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66th Venice Film Festival: An Italian New Wave

Above: La Ragazza in vetrina (Luciano Emmer, 1961).

Viaggio di nozze (Giulo Questi, 1961)
Il Passo
(Giulo Questi, 1964)i

These two rare shorts by Giulio Questi were both part of episode films, a common production style of the Italian 1960s. Viaggio di nozze (Honeymoon) was part of Le italiane e l’amore (Italian girls and Love), a multi-director film based on the book “Le italiane si confessano” (Italian Girls Confess), a collection of authentic letters and notes by Italian young women, which became a film under the direction of Cesare Zavattini.

During a ship trip from Naples to Palermo, third class passengers wake up hearing cries and shouts from the a couple next door: a bride has just confessed to her husband that she is not a virgin. The film then follows the torture and pain the young bride has to endure from a husband who displays the whole range of prejudices and insults that could be said typical of traditional machismo. Questi’s style, both elegant and distanced (distancié) is once again based on a sophisticated use of extreme close up framing and medium shot composition. The drama unfolds in the short duration of the standard 11 minutes required of all episode films, but time expands and feelings get deeper in a way that one can only call typically modern.

Il Passo belongs to the episode film Amori pericolosi (Dangerous Love) together with films by Carlo Lizzani and Alfredo Giannetti. Set in the early 1910s, the film tells of an army official tired of his wife, who is paralyzed from the legs down, decides to let his lover, a chambermaid, kill the woman with poison. But the wife does not die immediately, and while the chambermaid is enjoying her new role in the house, the wife shoots her and badly hurts the maid's leg. The epilogue shows the officer once again a prisoner of a handicapped wife…

This “tale of cruelty” (if one could so translate the conte cruel as defined by 19th writer Charles Nodiermi) evokes, even if in a dreamlike black and white, the best of Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. Both with surrealistic frenzy (Questi himself quoted Cocteau among his influences) and cool black humour, with his usual sense of composition and rhythm, Questi can be said a pop artist, a director capable of mixing refinement with popular tale, reflection in horror.

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La Ragazza in vetrina [The Girl in the Window] (Luciano Emmer, 1961)

Luciano Emmer became famous in Italy for his short documentaries about artists and painters, and his career as a feature director remained rather modest. One of his favourites has always been this The Girl in the Window, which Italian critics often tend to brand as part of an “Italian New Wave.” The story tells of an Italian immigrant going to Belgium to become a miner, a very common social situation of the 50s and 60s after Italy and Belgium had signed an agreement, called “Coal for miners” (obtaining coal by furnishing the miners). Short after he has arrived, Vincenzo goes to work in the deepest pit, under the guidance of Federico, a more experienced miner. Following a terrible accident in the mine, Vincenzo decides to return to Italy, but Federico convinces him to go on a week end to Amsterdam before leaving. Federico has a friendly relationship with Corrie, one of the “girls in windows” of the red lights part of Amsterdam, and this is where Vincenzo meets Helse. Throughout the weekend, the four characters share sentimental and cultural tensions and contradictions, Vincenzo being at the same time attracted to Helse but also firmly convinced he should go back home. In the end, he decides to remain and goes down to the pit again.

The film is a rare example of realistic approach to the question of Italian immigration in Europe (while immigration to the US had been a frequent theme), very seldom told in Italian cinema. At the time it was released, the film suffered heavy cuts from the governmental censorship, in scenes and dialogs. The print showed in Venice had to be reconstructed using the French version that had remained uncensored. The censors of the time could not admit the representation of sexual attraction between the miner and the prostitute (though the film remains very self-conscious and modest) and parts of the dialog where the harsh reality of immigration is expressed without any propagandistic enthusiasm. Strange enough, the four main characters are all played by French actors: Martina Vlady as Helse, Bernard Fresson as Vincenzo, Magali Noel as Corrie (remember the French cabaret showgirl in La dolce vita?) and Lino Ventura as Federico, an actor of Italian origins who was famous for his tough guy roles. If the possibility of an Italian New Wave is to be discussed about Emmer, this casting would create a doubt. But at the same time, the use of real locations and the insertion of the actors in the real “sets” (and in particular cafés and popular weekend resorts), as well as the uncompromised description of the Amsterdam “windows”, do make one feel that Emmer wanted to escape from the neo-realist tradition and go deeper into “free cinema”. The result is probably more about a neo-naturalism than about Truffaut or Godard, but nevertheless, the intensity of the feelings, of sexual attraction, of social violence and sentimental contradictions give the film a very specific place in the Italian cinema of the time.

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La nave delle donne maledette [The Ship of Lost Women]– (Raffaello Matarazzo, 1954)

Matarazzo’s cinema has been for more than 40 years now one of the most interesting cases in the history of cinephilia and film history. A very popular author of beautiful melodramas, and the target of leftist critics in Italy, Matarazzo was nevertheless understood and defended by part of the French critique, the group of surrealism linked critics of the periodical Présence du cinéma (and also of Positif) who were the first, in the 60s to understand Matarazzo as a great author. The (re)discovery of Matarazzo in Italy has been the result of French enthusiasm, in particular from Jacques Lourcelles, whose Cinema Dictionary gives brilliant analysis of Matarazzo’s films.

Telling the story of La nave delle donne maledette, a jewel of film maudit, is already an indication of Matarazzo flamboyant use of cinema. In Spain in the 17th century the daughter of a heavily in debt noble gentleman is celebrating her marriage to a rich man who could save the family. During the party, a policeman arrives who accuses the bride of having killed a newly born illegitimate baby. In order to save the family’s name and fortune, the bride and her father put pressure on the young cousin of the bride who lives out of their charity to take the blame and let herself being accused.  Though the bride and her father had assured her of a light sentence, the poor girl is sentenced to forced labour in the New World. The bride and her husband embark on the same ship that will take the cousin and a large group of unfortunate women to a life of misery.  When the aristocratic bride manages to have her cousin whipped for rebellion, the women prisoners start a violent mutiny, gaining most of the sailors to their cause, shouting “We are free” and exposing both their will of freedom… and their attractive bodies. When the women and their men partisans have won the ship and harshly punished the evil aristocrats, a frenzy of dance, sex and alcohol take possession of the ship. Indifferent to the reality of navigation, unable to fight a terrible tempest, the passengers of the ship are crushed by lightning and perish in an apocalyptic fire, while the girl and the lawyer escape in a lifeboat…

The tempest is definitely the main motive of the film: the tempest of feelings and impulses, the tempest in social relationships, the sexual tempest, the tempest of the desire to be free and obey no law, either social or ethical.  The final tempest at sea and the “wrath of God” explosions and fire put an end to a rebellion that was started by women. Women as bearers of a form of liberation that will happen many years later, under other forms, in European society. A liberation that manages to combine freedom in life (through free sexuality) and social revenge. Something like a Commune that would be crushed by “normal” politics, or something of an utopia that would be punished by a transcendent judgment. In fact, the film offers, in the implacable progression of its mise-en-scène, more than one political metaphor, and more than one vision of the past and the future. The refined precision of the description of how the aristocrats and the bourgeois mix sentimental and social blackmail to protect their interests, the lyrical scenes of the mutiny and the violence in the use of colors make the film a kind of cinematic prophecy.

Needless to say, the film suffered heavy cuts from the Italian censors of the time, mainly for its direct description of sexual attraction (of all kinds) and the naked breasts of the rebellious “bad women”. The only intact print that had survived was once again the French version, and it was here in Venice that the film could finally be seen in its full Gevacolor version, thanks to digital restoration.

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