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September 06, 2007
Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City
Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. 2006. Mark Shiel. Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback
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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.
August 19, 2007
Bellissima: Luchino Visconti
Bellissima: Luchino Visconti (1951)
A bleak view of Cinecitta as Maddalena and Maria return from the screenings with hopes dashed
(Visit Visconti web-hub)
The September 2007 release of Bellissima (1951) by Luchino Visconti in the ‘Masters of Cinema series from Eureka video is nothing short of a red letter day for followers and students of Visconti and his oeuvre. It is a film which is sadly underwritten in English. Before any critical comment is made it is important to note that this film makes for excellent viewing. Visconti's direction is superb and Anna Magnani excels in the leading role.
The well known post-war history Italian Cinema by Peter Bondanella surprisingly fails to mention the film at all. This film is very important for a number of reasons. It marks a transition from Neorealism to post-neorealism within Italian cinema; it is a meta-cinematic film which deals in a biting comedy a critique of the institution of cinema itself – it thus predates Fellini’s well known La Dolce Vita (1959) by several years; it can be taken as a strong indirect critique of the political direction Italy was taking at the time as well as a critique of the Christian Democratic government's relationship to America it gives many insights into the way Visconti worked as a director with his performers (Anna Magnani & Alessandro Blasetti); lastly and by no means least as a film it is good viewing – it appears as a favourite of Richard Dyer’s in one of Sight & Sound's surveys about favourite films of critics.
This article cum review of the DVD will firstly place the film in its historical context and then provide a brief synopsis of the film. I will then follow this with an analysis in relation to the key writing in English on Bellissima by the leading critics Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Henry Bacon and Millicent Marcus all of whom are very positive about the film in general whilst all providing a range of different insights into Bellissima. I will then provide a few comments on the Eureka DVD itself which contains a useful booklet with comments from Nowell-Smith amongst others as well as a documentary as an extra. I have also provided a webliography based upon a ‘Google’ up to page 20 of a search in English only. The results are generally disappointing and reinforce the notion that this film is much underwritten in the English speaking world. Hopefully this posting and the DVD will encourage more engagement with Visconti’s work and also provide some impetus for translation from the work of Italian critics making this available to a global audience. Nowell-Smith commented many years ago that this film was underwritten perhaps because it is the most ‘Italian’ of Visconti’s films. He has commented that this is to miss out on an important film:
But it is the most subtle and elusive thing of all, the element of self-criticism and irony and the expense of its own ‘Italian’ quality, which has most effectively prevented it from being assimilated and appreciated by foreign audiences.” (Nowell-Smith, 2003, p 45).
Generically Bellissima is a sub-genre of comedy which is called neorealism rosa or pink neorealism. As such it makes for good viewing and importantly helps to undermine the commonly held stereotypes within the discourse which has developed around Visconti. This is a point which Nowell-Smith brought out in the first edition of his book many years ago:
The commonly held stereotypes about Visconti are that he is totally humourless and incapable of self-irony, that his imagination is sensual rather than intellectual, and that he is a crude social-realist with a taste for ‘positive’ heroes, and an anti-feminist who neither likes nor understands his women characters. (Ibid)
These aren’t stereotypes that I recognise within Visconti’s oeuvre however if these are widely held today then this welcome release of Bellissima will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of a director whose contribution to the development of cinema has yet to be fully recognised in the English speaking world. Certainly Eureka has done the world a favour by releasing this film in its most prestigious series giving Visconti the recognition he fully deserves.
Italian Cultural Policy & Political Context
Out of the three main critics referred to here Henry Bacon has usefully provided the contextual background to Bellissima. Released over three years after La terra trema (1948) Italy had undergone significant political change which strongly effected the cultural policy background of the production of Bellissima, indeed Bellissima can be read as an indirect political response to this changed political environment.
The Christian Democrats had won the 1948 elections. At the same time the Vatican excommunicated all those who had voted communist or had collaborated with communism – one wonders if they cared! – Films with a left-wing social agenda were now deemed to be very risky investments without government support; furthermore, there was a strong risk of the film being confiscated by the authorities. The Christian Democrats controlled the production grants and also the mechanisms for exporting film. Overall this control acted as a de facto form of censorship. The neorealist movement was itself branded as left-wing despite the fact that directors such as Roberto Rossellini were politically quite close to the Christian Democrats. The then Undersecretary of State Giulio Andreotti specifically attacked De Sica’s Umberto D as unpatriotic:
…De Sica has done a disservice to his country, if people around the World begin to think that Italy in the twentieth century is the same as Umberto D. (Cited Bacon, 1998 p53).
Neorealism as a form was also under attack from elements of the Left. The great Soviet filmmaker Pudovkin took the Stalinist social realist approach to filmmaking at a meeting in Perugia exhorting filmmakers to focus on content rather than from and to generate ‘positive heroes’.
As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, a key problem for the Italian industry as a whole as well as the neorealist elements was the rapidly increasing domination of the cinema by Hollywood productions. In 1946 Italy had managed to produce 65 films even in the aftermath of the war. By 1948 this had dropped to 49. Between1945-1950 they controlled 60%-75% of the market share.
One response of Italian filmmakers to this changing environment was to use aspects of Hollywood within their own cinema. Increasingly the features of Hollywood gangster movies appeared in post-neorealist films. Another important development was the development of a comedy sub-genre called neorealism rosa (pink neorealism). It was a genre with its roots in pre-war light comedy of the fascist period and according to Bacon had a similar social message which was keep to the status quo and forget ideas of social mobility and egalitarian society. This sub-genre developed the use of highly eroticised stars such as Gin Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren. Bacon comments that the films were rather more successful than true neorealist films in creating a wide audience for Italian cinema.
During the period between La terra trema and Bellissima Visconti had returned to the theatre. Bacon (p 51) suggests that this was because …he wanted to create something grandiose , to take some distance from realism. Visconti was accused by the purist wing of the neorealists of betraying neorealism however Visconti himself saw neorealism as a method and in response called for the use of fantasy as a complete display of liberty (Bacon, 1998 p 52). It was during this period that Visconti met Thomas Mann, a writer Visconti held in enormous respect. Visconti gained Mann’s permission to create an opera-ballet using Mann’s novella Mario & the Magician. Sadly this was postponed several times by La Scala and was only finally put into production after Mann’s death.
Maddelena (Anna Magnani) is projecting her desires for success onto her daughter Maria
Working class Maddelena Cecconi hears a request from the film director Allessandro Blasetti for the prettiest young girl in Rome to star in a film he is making. Maddelena takes her child Maria to Cinecitta and joins the crowds of middle class mothers and their daughters in the herd to get an audition. Maria is chosen as a finalist and Maddelena sacrifices everything to train Maria up for the audition including lessons in acting and ballet. She also goes to dressmakers and hairdressers to prepare Maria for the big day to put Maria on a par with her better off peers. During this time she has fallen in with a local hustler who promises to get her the right contacts for a fee. He then starts to make sexual advances towards Maddelena. All the time relations with her non-aspirational husband deteriorate. Maddelena gains access to the projection booth during the viewing of Maria’s screen test. Maria is in tears and the film production team watching become intensely derisive of the small girl. Maddalena is outraged and despite the part being offered to Maria Maddelena has had an epiphany and understands that she has ignored the needs of her daughter by substituting her own desires. She refuses to sign the contract and returns chastened to the family home.
The scene in which Maddalena takes Maria to get ballet dancing lessons is very poignant. Maria is identified as being only 5 in the film whilst the casting is for a little girl of between seven and eight. This age and size difference becomes a visual trope throughout the film to emphasise the impossibility and impracticality of Maddalena's desires. This impossibility is emphasised in the ballet school by the tiny figure of Maria at the bar. The emphasis within the mise en scene between Maddalena and the fashionably dressed middle class mothers who have been taking their daughters to ballet lessons for three years emphasises the class divide which is at the core of this film. It is the illusion of possibility of entering this world of illusion as a route out of poverty which is being thoroughly critiqued. It is a theme which Visconti would return to when dealing with the illusions of boxing in Rocco and His Brothers (1960).
For a person who can't keep up with very fast often histrionic Italian which has many local references to such things as the local Rome football teams having this film available on DVD is a huge benefit. The possibility to return quickly to repeat particularly dynamic moments of interaction is essential. In this sense Nowell-Smith's explanation that this film is the most 'Italian' of Visconti's films and most difficult for a non-Italian to watch is relevant.
The film itself is a joy to watch. The power and charisma of Magnani in full-flight drags the film along in her wake, however, this power is more than just a diva taking control and totally dominating, it is a performance which brings out the best in those around her. For those who have seen Rome Open City (1945, Rossellini) or the later Mamma Roma (Pasolini, 1962) this will come as no surprise. Visconti himself notes this in his interview with Michele Gandin:
...Magnani's improvisatory flare has natural instinct behind it, not theatrical artifice. Moreover she knows how to place herself on the same level as her fellow performers, and she also knows how to carry them along with her - how to raise them up to her level as it were. I wnated this particualr - and extraordinary aspect of her personality, and I got it. (Bellissima booklet p 24)
Bellissima is the first of the postwar Italian films to be metacinematic in others words to be providing a critique of the institution of cinema itself. Fellini and Lattuada's film Variety Lights (1950), had already begun a reflexive exploration of the illusion / reality of performance and entertainment exploring the creation of an opportunistic singer to become a stage diva. Much of Fellini's later work was to continue in this reflexive vein commenting critically on film and media, perhaps most notably in La Dolce Vita (1959). Of course Godard's Le Mepris(1963) is also a metacinematic representation, dealing with divisma and an inceasingly tawdry Cinecitta as well.
Bellissima was very much the initiative Salvo d’Angelo who had lost money on La terra trema, nevertheless he still retained confidence in Visconti’s abilities as a filmmaker. Initially Visconti was disinterested in the project and wasn’t impressed by Zavattini’s original script, however when he was offered the opportunity to work with Anna Magnani the much loved Pina in Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945). The inclusion of Magnani as the leading lady:
…would allow him to build a self-conscious reflection on the workings of divismo (stardom) and the power of spectacle into the very structure of his film. (Marcus, 2002, p 40).
The inclusion of Magnani would also help to target a much wider audience for she was widely identified as a ‘woman of the people’ after her role as Pina. Using her as a lead would help considerably in subverting the neorealism rosa and using comedy: in a way that is consistent with the director’s ethical commitment. (Bacon,1998, p 54).
The Importance of Performance & the Role of Anna Magnani
Of the three critics referred to here it is Marcus who draws out the importance of the use of Maganani most effectively and she specifically cites an interview with Visconti which shows the underlying importance of Magnani to the project:
“I was interested in working with an authentic “character”, with whom many more interior and meaningful things could be expressed. And I was also interested in knowing what relationship would be born between myself as director and the “diva”Magnani. The result was very felicitous.” (Visconti cited Marcus, 2002, p 40).
(This interview is available on this Eureka DVD in a new translation).
Henry Bacon also refers to the importance of Magnani to the success of Visconti's wider project of providing a critique of the illusory aspects of mainstream cinema: “On the whole, Magnani amply demonstrates how theatricality and stylization can be used to reveal aspects of reality that might otherwise remain hidden. (P 57).
The tension between mainstream Hollywood cinema - which Maddelena is besotted with - and the losing struggle of Italian cinema especially the neorealist ideal is highlighted when Maddelena is watching Howard Hawks' Red River from the yard outside their basement flat where they can overlook screenings of an outside cinema. This outside cinema firmly places the importance of cinema in the lives of working class people and shows the illusory and exotic world which can be projected. It is a theme which reappears in Umberto D (1951) which was also scripted by Zavattini. It is clear that some of those involved with the neorealist movement were adapting to the political shifts and cultural in Italian society and fighting something of a rearguard action against the incursions of Hollywood.
Visconti is astutely working within this tension and the use of Italy's most universally loved star allows Visconti to make a very powerful film which would be full of very specific meanings for the contemporary local audiences. Magnani herself is clearly aware of the ironies for her own position as a diva was clearly threatened by the increasing incursions of Hollywood into mainstream culture and corresponding shrinkage of the Italian industry. Her own background was from the working class and her own history of success within the entertainment industry undoubtedly gives her an edge in this performance. At the time her personal life with Rossellini who had gone off with Hollywood Star Ingrid Bergman providews another very personal take on the powers of Hollywood.
Another point which was probably attractive to Visconti was that Magnani was the epitome of the organic intellectual in Gramscian terms. With a working class background and total dedication to professionalism she was the embodiment of a popular figure rather than a populist one. Visconti was highly sceptical of idealist versions of neorealism which solely promoted the use of the non-professional actor. More minor characters such as Spartaco (Maddalena's husband were ordinary people. Walter Chiari (The Hustler) was a rising star and according to the DVD documentary interviews with Zefirelli and others from the production team Chiari was needed as Maganani at that time didn't have the pulling power any longer.
The Politics of Mise en Scene
The importance of mise en scene within Visconti's political critique is very marked. The working class environment of Maddelena's home in a basement where she can be spied upon by boys in the neighbourhood and which is full of blaring loud music raises the general attitude of the environment to a cacophony at times (it is an early version of the banlieu in Kassowitz's La Haine).In Bellissima escape is provided by the outdoor cinema, whilst in La Haine the lads attempt a more physical escape. The protagonists are in both films faced with class barriers.
Maddelena is differentiated immediately from the middle class mothers and their children who flock to Cinecitta to propress the future of their daughters. The size and age of Maria in contrast to the middle class girls one of whom was eleven in the first audition emphasises class difference. The representations of Cinecitta itself as a tawdry site of dream production can be contrasted to representations of Hollywood where entrance to the studios is always guarded and stars appear in chauffeur driven cars driving through gilded gates. The dreams manufactured in Cinecitta can only be second rate ones anyway, Visconti seems to be implying.
The basement flat which Maddelena's family occupies is bare of food and comforts. They are planning to escape as a family anyway as they want to move into a new house symbolised by plans. The patients whom Maddelena administers injections to are a mixture of genuine cases and pampered hypochondriacs. It appears as though Maddalena as a nurse isn't paid on a regular salary but on the work completed. Administering another course of anti-biotics will allow her to buy a coat. Her income is unstable and insecure and this seems to link intertextually to Bicycle Thieves (De Sica: 1948). There is an important point to be made here because several of the critical writings have identified Maddalena as somebody who just goes around giving injections to diabetics and associate her with a kind of charlatanism which is just as illusory as cinema itself. Certainly the dressmakers are cynical about what she does a reference to a scene where she administers an unnecessary injection to a lazy and overfed woman who lies around in bed a lot who Maddalena teases mercillesly in a scene played for laughs. Then she has to go to see the Commendatore a diabetic who also needs a course of streptyomycin prescribed by the doctor. This will allow her to afford a coat.
The use of cinematic spaces - particularly the ballet class scenes alluded to above - emphasise the huge class differences and the real lack of social mobility within the system. This can be read as a clear critique of the Christian Democrats who have deliberately and systematically closed down the routes to social equality which were ideals at the heart of the solidarity combining national identity and meritocracy at the heart of the neorealist idyll. Again the use of particular stars and their performance is all part of mise en scene understood in its wider meaning. The star persona of Magnani precisely embodied the possibilities of social mobility and success which she had achieved in her own life adding a rich layer of interpretive possibilities for audiences who would have been highly aware of these changes in the Italian environment as well as the filmic references.
Visconti's Ending & Zavattini's Ending
The ending of the film really emphasises Visconti's political agenda and shows how the whole film uses cinema itself as a synechdoche for the changed class and power relations in Italy. His ending is in marked contrast to Zavattini's original script. Zavattini's approach often seemed to be pessimistic and fatalistic with the structures of society set to overwhelm individual agency forever leaving the suffering individual on the margins of society. Nowhere does this seem so marked as in Umberto D. The original script of Bellissima written by Zavattini was generally pessimistic. Maria was to be turned down by Blasetti end of story.
Visconti's ending was far better. Not only did it give Maddelena moral power at a personal level but this power needs to be understood as an embodiment of national identity for it is precisely her iconic status as the visual trademark of neorealism (Marcus, 2002 p 41) which she earned as the character of Pina being ruthlessly gunned down by the Nazis in Rome Open City which allows her to become a form of critique in itself. In this sense Bellissima is where her star status carries over character martyrdom to elide into a personal martyrdom in her relationship with Rossellini ousted by a Hollywood star. Magnani as off screen persona / on-screen persona is a double signifier of invasion and a compromising of Italian identity firstly with the Nazis and then with the power of the USA and its influences on Italian society in the immediate postwar period as it helped to undermine the communist and left political agandas.
Here Maddalena and Maria are pictured in the projection room secretly watching the initial screenings of the children for the role. The is the second part of Maddalena's initiation into the workings of the cinema as an institution. The editor Iris who has smuggled them in had herself played minor roles but explained to Maddalena that this was luck and that she had been consigned to the editing room. clearly this is a possible outcome for Maria.
The whole of Maria's screen-test is fascinating as it leads Maddalena towards her epihany. Maria is too small to blow out the candles on a cake. The gradual snuffing out of the candles a projection of Maddalena's emotions as her dreams are slowly snuffed out as well. She isn't going to taste the cake of success just beyond her reach. Then the mood changes from disappointment to one of shock as Maria bursts into tears because she has forgotten the lines of her poem. This creates a ripple of ruthless laughter around the theatre amongst the men in power. The mood again shifts as an enraged Maddalena bursts in on Blasetti and his production team. Maddalena's barging past is again an intertextual reference to Rome Open City where the Nazis line up the occupants of the appartment block to conduct a search and ther is much pushing and shoving.
Visconti's ending resulted in Blasetti offering the role to Maria. Maddelena turns down the contract. At one level this gives her a moral credibility on a par with Pina as Marcus has noted. However it goes much further than this, because the ending isn't just a simple closure. It leaves the audience with the question as the the last shot focuses upon the sleeping innocent child: what will the future then be for Maria? - again her role is synechdocal for the future of Italy itself. This shot can also be read intertextually for the role of children and the closing shot of children in Rome Open City as the way to the future is clearly referenced.
Rather than struggling to join a world of petit-bourgeois parents endlessly scrapping to crawl up the ladder using their children there has to be a way which doesn't complacently accept the status quo in the way that Maddalena's husband is doing, nor does it mean sacrificing the genuine needs of ones children to the illusory world of show business and entertainment parasitically built on the dreams and incomes of the working classes. The promise Maddalena makes to her husband is that she will work hard on her own merits to earn them their new house. There is of course a jokey reference made to giving the population of Rome diabetes but this can be overread as a form of illusion on a par with cinema.
The end scenes have an even greater irony in them than intended because as Maddalena jokes about Burt Lancaster as being such a nice star to tease her husband about her recently lost fantasies about Hollywood today's audience is aware of how Burt Lancaster was initially foisted onto Visconti to play the lead role in The Leopard (1963).Lancaster again appeared in Conversation Piece (1974) this time as a friend of Visconti's.
It seems that Visconti is thowing problems at the audience, they are being seduced in the short-term, but there is no clear future for Italy if they follow this path. The path for the country is dependent upon solidarity and hard work but it will provide more stability and more satisfaction in the future. The open ending requires the audiences to participate in making thier own future or else the illusionists would pull the strings. This reading of the ending differs considerably from Nowell-Smith's who reads the film as a straightforward criticism of the cinema as an industrial and social process (Nowel-Smith, 2003 p 55). Nowell-Smith then argues that Visconti doesn't have the open endings of the type which Antonioni uses rather he relies on a rigid and self-contained structure. (ibid). Here Nowell-Smith reads the husband as a concrete pole of attraction which allows Visconti to clearly treat the central theme. Bacon too argues that the ending is one of family unity, unique amongst Visconti's films. Here I would suggest that it is a return to class and that a sense of solidarity is represented through the family which would seem to be an excellent way of passing on a coded political message in a censorious cultural environment promoting 'family values'. Here it would be interesting to undrstand how audiences of the time read this.
One issue which none of the three main critics of this film writing in English have dealt with in depth is that of gender relations. Maddalena clearly suffers some degree of physical abuse although this is unseen. There is a furious argument in the flat when the dress is delivered and in front of the other women in the flats who come to rescue her she complains of being bruised. Again in the final scene she admits defeat to the husband and says that he can give her the usual four slaps.
Unsurprisingly it is Marcus who raises the issue of gender and notes that Visconti exposes the self-serving notions of motherhood by reversing the gender roles in the Cecconi household... (2002, p52-53). Certainly superficially he takes some care of Maria, undressing her and promising ice-cream but for him there is no discussion about Maria's future he doesn't say that that Maria's future should be in the school, rather it is Maria who wants to go back there. Rather it is better to read Spartaco's role as one of acceptance of the status quo with a few dreams about a better place to live if he works steadily. This isn't an Italy that Visconti wanted any more than an Italy in thrall to America (it must be remembered here that the "Economic Miracle" was underpinned by Marshall aid).
Spagnolo’s survey on the consequences of this American conception of economic assistance on home affairs is straightforward. The CDs’ role accounts for the economic policy they attained in the short run. U.S. grants were used to fund productive investments rather than to foster industrial investments with a clear employment-creating effect as the American authorities in Europe suggested. (Selva 2004 p 4).
Marcus talks of Maddalena's parental failure, but rather than failure it is a missplaced energy put into illusions of cinema which we can see as an allusion to Christian Democracy and its American backers. It is the false dreams of American capitalism as Visconti saw it which was the core issue. Arguably it was less Maddalena living vicariously through her daughter as a genuine but missplaced attempt to ensure a better future for her daughter. Her reaction when Iris the editor tells her of her failure to become an actress and her being cast aside that genuine doubt emerges and a recognition that all is not what it seems becomes apparent. Bacon notes that the role of Iris was played by Liliana Mancini and that this was very much what had happened to Mancini in real life. (Bacon 1998 p 57).
Gendering is clearly apparent in the control of power in the film and here the industry / country is clearly run by men. Arguably here Visconti is again challenging the return to family values being promoted by the Christian Democrats in which women are returned to the family by utilising the iconic status of Magnani again. Solidarity in Rome Open City was through both genders as epitomised by Magnani. Again the dynamism of Magnani and her committment to the future of Maria / Italy meant that she would be developing a different route, not selling out to Cinecitta / American capitalist ethics.
There are many more things which can be discussed about this film and Marcus, Nowell-Smith and Bacon all provide useful insights. The suggestion that there is a class position being indirectly proposed is my own. Whatever thoughts turn out to be if you are interested in Italian cinema or european cinema at all the release of the imprtant DVD for the English market is an opportunity not to be missed.
The Eureka Masters of Cinema DVD of Bellissima
Section under construction awaiting copy of the DVD
Advertised Extras include:
A PROPOSITO DI BELLISSIMA [31:42]. This is a useful documentary and consists of interviews with the Rosi, Zefirelli, Ceccho D'Amico and others on the processes of making Bellissima.
• Video interview with Bellissima co-screenwriter and assistant director Francesco Rosi [10:31]. This interview is a useful extract taken from a longer interview with Rosi who also worked with Visconti on La terra trema. It gives some useful insights into neorealism.
• Original theatrical trailer [3:51]
• 32-page illustrated booklet containing the chapter by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith from the 2003 3rd edition of his well known book on Visconti. This is an important and useful bonus. The booklet also features a short interview with Visconti with Michele Gandin in a new translation by Bert Cardullo, Professor of American Culture and Literature and author of Vittorio De Sica:Director, Actor,Screenwriter.
Key Production Details (taken from Henry Bacon, 1998)
First performance: Italy, December 28th, 1951
Length: 3,162 metres
Duration 113 minutes
Director: Luchino Visconti
Assistant Directors: Francesco Rosi, Franco Zeffirelli
Scriptwriters: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Francesco Rosi, Luchino Visconti. (NB Interestingly Bacon has acknowledged Zavattini as being the original scriptwriter in the text but hasn’t included him in this list presumably because as he points out the final script moved so far away from the original and included so much improvisation that Zavattini’s contribution was obviated.)
Leading Actors: Anna Magnani (Maddalena Cecconi), Walter Chiari (Alberto Annovazzi), Tina Apicella (Maria Cecconi), Alessandro Blasetti (As himself).
Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty & Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59960-1 (Pbk)
Marcus, Millicent. 2002. After Fellini. Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6847-5 (Pbk)
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 (3re). Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute. ISBN 0-85170-961-3 (Pbk)
Selva, Simone. 2004.State and Economy in Italy before the EconomicMiracle: Economic Policy and International Constraints from the Reconstruction through the Pre-Boom Years. Business and Economic History Online.
Return to Visconti Web-hub
May 27, 2007
Umberto D, 1951. Directed by Vittorio De Sica
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.