When his peers were busy whitewashing their nation’s crimes in the preposterous pietism of Neorealism, he made films that exposed the transactional individualism that ruled post-war Italy. When orthodox Marxists deemed commercial cinema the ultimate evil, he infused it with possibilities that exceeded box office returns. While everyone shot in Rome, he set many of his films in the anonymous provinces of northern Italy. Too popular to be considered an auteur yet too intellectual to be easily brushed aside, these may well be some of the reasons why Alberto Lattuada has occupied such an ambivalent place in the history of Italian cinema, one that has resisted canonization and has been largely confined to the country’s borders. An almost complete retrospective of his films, organized by Roberto Turigliatto during the last edition of the Locarno Film Festival, has given us the chance to (re-)discover a director who has worked across genres, wrong-footing spectators and critics alike. A remorseless analyst of appearances who never felt superior to his characters, Lattuada framed the miserable duplicity to which men are reduced by social conventions and power relations. There is no redemption to be found in his cinema, be it artistic, ideological or otherwise. Its only bequest may be a very bitter grin. Yet the director does not indulge in judgmental detachment or moralism, it is not without a sense of pain that he registers the ineluctable pettiness of mankind. His authorial take stems more from a rigorous observation of material reality than pessimism. Emblematic in this respect is his approach to Neorealism which stylistically refutes the supposed authenticity of realism by contaminating it with genre filmmaking.
In Il bandito (1946) a war veteran returns to his home only to find out that his mother is dead and their house destroyed, very much like the future that lies ahead of him. One night while walking the streets his attention is drawn to a sex worker until he realizes she is actually his own sister who’s been forced to prostitute herself in order to survive. Cornered by the cruelty of post-war scarcity, he turns to a life of crime driven by a pre-political thirst for social justice in a world that categorically rules it out. To the pietistic victimhood of every other neorealist character, Lattuada opposes a morally complex character one may not identify with and yet cannot help understanding, even at his most unmerciful. Reality comes into sharper focus through the fictional tropes of noir that characterize the film’s second half more than it in its first, socially-realist part.
For Senza pietà (Without Pity, 1948), Lattuada chooses melodrama to dissect the political economy of the black market that flourished on the ruins of war. Angela (Carla del Poggio), a single mother whose child died prematurely, and Jerry (John Kitzmiller), an African-American soldier, fall madly and disinterestedly in love. But their romance is doomed, for the world of mercantile expediencies they inhabit factors in only material interests, not feelings. The film is set in the Tombolo pine forest, in Tuscany, which in the postwar years became an infamous site for trafficking anything from weapons to women. Not even the American soldier can save Angela from the fate that viciously awaits her. Men never rescue women in Lattuada’s film, if anything they wish the opposite would happen.
An exception could be his 1954 masterpiece La spiaggia (The Beach), whose main character, a single mother who is a prostitute, is bailed out from social shame and marginalization by a billionaire. The final sequence, two traveling shots in opposite directions, plastically exemplify Lattuada’s cinematographic take on the human condition. The first shot portrays the protagonist walking the seafront with the mayor of the resort town where she’s vacationing with her daughter. The mayor has been trying to help the woman after the police discovered she is a prostitute and not a widow (at the time in Italy prostitutes were legally obliged to notify the authorities whenever they would leave the brothel). The respectable people she spent her holidays with now pretend not to see her, “scandalized” by her true identity. On her way back, this time accompanied by the wealthy owner of the hotel from which she was kicked out, the same people that had ignored her a moment before pay their respects, reverently, proving hypocrisy is the only true social unifier. As the sleazy billionaire shrewdly puts it during a game dispute among kids on the beach: “children have to get used to injustice, as soon as possible.” Lattuada’s view of Italy and its lovely inhabitants on the eve of the economic boom is not exactly flattering. La spiaggia anticipates the vitriolic spite that will animate the best comedies of the late 50s and 60s (Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi), and singlehandedly buries the neorealist sanctimony that plagued Italian cinema after the war along with its pretense of virtue.
Neither the consumerist revolution of the late 50s nor the one that would erupt in 1968 were capable of altering Lattuada’s poetics, which remained unrelentingly centered on the selfish impulses of men and their inexorable individualism. In a country whose moral scale oscillated between catholic duplicity and communist bigotry, his spurious visions were never comfortably received (La spiaggia had major problems with censors). Yet one cannot but admire their lucidity, afforded by a look devoid of ideological blinkers, made all the more cogent by the passing of time. With a comedy about the mob, Mafioso (1962), he made one of the most serious and accurate films about the Mafia. The film deconstructs the stereotypes still surrounding organized crime in Italy that see it as an eminently southern phenomenon. The main character works as a time-keeper in a factory in Milan but will have to dabble as a hitman once on holiday in his native Sicilian village. While comically indulging in the cultural difference between the industrious north and the backward south, Lattuada actually proves how the two sides of Italy are systemically connected and how the mafia is nothing but a very profitable and ruthless business enterprise. Not much different from the factory where our hero will go back to work after having fulfilled his criminal duties.
“Only money can make you happy,” pontificates peremptorily Tomas Milian in L’imprévu (1961), one of Lattuada’s darkest films, where the protagonist and his wife (Anouk Aimée) kidnap the newborn of a very wealthy family. The alienated obsession of a man that cannot conceive emancipation outside the paradigm of individual gain is also the subject of Sono stato io (1973) where a caffeinated window-cleaner accuses himself of the murder of a famous soprano so that he too can hit the headlines and enjoy a slice of mass-mediated fame (the film is graced by a glitchy, electronic soundtrack my Armando Trovajoli that inject a febrile vehemence into the film).
In a seemingly unredeemable (cinematic) universe, Lattuada has often projected on very young women a dubious salvific quality enveloped in even more dubious notions of purity and innocence. In his made-for-TV short Fanciulle in fiore (Blossoming Nymphets, 1977), the director candidly confesses his obsession for pubescent girls in what was then considered a Lolita-esque curlicue but today might serve as evidence in a trial for pedophilia. The masculine inability to conceive of equitable relations with women, hence the need for younger partners onto whom paternal authority can be more easily exercised, is something Lattuada arguably shares with more than one man. While some of his films contain problematic elements, his exploration of the relation between man and woman is by no means univocal and cannot be reduced to criminal perversion. For one, the women in Lattuada’s films rarely reach the ethical misery of their male counterparts. Erotic attraction in his cinema is the mirror onto which the naked and basest needs of men are reflected. Sex is the exploitative continuation of social hierarchies and power relations, youth the delusion of carnal immortality. In many of his films, Lattuada demonstrated an unusual ability to convey the point of view of women. In his episode of L’amore in città (1953), the sociological pretext to neorealistically analyze the girls-watching techniques of Italian men in public actually exposes the daily violation of privacy and space women are subjected to. In Dolci inganni (The Adolescents, 1960) is it the young female protagonist that initiates herself to sex on her own terms. She is a sexual subject, not an object. The same can (not) be said of the young girl in Le farò da padre (“I’ll Take Her Like a Father,” 1974), an autistic and hyper-sexual adolescent whom a social climber plans to marry in order to inherit the estate belonging to her family (the IMDb synopsis bluntly reads: “Older man plans to marry adolescent mentally challenged, sex-crazed girl”). The plan goes awry when he decides to kidnap her but falls in love with her. Rachel Kushner and Kim Gordon, who were both guests at the festival, enthusiastically praised the film during their public talk with Locarno punters. “A film you wouldn’t be able to make today,” Gordon observed while indulging in the detailed description of the film’s outrageous plot. “She teaches him how to be pre-language,” Kushner added commenting on the young girl character, “she has an incredible sex drive and it’s her way to interact with the world.”
Surely Lattuada had no qualms when it came to the indecent exposure of societal ills and repressed prurience. Throughout his late career the Italian director chose sex, never pruriently, as the ultimate allegory of (failed) human interaction, rarely disinterested and often tactical. In Venga a prendere il caffè…da noi (Come Have Coffee with Us, 1970), a middle-aged tax inspector marries one of three wealthy sisters only to start having sex with all of them until a stroke confines him to a wheelchair. Too dark to be a comedy, yet not didactic enough to be a denunciation, Lattuada simply portrays the provincial mediocrity of the homo italicus without cultivating a superiority complex. He pushes the spectator to be honest enough with himself to recognize at least a bit of his own persona in these abominable and all-too-real characters. The incapacity to adapt to the polite brutality of a society where everything is mercantile in essence and practice can only lead to insanity (like in his 1976 masterpiece Oh, Serafina!, an erotico-ecological tale of unattainable love). It is not by chance that someone like Lattuada was keen on Russian literature, the stoical acceptance of life’s inevitable injustice and pain being at its poetic core. Of the four films he adapted from Russian authors, his cinematographic version of Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (Cuore di cane, 1976) is a minor masterpiece in his long and varied filmography. A not so subtle and classist allegory of the failed October Revolution, the film stars Max Von Sydow as a doctor who tries to turn a dog into a man only to realize that it better stays a dog. In Lattuada’s hands the story acquires an ambiguous quality as it’s not at all clear whether men are actually better than dogs.