The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
My Voyage to Italy: A handful of favorites.
Oh yeah! So I’m moving to Italy for a while. In fact, by the time this article is published, I’ll probably be hitting the mean streets of Bergamo, frantically looking for an apartment so my husband can have a nice quiet place to ignore me for nine months while he enters his Montessori training program. This means, of course, that I’ll have plenty more time to explore filmic netherworlds unimpeded by his desire to watch documentaries about string theory or Buddhism. Especially, considering, you know, it’s Italy—a place so fertile with film culture we outsiders suffer the bias of unfairly projecting its cinematic representation onto its tangible reality. This phenomenon is, in part, due to the fact that Italian filmmakers quite famously revolutionized contemporary cinema precisely by mastering portrayals of reality.
Many years ago I was entranced by the Martin Scorsese documentary Il mio viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy), which is likely a terribly dull 246-minute film if you don’t enjoy watching a small Italian-American man giddily gloss the finer points of the neorealist film movement. For me, luckily, that happens to be one of my favorite pastimes ever.
Confession: I’ve never even been to Italy! (Life is such a doozy, right?) If you want to know the truth, everything I believe about Italy I’ve learned from two years of college Latin and the movies. For this reason, I have no idea what to expect, but it’s probably going to be ridiculous.
Here, as a sort of preemptive postcard, are my favorite Italian movies—so far.
1. Fellini Satyricon (dir. Federico Fellini, 1969)
Like a half-drunk dream (an apt way to describe my days in undergrad), I have little memory of the first time I saw this film, or under what circumstances. I just know that it beamed itself importantly in my brain to remain forever. As genius and prolific and legendary a director as Fellini was, Satyricon might be a markedly unpopular choice among connoisseurs. I don’t care. Based on the remaining fragments of an ancient picaresque penned by Petronius in the days of Emperor Nero, Satyricon is a colorfully provocative, unapologetically vulgar, immaculately designed, rite-of-passage film—think Suttree with togas and lovers of every gender.
But beneath the two hours of nonsense that happens to two young men getting their rocks off (witnessing a human sacrifice, sleeping with a shackled nymphomaniac, kidnapping a demigod), it’s a film not so thematically opposed to other Fellini masterpieces like 8 1/2 and La dolce vita—for what are they but brutal critiques of the vapidity and superficiality of high society? The extensive banquet scene early in the film portrays the emptiness and grotesquerie of excessive wealth. Likewise, the scenes of desperate devotees praying at the foot of the oracle Hermaphrodite reveals the corruption and bureaucracy of religion—another Fellini obsession. If nothing else, the visuals of the film are not disturbing for the sake of shock as much as they are the believably depraved, foreign world of ancient Rome, which, of course, Fellini attempts to show us is actually not very different from the orgiastic cultural dreck of present day.
2. Bitter Rice (Riso amaro, dir. Giuseppe de Santis, 1949)
By no means the finest work of neorealist cinema, Bitter Rice is still an incredibly stirring film, and, I think it should be said, very much a powerful film about women. In an effort to dodge the police, Francesca (Doris Dowling) signs on to join a group of female rice-field workers. It’s a pretty grueling and thankless job, standing knee-deep in mud and bent over all day, then sleeping in a dormitory on a mattress stuffed with rank hay. They’re not allowed to mingle on the job, so in an amusing (and later agonizing) turn, they sing gossip to one another. The ladies find ways to occupy their limited free time—the positively gorgeous and emotionally infantile Silvana (Silvana Mangano) spins records on a portable record player and dances around like a teenager. Just when things start to get normal, they make a turn for the worse, as Silvana begins snooping around and discovers Francesca’s pinched necklace, right when Francesca’s shitty boyfriend (and partner in crime) Walter (Vittorio Gassman) establishes contact and begins to take a carnal interest in Silvana.
When he cooks up a plot to steal the rice from the harvesters, beautiful, sexualized Silvana, as is customary, ends up being the true casualty of his greed. It’s brutal, but it’s one of those harsh depictions of women’s circumstances (especially at the time, in ravaged, postwar Italy) that, through the scathing misogyny of the characters in the film, really serve as a smart pre-feminist commentary.
3. Senso (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1954)
I know that everybody and their brother would choose The Leopard as Visconti’s masterpiece, but despite how lush and attractive the film is (and the people in it), it’s a bit short on the high drama. Plus, it’s a film about an aging man, which is almost too boring to bear, even if he is a ferocious Burt Lancaster. Senso, on the other hand, focuses on a woman, Livia, a countess, played by Italian superstar Valli, who begins a whirlwind, violent affair with a young Austrian officer, Franz (Farley Granger), during the final war between Italy and Austria. (Valli, for her part, couldn’t be better cast—a real-life Austrian-Italian baroness, it’s the proverbial role she was born to play.)
Livia’s entanglement is further complicated due to the actions of her politically radical cousin Roberto (Massimo Girotti), whose efforts she aids financially—that is, until she starts giving all of her money away to the swaggering, errant Franz. Livia plunges monomaniacally into the affair, disregarding any social admonishment or apathy on Franz’s end. Naturally, her obsession drives her to seriously compromise Roberto’s activism, making her a traitor to her family and her own beliefs. Similarly to Bitter Rice, the film concludes after a particularly excruciating female-humiliation scene where Livia confronts Franz one final time before exacting revenge. Sure, it’s an often-told tale, but that only enhances its timelessness—the film was even remade in 2002 with a WWII backdrop.
Visconti is known for his intoxicating scenery, and in Senso, every petticoat, cobblestone, and wine goblet appears with the carefullest elegance. It’s a perfect selection for fans, like me, of the tragic romance—when reading Anna Karenina recently I found myself stealing scenes from Senso to mentally flesh out some of the more operatic moments.
4. Gomorrah (Gomorra, dir. Matteo Garrone, 2008)
As you may have noticed before, I make no secrets about my love for gangster movies (see my past column on my British favorites). Shortly after Gomorrah arrived on U.S. shores earlier this century, I came across a little piece in Slate that name-checked the entire canon of American mafia movies and still managed to extol this new film as a completely fresh, thoroughly chilling, and unrivaled take on—let’s face it—a hopelessly saturated genre. The most noticeable difference is that it’s a macrocosmic view of organized crime—there are no Henry Hills narrating, no charismatic principals for us to suffer alongside. We see how the Camorra, the syndicate for which the film is named, subtly manipulate everything from the bottom up—squalid project-style suburban housing through to the top of the haute-couture garment industry, except not in that order.
Shot in a quiet cinema-vérité perspective, where, as the viewer, it feels like you’re often just over their shoulder or hiding behind the door, it’s one of those films easy to confuse with a documentary. And that’s another bracing quality of Gomorrah—unlike perhaps every other depiction of mafia life (including those on HBO), this world is just trashy, unglamorous, pitiable. People aren’t having sex with Drea de Matteo on piles of cocaine. They’re fifteen and running around in their soggy briefs screaming chauvinist obscenities while shooting automatic weapons into the air, like rednecks. Or they’re the children of labyrinthine subsidized housing who become entangled in the Camorra after finding a bag of drugs near their home, and soon stand by as their friends are mowed down with bullets in a drive-by.
Okay, so I lied—it’s similar to something from HBO, but that would be The Wire. It’s interesting how, after all this time, it takes a mafia movie straight from the source, the very fatherland itself, reported, written, and directed all by Italians, to knock the sheen off of an underworld so fetishized and celebrated in American culture.
5. Suspiria (dir. Dario Argento, 1977)
An undisputed classic, Suspiria served as my late-night introduction to the world of Italian horror films. It’s still my preferred Argento because it’s damn near perfect. I find it curious how well it succeeds, honestly, because nothing in the film is as terrifying as the opening murder sequence, but it establishes a perfect tone of creepily beautiful women, vivid color, and abrupt and unexplained wickedness. Jessica Harper, as young American ballet student Suzy Bannion, acts considerably less than she’s ever acted before, but her straight earnestness contrasts well with the other weirdos who dominate the ballet school. Note also here is another appearance from Valli, this time as the slightly predatory necktie-wearing dance instructor, Miss Tanner. Here, with a tight bun and butch demeanor, Valli’s slanted eyes and glowing grin read as nothing else than absolutely sinister.
Besides the incredible sets—blood-red rooms and mahogany wainscoting in what appears to be a dark old villa nestled in the woods—it’s the hints at horror that work so well. I defy you to ever forget the sound of the ballet school directress’s hissing, belabored breathing from behind that curtain, or the footsteps of Miss Tanner’s combat boots as she marches across a room littered with writhing maggots. Of course, the importance of the soundtrack goes without saying: Goblin’s nightmarish theme is so resonant and recognizable, everyone I know had a small panic attack when we discovered the Russian synchronized swimming team had choreographed their routine to it at this year’s Olympics. Now, I have no idea how one can improve on an Italian horror picture of such esteem, but Arkansas’s native son David Gordon Green is, officially, moving into production of a modern remake this year, one that allegedly involves no ballet at all.
6. I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2009)
When this film debuted, it garnered endless comparisons to the work of Visconti—even the favorite son’s name, Tancredi, was picked up by critics as a nod to Alain Delon’s character in The Leopard. As far as I can tell, comparisons to Visconti are just code for “gorgeous family epic with immaculate design,” which translates to me as “sexy melodrama cheesefest.” For it’s one of those movies that seduces you, practically against your will, such that you feel you’ve never even loved your family with the intense compassion that you suddenly have for the emotional awakening of a beautiful rich housewife in Milan.
Tilda Swinton, as Emma Recchi, is the matriarch in question. She has one of those lives with everything in it—classy hobbies, lovely and successful children, a devoted husband—and seems totally fulfilled, that is, until she realizes she isn’t. The camera work is so clean and sweeping, the surrounding locations in Italy (mostly Milan and San Remo) envelope every moment, readily informing the tone. Tension is built almost entirely through rapid angles and an anxious soundtrack of classical music, all composed by John Adams—Emma does something as mundane as descend a flight of stairs at a dinner party and it leaves you almost breathless.
So it’s certainly a family tragedy, but, above all things, I Am Love is a provocative spin on the theme of a movie like Senso—the torrid affairs of an unhappy wealthy woman who brings ruin to her family—in that the family is less ruined by Emma’s actions than they are by the economic atmosphere itself; it’s simply a parallel plot point to Emma’s self-discovery. More over, Emma is at peace, fully actualized—not driven mad by her own selfish desires. I’m frankly not sure if there’s ever been a film so heroic in its portrait of a married woman having an affair.
It doesn’t happen so often to me these days, but in the theater, when the screen went dark, my friend asked me what I thought of the movie, and not only did I fail to respond, I couldn’t look away from what had just been projected there; for several minutes, I simply never wanted to see anything else again.