FILM 101: Introduction to Italian Cinema Part II

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In the market for foreign films, there has perhaps been none as acclaimed and successful as Italy. With a record 14 wins for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, amongst many other accolades and awards, the cinema of Italy has for over 80 years captivated both its native audiences and those abroad. With titles like Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Rome, Open City (1945) to directorial names like Dario Argento, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Michelangelo Antonioni, the list of noteworthy Italian films (in a wide variety of genres, from Giallo to surrealism) is indeed an exhaustive one.

As with the first list compiled, do not consider this as a list of the five best, but rather as some of the great standouts from a lengthy catalog of films. And so start your journey into Italian cinema with these five additional great masterworks of Italian moviemaking.

La Ciociara (Two Women) (1960) - Directed by Vittorio De Sica

Italy’s role in the Second World War shifted from antagonist to unlikely protagonist, and its everyday citizens were unfortunately caught up in the ensuing chaos and inevitable bloodshed. Thus the backdrop of director Vittorio De Sica’s (Bicycle Thieves) Two Women; an Italy trying to move forward from the horrors of the war while still feeling the deep scars.

Starring a then 26-year-old Sophia Loren (quickly on the rise as one of cinema’s greatest international stars) the film tells the story of a young mother (Loren) and her efforts to shield her 12-year-old daughter from the atrocities around them and to somehow escape the madness and danger.  For her lead performance, Loren won the Academy Award for Best Actress ( the first for any actor in a foreign language film; Roberto Benigni would repeat the feat 37 years later in Life is Beautiful). In fact looking at Loren’s and Benigni’s respective roles they tell the same narrative; loving parents and their attempts to shield their child from the cruelness of wartime.

Poignant, distressing, and even at times uplifting Two Women is a wonderful character study of the endurance of the human spirit and a great example of Italian cinema’s natural ability to convey human emotions in very moving ways.

Ieri, Oggi, Domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow) (1963) - Directed by Vittorio De Sica

Another Vittorio De Sica film starring Sophia Loren and fellow Italian acting giant Marcello Mastroianni, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,  goes for the opposite effect of films like Two Women. An anthology comedy film with three short stories or films within it, the movie is a slice of life of the different regions of Italy. The stories set in Milan, Rome and Naples respectively spotlight the north, center, and south of the country and the various eccentricities and stereotypes associated with them.

A fun outing, the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and gave audiences a glimpse into the more mundane aspects of the Italian lifestyle while still maintaining a wonderful charm.

Mafioso (1962) - Directed by Alberto Lattuada

As with any country, there are frequently stereotypes regarding the nation’s characteristics and its inhabitants’ personalities. Italy is certainly no different; in fact, even in the country itself the “cultural divide’ between the North and South is fairly prominent. The notion that the industrial north pulls all the weight while the rural minded impoverished south waits for handouts and in Sicily’s case is ripe with gangsters is one that has existed for decades.

Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso plays on these perceptions to create a darkly comic portrait of preconceived notions. Antonio Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi) a Sicilian native now living in Milan (the economic center of Italy), works in a car factory with his wife and children. When the family decides to take a vacation to Sicily to visit his relatives they encounter quite a culture shock. Soon Antonio’s wife begins counting down the days until they leave, while poor Antonio is thrust into the dark underworld of the Cosa Nostra; an institution he thought he had left behind for good…

The film works both as a cultural commentary and a lampooning of national cliches and is an entertaining and fascinating dissection of many Italian national tropes. Copies may be hard to find today, but it is certainly a worthy title to check out should one fortuitously find it.

Piange... il telefono (The phone weeps)(1975) - Directed by Lucio de Caro

A well-known title in Italy but very easily unrecognizable to some Western audiences, Piange il Telefono is a nice little film about love and forgiveness. Though it can be seen as overly sentimental and sappy for some, it’s a feel-good movie with a lovely soundtrack and theme song. Starring musical superstar Domenico Modugno (best known for the hit song “Volare”), there is a sweetness to this tale of a father trying to connect with the young daughter he never knew he had.

It’s not a masterpiece or a heavyweight by any means. but still, an enjoyable film to enrich viewers in their Italian excursions at the movies.

Reality (2012) - Directed by Matteo Garrone

Harkening back to the days of Federico Fellini, director Matteo Garrone created a dramatic yet surrealist work of film with the very entertaining and thought-provoking “Reality”. A parody of reality television and the entrancing effect it can have on viewers, the movie is as much a critic of audiences in general as it is in Italian ones specifically. Since the rise of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, known for commanding media attention and using the TV for maximum effect, Italian viewers have held an almost religious attachment to television. (The 2009 documentary Videocracy is highly recommended).

Garrone lampoons this newly found trait in this story of family man Luciano from Naples who becomes obsessed with joining the cast of Big Brother Italy. After a seemingly failed audition in Rome, Luciano becomes increasingly paranoid believing he is being constantly watched and ‘tested’ by the producers to determine his eligibility. As the film progresses we’re made to question what is indeed reality and what is Luciano’s delusions.

Starring Aniello Arena, a convict whom the director saw perform in a prison theatre production, Reality is a delightfully absurd, yet at times very incisive cinematic work. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Festival, it features many segments in the Neapolitan dialect that adds a layer of realism (no pun intended) to the characters and the story. It’s a fascinating work about obsessions and the need to be valued, and the ubiquitous presence TV has in our lives.

Michael Vecchio
Michael Vecchio
Michael Vecchio is a critic, essayist, musician and contributing writer for Before The Cyborgs A graduate of the University of Alberta, he is an avid follower of film, current events, history, and politics. When not at the movies, he is an active pianist and accompanist.



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