12 Italian Directors on 12 Italian Cities

In 1989 Istituto Luce, the oldest public institution devoted to film production, distribution and archival material in Italy, produced an omnibus film consisting of 12 segments entitled 12 Registi per 12 Citta (12 Directors for 12 Cities). A documentary/travelogue hybrid, the film was made as a promotional vehicle in support of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Rome and part of its intent was to lure tourists to Italy, particularly to the cities showcased in the film.  The title is not completely accurate; thirteen directors, not twelve, contributed to the project if you count Giuseppe Bertolucci, the younger brother of Bernardo Bertolucci, who co-directed the Bologna section with Bernardo. 12 Registi per 12 Citta is also unconventional in its presentation with each director approaching his subject in his own unique way and the selected cities include some offbeat choices like Udine and Cagliari as well as some major omissions. What, no Venice?

Director Alberto Lattuada (left) with his cinematographer on location in Genoa, Italy while filming a segment of 12 Registi per 12 Citta (1989).

To give you some idea of the impressive talents behind the camera, here is a rundown on the key players for each segment in chronological order: Rome (director: Michelangelo Antonioni, cinematographer: Carlo Di Palma); Bari (director: Lina Wertmuller, cinematographer: Giuseppe Ruzzolini); Bologna (director: Bernardo & Giuseppe Bertolucci, cinematographer: Fabio Cianchetti, music by Nicola Piovani); Cagliari (director: Carlo Lizzani, cinematographer: Roberto Benvenuti); Florence (director: Franco Zeffirelli, cinematographer: Daniele Nannuzzi, music by Ennio Morricone); Genoa (director: Alberto Lattuada, cinematographer: Lamberto Caimi, music by Piero Piccioni); Milan (director: Ermanno Olmi, cinematographer: Enrico Lucidi); Naples (director: Francesco Rosi, cinematographer: Pasqualino De Santis); Palermo (director: Mauro Bolognini, cinematographer: Ennio Guarnieri); Torino (director: Mario Soldati, cinematographer: Armando Nannuzzi); Udine (director: Gino Pontecorvo, cinematographer: Pasqualino De Santis, music by Ennio Morricone); Verona (director: Mario Monicelli, cinematographer: Armando Nannuzzi).

The brother team of Guiseppe and Bernardo Bertolucci contribute a segment on Bologna in the omnibus film, 12 Registi per 12 Citta (1989).

Unlike most promotional films that are designed for a specific purpose such as tourism, 12 Registi per 12 Citta does not really conform to the conventions of most travelogues or documentaries except in a few instances such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s relatively straightforward sightseeing tour of Udine. For the most part, the entire movie is a captivating cross between an art film and a quirky insider portrait of a side of Italy not usually glimpsed in the traditional travel film. A perfect example of this is the Bertolucci brothers’ Bologna section which uses a little girl playing hide and seek with her companions as a narrative device. As she searches the city for her friends in hiding, the camera tracks her journey through the famous squares and streets, encountering a puppet theater and a street vendor displaying snow globes along the way. If you have visited Bologna, you will probably recognize certain architectural and historic landmarks but none are identified here, nor is there any voice over narrator to distract from what is essentially an impressionistic portrait of the city as seen from a child’s point of view.

Lina Wertmuller offers a personal take on the city of Bari in the 1989 documentary 12 Registi per 12 Citta.

In marked contrast to this is Lina Wertmuller’s earthy, colorful depiction of Bari which comes across like a paean to the working class people who live there. Accompanied by atmospheric song snippets from traditional tunes like “La Pasta Lessa” and “Tarantella di S. Nicandro,” the segment has an operatic quality which is made more dramatic by the intercutting of peasant women laughing together, fishermen hauling in their catch, kids playing in the street and the weathered faces of the elderly.

A visual detail from Michelangelo Antonioni’s segment on Rome as a cultural treasure in 12 Registi per 12 Citta (1989).

Clocking in at around 90 minutes in length (every segment runs approximately nine minutes or less),  12 Registi per 12 Citta kicks off with Michelangelo Antonioni’s aesthetically pleasing portrait of Rome, a city which was immortalized in his iconic 1962 film L’Eclisse, starring Alain Delon and Monica Vitti. Still shots, slow pans and magnificent overviews of ancient ruins, fountains, bridges, architectural wonders, famous paintings and sculptures are utilized to create a dazzling visual mosaic of the city’s cultural heritage. All of this is distinguished by an almost complete absence of people, no voice over narration or identifying text to let you know which famous building or statue you are seeing. It might not satisfy the expectations of someone planning a trip to Rome for the first time but it works wonderfully as a heightened sensory experience.

Equally unconventional is Franco Zefferelli’s portrait of Florence, which opens with a dreamy, soft focus scene of young men in period clothes playing a ball game at dusk. The ball soon becomes the connecting narrative thread of this segment as it bounces from one scene to the next with schoolboys kicking it around a monastery courtyard to street kids playing in the public squares to a soccer match in the stadium that ends in a brawl. There are, of course, brief glimpses of famous landmarks – the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Ponte Vecchio bridge, the Uffizi Gallery, etc. – but they are merely visual accents in Zefferelli’s trek through the city via a soccer ball.

A scene from Mauro Bolognini’s intimate tour of Palermo, Sicily in the 1989 omnibus feature 12 Registi per 12 Citta.

Probably the most fanciful of the episodes is Mario Monicelli’s take on Verona in which he injects a dose of magical realism into the narrative. At a certain point his fisherman narrator is miraculously lifted off the ground and proceeds to take flight over the city pointing out some of the town’s most famous sights including the Piazza delle Erbe, the Roman Arena, the Castelvecchio Bridge and the Torre dei Lamberti, all of it accompanied by the music of Giuseppe Verdi. There is also a strong visual emphasis on the rumored inspirations for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well as city’s artistic heritage, which is represented by works by Paolo Veronese and many other famous painters who were born or lived here.

Young lovers kiss in the street in Alberto Lattuada’s portrait of Genoa, Italy in the offbeat travelogue 12 Regesti per 12 Citta (1989).

Even when a few of the segments come off as slight or minor compared to other work by the featured director such as Ermanno Olmi’s take on Milan, 12 Registi per 12 is always a delight to the eye and ear. It is also a treat to get intimate, armchair tours of less visited destinations like Genova, with its maze of narrow streets and back alleys, and Torino, which has an elegant, old world ambience. Unfortunately, the film never received a theatrical release in the U.S. and even in Europe, it had few movie house engagements, playing instead on television in most regions. It would be wonderful to see this one-off experiment remastered for Blu-ray but in the meantime, you can probably find 12 Registi per 12 available as a DVD (no English subtitles) from online sellers or clips of it on Youtube.

Other links of interest

The Luce Institute, the Italians’ Memory

Mario Monicelli

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