Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 16, 2012 9:33 pm 
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A time capsule from Italy, 1953

Following a showing of an artful new horror film about teenage girls called The Moth Diaries released in New York in April, and a mind-bogglingly crude, yet unforgettable Japanese cult horror/actioner version of the theme of The Hunger Games from 2000, Battle Royale, the San Francisco Film Society's New People building Cinema is presenting the Italian 1953 omnibus collection in black and white, L'amore in città , or "Love in the City." This is a film that has existed on DVD in Italian and English editions for some time (the Italian one superior) but is not seen often on the big screen. It was carried out under the general supervision of the prolific writer (and important collaborator with De Sica) Cesare Zavattini. His concept was to do a kind of "filmed magazine," which would be a "new type of cinema" with the neorealist aim of using people playing characters that paralleled their own experience. But the collection is a soft, yet in a way also colder, version of Italian neorealism, which was so potent a style right after the war, but by the early Fifties was giving way to more mixed styles. De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1951) looks at the poor with a more humorous, satirical, and sentimental eye. A friend of my father's proclaimed it at the time "Chaplin with a Tuscan accent." The same director's magnificant Umberto D, out in 1952, is often cited as the end of neorealism. So Love in the City is sort of neorealism after the fact. There's a certain focus on the poor and unfortunate, a use of non-actors, but the passion, the deep involvement, of films like Bitter Rice, Rome, Open City, or Bicycle Thieves isn't there. The eye is more documentary, less passionate.

Though there are segments by Antonioni and Fellini, you wouldn't necessarily recognize them, despite a recurrent shot of people dwarfed by a blank wall in Antonioni's film and the compelling way Fellini's bravura command of the medium comes out in a long tracking shot that follows a man through a Kafkaesque (with a Tuscan accent) bureaucratic labyrinth. The opener, "Amore che si paga" or "Love for Money" directed by Carlo Lizani and written by Zavattini, who penned every segment except the one by Fellini, is a series of short interviews with prostitutes, or women playing prostitutes, with an unseen questioner in the background, and it sets a sort of drab, downbeat tone. In a later segment, a woman who abandoned her own child was properted to be acting out a filmed version of her own experience. (This isn't necessarily a good idea: nothing is harder than playing oneself, though the great Italian neorealist films use non-actors brilliantly -- in spite of themselves.)

Antonioni's segment (again written by Zavattini, remember) is also bleak, being a series of stories by women about how for various reasons -- involvement with men, or the failure to connect -- they were led to commit a "Tentato suicidio," a "Suicide Attempt." The speakers are supposedly the actual women. The immersion that occurs in the great neorealist films does not occur. Perhaps their heart was not really in it, after the fact. Or the directors were not really at home with the material. Antonioni was moving in a different direction. He was soon to immerse himself in much more of a bourgeois psychological drama in his somewhat odd, transitional Le amiche (from a Cesare Pavese novel) and then Il grido, with its strong sense of emotional alienation, and then to create the "new cinematic language" celebrated at Cannes in his masterpiece, L'Avventura. So close, and yet we aren't there.

Dino Risi's "Paradiso per tre ore" (Three Hours of Heaven) is much more fun, but not a story, just a cameraman shooting in a dance hall, with some people watching, and a mother screening the men who ask her daughter to dance. The jaunty cacophony of images is like great Fifties, Sixties, or Seventies street photography, like the images of William Klein. Klein's own films are more interesting visuallly than this, but Risi achieves a slice-of-life energy here.

Federico Fellini's "Agenzia matrimoniale" (Marriage Agency), which he made up the story for, is more interesting, as one might expect since this is just after The White Sheik and I Vitelloni and just before La Strada. A journalist wants to investigate a commercial office that boasts that it gets hundreds of people hitched up all the time. Thus comes the fascinating search through the bowels of the endless building for the office, which is more fun than the destination itself. Felllini creates this dreamlike, half-fantastic meandering, with its little group of girls who stand and watch and then turn up again later. At the end of it the journalist finds a sad young woman so desperate because of her impoverished, orphaned origins, that she's willing to marry a man who is completely abnormal and strange. Again the camera follows them in a bravura flow, as the journalist leads the woman out of the building, talking all the while. The rich but impossibly strange prospective husband is only an invention of the journalist, and he leaves the girl on the street. She could have been played by Giulietta Massina, no doubt.

"La storia di Caterina" (Caterina's Story), longer than the other tales, directed by Francesco Maselli with a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, is about a woman so desperate (that theme again) that she is moved to leave her young child on the steps of a nunnery. She gets caught out, and goes before a tribunal, for this action, which surprised me: but one remembers that nuns can be cruel and judgmental. But Italy has a heart, and she is released. It takes nearly half an hour to tell this story; the 11 minutes or so of the other films wouldn't suffice. But it's also not enough, or there isn't the art or the economy, to take us deep into the plight of the very poor as happens in Ladri di biciclitti (De Sica working with Zavattini and others). The team of De Sica and Zavattini was one of the greatest in the history of Italian cinema: there is no such ideal partnership here.

"Gli italiani si voltano" (Italians Turn Their Heads) by Alberto Lattuada, like "Three Hours of Heaven" is more fun than the others, less heavy on the theme of poverty and female desperation, and more just a visual record, a collective event of people in a group -- this time, crowds of Italian men staring at women in the street, the worship of women with a hint of exploitation. Another time capsule, another cultural document, another half-humorous look at the sexes in Italy, but this time more slight in content than the earlier one. This could be and is a piece of many Italian films of the South from the Fifties (if not now), Divorce Italian Style, for example.

A writer about this collection, John White of DVD Fix, called it "a curates egg," meaning a thing that's got one or two points, but has something wrong with it. Of course one can say that about most film anthologies, but L'amore in città is lackluster when compared to a collection like the 1960 Boccaccio '70 (even if it's not a complete success either). Boccaccio '70 has De Sica, Fellini, Monicelli and Visconti and a glittering cast including Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren and Romy Schneider. The directors are allowed to go their own way; they're given enough time to breathe. They wrote their own stuff, but writers of the caliber of Italo Calviino and Goffredo Parise also lent them a hand. The Fellini part influenced Woody Allen in New York Stories and was probably at the back of his mind when he made To Rome with Love. Or one might contrast story collections all by the same master, such as Pasolini's uneven but nonetheless quite wonderful series of adaptations of three of the world's greatest story collections, The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, and The Decameron. Or Max Orphuls' sophisticated and unified 1950 snake-tangle of amorous affairs La Ronde, adapted from Arthur Schnitzer's play. In Love in the City -- whose title, by the way, isn't really right, because love has little to do with it, and this signals this films's power to disappoint (how dare they say Italian "love" is so sad and miserable in any "city"!) -- Zavattini had a notion, and he ran with it, but "film magazine" isn't a very coherent idea. Italy produced cinematic greatness in the Fifties and Sixties, but this is just a short cryptic postcard from that wonderful time.

A presentation of the San Francisco Film Society Cinema, August 17–23m 2012:

Showtimes 2:00, 4:15, 6:30, 8:45. (No 6:30 show Monday August 20.)

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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