Luchino Visconti, Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

It is dark. A train pulls into the “Stazione Centrale” in Milan. On board we meet Rosaria Parondi and her sons Rocco, Simone, Ciro and Luca; they have been travelling for days from Lucania (one of the southernmost areas of Italy between Campania and Calabria).

The train station is cavernous, cold and intimidating. Vincenzo, Rosaria’s oldest son, has already settled in the northern industrial city but he is not at the station to meet his family.

Rosaria and her sons seem excited but also scared and disoriented. As the family ventures into the city, without Vincenzo, by way of a long, descending stairway that transitions mother and sons into their new life, their metaphorical descent into hell is punctuated by the beautiful soundtrack (by the legendary Nino Rota) that shifts from a melancholy, traditional southern melody about immigration to a jazzy, modern sounding tune.

Rocco and his Brothers (1960) is one of the masterpieces of Italian cinema. Its director, the great Luchino Visconti, had been one of the major players in the Italian neo realist movement; he was also an aristocrat, a communist and a great director of theater and opera.

1960 was a charmed year for Italia cinema. The almost simultaneous release of Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura propelled Italian cinema to unprecedented success and critical acclaim, both domestically and internationally.

This golden age of Italian cinema blossomed against the backdrop of dramatic socio-economic changes in Italy. Starting from the 1950s, gross domestic product, employment, industrial production, and services dramatically increased, while agriculture plunged. During this period, known as the “economic miracle” (with a peak in GDP rate of increase in 1958–1963), the Italian economy grew at double the speed of the average in Europe and per capita income grew more rapidly than in any other European country.

Because the economic growth of this period remained a predominantly northern Italian phenomenon, limited to the “industrial triangle” formed by the cities of Milan, Turin and Genoa, a corollary product of the “economic miracle” was the massive, unprecedented, migration of Italians from the rural areas of Italy (especially in the south) to the industrial cities where opportunities were perceived to be abundant.

The historian Paul Ginsborg articulates it best when he says, “the ‘economic miracle’ meant much more in the history of Italy than a booming economy and rising standards of living. It meant an unparalleled movement of the peninsula’s population.”

In the northern cities at the epicenter of this economic boom, the “Miracle” gave rise to mass consumption and to a demand for “new” products, products of greater exclusivity, often promoted by mass media and advertisements (and with the expansion of capitalism a decline in religion and traditions). But the massive population transfer from the impoverished South to the booming industrial North also exacerbated social contrasts and produced unprecedented inequality and serious social issues. Milan, the success story of northern Italy, was inundated with immigrants. New cheap, quickly built apartments surrounded Milan, many without basic services. Clashes erupted between the old, established “worker aristocracy” and the new, less qualified immigrants (“operaio-massa”) of Southern origin.

Luchino Visconti provides a skillful, insightful, and harshly realistic social commentary on Italy at the peak of the “Miracle.” Rocco and His Brothers offers a gritty portrait of life in working-class Milan in 1960; it was shot in the housing projects and streets of the city. These authentic locations are a prime example of the aesthetic and artistic concerns of neo realism, as the film expresses historical interest on how people lived and what places looked like at a time and place in Italian history. But in telling the story of the harsh adjustment and of the disintegration of the Parondi family in the society of the industrial North the film is also extremely operatic and melodramatic.

The film’s focus shifts among the sons of the Parondi family, dividing its narrative into five chapters, one for each son. We witness the passing of an elusive, unattainable dream: Rosaria’s wish for a reunited family; Vincenzo’s struggle to distance himself from his manipulative mother and begin an independent life and a family; Simone’s continued attempts to reconcile with Nadia and his tragic downward spiral; Rocco’s success as a boxer, his dreams of returning to Lucania and his self-sacrifice; Ciro’s desire to assimilate with the modern, industrialized culture of Milan. Inevitably, the personal pursuit of dreams proves to be the unraveling of the family’s unity, as individual needs conflict with familial responsibility.

Visconti drew on several literary sources for inspiration for this film: the poetry of Rocco Scotellaro, who wrote from the point of view of southerners, Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, and Giovanni Testori’s collection of stories, The Bridge of Ghisolfa.  The title for Rocco and His Brothers is also inspired by Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers.

The film stars the legendary Alain Delon as Rocco (in 1960 Delon also played Tom Ripley to critical acclaim in René Clément’s Purple Noon, which was based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr. Ripley). It was one of actress Claudia Cardinale’s early roles. The film can be seen as being an influence on American gangster films.

Rocco projects the early character traits of the pure Michael Corleone in Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. The tense, and rocky relationship between Rocco and Simone parallels Scorsese’s characters of Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) in Mean Streets.

The boxing sequences and the violent jealousy that takes over Simone, which ultimately effects the relationship between his brothers, are ideas that Scorsese explored in more disturbing detail in his masterpiece Raging Bull.


Rome, Open City (1945)

Martin Scorsese said that Open City is “the most precious moment of film history”. Jean-Luc Godard (the French-Swiss film director, screenwriter and film critic, identified with the 1960s French film movement La Nouvelle Vague, or “New Wave”) agreed, saying: “All roads lead to Rome, Open City”.

Roberto Rossellini is one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. And it was with his trilogy of films made during and after World War II — Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero — that he left his transformative mark on cinema.  Shot in battle-ravaged Italy and Germany, these three films are some of the most poignant documents of devastated postwar Europe.

Open City is considered a founding work of Italian Neorealism. André Bazin, the renowned French film critic, called neorealism a cinema of “fact” and “reconstituted reportage”; screenwriter and poet Cesare Zavattini authored an actual manifesto of neorealist films, stating: “this powerful desire of the [neorealist] cinema to see and to analyze, this hunger for reality, for truth, is a kind of concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist”; for Roberto Rossellini neorealism was “simply the artistic form of the truth”; Fellini, who apprenticed with Rossellini, noted “neorealism is a way of seeing reality without prejudice, without conventions…looking at it in an honest way—whatever reality is, not just social reality but all that there is within a man.”

Neorealist filmmakers did not follow a programmatic list of ideological or aesthetic criteria. Film styles presented a number of similarities, but also differed in many important respects. Some key elements common to Italian neorealist films are: the role of anti-Fascism that marked World War II’s immediate postwar period, an emphasis upon social realism, historical accuracy, popular settings, rejection of cinematic conventions, use of location shooting rather than sets, use of non-professional actors, respect for actual duration of time within narrative, opposition to manipulation of reality in the cutting room, etc.

Despite the rather short run – 1943 to 1952 – the films of the period and the principles that guided them put Italian cinema on the map at the time and significantly altered European filmmaking and eventually cinema around the world.

Open City documents the Nazi occupation of Rome and the courage of the Italian Resistance. Rossellini started work as soon as allied tanks rolled into war-destroyed Rome in June 1944. The events depicted in the film had taken place in Rome in the first months of 1944 when it was under German occupation. The film touched on experiences and memories of the war that were common to people elsewhere and this helped give it its strong resonance with audiences internationally. In 1947 screenwriter Sergio Amidei stated ‘We made Open City under the impression, the suggestion, and the influence of what we had just lived through…More than that, we all have been the instrument of will of the underground army that was anxious to write its page for the book of history”.

By 1944 there was virtually no film industry in Italy and no money to fund films. Many scenes were shot on location in the streets (depicting the devastation of Rome) and in a working-class tenement building with the residents as extras and untrained actors in the cast (Rome’s film studio Cinecittà was serving as a refugee camp). The grittiness of Rossellini’s films resulted from the reliance on the unpredictability of natural daylight, unreliable access to electric power and poor studio lighting, varying film stock (Rossellini had to make a virtue of meager resources, using film that was scavenged). During filming of one scene involving Nazi officers (acted by grips) arresting a group of men, a passerby actually pulled out his revolver to stop them.

At the same time the story plays like a gripping thriller: a cat-and-mouse game between Gestapo and resistance cell.

The main characters of Open City consist of Giorgio Manfredi, a Resistance leader; Francesco, a printer for an underground newspaper; Pina, his fiancée and organizer of the neighborhood women; Marcello, her activist son, and Don Pietro, a portly priest and committed partisan based on real-life underground hero Don Morosini. In their pursuit are the Gestapo forces of occupied Rome, led by Bergmann and Ingrid, his lackey. The link between the two groups is Marina, Manfredi’s ex-mistress, who is corrupted by the Nazis.

Aldo Fabrizi stars as Don Pietro, Anna Magnani is wonderful Pina. Fabrizi was known as a comic actor and Magnani had started her career in cabaret; together they give the film tremendous warmth and heart.

We may say that the protagonist of the story is Rome itself, as a place, as a people and as a historical entity. Yet, we get glimpsed at the domestic dramas of Pina’s household, which are interrupted when a German convoy arrives to search for Manfredi and Francesco. Francesco is found and taken away screaming Pina’s name, Pina goes running after the truck only to be shot dead. It scarcely matters how many times you watch it, the image of a woman shot in the back as she runs through the street is astonishing in its barbarism. At the point of Pina’s death, the film makes a general shift from domestic comedy to public tragedy.

Roberto Rossellini’s, Rome, Open City was the first film to bring Italian cinema to the attention of an international audience after World War II. It was enthusiastically received in New York and would run there for 21 months after its first showing on 25 February 1946. In both the USA and France and later in Great Britain, it opened up an import market for Italian films, which encouraged other directors to expose their work internationally.




I Am Love (Io sono l’Amore, 2009)

There are many deservedly celebrated films set in Milan, the city where I was born and raised: Vittorio De Sica, Miracolo a Milano (1951), Michelangelo Antonioni, La Notte (1961), Ermanno Olmi, Il Posto (1961), Lucchino Visconti, Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960), Carlo Lizzani, La vita agra (1964), to name some.

Luca Guadagnino’s expansive family epic, I Am Love (Io sono l’Amore, 2009), must be added to this list.

Beautifully shot in Milan, this film has glamour, passion, opulent interiors, a magnificent performance by Tilda Swinton (speaking Italian with a Russian accent) and lots of mouthwatering food.

The film begins with an aerial view of the severe and commanding Stazione Centrale in Milan and pans over snow covered rooftops, streets and parks; the city is enveloped in its characteristic wintry mist. Slowly we are led into the sumptuous, though somewhat cavernous mansion of the Recchi family, hidden within a secluded garden and behind a wall of century old trees.

The opening of the film establishes the prominence of the Recchi dynasty. Cushioned by great wealth and style, well educated, the Recchis occupy their place of privilege effortlessly.

Inside, the mansion is bustling with activity. Emma (Swinton) and a score of house staff are getting the house ready for a birthday celebration. The elderly, formidable patriarch of the family, Edoardo Recchi Sr., an industrialist and the founder of a colossally profitable textile empire, is celebrating his birthday and the clan is going to gather to pay homage.

Emma is the beautiful and stylish wife of Tancredi, Edoardo’s son and heir apparent. She is from Russia and though seemingly assimilated into the moneyed Milanese upper crust, we often see her marooned in this world rather than fully engaged in it. Her accented Italian, her asides in Russian to her son, as if using a secret code, are reminders that she is an outsider and will perhaps never truly be a member of the Recchi clan.

The guests arrive and gather at the dinner table: Edoardo Sr. sits at the head of the table, next to him his eerily flawless, distant and distinctly un-cheerful wife (Allegra!), their son Tancredi, and Tancredi and Emma’s three grown children, Edoardo or Edo, Gianluca and Elisabetta, or Betta; there is also Eva Ugolini, who has come as Edo’s date.

This is no ordinary birthday dinner. A small gesture by Betta, the family artist, skillfully anticipates the momentous changes that are about to take place and creates a distinct sense of unease within the family gathering. Tradition has it that Betta will present the old patriarch with a new drawing. This year instead she gives him a framed photograph, because this is the art form that interests her more these days. Novelty greatly displeases the old man.

A little later, the patriarch makes an unexpected announcement: he will leave the Recchi business in the hands of his son and of his grandson, because, he claims: “It will take two men to replace me.”

From this instant, disorder is unleashed.

On this cold night a stranger appears at the door. It is a young chef named Antonio who has defeated Edo in some kind of race earlier that day and who is going into the restaurant business with him. He has come with a cake; so exceptional that Edo calls his mother over to meet him. There is an invisible, but intense glimmer of attraction between Antonio and Emma. Emma tastes Antonio’s food; she falls for its creator; the two become lovers.

Clandestine visits to San Remo and to Antonio’s vegetable garden follow. A story that began in the snow, in muted hues, within the confines of the family gloomy compound where the Recchis have displaced their emotional lives for the sake of maintaining their wealth, moves into the glowing sunshine of the Riviera, with its new pallet of colors and warmth that mirror the movie’s emotional trajectory.

The lonely protagonist, aptly named after Flaubert’s forlorn heroine, Emma Bovary, finds inspiration as she fervently sympathizes and identifies in her child’s liberation: Betta has fallen in love with a woman while at art school in London. But happiness in short lived for Emma: her love affair with Antonio is discovered; things fall apart.

Emma’s life changing journey takes shape against the backdrop of a changing social world. The textile industry is becoming globalized, and Emma’s husband and son do not see eye to eye as to how they should progress: one wants to sell out to international investors, the other wants to keep the business in the family.

Watching Guadagnino’s film I could not help but think about Antonioni’s portrayal of Italy’s wealthy upper crust during the era of the so called “economic miracle” in films such as La Notte, also set in Milan, and about the psychological stagnancy of its protagonists.

It may also be impossible to see this film without being reminded of Visconti’s portrayal of another family, a working class immigrant family living on the fringes of the “economic miracle,” a family brought to ruin by lust in an ominous Milan in Rocco and His Brothers. The name Tancredi is also a blatant allusion to Visconti’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), yet another saga about an Italian dynasty, about matters of succession, and about the way in which love and lust can breach the walls of class (in The Leopard, Alain Delon pays Salina’s nephew, Tancredi).

I could not help but be enthralled by Emma’s clothes and highly stylized hairdo. There is nothing ostentatious about her wardrobe or hair. Rather, she is tasteful and impeccably put together. Her outward appearance is a kind of armor: perfect, too perfect, in fact.

Her chignon, which unravels with the unfolding of her affair with Antonio, distinctly reminded me of Kim Novak’s chignon in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. A chignon also styled in a meticulous spiral, a hairdo that loses its studied precision as our first clue that perhaps the character sporting it isn’t quite what she seems.

Spiraling, out of control, the off-putting feeling of vertigo that is a key motif in Hitchcock’s film, the famous spiral appears in the promotional poster, recurs a vertiginous aural spiral of Bernard Herrmann’s score. A pulsating score by John Adams also punctuates Emma’s illicit romance, her life spiraling out of control. And as Emma tumbles from grace she ends up free but a rain-soaked, disheveled figure standing in an empty church.

Io sono l’amore. Un esercizio per praticare l’italiano.

We Have a Pope

We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam, 2011)
Directed by Nanni Moretti

The earliest papal conclave I can remember took place in 1978 and ended with the election of Pope John Paul I. A conclave, incidentally, is a meeting of cardinals convened to select one of their own to head the Roman Catholic Church.

Actually, 1978 was the summer of two conclavi: 33 days after his election John Paul I died (it was one of the shortest reigns in papal history) and another election had to be held to select his successor, John Paul II. Thus, I am not sure weather I remember the first, the second conclave or a blend of the two.

Either way, it was an unusual summer.

In Italian we use a curious expression to describe something that happens with extraordinary rarity: “una volta ogni morte di papa” (“once every time a pope dies”). Popes, it seems, usually enjoy a long life. In the English language, on the other hand, we don’t think so much about popes but, rather, gaze at the sky and use the expression “once in blue moon.” A telling difference, I think.

In the summer of 1978, however, something that should befall with great infrequency ended up happening twice.

In Italy, the election of a pope, whether or not you are a practicing catholic, is an event that captures people’s attention. And in that remote, almost unfathomable, pre-Berlusconi era (when all TV channels were State run), every minute of programming was devoted to nonagenarian cardinals, solemn Vatican spokesmen and reporters speaking in hush tones. How things have changed!

I remember the spectacle: St. Peter’s Square packed with the faithful, cardinals in their elaborate regalia heading to the Sistine Chapel. Most of all, I remember the famous “fumate” in the skies above the Vatican. Paper ballots, to add to the secrecy and mystery of the proceedings, are burnt during each election at the end of a vote and the color of the smoke signals the results to the people assembled in St Peter’s Square: black smoke indicates that the ballot did not result in an election, while white smoke that a new pope has been chosen.

Looking back, life outside the Vatican seemed to be in a state of gripped suspension; I can only imagine, however, the politicking and the lobbying among cardinals behind the scenes vying for the position. But not in Moretti’s film. In the opening sequences we can hear the thoughts of nearly every candidate: “Not me, Lord, please!” Being a Pope, it turns out, is a job that no one in his right mind would want.

Habemus papam” (“we have a Pope”) is the Latin phrase traditionally used to announce the election of a pontiff. In this case, as soon as an unknown cardinal named Melville (played by the great Michel Piccoli) is handed the reign of the Roman Catholic Church, he actually does lose his mind and starts yelling: “I can’t do this!”

Moretti, who co-stars as Bruzzi, a renowned psychiatrist (and an atheist), is summoned to treat what is euphemistically referred to as the new pope’s “psychological sinusitis.” Trying to determine the cause of Melville’ panic attack, the eminent shrink makes little headway. Their first (and only) session is both bizarre and comical: the shrink is not to know the pope’s identity, their meeting is observed by all members of the conclave and nearly every topic one would imagine to be the centerpiece of this session (dreams, sex, family, unfulfilled fantasies) is set off limits by the Vatican spokesman.

To better treat the reluctant pope it is decided that he should leave the Vatican and seek treatment with Bruzzi’s ex-wife, also a renowned shrink—who, like everyone else outside the conclave, ignores that Melville is the newly elected pontiff. During this clandestine outing, Melville runs away from his security detail and starts wandering the streets of Rome, chasing his long-held dream of playing Chekhov in repertory theatre and mingling with contemporary, ordinary Romans of all races and ages (seemingly, for the first time in years).

Meanwhile in the Vatican, while the Church’s spokesman works overtime to avert a scandal, several out-of-town cardinals are also itching to get into Rome in order to check out an exhibition and various tourist spots, while Moretti/Bruzzi, himself a tourist in a strange land, wants to go home to see his children. Everybody is told to stay put.

All of the witnesses to the new pope’s identity are to be cloistered inside the Vatican where we are treated to moments in the ordinary life of its denizens: some cardinals playing cards with the psychiatrist, another on his exercise bike, next door yet another cardinal puffing on a cigarette, in a hall, Swiss guards shining their gear. Later, in an attempt to kill time, Moretti/Bruzzi organizes an impromptu volleyball tournament – these scenes are hilarious.

Down darkened corridors and beyond closed doors, with no cellphones or contact with the outside world, life moves at a distinctly different pace: these are the scenes that most remind me of the summer of 1978, of an era yet untouched by the adrenaline filled extremes of the Berlusconi years and by his follies. For these sweet, sad, funny and poignant moments of reprieve, I am grateful to Moretti.

Moretti’s film tends a benign portrait of the Church’s highest echelons and never mentions the sex-abuse scandals, or any of the other pressing hot button issues that have plagued the Catholic Church in recent decades. Universally known in Italy as a leftist and a scourge of the Italian establishment, Moretti disappointed a lot of his fans and was criticized for his reluctance to stage a frontal and fierce attack on the Catholic Church.

While I have always been a fan Moretti’s activism and intense political satire, I found myself liking his nuanced approach in this film; Melville, a man burdened by expectations and desperate to run away, does remind us, in the end, of the array of issues faced by this powerful institution and why the just guidance by a sensible leader is so critical. In today’s world, with the challenges facing our society, what kind of man should be a pope is a question worth asking.

Nanni Moretti is a veteran of the Italian screen. Other great films: Dear Diary, 1993; The Son’s Room, 2001.

Mid-August Lunch

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto, 2008)
Written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio

Ferragosto…I wouldn’t be caught dead in an Italian city!

Ferragosto, August 15th, is the height of the midsummer vacation season. It is a purely Italian phenomenon, one that I have never quite experienced anywhere else in the world. It is the time of the year when our beautiful, vibrant cities become ghost towns; you cannot get a decent meal (or buy food, for that matter), see a movie, find a doctor…

As Italians eagerly hustle to leave their cities for summer adventures on the shores or in cooler, picturesque, sometimes exotic locales, what are the casualties of this stampede?

Judging from the string of public announcements that flood the airways before the exodus, it is often pets that, sadly, end up ditched by unscrupulous owners. But what happens to the elderly? Who cares for them if they are too weak, unwell (or of limited means) to travel and join in the frolicking? This is the premise Mid-August Lunch by Gianni De Gregorio (in his directorial debut; De Gregorio is also the author of the screenplay and stars in the film).

It is hard to imagine that De Gregorio’s previous project was to write the script to Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, a very different, painfully honest and extremely graphic film about organized crime’s terrible hold on Naples and the Italian South.

De Gregorio, the only cast member under eighty, plays an unemployed, cash strapped Roman bachelor, whose full time occupation is to tend to every need of his 90 year old widowed mother, Valeria (beautifully played by Valeria De Franciscis).

On the fateful eve of Ferragosto, his building manager, Luigi, shows up unannounced to remind Gianni of his outstanding bills and to offer him a deal. Luigi will expunge some of these debts in exchange for Gianni looking after his elderly mother, Marina. A few hours later Luigi shows up to drop off his mamma and brings along an even older zia (aunt), Maria; we see him minutes later happily taking off in a convertible with a much younger fling. The gang is soon joined by the mamma of Gianni’s cardiologist, Grazia, also alone for Ferragosto while her son is on call.

After some initial bickering, the four nonagenarians adjust to their novel cohabitation and negotiate personalities, diets and even make it through an escape by Marina to a local trattoria (she is in the mood for romance!). Add to the mix of these unusual circumstances lots of great food, wine and cigarettes (mostly consumed by Gianni) and tranquillizers (slipped by Gianni into Chamomile tea when he has had enough of the old ladies and needs a break) and you get a film of rare humanity that defies conventions and looks at the elderly with dignity and humor. Away from their respective biological families on a zany sleepover, this most unlikely group of women starts to bond, to reminisce about the past and finds hours of happiness.

The performance of the female roles (all non professional actors) is phenomenal! Watch this film if you have a chance. Right now it is streaming on Netflix.

Un esercizio per praticare il vostro italiano