If someone asked me to make a list of the most interesting recent Italian productions made in the 2010s, there is no doubt that some of these titles would come from the field of independent animation. If I had to explain this choice, I would simply answer that there is nothing surprising in it. We may not have a new Bruno Bozzetto yet—a pioneer of the modern animation cinema in Italy, author of a milestone such as Allegro non troppo (1976)—but there is plenty of evidence to indicate not only a high overall level of aesthetic beauty but also a rigorous quality in most of these films. They also generally bypass the distinction between rearguard and avant-garde by demonstrating that tradition does not necessarily mean lack of innovation.
These thoughts came to mind while I was at the latest edition of Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema di Pesaro (July 2-9, 2016) and attending the Corti in Mostra and Homage to Virgilio Villoresi sections that focused on contemporary animation in Italy. These were occasions to marvel at recent works by important independent animators. Some, like Leonardo Carrano, are already internationally recognized. Others, like Claudia Muratori and Magda Guidi, are more representative of a new emerging generation. And then there is Villoresi, a Milan-based animator whose genius is now mainly at the service of big name companies such as fashion brands Valentino, Fendi and Vogue. His is a storytelling influenced by stop-motion technique but with live performative interventions.
Obviously, in speaking of contemporary animation in Italy, Pesaro 2016 was just a fragment of a much broader whole. In 2014, for instance, the same festival organized a much more structured section called ‘Il mouse e la matita'—literally, the computer mouse and the pencil. It was an initiative whose goal was to map state of the art contemporary animation in the country. Bruno Di Marino, an important scholar in animation studies in Italy, was one of the curators. In 2012 Simone Massi, one of the most famous Italian animators currently working, won the David di Donatello Award for best short film. The DVD series Animazioni also deserves a special mention. Curated by Paola Bistrot and Andrea Martignoni, and ongoing since 2010, it showcases the best of recent Italian animation. Also, and in spite of many serious and intricate problems between the educational system and the film industry, schools like the renowned ISA Urbino – Scuola del libro in Urbino or the more recently founded CSC Animazione in Turin are now nationally known as creative animation laboratories open to experimenting. Guidi, Massi and Muratori studied at ISA. In short, something is definitely on the move with animation in Italy.
Aesthetic beauty and rigorous quality can be read as different ways of seeing wonder and displacement, pivotal roots for any vision beyond the branches of narrative form. In contemporary Italian animation, the so-called ‘Neo-Pictorial Current’ associated with animators like Massi and Guidi, defines a general approach shared by many artists in dealing with these two elements:
The 1990s and 2000s were characterized, in the fragile world of independents, by what critics called the 'neo-pictorial current', the only distinctive, original invention the country ever gave to animation. Among the outstanding neo-pictorialists were Gianluigi Toccafondo, Ursula Ferrara, Roberto Catani, Simone Massi, Massimo Ottoni, Magda Guidi, Mara Cerri, Elena Chiesa and Andrea Pierri. The first common feature of these animators was that they created real 'moving pictures' with explicit reference to painting techniques, which were used as the basis for animation. The neo-pictorial style might be called 'the incessant metamorphosis of forms', characterized by lengthening shadows, the blurring of boundaries, and the expansion of figures. In these works the authors create a true comparison between the art of movement and the movement of art. But a difference divides the movement. On one side are the directors who attended the State Institute of Art of Urbino (Toccafondo, Catani, Massi, Ottoni, and Guidi). On the other are the self-taught Ferrara, Pierri and Chiesa.
This quote is by Giannalberto Bendazzi, one of the world’s major animation historians, and comes from Animation – A World History, a towering trilogy released this year which he also edited. These three books form a massive encyclopedic oeuvre written by different contributors and conceived as a global overview “in space and time” of what animation was and is in different countries. The transcribed passage comes from the third volume, entitled Contemporary Times, and it might suggest a certain relationship between the aforementioned current and the Italian figurative tradition in the arts. In other words, a possible way to see the wonder of these films through historical lenses.
However, there is something more at stake because wonder also means novelty, and the work many of these animators do is doubtless focused on this goal. Therefore, one might see “the incessant metamorphosis of forms” that neo-pictorial films offer as an attempt to capture this novelty in terms of the immediacy and thereness of things, between picture and movement, putting visual emphasis on the agency of sign and color. Unlike other animation currents and practices in which totally informal or totally figurative approaches seem dominant, artists like these Italian animators know a secret: the figure remains the major battlefield.