Should you find yourself in the beautiful city of Pisa, after admiring the leaning tower, the Duomo and the Battistero, you may want to take a stroll down the Lungarno Pacinotti. Walking by the river, you might spot a beautiful little movie theatre called Lumiere. The Lumiere celebrated its one hundred year anniversary in 2005 and is possibly the oldest continuously operating movie theatre in the world. It is also a testimonial to the importance that cinema had in Italy from the very beginning of its history. Before World War I Italian cinema was the most popular in the world. The “kolossal” was its calling card and audiences were mesmerized by the grandiosity of its spectacles. Films like The Last Days of Pompeii, Quo Vadis, and Cabiria remain impressive today for scope and sophistication.
The fascist regime promoted cinema as an escapist form of entertainment, as well as a powerful propaganda tool.
Italian cinema emerged from the fascist period revitalized and full of new ideas. Screenwriters like Cesare Zavattini, directors like Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica became the most significant innovators and the exponent of the movement known as neorealism. Their films became synonymous with social engagement and aesthetic commitment. It is impossible to overestimate the influence that neorealist films had on world cinema. Bicycle Thieves, Paisa’, Open City, Umberto D., are landmarks of the neorealist movement that have influenced world cinema, from American film noir to the spaghetti western films of the fifties.
The period between the fifties and the sixties has also seen the rise of the Italian auteurs, directors who could “sell” their films on the basis of their artistic reputation. Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti made films that changed the history of cinema. From Visconti’s Il Gattopardo to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, authored some of the most controversial and original films of the sixties. Their films became synonymous with Italian cinema.
The sixties represent also the triumph of Italian comedy. The “commedia all’italiana” emerged from the decline of neorealism and turned its attention to dramatic themes seen through a comical perspective. As Mario Monicelli, the director of Big Deal on Madonna Street, said in an interview in 1999 (as reported by Donato Totaro):
Comedy Italian Style “is a type of comedy quite specific to Italy. The Italian comedy revolves around topics and themes that are very dramatic, and sometimes tragic. So the theme is tragic, but the point of view is comical and humorous. This is a type of comedy that grows precisely out of the fact that Italians see reality and life in this manner. But this goes way back; it surely isn’t something we invented. It comes from old literature, from Boccaccio and from Commedia dell’Arte. The themes that make one laugh always stem from poverty, hunger, misery, old age, sickness, and death. These are the themes that make Italians laugh anyway. And the best ones have always used these.”
By the seventies, Italian cinema was being redefined by new directors and new writers. The films of Nanni Moretti, Maurizio Nichetti, and Giuseppe Tornatore, just to name a few, were again winning international prizes and been seen by the whole world.
In 2007 Quentin Tarantino, the American director famous for his violent and quirky films, was interviewed by an Italian popular tabloid. When asked what he thought about contemporary Italian cinema Tarantino replied that the
“New Italian cinema is just depressing. Recent films I’ve seen are all the same. They talk about boys growing up, or girls growing up, or couples having a crisis, or vacations of the mentally impaired.”
His statements evoked passionate responses from a wide range of filmmakers and intellectuals. Reactions ranged from the angry to the dismissive. From actress Sophia Loren to director Marco Bellocchio, every film personality seemed to have strong opinions on the vitality of Italian cinema. Only a few months later, California spectators had the opportunity to decide for themselves through a program presented by the American Cinematheque of Los Angeles with the collaboration of several Italian cultural agencies. The films in the Los Angeles line-up offered a much more optimistic and exciting panorama of the new Italian cinema. Garrone’s Gomorra presented a complex and realistic portrait of the Camorra, while Ozpetek’s Un Giorno Perfetto offered a modern melodrama. Whether the protagonist of the films was a clown (Pontecorvo’s PA-RA-DA), a grieving father (Caos Calmo), or an historical figure (Il Sangue Dei Vinti) they were interestingly crafted figures that resonated with the audiences. In fact, even QuentinTarantino seems to have changed his mind on the matter of Italian cinema. Admitting that there is more to Italian cinema than the spaghetti westerns of the seventies he recently corrected his statement, conceding that contemporary Italian cinema is extremely varied and complex. Perhaps to make amends, he then accepted the post of director of the most recent Venice film festival where he presided over a line-up of Italian films of great value.