Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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A venerable scriptwriter talks about Italian classics

It's a quick run-through of Italian "Neorealist" films and their successors mouthed by the elderly, shambling Carlo Lizzani (he was 91, and died a month after this film came out), opening a window or pushing buttons on a computer to start brief clips of Forties Italian classics, the movies that broke with what Italians call the "White Telephone" (Telefoni Bianchi) era and entering a raw populist cinema full of grim postwar reality and using non-actors with dubbed voices. If you know anything about movie history and have seen some of the classics of this critical ten-year postwar period in Italian cinema, Sciuscià, Ladri di biciclette, Rome, Open City, Paisà, for instance, or Umberto D., Lizzani's rambling review and the glimpses he provides will be tremendously moving. They may not add much to your fund of knowledge, despite cameos from celebrities like Umberto Eco, Bernardo Bertolucci, equally venerable cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, Martin Scorsese -- or even Enzo Staiola, the now 76-year-old man who played the sad little boy inThe Bicycle Thief, talking about how Vittorio De Sica got him to cry. But there are some fascinating hints, as when he points to Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, The Flowers of Saint Francis (note: the Italian title is Francesco, giullare di Dio/Francis, God's Jester) and Europa '51 and says "Maybe these films prepared the way for directors like Fellini and Antonioni."

American reviewers of this little film have complimented Lizzani, the narrator, on his casualness, or what the Voice critic calls his "genial goofiness." His somewhat slurred speech and his habit of reading long passages from a manuscript booklet sitting next to a big dog on a leather couch, do not always make for the clearest impression of what he's getting at. (This film is designed to accompany a 232-page book published by Castelvecchi.) Nor do his remarks counteract the feeling that today's young Italian filmmakers have lost touch with the inspiration and energy of the renaissance of Italian film in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. We can see how the earthy, passionate truthfulness of Neorealismo, of films made in the street with real people and showing hard truths, could lead naturally into the populist, Chaplinesque fantasy of De Sica/Zavattini's Miracle in Milan and into Rossellini's "Neorealism of the soul" (the words of French film guru André Bazin, cited by Lizzani), and then to the great individualists, Fellini, Antonioni, and Visconti. And there are still clearly some great Italian directors -- Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone come to mind; a recent list of the best working Italians includes Marco Bellocchio, Bertolucci (disabled but still working), the Taviani brothers, and Daniele Luchetti, among others. But the question is, What happened? Why aren't Italian movies exciting to cinephiles the world over the way they once were?

There are hints of an answer here. As Lizzani points out, the forces of fascism never completely died out, and conservatives strenuously objected to the Neorealist films' displays of Italy's "dirty linen" to the whole world and wanted to repress them. Despite the boom in the arts and design in Italy in the Fifties, there seems to have been a lingering sense of exhaustion in the Italian arts -- as if the country's immense cultural heritage were a painful burden for artists, including filmmakers, to bear. Fellini, Antonioni, and Visconti excelled at expressing a sense of decadence and world-weariness; theirs was already, pace John Barth, a kind of cinema of exhaustion.

And this film, going back furher, shows newsreel footage of what Lizzani calls the "famous unitarian demonstration in the Piazza del Popolo" of 1949, when cinema artists and workers, including De Sica and Anna Magnani, congregated en masse to demand "more protection from outside competition for a cinema that, despite its vivacity, was being suffocated by an invasion of foreign films." Something the French protected themselves from more successfully, it still would appear. This is a resonant point, because if one looks at Italian culture in the decades since, the dominance of Hollywood movies, American bestsellers, and Italian TV based on the worst of its US counterpart is all too evident -- suggesting that the protection called for by the industry at that key 1949 demonstration truly was needed, and never quite fully arrived. Did conservative forces uninterested in a vigorous popular cinema prevail?

But this issue, despite the brief reference, is clearly beyond the scope of Bozzachi and Lizzani's documentary. The aim is to point to the power of the original postwar decade of Neorealist Italian cinema and try to show how revolutionary it was, and then to point out how it gradually rigidified and faded, while yet making way for different kinds of films that still were vigorous and still partook of strains of the Neorealist spirit for several decades. Pasolni's exotic mid-Seventies story-collection films, which make original use of non-actors, are a striking example; but he is barely mentioned.

Despite the seeming casualness in the way famous still-living figures of Italian cinema history wander in as Lizzani strolls around the small, cozy cinema museum that is this film's center of operations, and the big dog that Lizzani occasionally tells to shut up, much of the time Lizzani's rambles actually sound rather like well-rehearsed lectures in a film class. The only difference is that he's not just an academic but a "sceneggiatore" who wrote some of the important films he talks about -- notably Germany Year Zero, Bitter Rice, and his 1954 adaptation of Vasco Pratolini's important novel Chronicle of Poor Lovers -- though that is, of course, an important difference.

This film deals with an enormously important moment in the history of cinema, and we get a rapid, casual tour of it here. Bozzachi, the director, has no other directorial credits and seems just to have made a movie out of what Lizzani provided. Lizzani, who knew a lot about a key period of Italian cinema, and knew it first hand, could still have benefited from a stronger collaborator. All in all, We Weren't Just Bicycle Thieves is an interesting, somewhat strange artifact, valuable for being in the voice of some of the original makers of the classics it's about, but a little bit sketchy compared to a good film lecture. Some of Lizzani's statements may also go over our heads. Such is his remark (with a film clip) that the film Le ragazze di Piazza di Spagna/Three Girls from Rome (1952) was directed by Luciano Emmer. He and his writer Sergio Amidei, Lizzani says, established new "rules and codes" with this film that were to be a great influence on future "costume comedies." Who was Luciano Emmer? What were those "costume comedies"?

We could have also used a bit of fuller perspective, on the way out. What direction did Italian filmmaking take in the Sixties and Seventies, and what did it then owe to Neorealism? What about the great Fifties and early Sixties Italian film comedies, and how did they grow out of Neorealism? For answers to these questions, read some books, or take some courses in film history.

Non eravamo solo... Ladri di biciclette - Il neorealismo/Neorealism: We Weren't Just Bicycle Thieves, 73 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2013; it also showed May 2014 at Planete+ Doc Film Festival in Poland. US theatrical release 1 Oct. NYC (IFC Center); also showing Nov. at Pasadena Playhouse. Watched at home for this review on a screener provided by the US publicists. The accompanying book by Lizzani, author of six books, is available in Italy with two DVD's.

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