Is sexuality the key to Italian cinema? Barry Forshaw asks this question at the very opening of his book Italian Cinema: Arthouse to Exploitation and it’s one that certainly bears consideration. After all, Italian cinema has given us glorious orgies of its silent cinema, followed by the swords and sandal films and then, via neorealism, the regeneration from noir to bourgeoisie that make this one of the most operatic of national cinema, reflected in the dazzling design and sumptuous scenarios that covers tales from romance and tragedy to horror and violence, oft strewn with blood and drenched with eroticism. Forshaw goes on to explain that there is, of course, far more to Italian cinema than this factor, noting the richness and energy to be found within so many of the nation’s films.

The book is structured to take in key movements of the national cinema and its creators, from the days of the neorealist aesthetic, starting with Luchino Visconti’s seminal and highly erotic (astonishingly so, compared with contemporary Hollywood) Ossessione (1943).Then follows the political subversion through the personal form of cinema, an ‘intellectual form of eroticism’, epitomised by such greats as Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. There is a welcome section on gialli, those deliciously stylish horror films, with emphasis on the works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento amongst others, which also notes the strange distribution these films endured outside of Italy, where poor dubbing and the censors’ scissors often provided a very different cinematic experience to the directors’ original intentions. Then follows a different form of the violence depicted in gialli as depicted in the ferocity of the Italian Westerns, more commonly known as Spaghetti Westerns. The Western as a genre had been in decline for many years following the cinematic greats of the 1930s, moving to the television format, but Sergio Leone launched the ‘man with no name’ trilogy which redefined what was an essentially American genre, whilst pilfering from Kurosawa on the way. Outside of the key films, their directors and genres there is plenty to seek your further attention such as Poliziotteschi films as well as modern films created after the year 2000, to ensure that the subject is bang up to date. Also welcome is the coverage of major television series, including the immensely popular Montalbano. After discussion of the movements, each chapter examines its important films in chronological order. The book concludes with a chapter on Italian cinema’s key film stars.

Forshaw casts a wide net on this loving examination of the country and its films, covering the areas in detail and with an obvious enthusiasm for his subject. Naturally in a book of this size there will be some omissions or films that can only be covered with a brief mention. It would have been marvellous to have more discussion on the silent epics and swords and sandals films. That said, if you are looking for an introduction to the wonderful world of Italian cinema, or indeed wishing to further your knowledge, this makes for ideal reading.

Italian cinema is often associated with iconic moments provided by Neorealism, but as the cult popularity of Dario Argento and the recent season at the Tate Modern dedicated to a season of B-films made between 1949 and 1981 seem to indicate, more populist strands are beginning to capture the public’s imagination. Pocket Essentials has just released a guide exploring the whole gamut of Italian Cinema , ranging from Arthouse to Exploitation. Written by Barry Forshaw, the book gives a complete chronological overview of the history of Italian cinema and includes special sections on key movies, directors and stars. Below is an lightly edited sample of the book’s introductory chapter.

The history of Italian cinema represents one of the most glorious and energetic celebrations of the medium of cinema that any nation has ever offered. For many years, this astonishing legacy was largely unseen, but the DVD revolution is making virtually everything available, from Steve Reeves’ muscle epics to long-unseen Italian art house movies, the latter often known to cinephiles by name only. The element of social commitment, often a key theme in neo-realism, gave way as the years progressed to delirious experiments with other genres (often with a strongly surrealistic overtone), but the one characteristic that most of the great (and not so great) Italian movies have in common is the sheer individualism of the directors. And this applies to the populist moviemakers, as much as to the giants of serious cinema. While Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni have rightly assumed their places in the pantheon, such talented popular auteurs as Sergio Leone have acquired a copper-bottomed following over the years, after the almost derisory reaction that their otherwise highly successful movies initially received – mainly due to the fact that Leone and Co. were using a popular genre, the Western, and doing something with it that no American director would dare to do, so radical was the rethink.

With the astonishing contributions over the centuries to the world of the arts (notably painting) that Italy was responsible for, it was hardly surprising that early silent Italian films were shot through with the same visual richness as the great works of such painters as Veronese and Caravaggio. Italian silent cinema is, of course, best remembered as being a great flowering of the epic and historical costume drama, notably the swarming, extras-packed Roman epics. La Presa di Roma (The Taking of Rome) in 1905 is often celebrated as the first important narrative movie, with its plot of the breaching of Porta Pia by Italian troops in the nineteenth century handled with great panache. A synthesis with the other arts was evident in the provision for music to accompany this film (this was, of course, the era of Respighi, whose highly coloured music is often disparagingly referred to as being like film music, as if that were the most deadly of criticisms).

Directors such as Giovanni Pastrone (born in 1883) showed an exuberant grasp of cinema in La Caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) in 1910, which demonstrated tremendous assurance in its use of massive crowds within equally massive sets. The same director’s Cabiria (1914), possibly the best known of all Italian silent films, and Mario Caserini’s Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompei The Last Days of Pompeii) in 1913, sounded a theme that was to reoccur in the grand days of the peplum epics. Few later versions of these epic themes had quite the panache of Pastrone’s and Caserini’s work. Cabiria was extensively hand-tinted (a technique utilised most notably in the US with Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera), and the staging of such scenes as that in which the heroine Cabiria is to be sacrificed to Moloch, the Carthaginian god, transcends (even to this day) the limitations of the silent era, and is still awe-inspiring.

Rather like the British cinema, the Italian cinema enjoyed periods of success followed immediately by hardship and crisis. A particularly swinging economic crisis decimated the industry after the First World War, despite the fact that Italian films had been selling successfully in the American market. The films, however, continued to be made for appreciative local audiences, often built around the burgeoning star system, carefully cultivated by the filmmakers of the day. And while these stars (such as the charismatic Lidia Borelli) are little known today, the acting style employed is often surprisingly low-key and modern, as witnessed by Borelli’s seductive performance in Mario Caserini’s Ma l’Amore Mio Non Muore (Love Everlasting, 1913). The sexuality of the films of this era is often surprisingly up-front; Il Serpente (The Serpent, 1919) is Roberto Roberti’s erotic epic, full of imagery that remains deeply sensuous even to this day. The silent era was dominated by celebrated actresses such as Maria Giacobini and Diana Karenne, with some equally charismatic male stars making an impression.

The other arts continued to influence the cinema, and often various movements attempted to utilise the medium for their own purposes, such as the Italian Futurists. After Marinetti’s celebrated manifesto (which took the art world by storm when it appeared in Le Figaro in 1909), it was only natural that the Futurists would be fascinated by the apparatus of cinema, with their preoccupation with the interaction of movement, the human figure and machinery. The essay ‘The Futurist Cinema’ (September 1916) made a strong plea for the cinema to embrace its essentially visual nature and become both impressionistic and dynamic.

Fascism and Neorealism

Certainly, the darkest days of the Italian nation were the fascist era, and if Italian cinema of the day simply provided no more than escapism, there were (inevitably) few chances for the directors to do much else. Various sloe-eyed Lolitas seduced their male co-stars, Maciste battled various nemeses (both natural and supernatural). The dark days began in earnest in 1934 with the appointment of Luigi Freddi as head of the Direzione Generale per la Cinematografia, which was as sympathetic to the fascist movement as Freddi himself. A fund for the creation of Italian films was created, and one of the key elements of Italian cinema also dated from this period: the now famous film complex Cinecittà, which no less a figure than Mussolini himself opened in April 1937. As Italy continued to be ruled by a fascist government (from the 1920s to the 1940s), Mario Camerini was a key figure in this period. His Rotaie (Rails, 1929) was a powerful study of love, which avoided dealing with the political realities of the day, as did Alessandro Blasetti with Sole (Sun, 1929), now a lost film. Blasetti made an important historical spectacle in Palio (1932), which dealt with the effects of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily on ordinary individuals of the period.

Looked at today, refreshingly few of the films produced during the fascist period show the crushing political orthodoxy one might expect (far less so, for instance, than the endless paeans of praise to Stalin made under duress by Russian directors after the communist revolution). Such films as Augusto Gianina’s L’Assedio di Alcazar (The Siege of Alcazar) described a fascist victory (Franco’s forces fighting the far greater numbers of a republican army), and the award of a Mussolini prize at the Venice film festival in 1937, hardly covers the film with glory, looked at from the present era.

But on the horizon was Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) which added a new level of sophistication and ambition to the Italian cinema, and took it far beyond the kind of material produced by the journeymen directors of Mussolini’s regime. After Il Duce’s fall in 1943, Rossellini produced such films as Un Pilota Ritorna (A Pilot Returns, 1942) and while still recognisably a propaganda piece, the Rossellini of the future was clearly in evidence.

Similarly, the aristocratic Luchino Visconti had been given a book that greatly impressed him, a French translation of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. From this he would make one of the great Italian films of sexuality and violence, Ossessione (Obsession, 1942), and the inglorious recent past of the Italian cinema quickly receded. An explosion of filmmaking was in the offing, with all genres up for grabs. But the overriding preoccupation for most directors of the period, whether they were from working or middle-class backgrounds (or from a more aristocratic upbringing, such as Visconti), was the life of the common man. And some of the greatest films produced in Italy would result from this preoccupation, before audiences and directors tired of realism and yearned for colour, spectacle and unbridled sexuality. And the industry was crammed with filmmakers perfectly prepared to give audiences just what they wanted –even if it upset the all-powerful Catholic Church.