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66th Venice Film Festival: Three More Ghosts

More from the Venice Film Festival's Questi fantasi (These Ghosts) retrospective program:

Morte di un amico [Death of a Friend] (Franco Rossi, 1959)

In Italy, some films are known under the name “Pasolinian”. Two meanings to the word: the script has been written or co-written by Pier Paolo Pasolini, or the subject matter and setting of the film recall Pasolini’s Accattone or Mamma Roma. Suburbs of Rome, small time crooks, prostitutes, bars and non-professional or still unknown actors…and above all, a sense of tragedy and social malediction. In the case of Rossi’s Morte di un amico, the first draft of the story had been written by Pasolini. Rossi’s best film is still probably Smog (1962) presented in 2008 in the first part of the Questi fantasmi retrospective, but nevertheless, his previous film does show how Pasolinis’s presence and influence came to be part of “common” production in the late 50s to the beginning of the 60s. Here we may find the same type of current that is at work in Vicario’s Le ore nude. There are two friends in the film: the blond and weak Aldo, and the dark local crook and pimp Bruno. What you could call a tragedy of bad influence is more the portrait of an untold love. When Aldo himself starts living off of women, like his friend no longer his own man, his weakness is somehow flattered by the approbation of Bruno. Meeting a nice young girl and willing to escape the trap of the easy life, Aldo is still not strong enough to resist Bruno’s proposition of a cheap assault on a local bank accountant. The plan fails, and Aldo loses his life under his friend’s eyes.

Many elements of the film make the "Pasolinian touch” obvious: the suburb, the characters, the prostitutes standing under road tunnels or hiding from the street lights, the cheap plan, the violence made to women and despised “normal people.” Jazzy music and highly contrasted black and white do recall the world of Accattone, as well as the character of Bruno himself. Charming but without scruples, it is clear that his only love is Aldo. This untold relationship appears today as the most interesting aspect of the film, never obvious but constantly present in the way Bruno drags Aldo into his own world and make feel like “a man”. Franco Rossi did not continue his career on this same track (with the exception of Smog), but this early work is a fascinating sign of how Italian cinema could integrate the best of its nuovo directors and writers, and how the people and neighbourhood bad guys of Rome came, in Italian cinema, closer and closer to the reality of their life, of their language and of their fate, far from the exotic postcards or clichés of the previous period.

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La Mano dello straniero [The Stranger’s Hand] (Mario Soldati, 1954)

Mario Soldati has had an American education, and an American career as a teacher at Columbia University. Before his return to Italy, he had already become a sophisticated writer, and a refined expert of classical Italian literature. This may explain why, after becoming a filmmaker, he often put on screen some great novels of the late 18th century naturalism (like Malombra, or Piccolo mondo antico). La mano dello straniero is a very interesting example, in his work, and in general in Italian cinema of the 50s, of a mix between genre cinema (spy film) and political actuality. The film is based on Graham Greene’s The Strangers’ Hand, adapted by the great Italian writer Giorgio Bassani. The film starts with the arrival in Venice of a little boy, Roger, who should meet there, at the Grand Hotel, his father (Trevor Howard), a British officer just returning from Trieste. The father does arrive, phones his son from the train station, but disappears on his way to the hotel: he has been kidnapped by a group of Yugoslavian spies. A doctor of Slovene origin, long settled in Venice, is ready to inject him a dose of medicine that will give him typhus in order to send him back to Trieste for questioning. Meanwhile, the boy looks for his father in the city, meets the doctor by pure chance, but cannot convince the police that his father is really in Venice. The boy finds some reluctant help with the hotel telephone girl (Alida Valli) and her boyfriend, an American small time trader (Richard Basehart). As the story unfolds, we understand more about the context: at the time: Trieste is still under Tito’s control (as part of the Slovene province). Many have fled the city and found refuge in Italy. The city is claimed by Italy, but Tito’s regime is still behind the Iron Curtain.

Alida Valli’s character and her entourage in Venice are shown as typical refugees, torn between the desire to settle down, and the nostalgia of the homeland. After various suspense episodes, the father is rescued by Basehart and the police, in a beautiful action scene at sea in the port of Venice.

Soldati’s film had a strange fate, and somehow missed his point: in 1954, before the film was released, the Balkan Pact was signed, and Trieste returned to Italy. Tito turns his back on the Soviet Union and becomes an ally to the West.

The film had therefore a limited career at the time. It is nevertheless a film noir with a touch of elegance. Venice becomes here a dark and opaque city. Streets, channels and passages and even the famous Piazza San Marco are not anymore the postcard like set of romances, but the frightening set of a drama. Maybe an Italian version for the Vienna of The Third Man.

Dark weather and cold nights are chosen to surround the little boy desperate search, and the underworld of spies. Alida Valli’s character is carved into a disturbing mix of good will, weariness, bitterness and courage. She perfectly embodies the state of mind of many refuges willing to settle and live a normal life, but unable to forget the drama that sent them away from their home. Soldati creates a strict parallel between Valli’s character and the Doctor, played by Italo-American actor Edward Ciannelli. In his brilliant characterization, Ciannelli expresses the bitterness of despair, the nihilist choice of evil, a vision of the world as doomed forever. In a dialog with Howard, he asks him to imagine Venice, some centuries later, already under water, after a long but ineluctable process that no one can fight. And Soldati finishes the shot on a close up of the doctor’s hand upon a book: Spengler’s Decline of the Occident. Probably one of the most fascinating villains in the Italian cinema of the time.

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Casa Ricordi (Carmine Gallone, 1954)

Carmine Gallone’s post-fascist production (he was the director of the Mussolinian colossal Scipione l’Africano) included many films about Italian famous musicians and adaptations of famous operas. Casa Ricordi was released the same year as Visconti’s Senso, and one cannot but compare the two approaches of the same period in Italian history. Gallone’s eyes turn to Hollywood, maybe to Dieterle’s biopics, but anyway to a genre that mixes great figures of culture and history, and popular romance. In the words of Sergio Toffetti, the film shows a “total adhesion to the stylistic features and atmosphere of Italian melodrama”.

The story spans over three generations of Ricordis, the famous music publishers of Milan, starting with the founder (played by Paolo Stoppa) and ending with his grandson, a supporter of Puccini. Three generations of patriotic music lovers who discover and support the great names of Italian opera of the 18th century. Balancing between history and culture, Gallone tells of Italian opera as the main popular narration of the Italian Risorgimento. The Ricordis meet and help the future stars of opera (Rossini, Donizetti, played by a young and already special Marcello Mastroianni, Verdi and Puccini) while we follow these musicians in some episodes of their lives, very freely invented or reinvented for the sake of romance (Rossini the womanizer, Donizetti the austere technician, Verdi the patriarch, and Puccini the friend of the poor people of Parisian “Bohemia”). Sets, costumes, color and music (almost as if the film was sometimes a mere pretext to hear and see some of the most famous arias) create a great show, culminating in a typical sequence: old Verdi has decided to retire after many brutal attacks from Wagner’s admirers. One morning, as he goes to Parma on a business matter, he intervenes between a crowd of angry peasants and the army sent to repress them. The crowd and the soldiers recognize the old master. All start to sing Nabucco’s hit choir (“Va pensiero”) that had become the hymn of Italian national movement. Unity through opera, the social scene as theater, the most famous aria of Risorgimento as the mark of a nation…Old Verdi goes back to composition and finishes his “Othello”.

An additional pleasure in the film, especially for French viewers and historians to enjoy, through the usual Italian-French co-production system of the 50s, are the presence of great actors like Micheline Presle (as a temperamental singer tamed by Donizetti-Mastroianni) and Julien Carette (the Parisian guy who always makes jokes in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion) as a “bistrot” boss who welcomes Puccini.

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