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66th Venice Film Festival: Ghosts in Venice

Above: La Nave delle donne maledette (1953)

Heat and humidity, followed by wind and tempest, and the still abundant crowds of tourists make Venice Lido just as usual. With an exception: the Palace (and one should say the “old Palace,” since a new one should open in 2011) and the spaces around it are still just a huge construction site. I should say two spaces. One is the construction site of the future Palace, a piece of bare land surrounded by threatening metal barriers. Posters say: “Opening in 2011, on the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, 1861-2011." This is how you learn some history.

The first person to meet is Italian Cinematheque director (and curator of the retrospective) Sergio Toffetti, always passionate and competent, ready to tell stories and anecdotes, to give precious details and rich insights. In his view, the second part of the Venice Film Festival’s retrospective program called “Questi fantasi” (These Ghosts) is based on his analysis of Italian cinema history and critic.  To him, the history of Italian cinema is still to be made. Film critics and film historians concentrate mainly on ideological matters and/or on academic angles, and this has not yet allowed historians to study (as “cultural studies”) Italian cinema as part of Italian history. Sergio Toffetti half joking points out that Italy “does not have a Jim Hoberman” yet. The aim of the “Questi fantasmi” project should therefore be to be an incentive to this type of approach through the best possible method: screening films that represent the deeper movements of cinema inside the Italian society. The project becomes also an occasion to discover or rediscover important films which carrier has been often created by film critics without been yet inserted into a vaster landscape of Italian cinema history.

The program is made of many excellent restorations and new prints of underestimated or long “disappeared” films, some of them having been shown at Bologna’s “Cinema ritrovato” and some totally unknown to non-Italian audience and historians.

One of the must sees of the program is certainly the color print (without cuts) of Matazarro’s La Nave delle donne maledette (1953). The film was made a sort a legend (at the time, around) by the surrealism group of writers of French cinema monthlies Positif and Présence du cinéma. It has mainly circulated in a black and white (and heavily censored) print.  The restoration made by the Italian Cinematheque in Rome is based on the French version of the film.

The lineup for the retrospective program can be found here.

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Le Ore nude [The Naked Hours] (Marco Vicario, 1964)

Adapted from a short novel by Alberto Moravia, Vicario’s drama is a demonstration that some formulas of cinema nuovo are already well spread as proofs of buon gusto: an Antonionian look and rhythm (and some even say a touch of Resnais). Ingredients for a cinema that wishes to stick to a precise part of Italian literature and cinema…but ingredients anyway. The story unfolds around a young woman (played by young star Rossana Podestà), whose relationship with her husband is marked by the inevitable “alienation.” While having a holiday at her summer house at the sea in Tuscan Capalbio (which since became a refuge for Italian leftist politicians and intellectuals), the woman meets a young student (played by Keir Dullea, just out of David and Lisa). She tries to get closer to her husband, a man sick of his self-hatred and cynicism. As she has finally decided to set a meeting with her lover and tell everything to her husband, a corpse is found on the beach where husband and wife are waiting for the young man: the student has drowned.

The narration uses a “Resnais ingredient” in the way it evokes the relationship between the woman and the young man through flashbacks during the present time of her semi-conflict with her husband. Flashes of memory, shifts of time and places occur dreamlike while the woman tries to get closer to her husband. An interesting example of how “arty” cinema has early integrated the innovative forms of the time, turning them into formulas and solutions. The result is unfortunately a dull and little inspired piece, where influence is turned into tics.

More than a convincing film, Le Ore nude is nevertheless a precious document of “arty” cinema of the 60s, and of the capacity of Italian film industry to integrate new codes in order to seduce a well precise part of the public. In other terms, everything is in the “look”.

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I girovaghi [The Errands] (Hugo Fregonese, 1956)

In 1956, Hugo Fregonese is chosen to shoot a script adapted from the novel “Cardello” by Luigi Capuana. Italian cinema is booming, many B-movie directors are asked to join Italian projects, mainly for genre films, but also for more “noble” dramas and comedies. In the case of I Girovaghi, it could be possible to imagine some kind of  recuperation of the success of Fellini’s La Strada. Scriptwriters (among whom many excellent writers), production personnel and film technicians are known for the quality of their work?, and Italy itself and the Cinecittà studios provide sets and locations, whatever the script may be. The producers choose Fregonese for his reputation (in the B-movie category), and Peter Ustinov is chosen for the main part: Ustinov is very often in Italy and a favorite of the Italian public for his parts in Italian comedies and noir. Fregonese’s input is entirely in the mise-en-scène: script, dialogs, casting and budget have all been decided before his arrival, and he would not change anything.

The film is shot in real locations in the Sicily of the 50s, still relatively similar to what it was at the beginning of the 20th century. The beauty of Ferraniacolor in the restoration of the Italian Cinematheque (based on a German print, the film having circulated in Germany for the audience of Italian migrant workers) creates immediate appeal. Not at all what happened at the time when the film was released: it attracted very little attention, and was circulated as another B-movie, a colorful melodrama among others. The film was then forgotten.

The film tells of a master puppeteer (Ustinov) traveling through Sicily to tell the stories of Roland and the Paladins with their big size puppets dressed in medieval fashion. In one of the villages where they stop to play, they adopt a boy orphan (Cardello) who whishes to escape the terrible fate of going to the seminar and becoming a priest. The puppeteer and his wife (Carla Del Poggio) have no children, and the man treats the woman as a servant. On their way, they meet a “magician,” a fake German Doktor who sells his magic thanks to the sexy dances of a fake Spanish ballerina. The puppet show is defeated by the sexy attraction, and the puppeteer manages to steal the ballerina from the magician. His passion for the evil woman leads the family to the verge of catastrophe. The final blow comes when the puppet show is once again defeated by the magician who brings to Sicily a new attraction called “cinema” and shows Chaplin’s shorts…

This melancholic melodrama (in the terms of film historian Tullio Kezich) tells of a world about to disappear, where the old popular arts and the culture of poetry and storytelling give way to “show”: the erotic dances of a fake ballerina, and the burlesque of American cinema. Fregonese’s use of Sicilian landscapes and locations is an amazing example of his art: realism and narration mix in the most fluid way, making the Sicily of the time both present and painting like. Extras and smaller parts are choreographed with precision and strength, giving their presence the more global part of a chorus, commenting the action, but also becoming the decisive motor of the story: they are those who determine the main characters’ place in the rural Sicilian society, those who make or unmake success, those who accept or reject the different types of spectacle that are proposed to them. Easily seduced but definitely active, the people of these Sicilian villages and small towns are in Fregonese’s scenes the force that builds the destinies of the individuals.

Cinematheque director Sergio Toffetti points out the theme of what he calls “the first time”: young orphan Cardello traveling with the puppeteers has the opportunity to see the sea for the first time. An idea that French audience would then see in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows as in many other new cinema films.

Fregonese also makes his own use of the script, creating a very precise balance between a first and a second part of the film: the film begins as the story of an orphan, a beautiful character with a strong spirit of independence and a noble heart, but slowly shifts to what reveals itself as the real center of the film: Ustinov’s character, at first almost absent and anyway unpleasant, becomes the focus of the tragedy. His passions and actions growingly express what is really at stake: the bitter fate of popular culture, the beginning of a new “show” age, the cruelty of the public, the coming of new times.

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Cenerentola e il Signor Bonaventura [Princess Cinderella] (Sergio Tofano, 1941)

Quite a surprise, and maybe the first Italian example of “cinematic cartoon”, this Cinderella is an adaptation by Sergio Tofano of his own cartoon stories. Under the pen name of “Sto”, Tofano (also an actor – some could remember him as a Russian butler in Bertolucci’s Partner) he created the character of “Mr. Bonaventura”. Always ready to help but terribly inefficient, Mr. Bonaventura manages to make things work in a totally involuntary manner. At the end of each episode of his cartoon adventures, he is rewarded with a check of 1 million liras (a huge sum for the 30s!).

The film (the only one made by Tofano and with the Mr. Bonaventura character) benefits from a great team of set decorators and designers, and mainly from Second Futurist Period painter Italo Cremona: geometric lines, checkerboard patterns, stripes and squares beautifully use the black and white photography. The costume and make-up design is a rare example of an artistic input closely linked with the currents of modern painting and architecture, from Futurism to Bauhaus.

Cinderella is happily married to her Prince Charming, but detested by her in-laws, the King and King: she spends too much time with the domestics and servants, likes to cook more than to attend official receptions, and often forgets to take her cooking blouse off her Princess dress…The adventure begins when Cinderella is banished for her bad behavior and because of a plot of her jealous sisters, then persecuted by a gang of bandits. Her aunt the Fairy comes to help, as well as Mr. Bonaventura and his master “Beautiful Cecè” (Ambassador of a fantasy kingdom). After having defeated a terrible Ogre, the party goes back to the Palace where everybody has long learned to regret Cinderella’s banishment. And of course, Bonaventura gets his 1 million lire check.

This very funny and inventive work is a fascinating example of how the cartoonist mixes actors and animation, tricks and effects, to create an artificial but lively fairytale world. And all this in a time when American cartoons and burlesque cinema had long been banned by the Fascist regime. This attempt to mix animation, cinema and the contemporary art would not be seen again in Italian cinema before the 60s. Though very often considered as a rather “static” and “good taste” piece, the film is in reality filled with rather cruel ideas, in particular around the character of the Ogre (Bonaventura does not hesitate to provide him with a bandit as meat for his dinner after having helped Cinderella to escape). The King and Queen are prejudiced and snobbish, the domestics go on strike when Cinderella is banished, and the soldiers of the Palace are desperately inefficient. Lively dialog and excellent acting make it a pleasant show, a studio film that manages to go beyond the limits of staging. It is also quite moving to see a very, very young Paolo Stoppa play Bonaventura, with a Bauhaus paper false nose…

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