Reviews of Love in the City
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There’s not a great deal of love involved in the six snatches of Roman life. The real connecting thread is the condition of women (it’s ironic, but a fact of Italian cinema in the fifties, that there are a plethora of subjective female points of view and never a woman behind a camera). The elaborate framing conceit presents the film literally as a magazine, ‘Il Spettatore’, with a table of contents and a promise of further issues (according to the sleeve notes these had actually been planned, but were shelved due to the relative failure of this first instalment). There’s also a brief uncredited introductory series of snippets of casual conversations, which has surprising understated charm.
The episodes proper begin with two sets of interview-enquiries; one, by Lizzani, concerned with prostitutes; the second, by Antonioni, with attempted suicide. Lizzani’s does carry a certain conviction – it’s possible to believe that these girls are really who they claim to be, and even that the interviews are semi-spontaneous, if only because they give away so little. Too much explanation is left to the voice-over and its worthy sentiments, and in the end you don’t feel that you’ve got further than a very token interest in the issue, but there’s a feel for place and for the sheer weight of time and endless aimless walking around which comes through the predictable text. Antonioni opts for inviting a certain number of failed suicides to re-enact their stories for the camera: a large group of people, men and women, are seen entering the studio, but all the stories he retains are those of women; all linked to failed love-affairs, all notable – despite being in this case carefully rehearsed, naturally – for the way the subjects refuse the upbeat ending that the director gently attempts to push them towards. The best he can obtain is a cautious admission from one that she’s now glad she was rescued, but she put more spontaneous feeling into describing how little she appreciated it at the time. Others make no bones about intending to try again. If the real procedure was what Antonioni says it was, it was an astonishingly cruel method of film-making; and in any case, Neo-realism doesn’t really suit Antonioni.
Then comes Dino Risi’s contribution, straightforward observation/reconstruction of an afternoon in a popular dance-hall. Nothing dramatic happens, it’s a bunch of affectionate little character sketches to a background of exuberant twisting and awkward slows; but it has a charm out of proportion to its substance.
Then come the two most important episodes. Fellini, alone among these directors, is obviously in revolt against the constraints of neo-realism from the start. An investigator there may be – but he is not Fellini, he’s a character in a fiction; and as soon as he penetrates into the labyrinthine building where the marriage agency he’s nominally inquiring into is supposed to be situated, we’re thrown into a weird world where the real is tweaked by montage and serpentine camera movement into something disturbing and faintly nightmarish. When summoned to explain his presence in the agency, he improvises an outrageous horror-cliché and sees it accepted without a murmur by the manager: clearly, this world belongs to genre: perhaps, the situation which called forth this agency is so horrific that only fantasy is adequate to describe it! With the arrival of the girl the movement slips into the other direction; her reaction to his horror-story is to translate it into human terms, a problem to be dealt with and some genuine sympathy – but she too is living in a genre-world of Harlequin romances, and where can realism find a space, the film suggests, when nobody lives their life realistically? Fellini is already a step elsewhere.
The following ‘Story of Caterina’, on the other hand, returns to neo-realism’s idealistic beginnings as if the idea was fresh-minted. We are told in advance that the story is true, that Caterina is Caterina herself, reproducing her story with her own baby in her own environment. That prior information, serves as a continuous, if shaky, reassurance to the audience – it has the function of the tragic destiny in reverse, we know that both she and her baby will survive since here they are, now, in front of us. The camera keeps just a little discreet distance, enough to allow this girl to lead her own life, but always close enough to share her small gestures and appreciate the slightest changes in her emotions: discouragement, frustration, fear, and – the only example in the film – love. Here, at last, there is ’l’amore in città’, but almost understated, just observed and reported on. The observer and reporter is Zavattini himself, in collaboration with one Francesco Maselli, in one of only three films he ever made in all his long career as screenwriter and theorist and polyvalent influence on the medium. The mind behind neo-realism here shows that ten years on, when everyone serious had already given it up for dead, it could still work as it had in its heyday.
The last contributor is Alberto Lattuada (RIP), who has also given up on neo-realism and uses a number of important comic actors to create his patchwork of respectable bourgeois girls strutting their stuff in the fashionable streets and respectable bourgeois men gawping, all set to a satirically bouncy soundtrack. The comedy turns a little uncomfortable when the gawping develops into following, and finally it becomes outright stalking, silly but menacing. Underneath the mocking, then, Lattuada does have something to say, but it’s light in comparison with the previous two, and his satire suffers from the immediate contrast with Zavattini’s tenderness. Top spot: Zavattini/Maselli. Bottom spot: Antonioni