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La morte civile (1942)
Stark emotions in a stark drama
"La morte civile" was based on a popular melodrama by Paolo Giacometti and has been filmed several times. It is the story of a woman, Rosalia, who marries a failed painter, Corrado, despite the opposition of her family to the marriage. They have a little daughter, Ada. A violent argument between the woman's brother and her husband provokes Corrado into killing his brother-in-law. He is tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Some grim sequences delineate this incarceration. Meanwhile a doctor who has lost his wife and little daughter comes to Rosalia's aid, assuming the role of the child's father while Rosalia is hired as the little girl's governess. The child is now called Emma after the daughter that Palmieri lost. Rosalia is in fact her mother. The girl believes this fiction as the next few years pass. Later Corrado escapes from prison and returns in an attempt to restart his life with his wife and daughter, but he comes to see this cannot be. He asks Rosalia to have little Emma call him "father" before he goes away forever. The "forever" turns out to be a brief one as Corrado dies in a fall, probably a suicide. But, as the title implies, he has already died a "civil death" in his imprisonment and separation from family and society. The film is very well acted by Dina Sassoli as Rosalia, Carlo Ninchi as Corrado, and Renato Cialente as the benevolent Doctor Palmieri. The stark atmosphere of the Gargano peninsula in Puglia gives force to the stark emotions of the drama which contains, like a somber and tragic opera, absolutely no humor or levity. A particularly good scene has a procession of townsfolk to a religious shrine. It has a surge of emotion that is similar to the one in Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," and it is taking place as Corrado makes his re-appearance from the dead. The last half-hour of the film is particularly strong and moving. Director Ferdinando M. Poggioli was one of the finer craftsmen of the Fascist era, though this film has descended into virtual oblivion. It deserves to be better known.
Preludio d'amore (1947)
A worthy film, unseen for over half a century
World War II has ended. After four years Davide (Vittorio Gassman in his first movie, dubbed by another Italian voice, and with hair weirdly dyed blond!) has returned home to Camogli near Genoa hoping to resume his relationship with Anna (Marina Berti). In the meantime she has shown an interest in shady black-marketeer Rocco (Massimo Girotti), taking him away from his former girlfriend Alida (Maria Michi), prodding the poor girl to suicide and inspiring a backlash against Anna by the relatives of Alida. Ultimately Davide and Anna are reconciled, and a happy life together in Camogli will result.
This four-pronged melodrama of love and jealousy is played against an expertly-etched natural background of Camogli and environs, including Genoa. Much of it, stunningly photographed by the legendary Piero Portalupi, seems as much a documentary with dramatic overtones as a drama with documentary flourishes.
With its striking stylistic amalgam of neo-realism, regional documentary, Carné-like poetic realism, and Italianate filmnoir à la Lattuada in that director's "Without Pity", the movie creates a certain fascination. It was directed by noted documentary film-maker Giovanni Paolucci and is considered his best work. It was co-written and produced by Leopoldo Trieste, who would be remembered for many films he performed in, but especially as the worried husband in Fellini's "The White Sheik."
There was a good deal of fascination and interest aroused by "Preludio d'amore" when it was unearthed in late 2011 for a single showing in Camogli, where it had been filmed, after having gone unseen in Italy since its initial release over sixty years earlier. In the U.S. it is equally as rare. From the early 1950s to the early 1960s it played sporadic engagements at exploitation houses and drive-ins all over the country, especially in 1958 and 1959, paired with the Rossellini-Pagliero film "Woman" ("Desiderio"). "Preludio d'amore" was re-titled "Shamed" in the U.S., and the program of Rossellini's "Woman" and "Shamed" wended its way through secondary venues noted for risqué billings as well as urban art houses of lesser repute. The films actually deserved better, but the inappropriate promotion of "Woman"/"Desiderio" to capitalize on the Rossellini-Bergman scandal inhibited much general serious consideration or critiques. The thrashing "Shamed" received from the New York Times critic precluded any programming in houses where audiences might appreciate this amazing little postwar gem.
I remember this double bill playing on 42nd Street in Manhattan in late May 1964 at the Apollo Theatre with the marquee blazing "Rossellini's 'Woman' and 'Shamed'. " As far as I know that was the last that was seen or heard of "Preludio" in America, though "Desiderio" has been shown in archival Rossellini retrospectives. Maybe in an overdue Gassman retrospective this first screen appearance of his will see the light of day once more.
Piccoli naufraghi (1939)
The camaraderie of shipwrecked youngsters from fascist Italy
A group of thirteen boys, tired of the day-to-day boredom and doldrums of life in the classroom and other restrictions on their freedom, conspire to stow away on a merchant vessel bound for Ethiopia, the new Italian colony in Mussolini's fascist empire, in search of liberating adventure. There is a shipwreck, and the boys, stranded on an uninhabited small island, set up a colony of their own, while awaiting the chance to leave. In time another ship arrives at the island; on board are a group of pirates intent on selling arms to the Abyssinian "rebels". In a burst of proud Italianate heroism, and exemplifying fascist-youth ideals, the lads take control of things and commandeer the vessel to return to to Italy. The cast includes Riccardo Freda as a benevolent and inspirational teacher. He would later become a director of some renown. Giovanni Grasso plays the captain of the merchant vessel. The boys themselves are a pleasant lot, though their characters are barely fleshed out in any clear way. While there is certainly an intended subtext here of fascist "manhood", imperial adventure, the film remains most likable as a simple boyish adventure with "Lord of the Flies" overtones. The Italian title of this film was changed to "Piccoli Avventurieri" (Little Adventurers) from the original "Piccoli naufraghi" (Shipwrecked Boys) for its ethnic language-house release in the U.S. A copy of this rare title can be viewed at the Library of Congress Film Study Center in Culpeper, Virginia. It was one of the titles in the "captured film collection" at the start of World War II.
Francesco d'Assisi (1966)
The humble and beautiful man from Assisi
One of the least-known and best of the films about the life and work of Francis of Assisi is this first feature film made by Liliana Cavani and coincidentally the first feature film drama made for the Italian network RAI. It is a true wonder. Rarely has a filmmaker captured the true simplicity of the man, the privileged son of a wealthy Assisi cloth-maker who rebels against his father and against all manifestations of external luxury and wealth. His rebellion is not a prideful one but done as a means to follow more closely the teachings of Jesus any display of pomposity and might obliterated. As a soldier he experiences the horror of war and bloodshed and it fills him with revulsion. The scene where he publicly removes his clothes in a symbolic act of renunciation is beautifully done The young rebel is played here by Lou Castel, fresh from his performance in Marco Bellocchio's landmark "Fists in the Pocket." His founding of the new order of Friars Minor, conceded by Pope Innocent III, is shown here in a very moving scene, with his followers doing all the discussion with the pope while Francis hovers in the background like a timid child. Apart from the fact that the hero of Bellocchio's film was amoral and depraved and even insane, the two roles closely resemble each other in the extremeness of the two character's world views, one nihilistic, the other mystic. Bellocchio himself has a small role as Pietro, who pleads with Francis later for some modifications to the stringent rule of poverty and simplicity that his friend insists upon. In illness Francis he leaves his place to Pietro, he retires into a solitary life in Assisi and dictates to one of his followers the new rule for the order, reflected almost entirely by a reading of the gospels. In the end, as death approaches, he has a simple meal with his followers, including a favorite child who winningly repeats the final words of Francis' sentences. Soon after, he is buried naked in the earth. There have been many films about Saint Francis. This is my absolute favorite one. For me it is high praise given that I am a great admirer of Rossellini's masterful "Francesco, giullare di Dio." It is also Liliana Cavani's best film, before she went off into a number of unseemly and kinky creations that rarely appealed to me. Nor is her later remake of the Francis story, called simply "Francesco," and starring Mickey Rourke, of the same high caliber as this picture. See "Francesco d'Assisi" it if you can. It is tragic that this masterpiece is not more widely shown.
It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964)
Memory of an Italian mother and a plate of pasta at Brown University
I first saw this early film by Martin Scorsese at an intercollegiate student film festival at Brown University in Providence on April 16, 1965. I was not a Brown student but I used to attend film showings there, of which there were many, and they formed the nucleus of my education as a film buff. I saw a few other movies in that festival held at Alumnae Hall, but "It's Not Just You, Murray" was the one that caught my attention at the time, because of is brash and entertaining qualities. I remember in particular the amusing image of the Italian mamma coming in with a big plate of pasta, eager to feed her boy. Later I would find out that this mamma was actually played by Scorsese's own mother Catherine, whom we would see later in the documentary "Italianamerican", about both the directors parents, as well as in other cameo roles, including one in "Goodfellas," where her character is kind of an extension of the earlier role in "Murray." The movie got a top award at that Brown festival, not surprising. I filed away a memory of it, taking care to note the director's name. I suspected he would be going places. Later when "Boxcar Bertha" opened in Providence at the Strand Theatre, I went to see it on the basis of the name Scorsese and I was not disappointed, and of course greater films were yet to come in his remarkable career.
Adventures of a two-lira Don Giovanni
"Rubacuori" was one of the first Italian sound films and also one of the first to be shown in America where it played at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York, unsubtitled, intended for the local Italian-speaking population. The movie features the splendid Armando Falconi as our fastidious banker hero Giovanni, who acts the role of petty martinet with the office girls and is a self-styled lady-killer or "rubacuori" elsewhere. Though married (to Tina Lattanzi) , he has constantly roving eyes as he comes into contact with any female who crosses his path or whose path he goes out of his way to cross because he cannot help himself and any pair of shapely female legs changes the direction of his walk. He gives the excuse of nocturnal business meetings to his wife when in fact he is on the prowl at a local cabaret. One night the lights go out and a jewel is stolen from the Dietrich-like singer played by Mary Kid. (She sings the title song "Rubacuori.") Much of the contrived plot from that point on involves that jewel winding up accidentally in our Don Giovanni's hands, implicating him even further in some amorous peccadillos as he attempts to return it to the singer, and creating a concatenation of mishaps. It's all nonsensical contrived fluff, of course, but still quite enjoyable, mostly due to the on-target performance of the great Italian screen actor Armando Falconi. For an early sound film, the visual style is quite inventive and the movie is never stage-bound and even recollects at moments some of the German films made during the previous decade. And for me the presence of character actress Ada Dondini as Giovanni's mamma, is another plus in this pleasant escapade.
Italian giallo set in New York
"Grattacieli" ("Skyscrapers") is a pedestrian Italian giallo, a whodunnit set in a New York high rise apartment. Made in 1943, during the war, it seems to be set in the year 1933, judging by the stock shots we get of two different movie theatre marquees, one of the Strand where the 1933 "Havana Widows" with Joan Blondell is playing and a second one of a B.F. Keith's theatre where the 1933 film "Only Yesterday" is displayed. The rest is confined to an apartment and a terrace overlooking the city. At a party a drunken guest falls from the terrace and is killed. That is he falls or is pushed to his death. The victim is an obnoxious lecher type played by the fine Paolo Stoppa, who is the only good thing about the film before he is written out of the story. Most of it involves the investigations of a police inspector(Luigi Pavese)to ascertain who the murderer was. By the end the murderer is uncovered and is killed too. The whole thing moves along so mechanically one can hardly care much. The original play this was based on, written by Guglielmo Giannini, who also directed this film adaptation, had some popular success at the time.
La sua terra (1941)
Mussolini's youthful turf
This short film by renowned documentarian Luciano Emmer gives us a bucolic view of the peasant area around the village of Predappio, Italy, where Benito Mussolini was born and raised. The title means "His Land." The camera roams here and there, over hills and streams and fields which the "Duce" would have been familiar with. Interiors of the house of Benito's birth are shown as well, and we see the matrimonial bed where presumably he was conceived, as well as framed photos of his mamma and papà. It is reported that after it was shown to Mussolini, he considered it such a bad omen (why?) that he ordered the destruction of the film. The surviving print does not have the original music track, which is lost, and other music has been substituted.
Il canale degli angeli (1934)
Rarely-seen gem set in Venice.
This beautiful little film, rarely seen outside of archives, is a semi-documentary, semi-dramatic story set in Venice. There are essentially four characters. Daniele (Ugo Gracci) works on a dredger clearing the "Canal of the Angels" so that larger ships can pass through, saving them local navigation time. He is married to Anna (Anna Ariani) and they have a little son Bruno (Pino Locchi). An out-of-work sailor called "the captain" (Maurizio D'Ancora) works temporarily as a uniformed vaporetto ticket-taker before being assigned to a ship. They each display a loneliness and a strong a desire for companionship and affection. Daniele's leg is injured in an accident and he is out of commission for a few weeks. Anna meets "the captain" at a fair and where the two go to the dance pavilion together and later spend some time in a semi-romance as the woman's husband is recuperating from his injury. It is clear she is smitten by him. All this is taken in by the young Bruno who has a clear apprehension over the his mother's behavior and senses something is amiss, much like the boy Pricò in De Sica's later "The Children Are Watching Us", which also had a wife seeking romance outside of her marriage, though here it never fully progresses to the same tragic consequences of the later film. Bruno gets ill (like Pricò, whose real illness is fear of abandonment by a mother he loves.) When the mother announces at dinner that she is going out for a few minutes, we wonder, as does the boy, whether she will return to diner or go off with her sailor. His ship passes through the cleared canal; the mother returns, the family is together and happy. The personal drama is never fully developed , remains on the surface, and yet it has an almost fable-like force. The background elements often dominate. Francesco Pasinetti had and would garner a great deal of esteem for his documentaries on Venice such as "Piazza San Marco" and this was his only real film with actors and a story, schematic as it is. Much of the film has a visual lyricism that suggests parts of Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante." The excellent photography of the canals, alleys, and dock areas of Venice was done by Giulio De Luca. Director Pasinetti died in 1949 at age 37. This film is probably his finest achievement. More than a cinematic trifle, it is a remarkable visual poem.
La giornata balorda (1960)
A forgotten classic.
I missed this film in its initial release; then it disappeared completely. It wasn't even shown in Bolognini retrospectives in subsequent years because of its rarity. The movie boasts an excellent screenplay by Pasolini and Moravia and resembles "Accattone" in style and content. It really seems more like a Pasolini film than one by Bolognini. It is a story, set entirely in one day, about a Roman loser (like Accattone himself) who has fathered a child with his mistress and is now trying, sort of, to find work when not having sex with one woman after another. His name is Davide Saraceno and he's played by Jean Sorel. Paolo Stoppa has a small role as a sleazy man-of-connections that Davide asks for help in finding work. The settings are stark, and the opening of the film beneath the multi-tiered and cacophonous balconies of an apartment complex is breathtaking. Lea Massari plays a well-to-do woman who takes to Davide. Valeria Ciangottioni plays his distraught mistress. She is the girl of the innocent face we remember from Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." Roman dialect abounds on the soundtrack.