Italian Culture - Cinema

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Part 2 - From the 1950s to the 1970s

Italian cinema from the 1950s to 1960s

Neorealism was the first postwar film movement to reject past conventions and studio production techniques, and had enormous influence on subsequent movements such as British Social Realism, Brazilian Cinema Nôvo, and French and Czech New Wave. It also created the practices of shooting on location using natural lighting and postsynchronizing sound that later became standard in the film industry. Despite its influence, in the 1950s Neorealism disappeared as a distinct movement. Italian cinema nevertheless remained prominent through the works of highly talented directors who began their careers as Neorealists and went on to produce their major work during the 1960s and 1970s.

These were the years of Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti: each of these directors possessed personal characteristics that could not be found in their colleagues. Their daily bread was the dynamics of existence, the human drama, but they always paid attention to history and the context in which their stories took place.

Actresses such as Sophia Loren, Giulietta Masina, and Gina Lollobrigida achieved international stardom during this time, and we mustn’t forget Anna Magnani, who already was a great interpreter of neorealist masterpieces.

Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in Matrimonio all’italiana, 1964.

Matrimonio all'italiana

Luchino Visconti (1906 – 1976), one of the fathers of Italian Neorealism, reinvented himself by proposing a cinema that was attentive to history and current social affairs. His most important films of this period: Bellissima, 1951, Senso, 1954, Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960, Il Gattopardo, 1963.

Federico Fellini (1920 – 1993) had worked as a scriptwriter for Roberto Rossellini before directing in the 1950s an impressive series of films that were neorealist in form but allegorical in content: I vitelloni, 1953; La strada, 1954; Le notti di Cabiria, 1956. In the 1960s, Fellini’s work became increasingly surrealistic: La dolce vita, 1960; Otto e mezzo, 1963; Giulietta degli spiriti, 1965; Satyricon. The masterpieces that followed are milestones in the history of Italian cinema, such as Roma, 1972; Amarcord, 1974, and La città delle donne, 1980.

La dolce vita

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La dolce vita, 1960.

Michelangelo Antonioni (1912 – 2007) had also worked with Rossellini. During the 1950s he put the Italian bourgeoisie under the magnifying glass in films such as Cronaca di un amore, 1950; La signora senza camelie,1953; and Le amiche, 1955; in the early 1960s he produced a trilogy on the discomfort of the middle class that made him internationally famous: L’avventura, 1959; La notte, 1960, and L’eclisse, 1962.

In the 1960s a second postwar generation of directors emerged: Pierpaolo Pasolini (1922 – 1975), previously a scriptwriter for Fellini, achieved international recognition with Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964, a brilliant semidocumentary reconstruction of the life of Christ. Pasolini directed a series of astonishing, often outrageous films that presented a Marxist interpretation of history and myth: Edipo re,1967; Teorema,1968; Porcile,1969; Medea,1969. A special mention goes to Uccellacci e uccellini, 1969, where he employed in the same film actors taken from the street, without any acting experience, and sacred monsters of cinematography like Totò. He believed that some characters required extreme interpretations: the natural brutality or lightness of the amateur and the background and experience of a professional actor. Like Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci (1941 – 2018) was a Marxist intellectual whose films attempt to correlate sexuality, ideology, and history; among his masterpieces are Il conformista, 1970; Ultimo tango a Parigi, 1972; and Novecento, 1976. Other important Italian filmmakers include Francesco Rosi Marco Bellocchio, Ettore Scola, Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani, and Lina Wertmüller.

Pane, amore e fantasia

In parallel, a new genre flourished during the 1950s that had widespread popular success. This cinema did not criticise reality, but simply provided fun and distraction, while still keeping in mind the neorealist legacy: realistic settings and popular characters continued to be proposed. The so-called pink neorealism offered sentimental comedy plots and happy endings: films such as Pane, amore e fantasia (1953), directed by Mario Comencini, or heartbreaking, tearful stories such as Catene (1949), directed by Raffaello Matarazzo. In this context, an important role was played by Totò's films, which were often based almost exclusively on the huge professional skills of the great comedian, directed by Steno, Mastrocinque, Bragaglia, and even by Pasolini in his last great performance as leading actor. Later on, other major directors of Italian comedy films were undoubtedly Mario Monicelli, Ettore Scola, Dino Risi, and Mario Comencini.

The films made by these directors contributed to the birth of "stars", the leading actors that were so popular with the public at the time: Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Nino Manfredi, Monica Vitti, and many others. These great actors are still part of the culture and collective imagination of our country, a sort of common heritage, with which many of us still identify.

La commedia all’italiana, 1958-1975

The commedia all’italiana was born in the late 1950s: I soliti ignoti, directed by Monicelli in 1958, can be considered its starting point. While maintaining the objective of making the public smile, this genre often questioned the dominant values in society at the time and proposed a critical approach to reality. The attitude was amused, but also bitter, and the happy ending was not at all taken for granted. Many of these films targeted the habits of Italians during the economic boom (Il sorpasso, Risi, 1962; I mostri, Risi, 1963), the double morality of the wealthy (Signore e signori, Germi, 1966), the backwardness of southern traditions (Sedotta e abbandonata, Germi, 1964). Others criticised laws and privileges in a country that had not yet experienced the reforms of the 1970s (Divorzio all'italiana, Germi, 1961; Il medico della mutua, Zampa, 1968; Prigioniero in attesa di giudizio, Loy, 1971). The great actors and actresses of Italian comedy - the ones mentioned above, and others such as Claudia Cardinale, Stefania Sandrelli, Monica Vitti, Mariangela Melato - left a deep mark on Italian cinema.

Amore mio aiutami

Alberto Sordi and Monica Vitti in Amore mio aiutami, 1969.

Spaghetti Western


Spaghetti Western is a subgenre of Italian-produced Western films from the 1960s and 1970s. Such films were generally shot in Italy or Spain and, in rare cases, in other Mediterranean countries. The leading director of this genre was Sergio Leone (1929 – 1989), who directed famous works such as Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), starring Clint Eastwood as a ruthless antihero. A huge success, A Fistful of Dollars made Eastwood an international movie star and led to two sequels: Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More, 1965), and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966). The last film of the trilogy is regarded as a masterpiece: C’era una volta il West (Once upon a Time in the West, 1968), starring Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. Django is a 1966 Spaghetti Western film directed and co-written by Sergio Corbucci, starring Franco Nero. Django has garnered a large following outside of Italy and is widely regarded as one of the best films of this genre. Nero also made a cameo appearance in Quentin Tarantino's 2012 film Django Unchained, as a homage to Corbucci's original. These films were extremely successful financially, attracting large audiences throughout the world.

Part 1: From the beginnings to the 1950s

Film Genres in Italian

commedia - Comedy
documentario - Documentary
film comico - Slapstick comedy
film d'amore - Romance
film d'animazione - Animation
film d'avventura - Adventure
film d'azione - Action
film dell'orrore - Horror
film di cappa e spada - Historical adventure, knights & musketeers
film di fantascienza - Science fiction
film di guerra - War & Military
film di spionaggio - Spy & Espionage
film drammatico - Drama
film giallo - Mystery & Crime
film in costume - Period & Costume
film poliziesco - Detective & Crime
film storico - Historical drama
film western - Western

Further readings

For more in-depth information about this topic, we recommend:

Peter Bondanella, A History of Italian Cinema (2009)

Giorgio Bertellini, The Cinema of Italy (2005)

Peter Bondanella, The Films of Federico Fellini (Cambridge Film Classics, 1996)

Federico Fellini, Fellini on Fellini (1996)

Gian Piero Brunetta, Guida alla storia del cinema italiano: 1905-2003 (Italian, 2016)

Giancarlo Governi, Vittorio De Sica: Un maestro chiaro e sincero (Italian, 2016)

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