions for one reason or another whther through greed or a spark of humanity connecting with another person.

Here I'm reminded of an extract from a piece by Primo Levi a survivor of the camps which was part of a literature course I was on many years ago. In the extract a concentration camp guard eyes met those of his intended Jewish victim and in a brief flash of humanity a strange connectivity between the two people the guard neglected his 'duty' and failed to kill the victim. It is a story which which underpins and exonerates the position that Donnersmarck has taken in the film. Perhaps in the course of time we will find out what little acts of mercy slipped through the system.

The film raises all those questions about citizens caught up in an authoritarian strong state regime. Please note I'm avoiding the term totalitarian here for it espouses a certain political philosophical position emanating from people such as Hannah Arendt which is questionable.  Indeed the extent of collaboration and collusion, the possibilities of 'internal exile' where individuals withdraw as much as possible from the activities of the state in which they find themselves as unwilling members are all questions which arise from the film. 

In the UK at least the film gives us the opportunity to raise the issue of whether there are too many security cameras  watching UK citizens. Ironically I suspect that there are either not enough or they are targeted in the wrong places and they are used in a class based sense to protect that which is already well protected which is expensive property in city centres and other places. They aren't generally on motorways stopping the managerial classes speeding around at 120mph. Neither are they protecting the working classes from the lumpen elements within their midst in the housing estates often swarming with badly behaved teenagers who have no idea what to do with themselves and with little respect for themselves or anybody else. Whilst the film has resonances in Britain because of the actual and perceived social issues of public disorder and systems of control it seems more appropriate to keep this issue separate from The Lives of Others

Director von Donnersmarck

After its opening in the UK Lives of Other's was hitting the top spot in the ratings according to Time Out of April 25 2007 on the three day ratings chart. This makes a change from people gormlessly queing for cotton 'free' shopping bags (Sainsburys by Anya Hindmarsh, or 'Kate Moss' clothing presumably designed by others in reality. Ideology is at its strongest when people don't recognise it!)

1 1 The Lives of Others 20 £125,246

Webliography

Lives of Others

Sight and Sound May 2007 review of Lives of Others

Feature and discussion with Donnersmarck in Time Out 

Guardian Blog on Lives of Others 

From Politics Central review of Lives of Others

Oscar best foreign film nomination report 1

Oscar best foregn film nomination report 2 

Guardian report on Warsaw best European film awards won by Lives of Others

Stasiland 

Extract from the Guardian of Funder's book Stasiland

Granta Stasiland page 

Guardian review of Stasiland 

Interview with Anna Funder in World Press Review 

Talk and Q & A between Funder RMIT journalism students at the Fifth Estate

Funder wins BBC 4 Johnson prize


April 11, 2007

Luchino Visconti

Luchino Visconti

Return to Italian directors hub page

(Please note this posting is still under construction)

I have now decided to open the page although it is still 'work in progress', however I have noticed that a few visitors are finding this page anyway.  There are now a good range of hyperlinks provided and it is now functioning as a 'web-hub' from the Chronology of European Cinema Page for work on Visconti. My apologies to visitors for any inadequacies. Hopefully you will still find it useful for your purposes and better than anything else on the web currently available in English.  

NB Hyperlinked filmography below 

For all those visiting from the 'Chronolgy of European Cinema' page there is a hyperlinked filmography as well as a webliography below.  The former takes you to the best articles I could find on the web on that particular film in English at the time of construction. If you have come across anything else which you consider better please drop a message in the comments box and I will relink if appropriate.  


Forget Rossellini and Fellini - no one did as much to shape Italian cinema as Luchino Visconti. So why is he so underrated, asks Jonathan Jones





Audiences are always stratified and it crudifies the situation to suggest that there are only two of them, a “mass” and an “elite”. Many film spectators (not to mention readers of books or visitors to art galleries) do not fall into either category and would find insulting suggestions that they did’ (Nowell-Smith 2003: 219).


Below is a YouTube extract from BBC 4 Arena documentary The Life and Times of Count Luchino Visconti. The full two hour version is available with the BFI version of The Leopard.



A Brief Overview

Introduction 

The role of this article is to provide an overview of Visconti and to act as a web-based hub for visitors to gain more information about Visconti in a more organised way. Hopefully this will provide researchers at whatever level as well as people generally interested in Visconti with a useful service. More in depth articles on specific films are posted elsewhere and have been hyperlinked. As I come to consider Visconti's cinematic oeuvre in more depth I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that there is a strong case to be made for him being considered as one of the greatest of the World's directors. Obviously it is a contentious argument and one can immediately criticise it by pointing out that in terms of film form his work was not especially avante garde in the way that of his near contemporaries such as Antonioni's was, neither in terms of the Marxist that he was did his films focus upon class formulations in ways that promoted the working class as the historical agent of change in a didactic sort of way.

My case is being developed built on his attempts to develop a vision of the processes of historical change in a thoroughly artistic way following the work of Lukacs and using realism as a tool to examine key turning points in history as experienced through representatives of their class who were often aristocrats and royalty rather than horny handed sones of the soil. Yet Visconti has represented the Risorgimento very effectively firstly in Senso and later in The Leopard. With The Leopard I argue elsewhere that Visconti successfully brackets what many saw as the positivity of European Liberal nationalism of the 19th century and the demise of nationalism as a force for progress in the representation of the coming to power and the consolidation of that power in Germany as it falls under the power of the Nazis in The Damned. In this last mentioned film Visconti is not afraid to use more operatic approaches within his art shifting momentarily out of realism modes of expression through the Bazinian long take into moments of melodrama a term which is perhaps best thought of attached to a more Italianate meaning of the term which simply means music with drama rather than an over the top approach to everything exemplified in British TV soap operas for example. 

It should not be forgotten that Visconti effectively represented many aspects of the marginalised and the working class in contemporary society as well firstly in Ossessione in an indirect fashion then in La Terra Trema which was originally designed as the first of a trilogy and interestingly represented regionalism as well with the film having to be subtitled into Italian for Italian rather than Sicilian audiences. The consolidation of the political right in power in Italy brought about a need for changes in approach and Bellissima starts to tackle the ideology of celebrity and the growing power of the media. In Rocco and His Brothers Visconti  made an insightful critique of the economic forces which underly the processes of diaspora and migration something which contemporary British film makers are dealing with today

Viscont's later films have often been associated with decadence and also his own personal predilections and history coming from an aristocratic background. Here it is important to differentiate between studies of decadence as an historical problem which often signifies a turning point in history manifest in the art and culture of the moment and associating the artist critiquing this type of society. Ludwig can be seen as a good exemplar of the historical film as the cultural impetus behind mid-19th century monarchy is represented as the end of an era. The rise of instrumentalism and bourgeois bureaucracies for modern industrial society were pushing aside the old regimes and Ludwig is as much about the rise of a German nationalism and Bismarckian realpolitick as a 'biopic' of the real Ludwig. 

One cannot ignore Visconti's masterliness in the realm of mise en scene. Known as a perfectionist in the construction of props and clothing he was also a perfectionist in his use of music as a fundamental facet of mise en scene.  Much of his work is also about music itself either directly or indirectly. Mahler, Wagner and the  failure of culture to stand up to the pressures of the new barbarism at the core of Nazism are just some of the musical themes present in visconti's work. The theme of music and memory is present in Vaghe Stelle dell' Orsa / Sandra through the use of  the late-romantic music of Franck and the use of American pop music to make an anti-Facist point in Ossessione amount to just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Visconti's in depth of understanding of the use of music in his cinema. Perfectionism too was present in his dealings with actors. Whilst Visconti is known to have had a stormy relationship with Burt Lancaster in The Leopard mutual respect grew out of this and Lancaster supported Visconti in Conversation Piece as well as Bertollucci in 1900. The rise of Maria Callas as an opera star is attributed to Visconti and actors turned into stars such as Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale have much to thank Visconti for. 

Visconti then, became masterful in his film art which was informed by his widespread experience of theatre and opera directing. Visconti undoubtedly had personal vision and the determination to organise and develop his projects often against severe odds such as unsympathetic producers and a hostile political climate. The latter made it hard for him to make and to exhibit films such as Ossessione, Senso and Rocco and his Brothers

It is the commitment to artistic integrity as well as his intellectual approaches combined with a deep knowledge of aspects of European history and culture which give his films such depth. Of course he worked with the best people he could find and many people were regular members of his team. It is this which precisely defines the successful auteur. There can be few people who attend screenings of Visconti films or buy the DVDs who are driven by the genre considerations of watching a costume drama. Visconti had an artistic and political vision that was expressed in the way his films were made as well as the content of these films. To provide deep readings of these films requires of the viewer an engagement with many important features European political and cultural history. However, it must be remembered that at the time of the making of films such as Rocco and His Brothers there would have been many Italians who identified with the economic migration that was such a strong feature of Italian life in the post-war "Economic miracle". Part of Visconti's genius was his ability to engage with and represent different facets of European society in different ways which still related to his political understanding of the world. If this was less obvious in his later work it doesn't make this work any less important and it challenges the viewer to engage with the periods of histoty and culture represented. 

Visconti's films are perhaps perfect for the DVD era although most of his films are best experienced on the big screen. Their length is frequently inordinately long for a cinematic system geared to commerce rather than art and reliant upon the safe creation of genre output. Ludwig for example is aroung 4 hours long and the Leopard around three hours. The length of course relates more closely to operas and Italian audiences were far more used to this form across the classes than in most other countries. It is this cultural diifference which may have influenced Visconti to make such long films. They are films to which a viewer can comfortably return and gain new insights and meaning. They are unlikely to appeal to those brought up on the artifically dynamic editing styles prevalent in Hollywood. Visconti was a follower of the long take and the development of a complex mise en scene as methods of creating meaning in his films. Wholehearted engagement rather than just entertainment was at the core of his films but it is this approach which will help them to stand the test of time. 

Below are some brief bigraphical notes and an overview of his main films. Where appropriate links are provided to more in depth approaches to individual films or perspectives. Some of the comments are thin as the films are not currently available in the UK on DVD or Video. These will be developed in due course. A hyperlinked filmography is provided and a webliography will take you to the best places in English on the web about Visconti and his work. A bibliography is now included  and other bibliographical references can be accessed on the Italian Cinema Bibliography page.   


Biographical Notes

Luchino Visconti died on March 17th 1976 just before he reached 70 years old. His health had been deteriorating since he suffered a stroke nearly four years earlier in July 1972. Visconti’s death can be seen as part of the end of an era within Italian cinema.  De Sica had  died the previous year and Rossellini the year afterwards.

Visconti made 14 full feature films, contributed episodes to several others as well as directing nearly twenty operas and over forty plays. As such Visconti can be said to have an understanding of the role of the arts well beyond the capacity of most film directors. Visconti also had a theoretical understanding based upon his own readings of the Marxist writers Gramsci and Lukacs which were reflected within his work. 

Visconti was the son of a Milanese aristocrat on his father’s side and the daughter of a successful new industrialist on his mother’s side. Visconti was also gay. As an artist Visconti was interested in addressing a variegated audience who would be able to engage with the films at a number of different levels. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith points out:

Audiences are always stratified and it crudifies the situation to suggest that there are only two of them, a “mass” and an “elite”. Many film spectators (not to mention readers of books or visitors to art galleries) do not fall into either category and would find insulting suggestions that they did’ (Nowell-Smith 2000: 219).


Visconti the formative years: from the 1930s to Ossessione (1943)


Visconti’s first work had been as a race horse trainer, an occupation in which he was successful. Visconti had a restless mind and he was never going to be totally satisfied with this as a career. In the early 1930s he was increasingly drawn to Paris and as the decade proceeded he visited more frequently and for longer periods.

As an aristocrat is was fairly easy to access the artistic and intellectual circles of Paris. Compared to the cultural straightjacket of Mussolini’s Italy Paris was seething with experimental ideas and it proved to be formative for Visconti intellectually, politically and sexually.

Coco Chanel

Above Coco Chanel  



Through Coco Chanel Visconti was soon in touch with many leading lights of the Parisian avant-garde such as Jean Cocteau, Kurt Weill, and Marlene Dietrich. Being in Paris afforded Visconti the opportunity to see films banned in Italy. These included works of the leading avant-garde film makers such as Bunuel, Dali, Cocteau, Pudovkin and Eisenstein.

Politically the decade was a formative one for Visconti as the political polarisations in Europe deepened. Initially he had a tendency to favour the right which was growing in France as elsewhere however he moved away from:

“false nationalistic pride, Fascist rhetoric and his habit of emphasising his aristocratic background” notes Bacon (1998, p 6).

1936 was the major turning point in Visconti’s life. The Popular Front in France had won a significant election victory that year which stemmed the growing tide of right wing nationalism amongst the French. Coco Chanel had introduced Visconti to Jean Renoir and his film making colleagues. All were strongly sympathetic to the Popular Front and this helped develop a different perspective on politics for Visconti. At the same time Renoir was pioneering new aesthetic methods. Toni (1935) had become a turning point in cinema described by Raymond Durgnat as:

… the point at which the whole documentary movement of the French cinema achieved its fullest coalescence with the fiction film. (Durgnat, cited Bacon 1998, p 7).

Renoir has commented about his objectives through this technique:

My aim was to give the impression that I was carrying a camera and a microphone in my pocket and recording whatever came my way, regardless of its comparative importance. (ibid)

Although Visconti’s aesthetic style turned to be very different to Renoir’s some of the underlying aesthetic principles became important to Visconti:

From the moment I realised the importance of unity I tried never to shoot a scene without some background movement more or less related to the action… Another of my preoccupations was, and still is, to avoid fragmentation, and by means of playing longer shots to give the actor a chance to develop his own rhythm in the speaking of the lines. To me this is the only way of getting sincere acting. (Renoir “My Life and My Films” cited Bacon 1998, p 7)


First Films

Visconti had made his first film in 1934 which Bacon describes as a little 'Bunuelesque', however the film hasn’t survived and the evidence suggests that it was an amateur affair. Visconti had learnt some photographic techniques from his current partner Horst who was a photographer. Visconti’s first professional acquaintance with the cinema appears to have been as Third Assistant Director to Renoir on the set of Une partie de campagne (A Day in the Country) in 1936. The film wasn’t released until after the war in 1946. Visconti’s role was to design and produce the costumes.


Visconti has claimed it was through politicisation that he started to make films with Renoir. However Bacon cites Ronolino’s book 1981 book on Visconti which argues that he took no strong political views on any pre WW II events including the Spanish Civil War.

Writer and Set and Costume Designer

At this time Visconti also played with the prospect of being a writer and two drafts for novels still survive. Bacon notes that these drafts: reveal Visconti’s obsession with detail. This level of detail can bog down the flow in a novel however in a film through mise en scene it can considerably enrich the cinematic experience and this points to the importance of using mise en scene criticism when studying Visconti’s films.

Visconti also started to work in theatre at this time. In 1936 he designed the sets and costumes for a production of Carita Mondana (Mundane Charity). This production took place in the Teatro Sociale in Como. This was followed by a production of Jan Mallory’s (Joyce Carey) Sweet Aloes. This was also produced in 1936 and ran at the Teatro Manzoni in Milan.

Visconti followed this by a trip to Hollywood. However it seems that this wasn’t a successful time and both Stirling in his Screen of Time and Servadio in Luchino Visconti both note that he never talked much about the experience.

By 1938 Visconti was back in Italy and involved in theatrical production this time producing sets and costume design for Il Viaggio (The Voyage) by Henry Bernstein whom he had met in Paris.


Tosca (1940)

Puccini

Giacomo Puccini the composer of Tosca

The next film that Visconti became involved in was Tosca (1940). This turned out to be a particularly odd production. Jean Renoir was formally invited to make the film by the Italian government despite the fact that La Grande Illusion (1937) was banned by the Fascist government because of its political sympathies. According to Bacon the idea had originated from Mussolini directly. Mussolini in fact held a copy of La Grande Illusion in his private collection. As far as consistency in Fascist cultural policy was concerned this was: a prime example of its arts policy (Bacon p 9).

At the time this formal invitation was extended Mussolini had become a formal ally of Nazi Germany and at this time France had already declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939. Renoir had already been called up and was serving as an officer in the French Army. The French government sent Renoir to Italy in the hope that this might allay any outbreak of hostilities.




Massimo Girotti

The Tosca starred Massimo Girotti (seen above in a different role in Ossessione). Girotti was the leading actor in Visconti's first full length feature film Ossessione.





Visconti worked on the script of Tosca with Renoir and his main assistant Carl Koch. However the international tension was mounting and Nazi Germany was making an increasingly obvious presence in Italy to pressurise Italy to declare war in support of Germany. As a result Renoir and all his French team returned to France shortly before hostilities broke out. Koch who had a German passport and Visconti were left to finish the film. This they did although Visconti has described it as a a ‘horrible film’. One important stepping stone for Visconti was that making it introduced him to the powerful Italian critics and other parts of the circle around cinema.

Tosca Poster


Visconti became increasingly drawn into this circle based around Cinema which had amongst its contributors several important critics who were to become important film directors. These included Giuseppe de Santis and Michelangelo Antonioni. Most of the critics were left of centre while Vittorio Mussolini (Mussolini’s son) was the editor in chief. Politics wasn’t discussed openly and Vittorio wasn’t around for a lot of the time and didn’t deal with day to day editorial decision making according to Bacon.

Effectively the magazine became a site of fracture within Fascist cultural policy as it afforded the opportunity to write more critically yet at the same time to have the veneer of official approval. It can be seen that cultural policy was applied unevenly sometimes with Liberal writers such as Carlo Levi being sent into internal exile (Christ Stopped at Eboli being his memoirs of this which was later made into a film by Rosi). Martin Clark has suggested that intellectuals were usually bought off and flattered rather than repressed as was the case in Germany

Ossessione & La Terra Trema

Visconti's films Ossessione and La Terra Trema respectively marked the precursor to neorealism as a movement whilst La Terra Trema is a core film of the neorealist movement. I have currently no time to provide a fuller evaluation of these films however they are both partially covered in the entries 
Italian Neorealism: an Introduction
and the review Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City 


From Neorealism to Neorealism Rosa: Bellissima

The well known post-war history Italian Cinema by Peter Bondanella surprisingly fails to mention the film Bellissima at all. This film is very important for a number of reasons. It marks a transition from Neorealism to post-neorealism within Italian cinema; it is a meta-cinematic film which deals in a biting comedy a critique of the institution of cinema itself – it thus predates Fellini’s well known La Dolce Vita (1959) by several years; it can be taken as a strong indirect critique of the political direction Italy was taking at the time as well as a critique of the Christian Democratic government's relationship to America  it gives many insights into the way Visconti worked as a director with his performers (Anna Magnani & Alessandro Blasetti); lastly and by no means least as a film it is good viewing – it appears as a favourite of Richard Dyer’s in one of Sight & Sounds surveys about favourite films of critics. For an in depth dicussion of this film please go to my review of the 2007 release of Bellissima by Eureka Video.




Cultural Context










It is important to emphasise that Visconti was also working within an Italian framework. The Italian audience has an operatic culture which is popular across all classes. The binary division of opera into an elitist art form doesn’t operate in this culture as it does in Britain. Indeed one can point to the operatic form as becoming associated with the Risorgimento the emergence of the Italian nation in the 19th century itself. Visconti’s texts are knowingly multidimensional. Despite many criticism of the auteur within film criticism which seems to deny that a director can be an inspirational power behind a work of art Visconti is clearly exceptional. Arguably this is the time for a thorough re-examination of his work at least in the Anglophone countries. As Nowell-Smith has pointed out there has been a paucity of critical work and the films little seen.

The kind of film-making in which Visconti was engaged throughout his career... was a kind which put the director at the centre. The director chose the scriptwriter, the actors, the leading technicians, the editor. The director even chose the producer... Visconti’s films were all his in a way which other directors, not only in Hollywood but also in Italy, could only envy. Under these circumstances, auteurism and anti-auteurism become irrelevant categories’ (Nowell-Smith, 2000: 221-222)



Rocco & His Brothers

Visconti’s cinema always constituted a sophisticated analysis of these processes of social change. Rocco and His Brothers (1960) is a logical step from La Terra Trema (which is dealt in more detail below). A family from the mezzogiorno (deep south) have arrived in Milan a new centre of industrial expansion feeding the Italian economic miracle sucking in labour from the periphery. The response to this forced structural change by each of the four elder brothers corresponds to the range of individual responses which this enormous transition embodied.

The eldest brother had already become established in Milan, with a fiancé. The family arrival caused disruptions of loyalties causing a temporary split. The Sicilian machismo of Simone represents an ideology of the past unable to accept the necessary individual sacrifices to industrial disciplining either through education or within the professionalising cultural industry of boxing. Initial success came easily as Simone had strength and natural talent and was attractive to women. Seduced by a fellow immigrant turned prostitute, another side of the ‘cultural industry’ complex, Simone finds he cannot ‘own her’, and that whilst she like the detective is able to cross formal boundaries of society through hypocritical sexual mores Simone is excluded from refined society. Simone’s inability to control the situation causes a crisis of masculinity and his ultimate decline into alcoholism and the basest of acts. Simone ends up killing Nadia who had left him to return to prostitution and a level of independence. In between Nadia had fallen in love with Rocco. Simone on learning of this had raped Nadia in front of Rocco who was held back by Simone’s lumpen-proletarian acquaintances. Rocco is then beaten up by his brother to assert traditional male dominance. Rocco accepts this traditional dominance and also becomes a boxer mortgaging his future earnings to try and keep Simone’s debts under control.

Rocco’s quietitude and a 'Christian' martyrdom in the face of traditional family ‘values’ and Sicilian masculinity are contrasted with Ciro. Ciro has understood that the way forward is to establish himself through education. He struggles hard at night school to get the qualifications for a good factory job. Eventually he becomes a skilled worker at Alfa-Romeo. The industrial disciplining of the factory system signified by the factory whistle at the end of the lunch-break also represents the solidarity of the workforce who are supportive to Ciro when he is upset in a talk with his youngest brother Luca. Ciro sees the future in Luca telling him he will be the one who will have the luxury to return to their original homeland in recognition of the processes of modernity change the balance of society. Ciro also supports the growth of modern institutions seeing in them a force of progressive change. It is Ciro who ‘betrays’ the traditional familial quietitude about gross and murderous behaviour by reporting Simone to the police. The rational rule of law can work in favour of the working class and is superior to the outmoded and archaic attitudes of the past. It is Ciro who has recognised that a fundamental adaptation is required if the family is to successfully survive at the other end of this enormous transition.

It is worth noting that a new version of Rocco is due out in February 2008 from the Eureka Masters of Cinema Series and this may provide some useful insights into the film.

Il Gattarpardo / The Leopard (1963)

Visconti’s intellectual, political, historical and cultural concerns then bring us to what are frequently described as his films of the Risorgimento, the Italian bourgeois revolution. Firstly Senso then The Leopard. Based upon the historical novel of the same title, The Leopard was set in Sicily and starred Burt Lancaster. As such, the film had a large budget and was aimed towards an international audience. Bondanella describes the film as ‘ a meditation of death, historical change, and the demise of a social class to which the director also belongs to.’(Bondanella, 2002 p 200) . The aristocratic prince whose son has just married the beautiful daughter of a rising bourgeois notes ironically and with a romantic nostalgia that the older aristocratic ruling class had an imaginary of the big cats, whilst the changes were now the ushering an order of jackals and sheep. Certainly it this had an autobiographical ring to it for Visconti’s parents were from exactly that heritage with his mother the daughter of a bourgeois industrialist, his father an heir to the aristocratic family that had ruled Milan in an earlier period.

Bondanella reads Visconti as having sympathy with the Prince who in front of a painting The Death of a Just Man, imagines his own death. In this sense the film is a ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’, the recognition of the passing of an historical period and the inception and establishing of a new social order. However the sound of the volleys of a firing squad in the distance as the Prince walks home, indicate that the new order is already establishing itself by brutal means, and the hopes of the peasants and workers are foreshortened. Whilst for Bondanella the ‘epic sweep’ of the sets and costumes threatens to overwhelm the historical message, it is quite reasonable to suggest that the historical paradoxes are heightened by the mise-en-scene.


A Hiatus of Content and Criticism

After The Leopard there seems to be a general hiatus in both criticism and the availability of Visconti's work to watch and to develop further ideas about his ouevre. Hopefully this blog will contribute to a wider discourse which seeks to re-establish and re-view afresh this work of Visconti's from the middle period of the 1960s. The films concerned include Vaghe Stelle dell' Orsa / Sandra 1965 and Lo Straniero (The Stranger / The Outsider) (Italy 1967). Currently (December 2007) neither of these films appear to be available in English. 

Vaghe Stelle dell' Orsa / Sandra was a modern interpretation of the Electra myth in which the Torjan War was replaced by the concentration Camps of the Second World War. Instead of Agammemnon being murdered by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra here Sandra (played by Claudia Cardinale) suspects her mother and her lover of betraying her Jewish father to the Nazis. Bacon (1998) comments that:

In Sandra the fate of the Jews in the Second World War functions as a metaphor for the entanglement of victimization and groundless accusations practised in the end by Jews and non-Jews alike. (p121)

Visconti himself notes the deep ambiguities in the film:

All the characters excpet Andrew are ambiguous. He would like to find a logical explananation for everything, instead of which he finds himself in a world dominated by the most profound, contradictory and ineplicable passions... (Cited by Bacon 1998 p 120).  

These are not dissimilar themes to ones which were eplored by Bertollucci firtstly in The Spider's Stratagem and then in The Conformist. When one adds Bellocchio's fascinating first feature into the mix - Fist in the Pocket - one can see that themes of the family in crisis were apparently being played out to quite an extent in the Italian cinema of the 1960s. At the same time there was a reckoning being made with the fading memories of Nazism and Fascism which had been cut short with the return of a right wing government at the end of the 1940s. 



The 'German Trilogy'

The Damned (1969) Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973) are known as Visconti’s ‘German Trilogy’. Here Visconti examines the decadence of the Belle Epoque, the corruption and confusion behind the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany, and the story of Ludwig II of Bavaria who has been viewed as very eccentric and was the patron of Richard Wagner. Whilst some critics have marked this down as Visconti’s ‘decadent’ period, and noted an increasing pessimism in the themes that he dealt with this has frequently been over-personalised. Visconti has argued that what interested him was the analysis of a sick society, and in these films the historical forces of modernity versus counter-modernity are being played out.

Some critics have managed to conflate a representation with a notion of sympathy in the director. This has the effect of undermining the subtle Marxism of Visconti from those either unfamiliar with or hostile to that particular intellectual heritage. Bondanella reviews the critical outputs on these films as follows:

Many European critics have tried to interpret Visconti’s German trilogy as a serious, historical vision of Germany’s flirtation with romantic idealism and its subsequent perversion in the Nazi era. But the three films fail to provide any coherent explanation of such a complicated process. It is far more accurate to conclude that in this trilogy Visconti has allowed his taste for visual spectacle, as well as his own personal preoccupation with old age, solitude ugliness and death to overwhelm his philosophical or cultural intentions.’ (Bondanella , 2002 p 20


In The Damned the representation of the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ when the SS slaughtered the leadership of the sexually transgressive SA of Eric Rohmer, links the growth of Nazism to a crisis of masculinity, and also explores the homo-erotic bonding of militarism which repress its own sexual excess instead transferring that into compulsory heterosexuality in tandem with patriarchal family values.

Death in Venice links Thomas Mann and Mahler, artists of the period, with a desire for youth represented as homosexual longing which was an impossible desire at that time. Representing a crisis where the new generation will be fundamentally different whilst the once resplendent Venice the most dynamic city in Europe of the Early and middle Renaissance is decaying, riven by a pestilence of a more Mediaeval type. This isolation of the wealthy and their retreat to decadence is a representation of modernity as conquering the old, marginalising the ancien regime.

In Ludwig the king is seen as amusing himself with musical projects whilst his generals are unable to act as the Prussian Army under Bismarck will ultimately defeat Bavaria allied with Austria. For Germany this was their equivalent of the Risorgimento. Bismarck was to unify the squabbling and corrupted principalities in the name of a greater Germany nation, one which was able to organise industrially and administratively to enter the modern period. In these works Visconti’s predilection for opera and melodrama shines through, and the treatment of these dramatic social changes is artistically portrayed through the responses and activities and thoughts of representatives of those moments. Ludwig’s homosexuality can be seen as indicative of the passing of a monarchical system reliant upon hereditary and therefore compulsory heterosexuality. This dovetails two themes. Patriarchal systems based upon physical reproduction have become outmoded and unstable. A newer form of patriarchy is necessary to achieve stability. For Ludwig to express his desire even as a monarch means to regress from the social reality of the moment only when Bavaria has been subjugated to Prussia leaving a token monarchy can Ludwig act out his desires in a limited. But kings are now subject to controls and he is deposed. The war with Prussia was taking place at the same time as Austria’s war with the Italian process of the Risorgimento. Austria was fighting both wars.

Whilst in Italy there was some hope for progress, in a more democratic sense, both Bavaria and Prussia have acted to forestall a more democratic revolution and its attendant risks, the memories of 1848 still burning strongly in their memory. The modernisers represent ‘realism, calculation, negotiation, countering rival modernisers such as Bismarck by playing a similar game’ (Nowell-smith 2002 p 186). Nowell-Smith suggests that there are some links with Shakespeare’s Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II which have homosexual motifs. Nowell-Smith reads this link as suggesting that legitimacy is itself a burden upon the individual, but while noting that Shakespeare was an apologist for the Tudors he fails to note that under Elizabeth the First the issue of inheriting the crown was one of the gravest concern. Just as Elizabeth played marriage possibilities diplomatically she was at heart a political animal. Even then stability was only a temporary event as the English Civil war was to show.



Gruppo di Famiglia in un Interno (Conversation Piece): (1974)

(Apologies still under construction)


L'Innocente (The Intruder): (1976) 

(Apologies still under construction) 

Visconti decided to do an adaptation of D'Annunzio's L'Innozente. This was his last film for he died on March 17th 1976 whilst was in its editing stage. As Bacon points out these later works of Visconti's reading Sandra as a turning point in his approach have frequently been read as 'decadent':

...an expression of an aging director's morbid fascination with the themes of sickness, decay and death. On the whole it has not always been clear whther the label of decadence is a reference to the subject matter, the style or both, or whther it is used simply as a perjoritve term. (Bacon, 1998 p 214)















Filmography

Short

Appunti su un fatto di cronaca (Italy 1951) Director


Features 

Ossessione (Italy 1943) 

Giorni di Gloria (Italy 1945 - Director of one episdode) 

La Terra trema (Italy 1948) 

Bellissima ( 1951)

Siamo donne (We, The Women) Italy 1953 (Director of 1 part in 5)

Senso (Italy 1954)

Le Notti Bianchi (The White Nights) (Italy 1957) 

Rocco e I suoi Fratelli (Rocco and his brothers) (Italy 1960) 

Boccaccio '70 (Episode title Il Lavoro / The Job) (Italy 1962)

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (Italy 1963)

Vaghe Stelle dell' Orsa (Of a Thousand Delights) (Italy 1965). I was unable to find one good or even reasonable entry in English on this film despite looking under the Italian and French titles on the search engine. It is clearly a gap which need spaying attention to!

Le Streghe (The Witches) (Italy 1967). 1 part in 5 episode title La Straga Bruciata Viva)

Lo Straniero (The Stranger / The Outsider) (Italy 1967). This is the only vaguely reasonable link I could find on the search term The Stranger / The Outsider which shows that this film is need of publication and a radical reassessment. 

La Caduta degli Dei (The Damned) (Italy 1969)

Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice) (Italy 1971) 

Ludwig (Italy 1973)

Gruppo di Famiglia in un Interno (Conversation Piece) (Italy 1974)

I' Innocente (The Intruder) (Italy 1976)










Webliography 


The British Film Institute Luchino Visconti Feature


BBC Arena Page reporting on the very good BBC documentary the Life & Times of Luchino Visconti


Ossessione Review by Richard Armstrong on the Kamera Site 

Johnathan Jones The Guardian 2001 asks why Visconti is so neglected?

David Thompson Guardian article The Decadent Realist

This article by David Thompson is possibly the worst article on Visconti I have ever seen from somebody who is reputedly meant to have a good understanding of cinema. Whatever else, this is a vituperative piece of nonsense. Make sure you break the NHS prescribed amounts of salt when you read this. I have included it because the writer is well known however inclusion does not amount to a recommendation, it does show what Visconti was up against in terms of the petulant jealous petit-bourgeois failed intellectuals (maybe there are advantages to being an aristocrat after all :-) ).

Derak Malcolm  Guardian article on The Leopard

Pete Bradshaw Guardian on Death in Venice

Phiip French Observer on Death in Venice

Guardian / NFT Question and Answers with Claudia Cardinale

Guardian / NFT Part 2 with Claudia Cardinale 

San Francisco Film Society Dennis Harvey on Visconti

Strictly Film School Blog on Visconti 

Premuda, Noemi Luchino Visconti's Musicism (You will need a JSTOR account to access this article) 

BBC 4 Arena article about the 2 hour documentary on Luchino Visconti

Film and Literature. The Case of "Death in Venice": Luchino Visconti and Thomas Mann
Hans Rudolf VagetThe German Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Mar., 1980), pp. 159-175doi:10.2307/405628

This article requires JStor access.  

Marxism and Formalism in the Films of Luchino Visconti Walter F. Korte, Jr.Cinema Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn, 1971), pp. 2-12 doi:10.2307/1225346

This article requires JStor access.

Dr. Ivo BlomPainting, theatre, cinema: Intermediality in the work of Luchino Visconti

Visconti Conference


Peter Brunette in film and Philosophy: Review of Nowell-Smith's third edition book on Visconti


Visconti's Cinema of Twilight by Maximilian Le Cain in Senses of Cinema site

Brief article by Gary Morris  

The Incompossible Languageof Natural Aristocracy:Deleuze's Misreading of Visconti's The Leopard

by Privitello on Senses of Cinema site. 

Bertellini, Giorgio : A Battle "d'Arriere-Garde": Notes on Decadence in Luchino Visconti's "Death in Venice" . (This requires JSTOR access)

Frieze Magazine: Forever Changes Dan Fox

Hide in Plain Sight: An Interview with Piero Tosi. Drake Stutesma. Project Muse PDF from Framework 47


Visconti Revisited: Take 2 . Senses of Cinema Review of Nowell-Smith's 3rd re Visconti 2003.





Bibliography

Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bertellini, Giorgio Ed. 2004. The Cinema of Italy. London: Wallflower Press

Bondanella, Peter. 3rd edition. 2002. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York and London: Continuum

Hipkins Danielle. "I don't want to die": Prostitution and Narrative Disruption in Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers', in Women in Italy 1946-1960, ed. by Penny Morris (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 193-210

Hudson, Anne. ‘Rocco E I Suoi Fratelli / Rocco and His Brothers. Bertellini, Giorgio. 2004. The Cinema of Italy. London: Wallflower Press

Landy, Marcia. 2000. Italian Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Marcus, Millicent. 1993. Filmaking by the Book. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Marcus, Millicent. 1986. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 3rd edition. Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute

Rohdie, Sam. Rocco and his Brothers. London: BFI

Sellors, Paul. C. 2004. 'Senso'. In Bertellini, Giorgio Ed. 2004. The Cinema of Italy. London: Wallflower Press

Wood, Michael. 2003. ‘Death becomes Visconti’. Sight and Sound , May 2003 Volume 13 Issue 5 , pp 24-27



DVD Availability in the UK


This link to Moviemail gives a list of Visconti films currently available on DVD in the UK



April 09, 2007

Mise en scene: how for does style determine meaning?

Does style determine meaning ? The scope and importance of Mise en scene criticism


Introduction

In the final paragraph of his recent review of mise-en-scene criticism John Gibbs comments:

..that style determines meaning, that how an event is portrayed on screen defines its significance, that single moments or images of films cannot be adequately considered when extracted from their context - then close study continues to be vital. My belief is that an understanding of mise-en-scene is a prerequisite for making other kinds of claims about film..... A sense of how style relates to meaning needs to be central to your enquiry.’ (My emphasis: Gibbs 2002, p 100)


Gibbs is concerned to point out that although it shouldn’t be the sort of thing that goes out of fashion the idea of mise en scene went out of fashion. The fact that in the question AS OCR Media Students will receive for AS textual analysis ‘Action - Adventure’ films the term mise en scene is relegated to bottom of the list shows that the examiners are yet to catch up with the latest thinking on the matter! The handout below will argue that the term mise en scene necessarily includes elements of film making such as camera angle, shot, movement and position.

Mise en scene criticism is particularly important to an understanding of Hollywood cinema because within the production system directors are frequently assigned to projects rather than originating them unlike European cinema. It is a cinema which is self-evidently not ‘art’ in terms of the stories that are chosen.

The development of mise en scene criticism has therefore been to discover how layers of meaning can be incorporated into films through stylistic devices of the director who is not in control of the overall project. It is possible for example that the style could subvert the intended meaning of a script which the producers have decided to turn into a film. Bearing this in mind John Orr has pointed out the changes in direction of European realist cinema which have taken mise en scene in new directions. See the blog posting on Lilya 4-Ever for more on this.


At its heart mise en scene criticism is a critical concept which draws attention to and makes easier to discuss all those elements of a film which communicate in a non-verbal fashion. It allows us to understand film as a visual and sensory experience rather than just a literary one.





A working definition of mise en scene


The term is based upon a French theatrical term and has been used in Britain since at least 1833. Mise en scene is the contents of the frame and the way that they are organised. In this argument Gibbs prioritises the work of Robin Wood and the French critic Doniol-Valcroze arguing that the tone and atmosphere is all mise en scene. Mise en scene is what people go to the cinema for as it transforms a dry script and gives a form of expression unique to cinema. This means that it is the realisation of the script organising all the cinematic elements into an organic whole which is mise-en-scene and is ultimately the responsibility of the director.

Historically within Hollywood the director has not always had total control of all the elements. The soundtrack for example has frequently been somebody else’s decision therefore some mise en scene criticism has ignored the importance of sound in their attempts to look for evidence of ‘authorship’ coming from a director. Consequently these critics have focused upon visual style alone.


It is essential to focus upon both parts of this working definition.

The expression ‘frame contents’ = The inclusion of lighting, decor, properties and the actors themselves.

The expression ‘frame organisation’ = The way the contents of the frame encompass:

  • Firstly : the relationship of the actors to one another and the decor
  • Secondly: the actors relationship to the camera therefore also to the audience’s view.

This means that in talking about mise en scene one is talking about framing, camera movement, the particular lens employed and other photographic decisions:

Mise en scene therefore encompasses both what the audience can see, and the way in which we are invited to see it. It refers to many major elements of communication in the cinema, and the combination through which they operate expressively. (Gibbs John, Mise en scene: Film Style and Interpretation, 2002).

Gibbs looks at a range of 9 elements which contribute towards the mise en scene and argues that how a particular film or part of a film depends for its effect on an interaction of elements including:

  • Lighting: The organisation of light, actors and camera makes possible a series of suggestive readings.
  • Costume: clothing can be particularly significant. In films such as Thelma and Louise the clothing worn by the character changes gradually throughout the film signifying both internal and external changes in their condition.
  • Colour. Colour is an expressive element for filmmakers. It is often mobilised by means of costume, which has the advantage of a direct association with a particular character. It might however be a feature of the lighting, the set decoration or particular props. In Thelma and Louise the home of Thelma is very dark and gloomy. Shots of Thelma discussing going away for the weekend show the interior with a bluish-grey hue signifying boredom, imprisonment and enclosure. After the shooting their getaway is within a frame which is of a bluish hue. A colour commonly associated with neo-noir cinema.
  • Props. Props such as cars are usually associated with road movies, guns and other weapons with crime or crime thriller genres and various scary things with horror genres. The early slightly oblique shot of a gun making it difficult to recognise in Thelma and Louise gives the spectator an early inkling of something horrible to come. A few shots later a gun is clearly tossed nonchalantly into a bag. When Louise later sees the gun she asks why it was necessary. In case of a ‘psycho-killer’ replies Thelma in an ironical tone. The gun becomes an important element of the story.
  • Decor. Robin Wood has argued that ‘It is his business to place the actors significantly within the decor, so that the decor itself becomes an actor;’ (Wood cited Gibbs, 2002 p 57)
  • Action and Performance. It is important not to forget how much can be expressed through the direction of action and through skilful performance. A great deal of significance can be bound up in the way in which a line is delivered, or where an actor is looking at a particular moment. Critics have found writing about performance difficult but performance is central to our understanding of narrative film.
  • Space. Space is a vital expressive element which is at a filmmakers disposal. In thinking about space we might think about the personal space between performers and our own sense as an audience when it is impinged upon. There is also the issue of ‘blocking’ that is the relationships expressed and the patterns created in the positioning of the actors. Look out for groups of three actors which allow for a range of opportunities to express relations. Always remember to try and identify whose point of view (POV) is being represented through the camera within any given shot.
  • Position of the Camera. By thinking about space we necessarily think about the position of the camera. The position of the camera governs our access to the action. The same event filmed in a long shot is going to have a different effect upon the audience compared with shooting something close up. Decisions such as whether a character ‘leads’ the camera or whether the camera anticipates his / her arrival can give a different feel to a film: ‘...one of the instantly identifiable characteristics of Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene has been the subjective tracking shot, that places us in the actor’s position and gives us the sensation of moving with him; this usually alternated with backward tracking shots of the actor moving.’ (Gibbs 2002, p 20). Other directors such as Preminger in Laura the camera positioning has the opposite function. The camera tends to watch the character rather than implicate the audience in his movements. The critic Robin Wood has argued that camera movements connect whereas editing separates.
  • Framing. What is in the frame is only a selective view of a wider fictional world. In the act of framing an action a filmmaker is presented with a large range of choices including what to withhold and reveal to an audience.
  • Interaction of the elements. Gibbs proceeds to argue that it is the interplay of all the events that is significant. Any individual element only acquires its significance because of the context within which it is operating: in others words the world of the film itself. 



This is because any filmmaker will be developing accumulating strategies of creating layers of meaning within the film. Gibbs strongly makes the point that ‘...it is terribly difficult to make claims for an individual element or moment without considering it within the context provided by the rest of the film.’ (My emphasis: Gibbs, 2002, p 39). The reason for this is the importance of identifying two related ways in which a film makes meaning which are through coherence and complexity.


Coherence in a film

There are basically two ways in which a film is ‘coherent’.

Firstly there is the example of a visual motif. This would be an element which acquires significance through repetition. In Thelma and Louise for example being out on the road seems to offer freedom and hope.  As soon as they stop anywhere trouble not of their own making seems to occur. Out on the road they utilise the stereotypically sexist men such as the truck driver and the policemen to get a light-hearted revenge on a world of men which is oppressing them. When they do this it is only to take the mickey out of the men concerned. They don’t do any real harm.

The other way to consider the issue of coherence is of different elements of a single moment. Some argue therefore that the very form of the film is the content. The important thing to be considering is the question: Is everything within the frame pulling in the same direction developing the drama? Coherence isn’t everything. Something very simple and uninteresting can be coherent. What gains our attention is whether the coherence is combined with complexity or inner tensions which can bring a greater depth of meaning to the film. In Thelma and Louise for example the mise en scene which pictures Louise in the driver’s seat of the car soon after the killing breaks the image up by shooting her behind the edge of the windscreen. Shots like this give greater depth of meaning as they symbolises the deep rift in her mind as she struggles to decide what to do at that moment. The reasons for her decision unfold later in the drama but that moment is important and what is in the frame clearly marks this cinematically.

The overall coherence of Thelma and Louise finally is reached when it is understood that all the mise en scene aspects are also intertwined with generic conventions. This combination of mise en scene as a part of genre helps to lend this film extra subversive power. 




April 08, 2007

Lilya 4–ever, 2002. Dir. Lucas Moodysson

Lilya 4-ever, 2002, Lucas Moodysson






Lilya 1

A moment of genuine pleasure for Lilya








Introduction

It would be difficult to describe this film as ‘entertaining’ but it is a very powerful film which quickly drags the viewer into the realistic nightmare of post-Soviet Russia.  Along with many of the post-Soviet countries which used to make up the other side of the ‘Iron curtain’ Russia became a place where what most of us consider as normal rights of social citizenship such as housing, health, and jobs became hard to come by. As a result this opened up opportunities for the most unscrupulous and ruthless as morals and morale quickly collapsed into a free for all of 'survival of the fittest'.  The film is equally realistic about the collusion and conivence of Western countries at the level of the individual to exploit the situation for economic and sexual gain. It is also critical of Western countries at the level of government to fail to stop what some have described as a new slave trade. At the most general level Lilya 4-Ever can be understood as a breakdown in trust.




Lilya 4


Being abandoned by her mother &

approaching a moment of total abjection






Relevance to the critical research unit

Lilya 4-Ever is one of several films made by European film makers which came out not long after the turn of the millennium which dealt with the exploitation of the weakest in society who are forced into emigration because conditions have become so bad in their country of origin.

The Last Resort, by Pawlikoski and Dirty Pretty Things by Stephen Frears make up a trio with Lilya 4-Ever. All concern the exploitation of women in some way. Lilya is tricked into the sex trade, in the Last Resort the woman is tricked into arriving in England with her son expecting to be married after a liaison with an English businessman. She ends up in a downmarket seaside resort as an asylum seeker and eventually gets involved in a video pornography to gain some sort of an income. Dirty Pretty Things focuses on how potential immigrants and asylum seekers were tempted into selling some of their body organs in order to gain fake British passports. Of the three films Lilya 4-Ever fits very well with  three categories of research – Women and Film, Crime and the Media and Children and the Media. These films are due to be joined by Ghosts a film about Chinese undocumented labour, which leads up to the terrible tragedy waiting to happen on Blackpool Sands. Ghosts is due out on DVD in April 2007.





Lilya and boyfriend

Lilya with her "saviour"




Social realism

All three films are mainly social realist films and fit in well with the social realist strand of cinema which you will be covering when you look at contemporary British cinema. Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things are both British Films. Lilya 4-Ever is Swedish and uses social realism combined with fantasy sequences which function for the viewer as a representation of Lilya’s unconscious.

Social realism tries to represent aspects of life as they really are. Of course they still use cinematic techniques but they see themselves as grounded in social reality and they usually have a strong preferred reading emanating from the makers of the film. It is interesting that the Lilya 4-Ever DVD has appeals from both UNICEF the United Nations children’s section and Amnesty International as well. As a marketed package it clearly has an even stronger preferred reading for combining with these other texts very clearly positions it. In this sense Moodysson is a man with a mission as he explores the contradictions and  injustices of this world. It is of course possible to discuss this film from the perspective of  whether male directors can create good representations of women.




Lucas Moodysson as 'neo-Bazinian Realist'

In his article New Directions in European Cinema (2004) John Orr argues that moodysson is one of the powerful european necomers along with dirctors like Lynne Ramsey who have taken on the mqantle donned by directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Bertrand Tavernier. Bazin Orr notes saw cinema as a form of exploration in both documentary and fiction:

It would reveal to us ... more of the everyday world in which human beings lived at all levels of society, many of them previously excluded by the commercial dictates of cinema as a cultural industry. Many of the practical means he saw as facilitating this new kind of cinema still thrive, more so now than ever. There is still low-to medium-budget cinema, location-based, often using non-professionals, but focusing now on social malaise - exclusion, violence and poverty - in a more consumerist age ... where the excluded still miss out. The neo-Bazinian aesthetic usually stresses ensemble acting (with improvisation and comic diversion) and obviates star quality. (Orr John, 1990 pp 301-302)

Powerfully Orr links in the work of the Neo-Bazinians to that of the theorist Julia Kristeva through the development of the Bazinian aesthetic to what he describes as a "new unbalancing of perspective". Orr describes it as an anti-aesthetic style in which mise en scene becomes a site of prime deformation thus transgressing the classical style of realism. There is also what Orr describes as a traductive realism which through various camera techniques, differently used amongst directors. The net outcome of these techniques amounts to a 'going down.'

It is here that Orr draws upon the work of Kristeva to discuss the meaning of "abjection". He describes abjection as being:

... the suspension of identity in a world devoid of meaning where abjection is a safeguard, a choice for the liminal in the instance of the void. It is the choice to be stranded as protection against the void. The downward flight is a conscious exposure by the abject being to the very dangers from which it seeks to protect itself, and ultimately from death. (Ibid p 306).





Lilya in Sweden



So near and yet so far, Lilya looks

out on a World of apparent freedom

that she can never know. Is the spectator

in the role of the reflection gazing on Lilya

in her Swedish "prison"? 






Crticism of the Western States

Moodysson’s story takes male domination in contemporary Western society onto another political level for he explicitly criticises the role of the state at two crucial points. Firstly when the pimp tells Lilya that the police would only send her back to her own country and secondly this point is visually consolidated when Lilya feels she can’t take the opportunity to go up to the policewoman in the garage after she has escaped because she is so scared. As a result she ends up killing herself. The film provides some respite from this potential ending because we are given a scenario of choice. At the end of the day she is a human agent and can work it out, as the section on neo-Bazinian realism below discusses choosing the route of 'abjection' is sometimes a conscious but perverse one. We never know which choice she or others like her in real life make or made but we clearly see the results of the wrong choice. 

The mise en scene

The mise en scene of Lilya affects me every time I see it. My first visit to a post-Soviet country was in 1997 and the housing blocks that Lilya lives are absolutely typical. What I found interesting about housing in the Soviet Union was that unlike here it wasn’t based upon class and income although that is rapidly changing now. It used to be the case that doctors and other professionals would be living in blocks like these alongside labourers, mechanics etc.

The areas outside these blocks are called yards and they all seem to have a basketball net in them. It really is a big game certainly in Lithuania (one of the world’s best teams) the country with which I’m familiar. The paintwork the gloomy stairs, because electricity is so expensive relative to incomes ,and the extraordinary poverty of those who were most weakly positioned in society are all true. Many older people lost the value of their life savings as the Rouble lost much of its value. There were also many banking scandals with people depositing their savings and directors of banks running off with the money and lodging it in Swiss bank accounts.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also saw the rise of many small time criminals as well as the large scale ones. The bigger the criminal the more they can get away with things of course. The way in which the current owner of Chelsea football club made his way up is not paved with petals! The petty criminals and smaller gangs took to ruthlessly exploiting young women and young girls. Many young women are tricked into the sex trade in Western Europe by promises of jobs in modelling or even just – as was the case with Lilya – working picking flowers and vegetables.

When these women arrive on false passports - which are usually issued because they are under 18 – they are relieved of their passports and they are trapped. As in the case with Lilya even if they escape from the flats they are usually kept in the police used to send them back to their country of origin and the perpetrators usually get away with everything or else face only small fines or other minor punishment. When you consider the amounts of money that can be made there is little or no risk for the perpetrators. It is thus a very tempting business to the unscrupulous.

It was important in Lilya that the range of men she was farmed out to cut across class boundaries. She was even farmed out for group sex in men’s sporting clubs. This is a very important point, as this represents just how much a wide range of men collude with this illegal trade. Clearly Moodysson (a male director) is representing men as seeing women as vehicles for their own pleasures rather than as people. By doing this he is criticising the dominant ideology which encourages men to treat women in this way. Moodysson's representation of women is not in any sense idealised. Lilya is let down by mother, aunt and "best friend". 




Lilya Cover





Conclusion

From the perspective of using this film as a text in your research project there are many different avenues which can be explored. Not least there is the issue of whether women directors can represent the position of women better than men. There is the link to social reality about the ideological frameworks which create women as victims of what feminists would describe as a patriarchal system.

There are of course a number of potential extracts that could be used in your focus group work. Whilst the film seems unremittingly grim in terms of its preferred reading there is much in there which desires and demands your attention! There are a range of charities and some MPs who are very concerned to deal with some of these isues. Just as the work of Ken Loach in the sixties managed sometimes parts of the media can help to bring about. Indeed Moodysson is asking for people to choose life and to reject the abject. 

Webliography 

Here is a useful blog address (provided by visitor Colin). It is a useful MySpace blog with a video download and useful interviews with the director Lucas Moodysson and some information about the exploitation and eventual suicide of a young Lithuanian woman which helped inspire the story:

http://www.myspace.com/lilya4ever

Here is a live Amnesty International Campaign operating in Greece (June 2007):

Rights of Trafficked Women in Greece

http://www.iom.int/ .

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trafficking_in_human_beings

There is an excellent list of international organisations and a bibliography at this page.

http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10314

http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10220

Trafficking in Birmingham 2004:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3979725.stm

Its still a problem in 2006: 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5297944.stm

Danish anti trafficking project


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