Italian Cine-scapes: Urban space and architecture portrayed in 9 Movies
The Italian Cine-scapes #2 film festival, running from May to November, 2019, and co-organised by the Italian Institute of Culture and Palace Cinemas, is a visual feast awakening the senses. Running for its second consecutive year, the festival honours Italy’s past and present, celebrating its architecture, its people, and both collective and individual emotions.
Promoting Urban Space and Architecture, as established in the festival subheading, the main focus of the festival is on ever-shifting urban external landscapes and also on the more static rural landscapes of the culturally and aesthetically rich Italian nation. The festival caters equally much for native and first and second-generation Italians residing in Melbourne, as non-Italians with an appreciation for the visual arts and Italian cinema. The nine films included in the festival repertoire and distributed across most of the year also explore the inner or internal landscapes of protagonists influenced by their external environment, individual and collective experiences, and social conditioning. Their both internal and external environment changes with the times, reflecting the departure from a collective and community-oriented Italy (which is not entirely gone as traces from the past can still be seen and felt in Italy today) to an ever more globalised and individualistic Italy which is not always for the faint-hearted. Rather, it appears the more externally sophisticated and technologically advanced the country becomes the less natural the interaction between people. There is an increased sense of loneliness also in southern-European nations today which in the films leads to solitary protagonists longing for understanding even if they are not always capable of expressing this need for comprehension ̶ and ultimately their yearning for company.
The films included in the festival touch on these complex identity issues while all along they establish a dialogue between past and present, a bygone era and today, history and contemporary affairs. While some earlier films are shot almost entirely in black and white (Mimi metallurgico ferito nell’onore and Il vedovo) more recent films display warmer colour schemes that go from darker to lighter partly depending on the narrative told and the mood of the characters. As clarified by Laura Napolitano, Director of the Italian Institute of Culture in Melbourne and co-organizer of this film festival, the preference was never to present the films in chronological order but, rather, to mix (and also spice) up the narratives in the sense that there is regular interaction between older classics and more recent films. Viewers are presented films that form the backbone of Italian cinema history (some of the older movies in the festival are the artistic creations of the brilliant minds of De Sica and Lina Wertmüller ̶ the latter the only female director included in this festival) and they learn to appreciate both old and new and with that different approaches to national cinema.
The festival opens with a film that could be said to romanticise the Italian mafia even if there is a darker undertone running through the entire narrative. Sicilian Ghost story (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, 2017), winner of two Nastro d’Argento awards ̶ for Best Production Design and Best Cinematography ̶ and a David di Donatello Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, has been called a “stylish crime drama fantasy with a nasty undertow”1 and a “real life horror turned sombre fairy tale”.2 Based on true events, the film recounts the unappetizing real-life story of the 1993 Italian kidnapping of young Giuseppe di Matteo, the son of a mafia informant who perishes slowly while hidden away from the external world during the years (exactly 779 days, as established after the end credits) he is kept hostage, kidnapped by the mafia and kept as bait until he is finally strangled ̶ his body dissolved in acid. Surreal dreamscapes are alternated with images from the re-narrated ordeal and the film blends time and space, presenting us with a distorted representation of reality where flashbacks from the past are interwoven with the present until we are no longer able to tell the difference between the two time periods and are further confused through closeups of dark spaces that may form a part of reality but that could equally much be elements from a dream turned horrific nightmare.
Hailed as a masterpiece, Sicilian Ghost Story is difficult to watch – a physically and mentally taxing experience (and there are scenes that remind of equally claustrophobic and traumatic La piel que habito, by Pedro Almodóvar, 2011). The only film in the festival that does not give preference to a concrete external landscape, Sicilian Ghost Story rather lingers in a peripheral sombre twilight zone that is neither urban nor rural ̶ one which at times appears to be detached from reality. The film skilfully marries truth and fiction, reality and surreality, dream with real horror, and the real shooting location is not as important as the recreation of a dark inner landscape where unease, anguish and silent fright have taken a hold and begun to fester.
Thematically comparable in part to Sicilian Ghost Story although narratively and cinematographically very different, Roman writer and director Francesco Munzi’s third film (2014) is a true masterpiece. Garnering numerous David di Donatello awards on its home turf, in 2015, Anime nere operates on different levels. As highlighted in the academic introduction to the movie during the opening night at Palace Cinema Como on 2 June, the film can be read as a choral story where the characters are involved in a complex game. Mainly set in Calabria the film also takes place in Milan and interconnects time and place, contrasting not only ancestral, old and rural with new, modern and urban, but also darkness and light, as well as hidden, underground places with the external place. A comprehensive and brave commentary on the ‘Ndrangheta criminal confederation or mafia, the film introduces us to two brothers, each influential and powerful in their own way, and the close-knit groups that become instrumental in upholding the shady business carried out within this criminal Calabrian enclave. Leaving it up to the viewer to judge for themselves, Munzi gives the mafia a face in a film that has sophisticated cinematography and is engaged in a constant shadow play. Scenes are set at dusk, in a twilight zone void of direct sunlight, and shadowy faces of characters involved in murky deals are never quite removed from the shadows. A highly impressive film, Anime nere challenges narrative and thematic conventions and questions on-screen relationships and allegiances. Beneath the surface all that was once relatively stable begins to crumble and the open-ended film concludes with a shattering act of violence that overthrows not only cinematic norms but shocks the audience just when we started trying to make sense of it all.
If societal malaise, overt corruption and crime in the 2017 Sicilian Ghost Story becomes internalised through the ordeals and solitary confinement experienced by the male protagonist (played by young Gaetano Fernandez), in Fiore (Claudio Giovannesi, 2016) physical imprisonment returns as a theme when the erring protagonist is placed in a youth detention centre. In the film the characters’ detachment from the surrounding urban space is accentuated through takes of imposing buildings overshadowing the protagonist, who is diminished and objectified; positioned in the lower part of the frame. This clear disengagement between individual and architecture and the distorting camera angles that further aggrandise the architecture in some of the initial scenes of Fiore remind of Jean-Claude Seguin Vergara’s theories relating to the estranged relationship between character and space in the cinema of Almodóvar, where characters are sometimes subordinated to the surrounding urban space and warped angles seem to have a direct effect on the correspondingly unnatural movement of the characters. Marc Augé’s idea of the non-place is also pertinent in an analysis of both Fiore and Miele (2013). In both films the female protagonists move through an alienating space of transitioning from one location to another ̶ the non-place of waiting halls, train stations, underground metro networks, airports, etc. There is in these festival films a discrepancy between the individual and her environment, and a lack of negotiation and reconciliation between the two, and in Fiore it is only in the final moments of escape from imprisonment that the troubled protagonist manages to find a sense of relief and freedom. Images of the sea and a long-longed-for rural environment offer respite from a stifling urbanity and an even more oppressive confined prison space.
In Miele – a story described by director Valeria Golino as being contemporary and non-ideological3 – a woman (played by an impressively composed Jasmine Trinca whose character here is almost diametrically opposed to the all the more happy-go-lucky woman Fortunata in Castellito’s 2017 film with the same name and where Trinca again plays the lead role) using that name as a professional pseudonym euthanasially liberates troubled individuals from their suffering when she takes the law into her own hands through assisted suicide. Not until one of her clients steps away from the norm is she momentarily overwhelmed by moral guilt as she realises the severity of her offering: “medical” relief verging on the criminal (euthanasia is still not legally recognised in Italy and actress-turned-director Golino navigates difficult waters when she opts for this theme in her directorial debut). And all along Miele operates undisturbed ̶ her adopted identity intact throughout the narrative. The vast open ocean eventually becomes symbolic of freedom ̶ but so does the needle-turned-murder weapon that takes lives while at the same time it removes human suffering.
In Indivisibili (with clear references to Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks, a combined drama and thriller about Siamese twins with the same name as the sisters in Edoardo De Angelis’ much later film) the director’s liberating murder weapon in one of the final scenes is not a needle but a knife ̶ but does it actually lead to sororal death? This 2016 film, screened to Melbourne audiences on 6 October, is quite simply remarkable. With reference to external landscapes (the film is shot in Castel Volturno, in the Caserta province, Campania), a critic talks of the clash between the pure desires expressed by two female protagonists conjoined at the hip, and their surrounding, all the more unforgiving, physical environment:
“il contrasto fra la semplicità dei loro sogni e la bruttezza senza riscatto del paessaggio che le circonda, spiagge sporche, barche in secca, ponti sul nulla, caseggiati immensi e remoti. Un paesaggio autentico che nessuno scenografo oserebbe inventare...”4
In the film the domestic space becomes a landscape in itself, one in which an opportunistic father controls his daughters’ lives, exploiting them sensationalistically and performatively. The narrative develops against the backdrop of a predominantly rural rather than urban environment and while the ocean in the film, just like in Fiore and Miele, offers a sense of relief, the surrounding rugged environment is tinged with melancholy and nostalgia. There is an undefined yearning for something better as the sisters – two yet one and the same, with a shared body and identities that the years have shaped into one – breathe the same air, side by side at all times, with shared experiences and a shared perception of the outside world. Visually stunning, Indivisibili is achingly beautiful and the accompanying soundtrack mainly composed of haunting songs from Neapolitan songwriter Enzo Avitabile makes for a complete story deeply embedded in the Italian landscape and rich in Catholic iconography. The visual and dramatic highlight reflecting both real and symbolic suffering in the name of faith is the emotionally charged scene towards the end of a film that culminates in an outcome which will eventually lead to new beginnings.
Paving the way for cinematic new beginnings and new narrative explorations are the interspersed four 1950s -70s classics in the Cine-scapes festival, which offer us an opportunity to look beyond Italy of today and enter the national past with all its splendour but also its many political and social struggles. It is with bittersweet nostalgia that we watch older fantasy Miracolo a Milano (1951) – shot in a neorealist vein– and cinematographically sophisticated Mimi metallurgico, ferito nell’onore (1972), in particular. The former masterpiece by Vittorio De Sica is an homage to simplicity and mutual acceptance and solidarity; a belief in the common good and in the unpretentious man, comradery and solidarity. It is also a tender and natural love story between two individuals, which unfolds against the backdrop of a dilapidated post-war Milan. Scenes in black and white depict shanty town areas and the film tells the story of the simple man leading a simple lifestyle. This makeshift society recovering from the impact of war is increasingly threatened by a new kind of external forces. In the film groups seeking to further their own interests expose citizens to exploitation, corruption and deceit - much like what is still happening across the world today. An unusual and unconventional film, Miracolo a Milano focuses not on character development but, rather, it provides a snapshot of a moment captured in time. The male protagonist (played by a cherub-cheeked Francesco Golisano) an unfailing optimist and visionary, he navigates his way through the local community while serving as our eyes. A film rich in diegetic sounds ends on a bittersweet note, and its final futuristic message reminds of the ultimately hopeful tone of La Vita è Bella (1979): “verso un regno dove buongiorno vuol dire veramente buongiorno!”
Released in the same decade, Dino Risi’s Il Vedovo (1959) takes viewers away from a city visibly tarnished by war, to all the more modern and dynamic late 1950s Rome. With altogether impressive Alberto Sordi starring as his namesake (Alberto Nardi), he is compatibly paired up with stunning actress Franca Valeri. Il vedovo tells the story of a scheming businessman who ultimately falls prey to his own scheming, wheeling and dealing. The man with the gift of the gab and his urban environment in perfect synchronicity, Risi’s screened narrative is a feast for the senses (as is, very much so, Wertmüller’s visually and narratively captivating Mimi metallurgico ferito nell’onore). With snappy and witty dialogues throughout, a fast narrative pace and a clever plot development, Il vedovo comments on contemporary society, capitalism and cross-national rivalry, and can be read as a document for its time. The cynical lead character still prone to reflection and analysis, at one stage he utters: “I understood that at one side there is 20th-century modern life with the mad rush for money, and at the other there is renunciation, only renunciation. There is no middle ground.” On the whole very different films, Il vedovo and Miracolo a Milano have this much in common: they reflect their contemporary times, bearing witness to a changing and evolving Italy as the country prepared itself for its 1960s departure from mainly agrarian society to one accommodating an influx of foreigners during a period of economic growth. Italy started to become a nation to be reckoned with on the world stage ̶ not only industrially but also with regard to business, politics and trade.
Mindful of highlighting the importance also of the 1970s, the Cine-scapes festivals guides us through the 50s and 70s as well as the second decade of the 21st century and with that we are taken on a journey through a shifting socio-political climate, not only in Italy as a whole but also with regard to different regions within Italy, where the North and its mentality contrasts with the South and the southerners. This becomes particularly evident in Wertmüller’s critically acclaimed Mimi metallurgico ferito nell’onore, from 1972 (quite simply translated as The Seduction of Mimi, in English). Debuting at the 25th Cannes Film Festival in 1972, the film was conferred a David di Donatelli Special Award and versatile main actor Giancarlo Giannini gained a David di Donatelli award for Best Actor. This feisty black comedy connects, compares and contrasts Sicily and Turin through characters representative of each region although they are never completely stereotyped.
Rather, the main character gains complexity through his range of emotions and an identity that changes in line with a rapid narrative development. Wertmüller also gives proof of directorial expertise through stylish cinematography that includes technical complexities, experimental closeups, crosscuts and refreshingly distorted camera angles ̶ and a story that is never quite predictable, but all the more engaging. The bold female cineaste who is both writer and director engages us in geographically and culturally enlightening conversation, with references to the mafia, left-wing syndicates, and the Italian labour movement (The Sicilian Brotherhood Association is mentioned on various occasions), to communist ideals and affiliations, internal matriarchy and external patriarchy, feminist tendencies and shifting gender roles and gender values. She assesses North and South through her characters, revealing stark differences with regard to family, labour and overall lifestyle. In doing so, references are also made to major power blocks in general (“I don’t think Russia will end up like America ̶ with everyone being stifled by industry and machines, like here”).
A film shot more than four decades ago, Mimi metallurgico ferito nell’onore feels different, fresh and engrossing ̶ and is unconventionally modern.
As the last film commented on in this schematic overview, Luigi Comencini’s thriller La donna della domenica from 1975 (based on the 1972 novel by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini) has a protagonist as strong ̶ albeit not ruthless ̶ as Alberto Neri in Il vedovo. Set in the same time period as Mimi metallurgico…, Comencini’s film represents the changing urban space partly in a similar fashion. Nevertheless, of these three movies the character who comes across as the most normal and balanced and thereby also the most realistic is Marcello Mastroianni’s suave Commissioner Salvatore Santamaria. With a smooth acting style that translates into a calm and protective on-screen masculinity, Mastroianni’s presence in La donna della domenica reminds in part of his on-screen demeanour in both La dolce vita (1960) and Una giornata particolare (1977); an unassuming and natural confidence that only very skilled actors can hope to enjoy. As was the case in Miracolo a Milano, also in La donna della domenica the male protagonist becomes the narrator who guides us through the narrative. We observe the surrounding environment mainly through his eyes. The film is created in a social realist vein and the many lengthy dialogues are convincing and feel effortless. The space traversed by the characters alternates between sleek city streets and pastoral idyll and in the final scene the female protagonist (a cool Jacqueline Bisset) and companion depart towards the urban horizon; their car gradually distancing itself from the eye of the camera until it becomes one with the surrounding urban space.
In fine, it is with gratefulness that I reflect on all films watched and on the overall Italian journey that viewers are invited to partake in in the current film festival. Cine-scapes allows for rewarding spatial explorations of the now and then, the hidden or not easily read, and the external, darkness and light. It highlights different customs and traditions and brings into attention an urban architecture that bears witness to times gone by and that has had to adapt to concurrent cultural and political changes. The Cine-scapes festival#2 is a must see, a must to experience and a must to learn from.
Bradshaw, P. (2018, August 2). Sicilian Ghost Story review – stylish crime drama fantasy with a nasty undertow. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/aug/02/sicilian-ghost-story-review-stylish-drama-fantasy-with-a-nasty-undertow
Mottram, J. (2017, November 14). Film review: Sicilian Ghost Story- real-life horror meets sombre fairy tale in unmissable Italian masterpiece. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/culture/film-tv/article/2119779/film-review-sicilian-ghost-story-real-life-horror-meets-sombre-fairy
Interview with Valeria Golino (published July 3, 2013), Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuYLfKr0eTo
Indivisibili. Retrieved from https://www.cinemavittoria.com/movies/indivisibili/
Italian Cine-scapes #2: Urban Space and Architecture Portrayed in 9 Movies, 2019. Repertoire:
May 5: Sicilian Ghost Story
May 11: Il vedovo
June 2: Anime nere
July 7: La donna della domenica
August 4: Miele
September 1: Miracolo a Milano
October 6: Indivisibili
November 10: Fiore
December 1: Mimi metallurgico ferito nell’onore