Milanese Malaise

The Italian film poster for DISORDER (1962).

Any art house patron in the early sixties must have thought modern society was headed toward a complete collapse as witnessed by the emptiness of life and the bored, amoral behavior of characters in films like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). That film was mostly a portrait of wealthy, jaded Romans and ambitious social climbers that was probably the most famous in a wave of films that viewed Italian society as a lost and alienated culture. Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962) offered similar views of a world where modern progress and technology had a dehumanizing effect on relationships while Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (Italian title, Lo la conoscevo bene, 1965) focused on a naïve working class woman who seeks an acting career in Rome but finds herself exploited and eventually discarded by the people that profession attracts. Less well known, Franco Brusati’s Il Disordine (Disorder, 1962) differs from the above films in that it depicts both upper class and economically strapped folks in Milan who share the same sense of disillusionment and despair over their lot in life. Also, it is almost epic in scale and more tragic and heartfelt than the aforementioned titles. 

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Strangers on a Gondola

The Italian film poster for THE DESIGNATED VICTIM (1971).

The first Patricia Highsmith novel to be adapted to film was the author’s first book, published in 1950, Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a movie the next year. Yet, with the exception of U.S. television which adapted some of Highsmith’s stories for the small screen (The Talented Mr. Ripley for Studio One in Hollywood in 1956, The Perfect Alibi for Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre in 1957, Annabel for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962), no American film director would attempt another Highsmith screen adaptation for many years. European filmmakers, however, have returned again and again to her perversely fascinating thrillers which are marked by their disturbing psychological detail and macabre humor. Among these are René Clément’s visually stunning Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Claude Autant-Lara’s Enough Rope (1963), based on the novel The Blunderer, Wim Wenders’ hallucinatory noir The American Friend (1977), adapted from Ripley’s Game, This Sweet Sickness (1977) by French director Claude Miller, and most famously Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Yet, one of the least known – and uncredited – adaptations is La Vittima Designata (English title: The Designated Victim, 1971), which is a very loose, revisionist version of Strangers on a Train with colorful Italian location shooting in Venice, Milan and Lake Como.  

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Christmas Lockdown in the Eternal City

An alternate release poster for the Roberto Rossellini film ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960)

Available for years in inferior public domain prints and poor video transfers, Robert Rossellini’s influential WW2 trilogy [Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and German Year Zero (1949)], which firmly established him as the “father of Neorealism”, finally received 4K high-definition digital transfers from The Criterion Collection in 2017. Linked thematically to this trilogy, however, is a later Rossellini film, Era Notte a Roma [English title, Escape by Night aka Blackout in Rome,1960), which, unfortunately, has never enjoyed the reputation or respect of this seminal trilogy. I first saw a 16mm print of the film from Films Inc. years ago when it still licensed titles from The Audio Brandon Collection. I had a chance to revisit Era Notte a Roma again recently on DVD and am still baffled by the movie’s low profile since its original release.

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The Girl from Parma (1963)

The Italian film poster for THE GIRL FROM PARMA (1963)

Why does it take so long for certain extremely gifted filmmakers to achieve international attention and praise for their body of work? Italian director Antonio Pietrangeli might have been popular and well-known in his own country but not so much in the U.S. where he was almost forgotten until the last decade. Thanks to filmmaker Alexander Payne, a re-discovery of Pietrangeli’s work began in 2012 after Payne hosted a showing of Lo La Conoscevo Bene (English title: I Knew Her Well, 1965) at the Telluride Film Festival that year (The Criterion Collection would later release it on Blu-ray and DVD in 2016). It was also in 2012 that Raro Films released Pietrangeli’s La Visita (English title: The Visit, 1963) on DVD in America and followed it up with a 2014 DVD release of his Adua e Le Compagne aka Hungry for Love aka Love a la Carte (1960).

The Italian film poster for I KNEW HER WELL (1965)

Retrospectives of Pietrangeli’s work at museums, film festivals and cinema archives soon followed with MoMA presenting 10 of his movies in 2015 (He only directed 11 feature films plus contributions to two anthology films, 1954’s Mid-Century Loves and 1966’s The Queens. He was more prolific as a screenwriter and also worked as an assistant director on films like Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione. It’s a shame Pietrangeli didn’t live long enough to see his work being re-discovered in the U.S. and abroad (he drowned at sea in 1968 at age 49) but renewed interest in his work doesn’t necessarily mean that most of his work is now readily available for viewing. One of his key achievements, La Parmigiana (English title: The Girl from Parma, 1963) is still missing in action but it is an impressive showcase for actress Catherine Spaak and a fine example of Pietrangeli’s unusually effective blend of comedy and drama featuring a female protagonist. In fact, most of his films view Italian society through the eyes of a sympathetic heroine or heroines.

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Too Chicken to Watch This Giallo?

Anna (Gina Lollobrigida, left) and her assistant Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin) pose for publicity photos regarding Anna’s successful poultry business in DEATH LAID AN EGG aka Plucked! (1968).

Maybe giallo is too specific a film genre for this movie because it is in a class of its own and works as a violent crime thriller but also as an erotic melodrama, black comedy and a satire on scientific experimentation and marketing. If you tried to describe the movie to friends they’d probably swear you dreamed it or are running a high fever but no, this bizarre, fascinating and once obscure giallo actually exists in various titled versions. The original Italian release title was La Morte Ha Fatto L’uovo (1968), but it has been distributed under such monikers as Plucked!, A Curious Way to Love and Death Laid an Egg, which is the more common title. So what’s with the chickens? The film is set, for the most part, in a poultry factory where a new breed of chicken is being produced in an experimental lab. The opening credits, featuring science classroom footage of egg fertilization, embryos and microscopic life forms prepare you for this strange new world.  

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The Reluctant Libertine

Hollywood’s penchant for remakes is not a new development but a strategy that has served some of our most acclaimed directors in often surprising and unique reworkings of the original source material. Take, for instance, Billy Wilder’s 1964 sex comedy, Kiss Me, Stupid. It was actually adapted from Anna Bonacci’s 1944 play, L’ora della fantasia [The Dazzling Hour], which, in turn, became the 19th century costume farce Wife for a Night (1952, aka Moglie per una notte), directed by Mario Camerini, a popular Italian film director who is best known for a number of 1930s hit comedies starring Vittorio de Sica and a 1954 version of the Greek myth Ulysses with Kirk Douglas. 

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Salvatore Samperi’s Cuore di Mamma

The late sixties were a time of social and political upheaval on an almost global scale but Italy, in particular, seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Bloody clashes between the police and student demonstrators, bombings and factory worker strikes were on the rise as rival political parties like the DC (Christian Democrats), PRI (Republican party) and PCI (communist party) vied for power. This turbulent time was reflected in some of the edgier, more troubling movies of that period by such major filmmakers as Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, 1966), Bernardo Bertolucci (Partner, 1968), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema [1968], Porcile [1969]), and Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970). Even more polarizing but less well-known is Cuore di Mamma (Mother’s Heart, 1969) by director Salvatore Samperi, which is much more of an avant-garde provocation than anything else. It was based on a story by Samperi and Sergio Bazzini (Dillinger is Dead) and fashioned into a screenplay by Dacia Maraini (The Future is Woman).

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Stop the World…I Want to Get Off!

No, I am not referring to the 1961 musical by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, which enjoyed successful stage productions in London and Broadway before being adapted for the screen in 1966. I’m talking about the 1970 satire, Fermate il Mondo…Voglio Scendere! (the title translates as Stop the World…I Want to Get Off! In English), which was the directorial debut of Italian actor Giancarlo Cobelli, based on a screenplay he wrote with fellow thespians Giancarlo Badessi and Laura Betti, a close friend and frequent collaborator with Pier Paolo Pasolini. The film is a frenzied attack on consumerism and the Italian media but its bursting-at-the-seams energy emanates not so much from outrage as it does from a madcap sense of anarchy.

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Through the Eyes of a Child

Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Citta Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) is generally acknowledged as the film that ushered in the neorealism movement and set the tone and style for the postwar Italian films that followed. But the roots of neorealism can be traced back to Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) and Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us (1944, I bambini ci guardano), both of which were filmed in 1942 but encountered distribution problems upon their release in the fall of 1942 when the war finally came to Italy and the bombings began. Ossessione was also the victim of Fascist censorship which reduced the film to less than half of its original running time and for years it was denied distribution in the U.S. due to an infringement of copyright (it was an uncredited adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice). The Children Are Watching Us didn’t fare any better during its limited release and for years it was a difficult film to see in its original form, even in its own country. 



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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?

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