Wallflower Press has for a little while now been publishing books in its series 24 Frames. The object of each book is to illustrate the national cinema of a particular country or set of countries through essays on 24 key films. A recent addition to this collection is The Cinema of Italy.
The strategy of the series is illustrated well in John David Rhodes’ essay on Divorzio all’Italiana/Divorce Italian Style (1961). He explains how Pietro Germi, hitherto a director not really known for his sense of humour, managed to deliver a highly stylised comedy which is rooted in the very real problems of Italian laws of the time. By extension, Rhodes hints at the reasons for the wild success of the whole cycle of ‘Italian-style’ sex comedies which sprung up in the wake of Divorzio all’Italiana, such as Vittorio de Sica’s Matrimonio all’Italiana/Marriage Italian Style (1964), Mario Monicelli’s Casanova 70 (1965) and Germi’s own Sedotta e Abbandonata/Seduced and Abandoned (1963).
Elsewhere, Peter Bondanella, author of the major book Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, does a great job of positioning Fellini’s La Strada within the post-neorealist urge represented by Rossellini and Antonioni, and Christopher Frayling delivers a typically lucid account of how Sergio Leone took a Japanese film and basically turned it into an Italian one, Per un Pugno di Dollari/Fistful of Dollars (1964). One of the strongest essays in the book is on Rossellini’s Paisa/Paisan (1946): Giuliana Muscio offers a perceptive dissection of the aesthetics of the movie and how they relate to the shooting conditions, the result being a key neorealist film.
And yet neorealism casts a long shadow over this book, perhaps longer than that which it casts over Italian cinema in general; although each individual essay is very well-thought-out and readable, the book as a whole has a slight whiff of the middle of the road. The introduction does go some way towards refuting criticisms of the selection of films; and I know that this series is not overly concerned with director-centred criticism or with including works from as many major filmmakers as possible, but even so, I felt it a little heavy-handed that, in only twenty-four films, we get two Fellinis (La Strada and 8 ½), two De Sicas (Ladri di biciclette and La Ciociara) and two Viscontis (Senso and Rocco e i suoi fratelli). I mean, Sophia Loren is magnificent, of course, but what else is there to say, really, about La Ciociara? Whereas, for example, Gian Maria Volonte is given short shrift despite leading roles in some of the key Italian movies of the past forty years, such as Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu/For a Few Dollars More (1965), Indagine su un Cittadino al di Sopra di Ogni Sospetto/Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), Il Caso mattei/The Mattei Affair (1972) and Porte aperte/Open Doors (1990).
And fourteen out of the twenty-four are taken from the years 1955 to 1975; the book admits this bias, but still one wonders why, in the past-twenty-five years, only two films could be summoned up for inclusion: Nanni Moretti’s Caro diario/Dear Diary (1994) and Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica (1995). I mustn’t fall into the trap of criticising the book for what it’s not. But I’d have liked a fuller investigation into the strain of sentimentality and whimsy which runs through much Italian moviemaking and which, surely, has done as much (for good or ill) as, say, neorealism in taking Italian cinema to an international level. All of the films here receive praise and stringent analysis to the point that I found myself wondering what these writers would do with, say, films by Tornatore or Salvatores (even though I myself like a lot of their work). But that’s another book.