The Italian New Wave
The Italian wave of the sixties was hardly as defined as that of the British or the French. In the movement that was called British Kitchen Sink realism, most of the filmmakers were new to fiction filmmaking, with a number of them coming from either criticism/and or documentary. Equally most of the French filmmakers of the Nouvelle vague had made fictional shorts, documentaries and/or worked as critics. They were young filmmakers making feature films for the first time. In Italy, though, some of the filmmakers who were impacting on cinema as significantly as those in France, and more significantly than those in Britain, were already well established. Luchino Visconti debuted with Ossessione in 1942, Michelangelo Antonioni made his first film at the beginning of the fifties with A Chronicle of a Love Story, and Federico Fellini made I Vitelloni in 1953. Here were directors entering the sixties with professional experience rather than youthful enthusiasm, yet we look on the period of early sixties Italian cinema aware that the work was as distinctive as their immediate neighbour. It was true that there were also two other important directors that added a sense of dynamism. Poet Pier Paolo Pasolini made Accatone in 1961, and his assistant director, Bernardo Bertolucci, debuted a year later with The Grim Reaper, joining Antonioni, Fellini and Visconti as the five key filmmakers of the era. But though these are the five to whom we'll be paying attention, it would be remiss to ignore a number of other directors that gave Italian cinema its depth. We often hear how great football teams have players on the reserve bench that would make it into any other first eleven, and perhaps this could be true of Italian cinema of the period. Francesco Rosi was a politically inclined filmmaker whose sixties and early seventies films included Salvatore Giuliano and The Mattei Affair, while Marco Bellocchio first film, 1965's Fist in the Pocket, was a ferocious look at an epileptic in an upper middle-class family. Two other filmmakers worth searching out are Ermanno Olmi (The Job, The Engagement) and Valerio Zurlini (Violent Summer, The Girl with a Suitcase).
Concentrating on Antonioni, Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini and Bertolucci, though, should be sufficient to indicate the aesthetic innovation of this great period in Italian film, and how interestingly it was not a movement for all its formal beauty that would claim to be craft based, based on the technical efficiency of the filmmakers involved. Whether it is Bertolucci insisting that "to make a film it is not necessary to know anything technical at all" (The Film Director as Superstar), Pasolini more interested in the theoretical questions of film form than technical issues (in his essays in Heretical Empiricism), or Ingmar Bergman claiming that Antonioni "in a very strange way has always remained an amateur" (The Bergman Interviews), Italian cinema may have often been visually more rich than the French cinema of the time, but this isn't quite the same thing as saying technically brilliant.
Yet perhaps we need to break apart that word technical before proceeding. When Bertolucci says in Directing the Film, "I'm very meticulous and boring about camera movement...I tell the cameraman exactly the point..." this isn't quite technical perfectionism. Ditto, when Fellini reckons "Light is the very substance of a film. In film...light is ideology, feeling, color, tone profundity, atmosphere, storytelling...Light excavates a face or smooths it out, creates expression where none exists, endows dullness with intelligence, makes the insipid seductive." Let's propose their comments are formal rather than technical, and contrast it with a fine remark by Hitchcock, acknowledged by George Cukor as "a master. He is an absolute master." (Directing the Film) Vital to this mastery is manipulation of perspective, and Hitchcock gives as an example "say you are at a boxing match and you are eight to ten rows back: well you get a very different effect if you are in the first row, looking up under those ropes...that's why barroom brawls in westerns are always a bore for me, because one man hits the other, the table collapses and he falls back over the bar. If they would do a few big close-ups here and there, it would be much more exciting, instead of looking at it from a distance." (Directing the Film). However, it is this very distance Antonioni offers in a fight scene in The Passenger, as he views the fight from outside the room in which it is taking place. Is this failed technique on Antonioni's part - as Hitchcock would see all these bar room brawls failing to maximise the potential of cinema? - or is it that questions of form and feeling trump technical necessity? Equally, when Hitchcock talks of lighting and camerawork he focuses on the latter over the former, as if camerawork represents craft and lighting the elusiveness of form. For Fellini, it is this elusiveness that seems to fascinate.
It was as though the Italian filmmakers of the period were not quite pushing technique (as Hollywood cinema may have felt it needed to do in the desire to stay a step ahead of television), nor even generating new forms first and foremost (as if, like the French New Wave, in opposition to Hollywood), but were allowing reality and the other art forms into the material. Antonioni's use of the long-shot over Hitchcockian dramatics doesn't seem contrary (as for example Godard's Bande a Part's amusingly self-conscious reaction shots to Anna Karina during a fight scene); they seem almost architectural. Antonioni has the habit of capturing characters in a space that dwarfs them, and so any human action (from a fight scene to a lovemaking moment, again evident in The Passenger) can be filmed from a distance that might militate against suspense, but reveals elements of the place buildings have in our lives. Antonioni may have been the most innovative of the Italian filmmakers (and as important as Godard in France), but he seemed to innovate through seeing film neither as conformist nor oppositional, but incorporative, and numerous critics have commented on the importance of not only architecture but also painting on Antonioni's work. Angela Dalle Vache in an essay on 'Antonioni's Red Desert' looks at some of the director's comments and concludes: "from whose standpoint is Antonioni, therefore, speaking? When the director offers these statements, does he define himself as a filmmaker, or as a painter, or as an architect?"
Both Bertolucci and Pasolini started out as poets before moving into cinema, Visconti often directed operas, and Fellini believed that on his work the "most valuable contributor of all, I can say without a second thought, was composer Nino Rota." Here were filmmakers utilising film but acknowledging, coming from, or working with, other art forms. To talk of technique would be to miss the issue of innovation through aesthetic incorporation. When Pasolini theorises on film in Heretical Empiricism he does so often using developments in literary theory.
Pasolini mused over the notion of free indirect vision which he sees in modern cinema that comes out of literature, the way an author will enter into a character's attitude, tone of voice etc. without relying on speech as he captures a place between third person narrative and quotation marks. He saw that modern film was doing something similar, removing itself from an impersonal recording of event and narrative, to become a medium in which the director possessed a new freedom. "The poetic nature of classical films was thus not obtained using a specifically poetic language. This means they were not poems, but stories." Pasolini, the poet, fiction writer and literary theorist, finds in the cinema of the sixties a poetic dimension hitherto un-accessed, by borrowing from the devices of fiction for the cinematically poetic. Though in this article titled 'The Cinema of Poetry' he talks of films by Godard, Bertolucci and Antonioni, his own work would surely be equally pertinent. Indeed Gilles Deleuze, writing in Cinema 1: The Movement Image, reckons "Pasolini might have added himself...to his list of examples. "Pasolini's cinema is a poetic consciousness, which is not strictly aestheticist or technicist, but rather mystical or 'sacred'". Deleuze talks of vulgarity and bestiality in the director's characters, but also sees reflected in them a "pure poetic consciousness", a consciousness we see in Accatone, Mamma Roma, Theorem and others. Sometimes the miracle will take concrete form: as we see in The Gospel According to St Matthew with the loaves and the fishes, or the maid suspended in mid-air in Theorem, or will lie in the anomalies of form and feeling, as in Accatone and Mama Roma. In the latter examples, courseness of character is countered by the feeling in form. The use of Bach and Vivaldi might not be music one would expect the characters themselves to listen to (and the music is non-diegetic, imposed from outside the story), but it is music their souls comprehend. This is the miracle of possibility: between the daily grind of a life and its potential capacity. It is as though Pasolini wanted to utilise cinema to work through his fascination with both Marxism and the needs of the people, and Catholicism and the needs of the soul. Often his films formally don't play by the rules but create unusual juxtapositions, often moving, as in Oedipus Rex, from establishing shots to abrupt close-ups. Always a great director of locations (the use of Morocco in Oedipus Rex, Turkey in Medea, Ethiopia and Nepal in Arabian Nights), Pasolini would rarely 'establish' a shot in conventional film vocabulary: he would instead offer it as a moving frame, as if a painter contained by the needs of the theological. "There is nothing more sacred than a slow panoramic shot" he would say (Passion and Defiance).
After working on Pasolini's debut feature Accatone, Bernardo Bertolucci promptly made a film of his own, The Grim Reaper. But it was Before the Revolution that suggested an important filmmaker, someone willing to seek out a specific form to reflect the tormented content. Here one character commits suicide early on after apparently being unable to commit to a meaning he can believe in, and thus afterwards the central figure, Fabrizio, accepts that Marxism will give his life an underpinning sense of purpose even if he happens to be living comfortably in an Italian society before the revolution. Whether he happens to be practising bad faith is another question, but Bertolucci seeks out a form where the questioning of the characters isn't only dialectically between the characters, but also dialectically in the film's presentation. At one moment a character talks of the importance of morality and the camera, and later on, in a discussion between Fabrizio and his professor, Bertolucci breaks with conventional film grammar as the viewer tries to follow the conversation at the same time as the characters are immersed in a dialogue about political action. Most films would shoot it in a shot-counter/shot manner: with 30/40 degree shifts from character to character. But as Sarah A. Casey points out in Carte Italiane: "first Cesare sits down on a bench on the right side of the frame. Fabrizio enters the frame from the right and the camera quickly repositions itself 180%." It is as though there is something in the political question that forces its way into the form, that compels Bertolucci to shape the form according to the bad faith or false consciousness of his character and that must be questioned by the very filmmaking. It is not that the Italians weren't interested in form, it was just that one could often trace in other areas the source of their innovation. In this instance Marx.
This freshness is also evident in 1970's The Spider's Stratagem, where Bertolucci combines Freud with his earlier interest in Marx and the form is once again called into question. Here we have a young man searching out his father's life and discovering it was not quite the virtuous anti-fascist existence a statue in the town square indicates. Throughout the film Bertolucci captures Magnani Jnr in a vortex of meaning, and to do so breaks the 180% rule in a moment where Magnani continues riding in one direction but because of the cut looks like he is cycling back the other way. In another scene where the present and the past dissolve into each other, Magnani Snr's lover from the past is talking to Magnani Jnr and during the reverse cutting ends up talking to Magnani Snr. It as if the young Bertolucci (only twenty one when he made his directorial debut), and a poet since the age of twelve, wanted to take the institution of cinema less seriously than his own aesthetic expression.
Ostensibly, however, the most personal of the Italian filmmakers of the sixties was Fellini. After all 8 12; was named after the number of features and a short that the director had made up until 1962, and concentrated on a filmmaker almost identical to the director. Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido, a director caught in the flow of life and trying to make a film out of his experiences all the while his experiences are hampering creative activity. As the semiologist Christian Metz perplexingly put it in Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema: "If 8/12; differs from other films that are doubled, it is not only because this "doubling" is more systematic or more central, but also and above all, because it functions differently. For 8/12;, one should be careful to realize, is a film that is doubly doubled - and when one speaks of it as having a mirror construction, it really is a double mirror construction one should be talking about." Here is a film not only about a film in the making, but a film that disappears into the indiscernible as the film becomes lost in the reflections, thoughts and dreams of its leading character. What is fact, what is fiction and what is reverie becomes a stream of cinematic consciousness. Fellini here allows film to adopt some of the techniques of literature, as the modernist experimentation with fictional form in Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and others, find their way into cinema, and he finds a method with which to offer up the immensely personal.
Fellini's previous film was La dolce vita, an international success that maybe more than any other Italian work of the sixties defined the decade because for all Fellini's pessimism, evidenced in the Marcello Mastroianni character who procrastinates his way through the film, the form remains exuberant. Whether it is through Nina Rota's music, the frequent crane shots, or the appealing locations (none more so than the Tevi fountain where Anita Ekberg's movie star takes a dip) Fellini creates a world that is seductive. If Antonioni had the habit of proposing that life is elsewhere through the preoccupied characters, Fellini's are in the eye of the storm, or more appropriately at the heart of the circus. Where Antonioni's characters often give the impression that they can seem distracted from the event, Fellini's figures in La dolce vita and 8frac12; seem distracted from their purpose by the event. There is always something exciting they can get wrapped up in and swept along by. Indeed this is vital to Fellini's mid-fifties film La Strada, where the central character's constant carousing and womanizing leads him to miss how important a woman he mainly ignores happens to be in his life.
If Fellini's characters lose themselves in the moment to the detriment of a more meaningful self, and Antonioni's characters seem to be on the edge of events as if looking to enter them even when they would seem central to the good life (the writer Marcello Mastroianni in La notte, Thomas in Blow Up, David Locke in The Passenger), Luchino Visconti is fascinated by characters placed slightly outside of the moment by the nature of the temporal. Deleuze has written brilliantly on Visconti in Cinema 2: The Time Imageand talks of the director's 'too lateness', the manner in which his characters have somehow missed their moment in life as it comes to them at the 'wrong' time. Deleuze mentions Death in Venice, Conversation Piece, The Leopard and even his first film Ossessione. Whether it is the musician in Death in Venice finding his great love in a young boy as he is an old man, or the aging figure in Conversation Piece who sees that a petty criminal is his natural heir in culture and a perfect lover in life, time is out of joint for these figures. But it is most especially exemplified in that great moment in The Leopard where Burt Lancaster's character dances with the much younger Claudia Cardinale, and they realise that if they weren't more than a generation apart, and if Cardinale didn't belong to his nephew, that they would be the love of each other's lives.
Visconti's influences were not the same as those of Fellini and Antonioni. If Fellini's work often invokes the circus, and Antonioni's architecture, Visconti was the most operatic of Italian directors, and the most given to a richness of mise-en-scene. Antonioni's work might often have invoked painting, but in Visconti's films the art work often makes it onto the walls. When other directors (like Antonioni in Identification of a Woman, or Francesco Rosi in Illustrious Corpses) offer a decadent mise-en-scene in party sequences, it is not their own work that comes to mind, but Visconti's. Part of Visconti's too lateness resides in showing a bourgeoisie lost in codes of behaviour inexplicable to others and belonging to an era which is all the more decadent for being part of a previous time. As Deleuze says, paraphrasing a character in The Leopard: "we do not understand these rich, because they have created a world to themselves, whose laws we are unable to grasp, and where what seems to us secondary or even inopportune takes on an extraordinary urgency and importance; their motives always escapes us like rites whose religion is not known..." (Cinema 2: The Time Image)
In sum, Italian cinema of the sixties can be distinguished from other movements of the time like the Nouvelle vague and Kitchen Sink Realism in that where the former was in the broadest and most interesting sense generally (though far from exclusively) oppositional, and the British wave a realist movement drawing on what it perceived to be life, the genius of many of the Italian films was their ability to draw upon numerous other art forms and disciplines. It is a point encapsulated nicely by an Antonioni remark. "My films are always works of research. I do not consider myself a director who has already mastered his profession, but one who is continuing his search and studying his contemporaries." (The Architecture of Vision).
© Tony McKibbin