Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Love for Italian Cinema/Why is Recent Italian Cinema So Bad?

Phony advertising at its worst

Years ago I made up a list of my top ten movies and when I finished it and examined it I was startled to find that it was dominated by Italians and Italian-Americans. The list included The Godfather, Part 11 and Apocalypse Now (Coppola of course), La Strada (Fellini), Mean Streets (Scorsese) plus Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's A Wonderful Life, two films directed by an American born in Sicily, Frank Capra. Six out of the ten films thus had an Italian element to them and the other four were Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Mike Nichols, a German-American), Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, Swedish) and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus (so the Czechs, in the form of Milos Forman, also did quite well).

Though my top ten might look a little different now - films like Heat and A One and A Two would be vying for a place in there - these ten films would still make my top 20 at least and they all still seem to me far superior to Citizen Kane and Vertigo, the two movies that excited so much comment and comparison when the latter overtook the former as No.1 in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of best ever films. To me those two and other high-placing perennials of that list like La Règle Du Jeu, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Potemkin and The Searchers are all great, but they don’t quite have the raw power needed to make them personal favourites of mine.

The films that really do it for me, whether it is due to the input of Italians or not, all have a very strong emotional element to them. Now the term ‘emotional’ is of course a dirty word in film criticism because it’s often taken to be a sign of manipulative film-making, of a facile director pushing buttons to make those tear-ducts well up. Even for those of us who are not ashamed to say we cry at movies, this question of what is real emotion and what is falsely contrived can be a very vexed one, since individuals have such divergent reactions. Steven Spielberg sometimes gets accused of being manipulative and E.T. for example has always left me with completely dry eyes. On the other hand there are parts of Saving Private Ryan that get me every time. The tragic young deaths in movies such as Terms of Endearment, Titanic and Million Dollar Baby didn’t move me much, yet Tokyo Story really affected me, as did cartoons like Grave of the Fireflies and Toy Story 3.

When it comes to the films in that old top ten of mine, however, most of which did indeed make me cry, I consider them to be in a realm so elevated that if anyone mentioned the term ‘button-pushing’ in connection with them, I would think of that person as a completely obtuse horse’s ass. It’s not the way I experienced them at all, and they seem far more powerful, and far less saccharine, than such a term implies. Watching those films it felt to me like I experienced a higher reality, and I finally reacted with tears only because by that point I was in a state of wonder and awe. 

These films are properly ‘operatic’ (there’s that Italian connection again) in that they create mood upon mood upon mood until the cumulative effect is overwhelming. And while I’ve never had that experience whilst listening to an actual opera, I’m guessing it’s similar to the extreme emotion an opera-lover feels when he hears a very beautiful and dramatic aria. Apparently this is what happens sometimes and grown men do cry when they listen to Verdi et al in a public setting. I know this because I’ve seen it in movies - movies like The Untouchables, directed by Italian-American Brian De Palma. There it’s De Niro as Al Capone doing the weeping (while he’s simultaneously having Sean Connery’s cop character murdered) but no one said you have to be a saint to have these feelings…

So having said all that, it’s ironic that, after watching Nanni Moretti’s We Have A Pope recently, it struck me how bad Italian cinema has been for a long time. Even though most of that top 10 were Italian-American rather than strictly Italian, there’s no doubt that in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s there were many interesting directors in Italy. I’m not a fan of Pasolini or, generally, Antonioni, and I think Fellini was very uneven, but still there were brilliant films like Fellini's two best works, La Strada and Amarcord, plus Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1971). Since then, however, it seems like a wasteland. 

I quite liked Moretti as a director before this latest film: Dear Diary was a fun piece of fluff and The Son’s Room is the one really excellent Italian film I’ve seen from the last 30 years. Plus he’s a really likeable performer. But We Have A Pope was an embarrassing mess. Firstly, there’s not enough of him in it. It was sold on the ‘Pope meets psychiatrist’ angle, with Moretti as the latter, yet they have hardly any scenes together. Instead the Pope goes wandering around Rome incognito. He doesn’t really do or say anything of consequence. He meets a theatre troupe but that’s just an excuse to quote a lot of lines from Chekhov, as if the screenwriters despaired of their own words and thought this might save them. Meanwhile back at the Vatican all the cardinals have a volleyball tournament. It’s done in a really lame way, and the ending of the film is a total damp squib.

We Have A Pope got quite good reviews. But then so did Gomorrah and Il Divo and Le Quattro Volte. These three in fact got excellent reviews. Yet Gomorrah was over-rated, Il Divo was a bore and Le Quattro Volte was one of the most ludicrously unwatchable films ever made. Don’t Move was an Italian film from 2004 and that too was kind of dry and pointless. Then there was Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997), widely regarded as the worst film to ever win a major Oscar. British cinema was famously scorned by Francois Truffaut, who said that the words ‘British’ and ‘cinema’ didn’t deserve to be in the same sentence together. But in recent decades it has had Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle amongst others, without even including the many Brits who make movies exclusively in the US, like Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott. And France of course always has interesting things going on in its cinema. 

But the last really interesting Italian director was Bernardo Bertolucci, and he hasn’t made a good film since The Last Emperor (1987). His more recent films like Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers simply confirm the decline of Italian cinema. I may be being a little unfair because I only know the Italian films that win international renown and I have certainly seen more recent British movies - but when even the most acclaimed Italian movies are all bad, it seems to me there must be something going wrong. Is it that Italian writers and directors don’t try anymore because they think their country already has enough beautiful art? Is complacency the problem? Or has Berlusconi’s reign corrupted the cultural landscape? Are his TV stations to blame? What is it exactly? It seems very strange that a country with such a rich cinematic history is not doing a lot better.

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