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September 06, 2007
Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. 2006. Mark Shiel. Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback
In all of this, the notion of representing ‘the real’ – real society, real cities, real people – has become more and more compromised and indeed commodified. In this cultural climate, perhaps the time is right to reclaim the real for its radical potential. (Shiel p 127)
I still think that Italian Cinema from 1943 to approximately 1980 is the most productive and interesting one of any national cinema. Sadly it is becoming less well known as this period disappears into history. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly any serious study of the period is embedded in Italian departments and knowledge is thus limited to a few cognoscenti. Neorealism is one of the few aspects of Italian cinema taught more generally on film studies courses however this is often restricted to a brief chapter in a more general film history book. Yet ,as Shiel’s last paragraph cited above notes, rather than the solidarity of early neorealism being an historical occurrence perhaps the sentiments and general approach of neorealism are due a revival. As globalisation runs its course leaving pockets of bitter poverty in even the richest countries and in countries like Brazil leading to bullet proof cars and helicopters for the upper classes representing the real seems to be becoming a priority.
Shiel’s recent book on neorealism is therefore more than welcome because it allows the interested follower of Italian cinema and also students an accessible but authoritative route into this fascinating period of European and Italian history in greater depth. The reader won't put of by the intensely theoretical work which is aimed at a very small target audience of those already in the know which is in part unfortunate outcome of the pressure of the research assessment exercise in Universities.
I strongly recommend this to colleagues in the tertiary sector who teach courses such as the neorealism option on the World Cinema unit for the WJEC A level. It may also be useful for student supervisors of the OCR critical research project area for those taking the World Cinema option. Whilst the book will be too difficult for most sixth formers it will prove a remarkable useful resource which is very well informed indeed as well as original and imaginative and well written as one would expect from somebody who is teaching on the recently upgraded film studies depart at Kings College London.
Technical Aspects of the Book
It may seem a little churlish and pedantic to be critical of the book’s organisation but it would have been useful to have had pages references in the index to mentions of specific films, perhaps under the name of the director as Bondanella does in his large general history of Italian cinema. It is very useful to be able to navigate straight to comment upon a particular film without having to trawl through the book. As none of the other books in this series do this perhaps Wallflower will think about doing this should the titles come out in revised editions which many of them deserve to.
What is Neorealism?
The iconic image of Anna Magnani as Pina moments before being gunned down in Rossellini's Roma Citta Aperta
(Link to BBC interview with Rossellini on this Rossellini page)
Defining Neorealism very precisely is fraught with difficulties. Discourse around Neorealism tends to fall into two schools of thought however Shiel neatly sidesteps this with a convincing argument. Defining any cultural moment is notoriously difficult and the more closely the object of research is gazed upon the more heterogeneous it can seem. Shiel notes that the term Neorealism can be used ‘flexibly’. For some, Neorealism runs from Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) until Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). Other have preferred a more tightly defined range of films from Rossellini’s Rome Open City to De Sica’s Umberto D (1952). This kind of discussion can quickly fall into point-scoring and it is more useful to see the whole period as being inextricably linked and indeed being strongly influential well beyond 1957. In this sense Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structures of feeling’ is a useful term to call upon when discussing cultural moments and movements. Shiel chooses the following approach:
Neorealism is also thought of not so much as a particular moment defined by starting and end dates, but as a historically – and culturally – specific manifestation of the general aesthetic quality known as ‘realism’, which is characterised by a disposition to the ontological truth of the physical visible world. From this perspective, the realism of Italian Neorealism manifested itself in a distinctive visual style. (Shiel: 2006 p1).
Importantly Shiel points out that not all neorealist films contain all of the cinematic strategies that neorealism is know for – location shooting, use of non-professional actors etc. There isn’t a precise formulaic set of rules to describe neorealism.
De Sica holds to the notion of having a non-professional actor in the leading role in Umberto D
Neorealism as a Wider Cultural Movement
Neorealism was a much wider cultural movement than just cinema. Many people will be familiar with writers such as Calvino who were strongly associated with neorealism however the movement extended to photographers and painters and interestingly also architects. This link to architecture was something new to me and is dealt with in chapter three of the book called neorealism and the City. Calvino’s book Invisible Cities is of course one link and Deleuze of course wrote about the different city space of post-war cinema because the spaces of the cities were opened up by the devastation of the fighting. Rossellini deal with this in Paisa particularly in the episode based upon Florence, but nowhere is more marked than in his Germany Year Zero where he was specifically invited by the authorities to film in Berlin because of Paisa and of course Rome Open City. Other critics and theorists apart from Deleuze also wrote extensively about the city and cinema especially Kracauer and Bazin.
Rossellini's Germany Year Zero
The Structure of the Book
The book is well structured with an initial chapter describing neorealism, here the importance of the French pre-war directors Renoir, Carne and Clair is emphasised. The chapter also contains some useful synopses of the emergence of neorealist directors under the Fascist regime such as Rossellini and De Sica. The book then moves on to examine the first phase of neorealism as Shiel understands it because he sees work of the 1950s as being part of neorealism which is adapting to changing circumstances rather than being a complete break with what had gone before. In the first phase the dominant feel of the films are built around a notion of solidarity.
I found chapter three perhaps the most interesting because Shiel has applied the growing interest within the fields of film and cultural studies with the city and representations of the city to the realm of neorealist cinema.
Neoralist images of post-war urban crisis are an especially important legacy because Italy was the only one of the defeated Axis powers whose cinematic representations of the city achieved iconic status internationally so soon after its military defeat. (Shiel p68)
He has also extended the concept of neorealism to movements in architecture allied to notions of building for community. Shiel also draws parallels in the shift from phase one of neorealism (solidarity), to the second phase (focusing more on disaffection and alienation) to shifts in architectural discourse and practices.
Modern Northern Milan meets Southern emigrants in Rocco and his Brothers from Visconti.
It is a great film and thoroughly embedded with the concrns of modernisation and modernity. Visconti meets Dickens with politics perhaps. It is a film which seems to be a direct descendent if not a continuation of neorealism. Its treatment of the city is well worth considering in depth. However it isn't a film which Shiel mentions, whilst writers like Bondanella rather sweep aside its powerful political insights suggesting it is more operatic and melodramatic than having the spirit of " a naturalist novel or a neorealist film". (Bondanella 2002, p198)
Chapter four is entitled “The Battle for Neorealism”. It focuses upon the rapidly changing circumstances within Italian society as Italian politics consolidated around the Christian Democrats who were victorious in the 1948 general election a time when Hollywood comes to dominate Italian cinema. Shiel also notes the demands from the more hard-line left such as the critic Umberto Barbaro ( http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/cinemaitalia/neorealism.html ) for a move towards an aesthetic based upon Socialist-Realism, which had less to do with reality and more to do with creating mythical heroes. In this chapter Shiel also makes a brief comment upon Visconti’s Bellissima largely following Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s position in which Bellissima carries:
…neorealist hallmarks but its light-hearted comedy and melodrama set it somewhat apart from the rest of Visconti’s generally political oeuvre. (Shiel p 93).
As can be seen from my review of the recently released DVD of Bellissima from Eureka Video I have a reading which gives Visconti credence for having a sharp political cutting edge whilst still maintaining the solidarity of neorealism which is hammered home (perhaps unconvincingly but that is an artistic comment not a political one).Hopefully readers won’t be put off Visconti’s excellent film by this comment.
A moving moment in Visconti's Bellissima as the built in advantages of the middle classes aremade abundantly clear
Poster of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore
In chapter five Shiel reviews neorealism’s second phase. In this analysis he is in agreement with Andre Bazin who considers that it was in the closing shot of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria that finally closes the door on neorealism. The chapter opens with an analysis of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore. Sadly I haven’t seen this film which along with I think all of Antonioni’s early work is unavailable in the UK so I’m unable to comment upon Shiel’s analysis beyond noting that there is no reason to think of it as anything but thorough.
Rossellini's Voyage in Italy
In chapter five Shiel also comments upon the films of Rossellini from this period, with some time spent on Voyage in Italy one of several from this time made with Ingrid Bergman. This film at least is available in an excellent BFI version with a very interesting analytical commentary by Laura Mulvey as an extra. Shiel says of Voyage in Italy:
Comprises an expansion of neorealism in the direction of the metaphysical or spiritual concerns and resembles the direction taken by Antonioni. (p 104).
Rossellini had commented as early as 1949 very soon after the Christian Democrats came to power that “ You cannot go on shooting in ruined cities forever”, a clear recognition of the rapid changes and that European reconstruction was beginning to have an effect. Shiel argues that in Francis God’s Jester (available from Eureka video) Rossellini was playing with a metaphor where the relationship with God and other humans was played out in the absence of material. A comment perhaps on the priorities of the CD party and the values being expressed as what became known as the ‘economic miracle’ got under way.
Above from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria
From here Shiel moves to examine the work of Fellini who made six films during this period of the early to mid-fifties. The focus here lies upon Nights of Cabiria. Shiel suggests that Fellini:
Employed realism as a window onto internal character although like the films of Antonioni and Rossellini they never strayed far from social concerns and presented their personal tragedies as narratives with real social implications. (p 113)
Shiel notes that it was this film which initially working within a neorealist framework grows out of it in its final moments. It was Bazin who noted that whilst the film remained largely neorealist he noted that Cabiria was looking at the spectator in a way that changed the relationship of the spectator to the film moving away from the objectivity of the spectator prized by neorealism.
Shiel’s conclusion which I have noted at the beginning of this review notes the legacy of neorealism. Here Shiel claims a wide range of important films on a global scale were influenced by neorealism. Whist I don’t wish to decry these claims I think that the social concern expressed in We are the Lambeth Boys by Karel Reisz (1959) may be underplaying the British documentary connection especially the influence of Humphrey Jennings many of whose films are considerably underestimated. In that sense the notions of realism which Shiel clearly thinks have been seriously downplayed in academia in recent years partially because of the rise of post-modern discourse has a wide and deep roots running through European film culture. Certainly the work of Francesco Rosi and Olmi kept the neorealist flame alive in Italy itself.
From Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs
As an excellent, readable, rigorously researched but accessible book this is the best that I have read on neorealism from the perspective of the more general reader. It would be an excellent book to have as a reference for those new to neorealism as it provides enough contextual information to place this loose movement in a holistic sense, it chooses a good range of films to use as brief case studies and provides an historical scope which includes both the origins of the movement and the long-term influences of this movement which has had a critical success which far outweighs the box-office returns of the time. The book provides a good range of films to be followed up and an excellent range of references which opportunities for the more committed reader to follow up. This book is a must for students, teachers and those interested in Italian and / or European cinema and comes strongly recommended.
June 09, 2007
Visconti’s The Damned (La Caduta degli dei ) 1969:
Representing Nazism and Nationalism
Switzerland / Italy / West Germany
(The film was shot in English at the insistence of Warner Brothers)
Visit other Visconti historical films: Senso and The Leopard
SA Orgy on the "Night of the Long Knives" from Visconti's The Damned
Introduction: Visconti, History & Nationalism
Through an analysis of The Damned (1969) with some comparative work of Visconti’s The Leopard (1962) this article argues that the work of Visconti is overdue critical revision in terms of the sophistication of his oeuvre regarding the nature of history related to two critical turning-points in modern European history namely the Risorgimento and the accession to and consolidation of power of the Nazis. These two films represent the major triumphs of nationalism of the 19th century often seen as progressive Garibaldi for example was greeted by massed crowds when he visited London hailed as being very progressive by British radicals. The closure of this era of nationalism, which by the 1930s can be seen as highly regressive in all European countries, was represented by The Damned. It represents the corrupted coming to power of the Nazis and the heinous activities they undertook to maintain and consolidate their hold on Germany. The massacre of the Night of the Long Knives is a direct echo of the off screen execution of Garibaldian radicals as the Prince of Salina returns home from the ball at the end of The Leopard.
Post First World War nationalisms had led to the establishing of several reactionary governments across central and Eastern Europe as well as in Italy and later Spain. For Visconti Nazi Germany represents the nadir of this wider reactionary nationalism. Historically Nazism was to play out the end of this nationalist urge movement in the most melodramatic of ways. The Damned functions as a film about the few critical months between February 1933 - June 1934 which saw the installation and consolidation of a regime that would bring Europe crashing to its knees and end the period of liberal nationalism the Risorgimento symbolised as it mutated into reaction. For Visconti The Damned is nothing less than a representation of an attempt to turn back the tide of history.
The argument presented here seeks to show that Visconti’s notion of anthropomorphic cinema, which combined a unique blend of Gramscian and Lukacsian Marxism, consistently and successfully uses some great European realist works of the 20th century to represent the trajectory of history through cinema in ways which have yet to be matched by any other director. This posting draws upon recent scholarship of the Nazi period to cross- reference Visconti’s approach. As a result the article takes issue with Nowell-Smith’s (2003) suggestion that Visconti shifts his interest in history towards culture. I argue that for Visconti they are intimately intertwined. The article also takes issue with the other main critical work in English on Visconti by Bacon (1998). Bacon’s otherwise interesting and insightful work also fails to grapple fully with Visconti’s understanding of history which as a result leads him to re-inscribe Visconti as a Liberal democrat. The argument here is that a careful reading of Visconti’s work reveals a very profound and decidedly Marxian approach to history and representation.
Helmut Berger cross dressing as a cabaret artiste in Visconti's The Damned
The Damned has often been regarded as the first of Visconti’s films described as ‘The German Trilogy’ the others being Death in Venice (1973) and Ludwig (1973). Henry Bacon (1998) specifically categorises these films together under a chapter ‘Visconti & Germany’ an approach which is perhaps in need of revision. Previously Visconti’s films had analysed Italian society during the Risorgimento and post-war periods. Bondanella has seen the ‘trilogy’ as a move to take a broader view of European politics and culture. Stylistically ‘They emphasise lavish sets and costumes, sensuous lighting, painstakingly slow camerawork, and a penchant for imagery reflecting subjective states or symbolic value’[i] comments Bondanella. He also notes that much critical discourse has confused the examination of decadence in Visconti’s later works with a recommendation for its continuation. Visconti himself has commented that he was interested ‘in the analysis of a sick society’, and there is a marked difference between the representation of rising modernity and its links with the bourgeoisie in The Leopard compared with the stasis of Europe. This stasis is examined through allegory encapsulated by a sick fin de siecle Venice and a moribund Bavarian monarchy. Both are studies of decadence which Visconti considers is an outward symbol of a society entering into its death throes. These represent issues raised by the construction of the Bismarckian strong state and aspects of the weakness of the old empire of Austro-Hungary and its former ally
The Damned takes as its subject matter the relationships between the heavy industrialists in the late Weimar Republic on the cusp of Nazi success. There was a clear need for the Nazi leadership to discipline, and revise its approach should it wish to reach the heights of power with the blessing of the powerful industrialists as well as win over the army. This manufacture of consensus – albeit temporary – precisely illustrates the workings of hegemony as understood by Gramsci. This case study seeks to analyse The Damned through the lens of Visconti’s notion of ‘anthropomorphic cinema’. Nowell-Smith defines this notion as a situation where ‘the movement of social forces is reflected in the actions and passions of individuals expressed through the representation of character’ (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 151). Furthermore anthropomorphic cinema within The Damned relates the historical processes in which Visconti develops Gramsci’s notions of ‘Hegemony’ as a political process which can emerge as a regressive not just a progressive force.
Critics have commented that Visconti has been strongly influenced by William Shirer’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ and also by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It is also noted that Visconti read other historical publications apart from Shirer. Shirer was an American journalist covering events in situ which he later turned into a book. It was certainly a widely influential book, however historiography of the Nazi period has moved on considerably since then [ii]. Visconti might well have been strongly influenced by Italian historiography of the time which in general has been viewed as ‘ethico-political’ by Martin Clark (1984) in a standard British text of Italian history. Clark notes that the ‘mainstream Marxist’ historians of Italy who were members of the Communist Party were strongly influenced by Gramsci. Gramscian ideas certainly helped formulate one of Visconti’s main theoretical lenses in constructing his historical films. Nevertheless it is stressed below that Visconti was not trying to construct a conventional drama-documentary of an historical event, rather, I argue, he was trying to bring to the fore the notion of underlying historical processes at a deeper and more universal level through his cinematic practice.
The search and attempts to represent universals is currently deeply out of fashion as critics, theorists and practitioners tinker with post-modern ideologies such as ‘the end of history’. Nevertheless ‘Great Art’ has usually been identified as a matter of seeking universals from specifics and the wheel of intellectual fashion may well return to this approach in due course.. Artistic licence is precisely bending situations, not being concerned with representing the specific moment naturalistically but transforming it into the universal. Many consider Shakespeare’s Macbeth to have been influential upon Visconti in preparing for this film. Macbeth is a dramatic version of an historical event a real Macbeth in Scottish but worked over so that it has become a classic interpretation of power and desire leading ultimately to downfall. Shakespeare’s tragedy is modelled upon Greek lines in that fate plays a part. Where Visconti has improved artistically upon Shakespeare is by removing fate and destiny and its role over the individual actor from the realm of individuals to a representation of historical processes by developing his concept of anthropomorphic cinema. Viscontian tragedy is thus an inversion of Greek classical tragedy through his understanding of historiography.
Visconti’s Anthropomorphic Cinema and Gramscian Hegemonic Theory
The breaking down of Visconti’s work into differing categories is a critical construction which vitiates against other interpretative structures. What is argued here is that The Damned can be seen not simply as a ‘German’ film but as a film about the role of nationalism within modern history. Thus it can be argued that by linking this film with The Leopard for the purposes of critical analysis at the level of historical theory Visconti can be seen to be using the processes at work within the Risorgimento as a representation of progressive liberal nationalism. The progressiveness is limited for as the character Tancredi famously points out, everything does change in order to re-establish stability and embed the reconstructed social elites. Often, as Clark (1984) notes, the leaders of disaffected groups are perfectly willing to become absorbed into new social formations but it is the troops who remain recalcitrant. In The Leopard the troops were the Garibaldian hard-liners who are executed off screen at the end of The Leopard. The Damned acts like a mirror of The Leopard in a misrecognition in which the recalcitrant leadership of the SA fails to become absorbed into the new consensus which Hitler needs to construct in order to develop his project.
It has been traditional to view the nationalisms of the 19th century as largely progressive whilst the 20th century nationalisms, at least within Europe, have been viewed as regressive by post Second World War historians. Both Senso and The Leopard provide a critical historical background to the process of the Risorgimento but the cinematic approach of the former is closer to that of The Damned. The Damned uses the methods of ‘anthropomorphic cinema’ to show how German nationalism was doomed to failure. Visconti is careful to choose key historical turning-points to develop his ideas of history. These are times when historical changes requires a reconfiguration of the ruling elites to contain more progressive elements and form a stable social structure capable of meeting the change as in the case of the Risorgimento films. The difficulties and price of reconfiguration amongst the elites in Nazi ruled Germany leads to disaster as in The Damned.
The compromises and self-seeking attitude of the aristocracy was examined in different ways in the two Risorgimento films. In The Damned Visconti shows the failure of liberal democracy and the industrial imperative of capitalism to forge a progressive agenda. Other major industrial countries France, Britain and the United States at the time had, through a variety of different paths, established liberal democracies albeit with problems. Germany by comparison did not: the founding moment of the Weimar Republic was a poisoned chalice which was handed over by a militaristic leadership facing defeat in 1918. These elites were trying to save themselves and regroup. Consequently the old Prussian elites were never comprehensively defeated. Throughout the time of the Weimar Republic they exerted a strong reactionary influence refusing - unlike the Prince of Salina in The Leopard - to engage constructively with the formation of a new hegemonic social formation which could provide a stable ruling elite. Bacon quotes Visconti as saying ‘...but Nazism seems to me to reveal more about a historical reversal of values.’ (Visconti cited Bacon, 1998 p 145 my emphasis) but Bacon doesn’t follow this insight up.
The inability to become involved in the construction of a new hegemonic order by the older elites in Germany is represented in a very persuasive way by Visconti. The opening scenes of the film follow Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde) being tempted by the SS into a murderous plot amongst scenes from a family celebratory gathering which ends in murder and mayhem. At the gathering, the head of the Essenbeck family and the overall controller of the steel company, Baron Joachim, clearly displays his dislike of the new order as does one of his vice chairman Herbert the husband of his niece. Joachim’s second son Konstantin has clearly decided to back Hitler through his membership of the SA.
Visconti’s The Damned is analysing Gramsci’s notions of hegemony applying them to an emerging historical conjuncture. A new elite will, if necessary, be created by force and will create a cultural and social order to match. In Italy the previous ruling elites, whether in Piedmont or in
The failure of Joachim can also be discerned by comparing his attitude to the rising Bourgeoisie exemplified by Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde). In the opening scenes Friedrich is in a car with the SS officer Aschenbach bemoaning the impossibility of being able to marry Sophie the widow of Joachim’s elder son because of Joachim’s unenlightened attitude typical of the Prussian elites trying to freeze the processes of history. In The Leopard the Prince of Salina encourages and supports Tancredi’s marriage with the rising commercial classes. By comparison Joachim is entirely opposed to a similar possibility. That Joachim is murdered by Friedrich could be seen as the outcome of not accepting social change in an ordered way. His refusal to let change happen disillusions and disarms the new commercial classes and also makes a potential power vacuum into which other social forces such as Nazism can emerge. Thus it can be seen that anthropomorphic cinema is working effectively through individual characters.
In Gramsci’s classic analysis of hegemony, state power is used in the last instance to maintain the state and the processes of hegemony allows for a political restructuring of the social orders in a controllable way. However, the Weimar state was disintegrating especially between 1931 and 1933. The breakdown of hegemony necessitated a new power struggle, Aschenbach and Konstantin represent the contenders in the process of re-hegemonising German society. The Joachims, Friedrichs and Sophies have no sense of historical processes in the way exemplified by the Prince of Salina.
Let us take another comparison between the role and function of the marriages in The Leopard and The Damned. In the former marriage symbolises the new vehicle in which the new Italian order will be crystallised. The fabulous ball scene at the end of The Leopard lasts approximately 40 minutes. Visconti shows us a situation in which the officers of the new army will marry into the daughters of the old order who are depicted as interbred and running about like monkeys. Less historical criticism has focused upon the surface sumptuousness of Visconti’s set at the expense of displaying a full understanding of Visconti’s attempt to represent as the culmination of his film the full process of re-hegemonisation.
By comparison, in The Damned, the marriage between Sophie and Friedrich has come far to late. There is no possibility of an easy re-formation of the old orders with the new. Both the older elite represented by Sophie and the rising elite, Friedrich, have in Bridge parlance been ‘endgamed’, it is the Nazis who control the play. It is an empty marriage going nowhere, and held in isolation not at the centre of society. The embittered son Martin has crossed into the camp of the emergent monster which has erupted through a rent in the thin democratic fabric of Weimar society. This was because of the failure of the old elites to combine with the rising mercantile classes. The Weimar collapsed because of the failure to form a consensus amongst the ruling elites.
This astute analysis of historical processes is a fundamental strength of Visconti’s anthropomorphic cinema. In reality the economic desires of the industrialists who have supported the Nazis are stymied by 1936 with the take over of the economy under the second four year plan headed by Goring. Their desire for the creation of a consumer based, highly profitable economy once the communists and unions are brought under control is diverted into the project of total war[i], and Germany’s ultimate damnation is its trial by fire leading to ‘Germany Year Zero’.
Here Helmut Berger is asserting his newly discovered power within the Essenbeck family. From Visconti's The Damned
I have argued that the Essenbeck family around which the film is centred acts as a synecdoche for German society as a whole. The period covered by the film starts about three weeks after Hitler’s invitation to become Chancellor by Hindenburg at the behest of von Papen at the end of January 1933. Von Papen had hubristically and wrongly ‘guaranteed’ that Hitler and the Nazis were controllable. This way of looking at the film tends to invert the emphasis that the family is torn apart by the pressures of Nazism which often how critics have seen the film. The Essenbeck quarrels represent key conflicting currents and strands amongst the Weimar German elites.
The first section of The Damned shows events leading up to, during, and after an important family dinner taking place on the night of the Reichstag fire. The fire itself was interpreted by Visconti as a pretext - twice underlined by the film’s dialogue - for the Nazis to severely repress the Communists in particular in the remaining days coming up to the last ‘free’ election of the Weimar Republic’ in March. This is probably the case although there is no discovered direct evidence linking the Nazis to the fire according to Richard Evans (2003). The subsequent implosion of the Essenbeck family parallels the collapse of institutions in Germany as the Nazis pursued their policy of ‘Gleichshaltung’ or ‘co-ordination’, which was a reasonably pleasant sounding term for the total repression of potential political opposition within Germany. It also meant the taking over of the political institutions at local and regional level once total control at the centre had been achieved.
Cinematically there is a useful comparison to be made between the way in which family dinners are handled in The Leopard and in The Damned which features two dismal dinners. In The Leopard the dinner at the Prince’s residence in Donnafugata is a vehicle in which the possibilities for the processes of hegemony can take place. Tancredi first sees an adult Angelica (Claudia Cardinale ) and is smitten. Cinematically and socially the dinners in Visconti’s historical films function as a vehicle for integration and progressive change in The Leopard or disintegration and regression as in The Damned.
The Damned takes the viewer to the end of the period of Nazi ‘co-ordination’ finally finished by the 1934 Nuremberg rally. Famously this rally saw the making and release of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The rally was a follow up to the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ which took place at the end of June 1934. This action was centred around the political beheading of the Sturmabteilung or SA headed by Rohm who were agitating for a ‘Second Nazi Revolution’. After the full accession to power by Hitler in March 1933 and the take-over of the constitutional institutions by a carefully contrived fait accompli the SA were in the forefront of the fight against the Communists, Social Democrats and Trade Unionists who tried in the early days to offer some resistance to Hitler. They also played an integral role in the harassment of Jews, informally before April 1st 1933, and in an increasingly organised way afterwards, starting with a boycott of Jewish businesses on this date.
The Nuremberg rally which Riefenstahl filmed was not simply a propaganda stunt, it was a public declaration in the most powerful way possible backed by cinema to fully establish in the minds of the Nazi party itself that Hitler was the ‘Fuhrer’ and that the Germany was now united along its path to an historic future. The film which features the German Army as well as the SA and other Nazi organisations is the outcome of Hitler’s ideological cull. The presence of the German Army and its leader von Blomberg at the 1934 Nuremberg rally was symbolically immensely important for Hitler. The Nazis were reliant upon the army to achieve his long-term aims of ‘Lebensraum’ or colonial expansion mainly directed towards the east. By 1936 Hitler against the desires and advice of most capitalists and his economics minister and governor of the central bank Schacht was determined to pursue economic policies of rearmament. Overy argues that these policies were being carried out with the express intention of preparing Germany for a total war in which it could survive for up to 15 years.
It can now be seen that that Visconti has been very precise in the historical moment that he has chosen to represent. Nowell-Smith (2003) is surely right to note that the film operates on three levels of history, drama and myth. Nevertheless Nowell-Smith’s critical comments, like those of Bacon, do not exam the history closely enough. Instead they focus too closely upon the literary and the critical influences within the film at the expense of the historical process which is being represented. As a result they both tend to glide over an essential feature which Visconti certainly wished to represent. It is also important to note that the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis was itself an operatic trajectory in real life and it was intensely melodramatic. It is worth bearing in mind that Hitler was obsessed with Wagnerian opera. After defeat at Stalingrad in 1942 Hitler then eschews Wagner. For Visconti opera in such films as Senso could be represented as progressive liberal Italian nationalism albeit undermined by the ruling elites. Wagner by comparison was infused with a regressive Germanic 19th century romantic mysticism. Wagner was also intensely anti-Semitic. The Damned is thus open to a thorough reading of Visconti’s ideas on the role of opera in culture considering Verdi as progressive and Kultur through Wagner as regressive. However discussion of this is beyond the scope of this entry.
The Reichstag Fire
Visconti correctly picks the night of the Reichstag fire as an historical turning-point marking the beginning of the final collapse of Germany into its path of damnation - the outcomes of which are well documented by Rossellini’s ‘Germany Year Zero’ (1947). The first dialogue of Aschenbach ( the SS officer) and Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde) gives rise to a hint of something about to happen, in the entrance hall Aschenbach even more strongly signals that on this night in particular it will be important for Friedrich to act. It is clear that Aschenbach is in possession of some a priori knowledge. This is an invitation to murder Joachim the head of the family and the steel company. The prizes for Bogarde are Sophie and effective control of the company. The time for personal morality is dead states Aschenbach. The question at this stage is will Bogarde accept this Faustian pact?
The Reichstag Fire is announced by Konstantin the coarse and vulgar SA member of the family who also announces that the ‘culprit’ a communist has already been captured. The culprit in reality was captured on the site of the Reichstag trying to set alight yet more curtains. Van den Lubbe was not however a communist. He was an unemployed fairly deranged anarchist with bad visual impairment who had several years ago been flung out of the Dutch communist party for promoting arson and other acts of sabotage. As yet there is no precise historical evidence to definitively link the fire to a piece of agent provocatuerism on the part of the Nazis. However, we are asked to believe that this character in his physical state was easily able to break into the Reichstag without discovery only a few days after being released from a police force which was already thoroughly infiltrated by active Nazis as well as being controlled by the Nazis at the top. In reality the Nazis immediately arrested hundreds of Communists in Berlin and this carried on in the following days and weeks leading up to the election. It effectively ensured that the Communists couldn’t make an effective election campaign. By not banning the Communists outright Hitler ensured that their votes were unlikely to go to the Social Democrats. This fire effectively sealed the fate of Germany which Visconti was clearly well aware of.
Night of the Long Knives
The melodramatic themes of the film are carefully interwoven with a clever analysis of real events. The tour de force is the representation of the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, when the SS (Black-shirts) massacred the leadership of Eric Rohm’s SA (The Brownshirts). This was a crucial moment in the rise to power of the Nazis. The Brownshirts represented the mobster populist element upon which the Nazi party was based, this populist element represented the so-called ‘socialist’ element of the ‘NSDP’. It was an element that was unsympathetic towards large capitalist organisations seeing them as exploitative of the ‘little man’ and the petit-bourgeoisie. If Hitler was to take the final step to power then he was going to have to purge his party of these elements and reconfigure the basic ethos of his party. The leader of the SA Eric Rohm had a strong personal power base and had been a colleague of Hitler’s since the beginnings of the Nazi party and had been a member of the paramilitary Freikorps before that. The ‘Night of the Long Knives’ also saw the murder of other leading figures such as von Schleicher who had been the Conservative Chancellor before Hitler was manipulated into power by von Papen. It is important to note that the German army colluded in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. Reichenau made the agreement with Himmler to keep the army confined to barracks during the 1934 Rohm Purge. After the event Reichenau even issued a statement justifying the murder of General von Schleicher. It was effectively the last major act in the reformation of the ruling elites but a formation that was now on the road to an even worse fate than befell Germany in the First World War. That was also a war which the Prussian military elites had encouraged.
The final step to power for the Nazi party was based upon a compromise between, on one side, Hitler and his closest allies in the Nazi party underpinned by the rise of the SS as an elite corps answerable only to Hitler. This dishonourable political marriage to gain power was made with the most powerful of the German industrialists many of whom were members of, or sympathetic to, the Nationalist party, which was small but highly influential amongst the upper classes of Germany. A prominent leader of this party was Hugenberg who not only took over UfA after its near bankruptcy but also became the Minister of Finance when the Nazis first won a majority in the Reichstag. Whilst the plot of Visconti’s film initially appears complex, the family of ‘misfits, powers seekers, and perverts’ as Bondanella describes the Essenbeck family which is loosely based upon the Krupps family can be read as a trope for the confused state of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. Bondanella would probably not subscribe to a reading of this nature for he asserts that Visconti did not intend the film to be taken as a serious sociological or psychological reading of German culture in Weimar Germany.
Bondanella’s position also runs counter to Nowell-Smith’s final comments in his reading when he argues that ‘Visconti’s focus of interest has shifted from history as such, in the sense of a given set of events of which people are the agents, to culture in the sense of the objects which people have produced in history, to represent or to form part of the world they experience.’ (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 156).
Has Visconti's prior concern with history changed?
More on the issue of culture below, but firstly let us take the assertion that Visconti’s focus upon history as such has shifted. That the film is loosely based upon the Krupp family is important. It is well known that the head of Krupp wasn’t keen on the Nazis coming to power and it is certainly true that that the Krupp family had to make compromises to fit in with the demands of the Nazi regime. However it is important to note that the whole of the capitalist class was forced to do this as well. Visconti’s film is not a history of Nazi Germany it is a representation of the socio-political forces at work in the country in a very tight time-frame. If the Essenbecks are seen as representative not just of the Krupp family but as industrial capital within Germany in general then the perfidy, confusion betrayal and counter-betrayal makes more sense. It is important to note for example the example of Thyssen below and compare that with a brief outline of the Krupp family. In the film Martin can be seen as being close to the character of Alfred Krupp (see box below). The role of Herbert is more difficult to assess. Perhaps he should be seen as a portmanteau character who represents those in the ruling elites who recognise the fate which awaits Germany and leave. That Herbert reappears briefly because his family has been held hostage is also significant. Recent work on the Nazi Terror shows how the Gestapo went to great efforts to track down communists who left the country in the early 1930s, even those who were not especially important. These people were often used as sources of intelligence because their families were threatened with torture and the camps[i] . In reality the ruthlessness of the Nazis against former supporters is shown when the leading industrialist Thyssen and Schacht, the architect of early Nazi economic success both end up in concentration camps
One important concern is how to represent a period in which the KPD on Stalin’s orders had declared the German Social Democrat Party (SPD) ‘Social Fascists’. As much as anything this contributed to the rise to power of the Nazis when they achieved electoral success in 1933. At the time the film was made in Italy the communist party was still strongly allied to Moscow, it was only later in the 1970s that the cracks wrought by ‘Eurocommunism’ began to show. A critique of this nature would not have served Visconti well thus the working class as a class force in a Marxist sense disappear from view. Instead this is replaced by the bitter incestuous infighting in the grab for power by the elites.
By taking this artistic route Visconti was able to focus his critique upon the false hopes of redemption promoted by populism. Populism fails structurally to be a historical force able to liberate the socially excluded. The populists in the SA, like the working class nationalists in The Leopard meet their comeuppance. In The Leopard the bourgeoisie can still be seen a social force moving society forwards - in Marxist terms achieving their historical role. By comparison, at a time when modernity has become strongly installed in Europe and when the Weimar Republic represented one of the most advanced constitutions in the world the liberal bourgeoisie are forced out by a failure to connect socially or politically with the masses. Liberalism is subject to betrayal by unenlightened members of their own class who have tied their fortunes to Nazism as a mythological force doomed to failure. It is here that Visconti’s mise-en-scene described so well by Bondanella acts to signify this historically doomed trail up a one way street. The colour red comes to symbolise a hyperbolic and horrifying vision of a family embodying a corrupt culture that wilfully pulls the world down around its Ears’. (Bondanella, 2001, p 206).
The Role of Culture
Within Visconti’s notions of anthropomorphic cinema it is useful to discuss the role of culture and to consider culture in relation to civilisation. The stock question which always seems to be asked is ‘How can such a “cultured” nation have descended to the depths of such depravity?’ It enjoyed its cultural heritage this even down to enjoying to the greatest icons of European classical music such as the romantic lieder of Schubert and Beethoven symphonies after a busy day offloading Jewish deportees in the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Kultur for Germany has been associated with the ‘spirit of the nation’ unlike France and to some extent Italy which focused on ‘civilisation’ seen through German eyes as superficial and manneristic ‘feminised’ in the view of some. Bacon describes The Damned as a description of the ’utter negation of German culture’. The greatest success of Aschenbach was the winning over of Gunther (the cello playing son of Konstantin) to the evil of Nazism. Gunther can be seen as a synecdoche for the institutional liberal cultural establishment within Germany which makes its accommodation to Nazism. The likes of von Karajan for example spring to mind. Richard Evans 2003 gives a useful review of the cultural turn in post-Weimar Germany discussing some of these concerns. Bacon turns to George Steiner to try and provide some insight into this seeming cultural paradox. Steiner in a footnote comes up with an explanation which argues ‘If your brain, your nervous system, your imagination, your sensibility, your professional skills are completely and deeply invested in the great arts of the imagination and in abstract thought, speculation, instead of becoming more human, you may, unless you are terribly careful become less human...’ (Steiner cited Bacon 1998 p 240). For Steiner the paradox which arises it that there may be a desire for barbarism and also an indifference to barbarism. This, for Steiner, explains the capability of those in charge of the camps being able to play the cultural classics very, very well.
The other aspect of culture / entertainment which is represented is the cabaret. It is seen by all the observers as a culture of decadence which leads into perversion. As cabaret was strongly implicated with Jewish Bohemianism and Bohemian culture was seen in Nazi eyes as the degradation of the country associated with being non-German it was obviously rejected. The interruption of Martin’s performance and the subsequent walking out can be read as the filmic equivalent of marking the end of this culture. The grand walk out by the family could well be read as a marker of cultural pessimism of the kind espoused the likes of Spengler in his ‘Decline of the West’.
Martin is obviously incensed at this development, for it has been his rather feeble raison d’etre as someone entirely decadent. The film sees Martin changing from a lover of Bohemian decadence as a guilty cultural transgression into being able to take his place as a ‘richtige’ man. His paedophilia itself is a repressed desire for power at the start of the film, he isn’t a ‘real man’ he can only sing way about this in a self parodying way, dressed in a woman’s nightclub outfit at the start. By the end of the film he has reversed the tables over his viperous mother exercising his sexual power over her. Having driven her into a state of semi-madness he officiates over the marriage and death of Sophie and Friedrich. The bait of power left by Sophie has shifted from little girls to the capability of exercising any act without any sense of culpability whatsoever for Martin always displayed the amoralism desired by Aschenbach. Aschenbach has found his ‘willing executioner’ who can act with pleasure. This is unlike the purely selfish motives with which ‘the Macbeths' (Sophie and Friedrich ) conduct their heinous crimes. Martin will clearly revel in orchestrating millions of deaths. If Aschenbach is imagined as the ‘banality of evil’ as as Hannah Arendt has mistakenly described the organiser of the Holocaust [i] then the pure nastiness of Martin seems rather closer to that of the Nazi executioner Heydrich. Martin had something to keep hidden but is represented at the end of the film as the face of evil.
Visconti has chosen to represent this important historical period in a very clever dramatised way. The film is neither a historicisation of psychology nor is it, as Micciche argues, a psychologisation of history. That Martin, for example, is an example of the worm that turns is a comment upon how Nazism learned to appeal to the weak through an ‘armoured strength’ propping up masculinity in crisis provided by the unremitting structures of Nazi power [i] . This psychoanalytical approach begins to make sense of the tendency of directors such as Rossellini to over exaggerate the evils of Nazism by de-masculinising them. Roma Citta Aperta and Germany Year Zero feature Nazis as gay, lesbian and paedophilic. These outcasts could become a part of that discourse of power safe in its solidarity. There was no morality except that of service to a greater notion of the Nazi ideal provided by the almost godlike figure of the Fuhrer. Visconti has shown how ruthless the Nazi party was in pursuing its ends. It played upon class weakness, personal weakness and manufactured situations in which it could take advantage at both these levels of weakness.
Visconti of course used technical artifice such as the use of colour and mise en scene to make the film partly a melodrama. But at its heart it never seemed to veer from the position of anthropomorphic cinema. None of the characters were exact representations of real characters of the moment, they were portmanteau characters crystallising certain currents and tendencies in a way which managed to universalise from the specific precisely because the film was removed from the constraints of being documentary realism into an operatic / melodramatic register. Thus, it is possible to agree with Bacon that by interweaving these strands the film shows that the historical forces which led to the rise of Nazism can rise again, a fact witnessed by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Rwanda and during the break-up of Yugoslavia.
When it comes to a question of culture this film is especially interesting for Visconti is exploring the nature of the relationship of culture to politics. High art and culture when it is taken out of its context is no guarantor of civilisation. The Gods (Hitler) are kept in the twilight but are seen as directly responsible for the downfall of society, the Wagnerian dreams far from the trends of modernising society are trashed for they can only be regressive. Visconti doesn’t offer the viewer any pleasant futures for we already know the future of Germany. Instead the film functions as a route towards an explanation provided by history for the possibilities of a dystopian future not only for Germany.
This analysis by taking two of Visconti’s most developed historical films seeks to explore whether there is a clear structural link between Visconti’s explorations of history through culture and culture through history. I have argued that there are strong grounds for rethinking Visconti’s oeuvre as part of a more coherent framework than is currently recognised. By re-categorising his work away from the Risorgimento / German binary which has been critically established this analysis can be pursued further by revisiting his other ‘German’ films Death in Venice and Ludwig. Visconti is trying to explore through the cultural framework how European society managed to implode triggered by start of the First World War leading to a European Thirty Years war. At an international level this war functioned as the completion of a process in which empires as they were previously known largely disappeared in the following few years. They were now clearly redundant and a new dynamic force in the shape of the USA had replaced the old orders. Arguably the USA is the absent other which came to thrive out of the chaos and decadence of a Europe which had gone past its ‘sell by date’. Visconti chose to examine this process using the works of Thomas Mann and the drama of Chekhov through a Lukacsian based filter. Here, the best realist work can be seen to be representative of the processes underlying socio-economic change in society through their characterisations in ways unrecognised even by the authors. But Visconti’s theoretical concerns also lead to a blending of Gramscian Marxism with Luckasian Marxism in ways which will be fruitful to explore further for Lukacs of course made his own famous contribution to thinking about history in History and Class Consciousness however that is a task beyond the limits of this article.
Visconti’s The Leopard and The Damned are probably the two best films ever made about history from a Marxist perspective. More work remains to be done in revising the rest of his later works from this perspective. This article parts company with Nowell-Smith by reading Visconti as being thoroughly imbricated with history. The article also parts company with Bacon by insisting that rather than being a liberal democrat in his later years Visconti‘s primary concern is to be exploring the processes of history at a very deep level. Visconti should be taken at face value when he argued that he was interested in analysing a sick society. That he chose to do so using some of the great works of European fiction within a realist mode should not detract from his project. The analysis here provides evidence that Visconti was working on a great project pursued steadily through his work. This project was driven by combining Gramscian and Lukacsian insights developing his own contribution to critical analysis and artistic representation which was the concept of anthropomorphic cinema.
Below are some links to separate positings about important historical people in Nazi Germany who Visconti has explicity or implicitly represented in The Damned:
Heydrich, Reinhard (1904 - 1942).
Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, Alfred (1907-1967)
Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, Gustav (1870-1950).
Lubbe, Marianus van den (1909-1934)
Reichenau, Walter von (1884-1942)
Thyssen Fritz (1873-1951)
Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Bondanella, Peter. 3rd edition. 2002. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present.
Cesarani, David. Eichman : His Life and Crimes. Heinemann 2004.
Clark, Martin. 1984. Modern Italy 1871-1982. London: Longman
Evans, Richard J. 2003. The Coming of the Third Reich. London: Penguin /
Fischer, Klaus P. 1995. Nazi Germany a New History. London: Constable
Johnson, Eric. 2002. The Nazi Terror: Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans. London: John Murray
Mommsen, Hans. 2003. Alternatives to Hitler. London: I. B. Tauris
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 3rd edition. Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute
Overy, R. D. 1995. War and Economy in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Taylor, Richard. 1998. Film Propaganda Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. London: I. B. Tauris
Wheal, Donald James and Shaw Warren. 1997. The Penguin Dictionary of the Third Reich. London Penguin
Germany Year Zero (1947) Rossellini
The Damned (1969) Visconti
The Leopard (1962) Visconti
Triumph of the Will (1934) Riefenstahl
Please note these sites were not used in the writing of this article they are being provided for visitor information only.
THE DAMNED (LA CADUTA DEGLI DEI) BBC 4 Page
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF COUNT LUCHINO VISCONTI . A BBC 4 Arena program it is the best available documentary in English on Visconti. I believe it is available as an extra on one of the BFI Visconti films.
Visconti's Cinema of Twilight by Maximilian Le Cain on the Senses of Cinema site. This is a runmination on Visconti's ouvre in general but has a couple of intersting comments on the Damned. immediately below he comments on the cinematic technique of the constructio of a disorienting cinematic space to emphasise change in the social order. Thiws seems a pertinent reading.
The disorientating violence of the zooms in The Damned literally pulls the space out from around the characters, enveloping them in a panicky state of alienation from their surroundings which are changing too fast. This constant spatial disintegration reflects the insecurity of the often ruthless characters' scrabble for power in the crucible of a new and very dangerous society. (Maximilian Le Cain).
I am less convinced by another of Le Cain's comments below. The article above argues that the later films wern't just personal projects and that a deep level of politics THROUGH historical analysis was embedded in all his films. Whilst one might choose to make a reading of The Damned as a comment upon the developing political instabilities of Italy at the time it needs to be argued not asserted as it is in this article:
the committed communist Visconti was adamant that all his previous films were in some way political. The Damned, although set during Hitler's rise to power, represented a despairing comment on the events of 1968 after which the director gave up political filmmaking to concentrate on purely personal projects. (Maximilian Le Cain)
The sort of comments represented by this review in DVD Times are precisely the ones which this article argues against. Lured by surface and Nazis for Dummies kind of history it can sound convincing until the detail is worked through. It does represent those who feel that soemhow Nazism and the Holocaust have to be treated with a reverential attitude which is entirely linked to naturalism. This ironic given Hitler's propensity to melodrama.
The New York Times review By VINCENT CANBY Published: December 19, 1969. This is lovely review which is refreshing and open to the experience of the time. Gaining information about the reception of films in their contemporary settings usually enriches our understandings.
May 27, 2007
Neorealist Case study : Umberto D, 1951. Directed by Vittorio de Sica
Vittorio de Sica
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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
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
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
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).
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
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’ .
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.
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
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 (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: 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.
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)
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.
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
All the references can be found in the Bibliograpy of Italian Cinema on this blog.
Suggested Core Reading for Neorealism
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.
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:
Germany Year Zero: Rossellini
Bicycle Thieves: De Sica
Sciuscia (Shoeshine): De Sica
Miracolo a Milano: De Sica
La Terra Trema: Visconti
Ossessione : Visconti
I bambini ci guardano: De Sica
April 11, 2007
(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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Whilst in Italy there was some hope for progress, in a more democratic sense, both
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)
Appunti su un fatto di cronaca (Italy 1951) Director
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)
I' Innocente (The Intruder) (Italy 1976)
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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