It’s About Neo-Realism

21st Century Italian Cinema

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

Today’s Italian cinema, follows Italian neo-realism, keeps in touch with reality in colour, and adequately reflects the contemporary world even in modern versions of archetypal myths. Moving outside any fancy cultural insularity, today’s Italian films are devoted to the chaos of contemporary civilization.

Gianfranco Rosi : ‘‘Sacro Gra—Sacro Graa/Holy Grail’’ (2013, Italy, colour, Italian, 82 mins) by Gianfranco Rosi is a documentary on the 43.5 miles freeway, Rome’s Grande A, the most extensive urban highway in Italy. The diversity of disparate lives are filmed where the editing brings out the choral and the solo. Concrete pylons rise above river, fields and low-rise urban sprawl. Buildings without any distinguishing features, palm-tree groves, seedy caravans and flocks of sheep occupy spaces around the thoroughfare. The connecting thread offered by human lives near the highway’s edge and the landscape is elusive, just as the medieval Holy Grail. Roberto works as an EMS worker in an ambulance, skypes with two relatives, and cares for his elderly mother. Scientist Francesco catalogues palm trees, ravaged by the red palm weevil. Palm trees are defenceless against hundreds of insects. Metaphors can be drawn. Cesare, an eel fisherman on the Tiber river, recalls what existed before the GRA was built. Traditions are endangered. Filippo is a proprietor of a house emporium, full of furniture and fake statues, rented out for movie sets. A fixed camera located outside and above a main window, documents Paolo, a former northern noble and daughter Amelia. Ageing prostitutes and go-go dancers make brief appearances. A crowd stares into the sun, hoping of signs from the Virgin Mary. Coffins are removed from ossuaries in a cemetery, to be destroyed shortly. Rossi does not offer explanations, nor inter-actions with the camera. Well off people do not live next to highways. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel ‘‘Invisible Cities’’ and an original idea by Nicolo Bassetti, ‘‘Sacro GRA’’ remains in actuality throughout.

Taviani Brothers : Drawing from Giovanni Boccaccio’s ‘‘The Decameron’’, the 14th century novel, Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani’s ‘‘Wondrous Boccaccio’’ (2015, Italy, colour, Italian, 120 mins) is set in Florence of 1348, where plague is decimating the city. A man falls from a high tower. A horse drawn carriage pulls dead bodies. There is terror and panic all around. A girl dies of plague, in a hospital. Three sisters embrace the dead girl, Lauretta. Bodies are flung inside a mass grave. In grief, Lauretta’s father rolls down inside a grave, and is buried in mud and stone. There are bodies of humans and horses on the streets. Girls carry flowers near their noses, as the scent of flowers keeps plague away. A young girl, Elizabetta hides in a monastery. After a meeting at the Holy Trinity Bridge, a few aristocratic young women, decide to leave the city with their male friends. Hoping to escape the horrors of the Black Death, the young friends occupy a country villa, with neat and clean bedrooms. Catalina dies of plague, and her mother abandons the body in a derelict church. The lover kisses Catalina, and she returns to life.

At the castle, the young friends tell each other stories about love, to distract from plague and death. A pregnant wife, Catalina (Vittoria Pullini), married to well behaved Niccoluccio (Flavio Parenti), becomes the object of desire for Corisendi (Riccardo Scamarico). Bruno (Sinome Ciampi) and Buffalmacco (Lino Guanciale) convince a simpleton, Calandrino (Kim Rossi Stuart) that a black stone will render him invisible. As he runs to find the rock, the whole town laughs. Duke Tancredi (Lello Arena) discovers that his virgin daughter, Ghismonda (Kasia Smutniak) is having an affair with his retainer, Guiscardo (Michele Rionido). A beautiful nun, Isabetta (Carolina Crescentini) is caught in the embrace of a man. Even the fierce abbess Usimbalda (Paola Cortellesi) has not been true to win the heart of widow, Giovanna (Jasmine Trinca), through her son’s fondness for a falcon. The bird flies to Giovanna’s window. Without searching for a parallel between the 14th century and today, the Taviani brothers draw a metaphor with contemporary society trying to escape spiritual and economic problems, through the power of story telling and love. Simone Zampagni’s camera visuals have clarity, and are never glossy in the shooting of Tuscany and Lazio. ‘‘Wondrous Boccaccio’’ is taut and compact, though fragmented and sprawling.

Paulo Sorrentino : ‘‘Youth’’ (2015, Italy, English, colour, 118 mins) by Paulo Sorrentino is set in an Alpine resort, a picturesque place, rich with cultural associations, and full of rich cultured guests. A young crowd dances to the pop songs, Machine’s ‘‘You have got the love I need’’, sung by a young girl. Luca Bigazzi’s camera glides across mountains and trees, people gamblling and gambling, and landscape signifying European decadence. After the two Great Wars, civilization has been declining with sighs and kisses, and world-weary lyricism for a very long time. On the surface, melancholy appears to individual, rather than systematic, as people age nostalgically, enjoying privileges of another era. Fred (Michael Caine) has been coming to this Alpine resort for more than twenty years. He is now retired, after decades conducting orchestras in London, New York and Venice. Through a Buckingham Palace emissary (Alex Max Queen) the Queen of England requests Fred to conduct his famous composition, ‘‘simple songs’’, with an offer of kinghthood. At the spa is Fred’s old friend, Mick (Harvey Keitel), trying to finish a film script with young collaborators, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dem and Mark Gessner. Without any irony, the film is titled ‘‘Life’s last day’’. Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard), but soon Julian announces he is leaving Lena for Paloma Faith, a singer. Fred has a nightmare of being engulfed in canal waters, after embracing a model. Bigazzi’s camera pans over submerged bodies in a canal. Lena plans a holiday to Polynesia. French authors insist the music maestro, Fred write his memoris. Liberty is a temptation. Lena accuses her father of being apathetic. In a powerful monologue, Lena lashes out on her father for lack of paternal warmth, past affairs and an all consuming devotion to music. Mick is unable to remember whether he had slept with Gilda Black, an old girl friend. The camera pans over nudes and semi-nudes submerged in a spa. Mountains, streams and cattle come into view.

Earlier in life, Fred had expressed his love for another man, through a letter. Mick believes in everything for making stories up, to write stories. He has forgotten his childhood, except falling from a bike. A Tibetan monk floats in the air. A Hollywood star, Brenda (Jane Fonda) arrives to inform Mick, that she would not act in his movie, and was shifting to Miami. Fred visits wife Melanie’s grave-stone in Venice. The Queen alludes concert, where Fred conducts ‘A Simple Song’’, with a Japanese girl singing soprano. Lena pursues a romance with a rock climber. The pathos of male aging is an aspect of Youth’s nostalgia. Sorrentino crafts his film on aging, memory, love and beauty. Bigazzi’s camera is strikingly evocative in its compositions. David Lang’s music is gorgeous and post-romantic.

Vol. 49, No.12, Sep 25 - Oct 1, 2016