A City on Film, 1945-1980
January 8 to February 11, 2016
The stage for the first Film Museum retrospective in the new year is set in one of the great metropolises of old Europe: Rome, the proverbial Eternal City, enveloped in ancient as well as latter-day myths. However, in the light of this show, Rome is made thoroughly present and concrete, as habitat and focal point of the social development of postwar Italy. The years spanning from 1945 to 1980 also denote the Golden Age of Italian cinema – and Rome was not merely the center of production for the era, it acted as a prime location for the kinds of stories keenly lapped up by mass audiences; back then, before the triumph of commercial television, social reality and the public sphere of mainstream cinema were still intimately intertwined.
Rome was captured in the midst of its contemporary transformations by the major “artistic” filmmakers such as Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini just as much as by the brilliant minds of comedy (Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi or Ettore Scola), and by auteurs such as Luciano Emmer, Pietro Germi or Mauro Bolognini, the majority of whose work still awaits rediscovery. Their projections of the city are populated by a rich gallery of idiosyncratic types and exceptional actors such as Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Magnani, Vittorio Gassman and Monica Vitti, Totò, the king of Italian comedy, and Alberto Sordi, a performer who truly embodied the uomo italiano of the postwar decades.
Sordi is also the one who guides the retrospective along a path leading from postwar neorealism (Sotto il sole di Roma), through the heyday of Commedia all'italiana (with its satirical, wrathful and melancholic gaze directed at the economic miracle, urban growth, escalating consumerism and its accompanying alienation) up to visions of absolute collapse. The maddening congestion in Luigi Comencini's L'ingorgo (1979) brings the program to a finale: an all-star cast finds itself imprisoned on the GRA beltway encircling Rome – the "closed" city as an allegorical counterpoint to the historical entry, Roberto Rossellini's classic Rome, Open City (1945).
Rossellini's unvarnished portrait of devastation and human plight was instrumental in the worldwide success of neoverismo. Meanwhile, Fascist romanità continued to exert a formative influence on the city. Mussolini's regime had turned Rome into a prestigious showcase, emptying the city centre of the undesirable poor, displaced to numerous precarious borgate, sub-proletarian settlements on the distant periphery, leaving nothing but a few solitary ancient monuments in their wake. As millions streamed in from the poor South in the aftermath of the war, the trend carried on – housing shortage and illegal speculation make up the historical backdrop of dramas (Roma ore 11, 1952) as well as comedies (in Totò cerca casa from 1949, Totò attempts to move into the colosseum). Simultaneously, Luciano Emmer's Domenica d'agosto (1950) delivers a cross section of Roman popular culture with its weekenders gathered on the beach of Ostia, while Fellini's fake fotoromanzi in Lo sceicco bianco (1952) or Antonioni's case study of a starlet, La signora senza camelie (1953), already bring these realistic images of Rome face to face with the false promises of newly stirred up escapist fantasies.
In fact, the studio-town of Cinecittà (inaugurated by Mussolini in 1937) and its imaginary Rome play merely the role of vanishing point in the retrospective. In Visconti's Bellissima (1951), Anna Magnani sacrifices everything for the film career of her talentless daughter; similar hopes (attended by graver disillusionment) run through Antonio Pietrangeli's sad and beautiful ballad to the boom era, Io la conoscevo bene (1965). By that time, the glamour of the cinematic metropolis appears long dimmed, a ghostly world of paparazzi and ennui as depicted in Fellini's La dolce vita, boasting the greatest collection of modern movie icons of Rome. That same year, the famous scene of Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi fountain is joined by a completely different view of the same location in Monicelli's Risate di gioia, starring Magnani and Totò – one of many examples of the prismatic image of Roman locations created by the films in this program.
Amid the stock exchange frenzy and the "apocalyptic" final scene of a deserted city, Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962) examines the increasing urban estrangement of the upper classes. Pasolini's passions or Raffaele Andreassi's portrayals of prostitutes (L'amore povero, 1963) depict the phenomenon in the lower classes, revealing everyday Roman habitats utterly devoid of any glamour. Fellini ventured into the borgate for 1957's Le notti di Cabiria but, in Pasolini's opinion, not far enough: his own protagonists, in Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), live on the very outskirts of the city in sub-proletarian misery.
Corruption by way of consumerism and conformism is the underside of the boom. The levelling effect of television first manifests itself in the 1960s, at the same time as mass motorization wipes out street culture: the new "workforce conveyor belts" drive out public meeting places, as boccia clubs and dance halls give way to shopping centers. While in Domenica d'agosto cars were still an exception, by the time of L’ingorgo they have become the symbol of inexorable calamity – consequently tapered to a point in the ubiquitous beltway congestion, indispensable even in Fellini's Roma (1972), his final tribute to the capital.
In C'eravamo tanti amati (1977), an updating of Dino Risi’s and Alberto Sordi’s central work Una vita difficile (1961), Ettore Scola casts one last melancholy gaze at the lost ideals of the past decades before the collapse arrives: in Scola's own Ugly, Dirty and Bad (1976) and for Sordi as An Average Little Man (1977). The public sphere has shrunk, social options have dwindled, but Rome remains infinitely great. "Whoever should observe the phenomenon of this city, growing from year to year, month to month, day to day," writes Pasolini, "is bound to notice that the eye seems to be the sole means of gaining insight." For five weeks, the eye can now roam this city, gaining insight into the layers of Rome – and beyond.
The retrospective is presented in cooperation with the Cineteca Nazionale and Istituto Luce – Cinecittà, with the kind support of the Italian Cultural Institute in Vienna.