Thursday, January 3, 2013

Bellissima: Leading Ladies of the Italian Screen

Way back in July and August, I saw a series at the PFA called Bellissima: Leading Ladies of the Italian Screen.

The series paid tribute to Italian actresses in their iconic performances.  The series consisted 17 films but I only 7.  The series ran from July 6 to August 31.

Nights of Cabiria starring Giulietta Masina; directed by Federico Fellini; Italian with subtitles; (1956)
Sandra starring Claudia Cardinale; directed by Luchino Visconti; Italian with subtitles; (1965)
The Girl with a Suitcase starring Claudia Cardinale; directed by Valerio Zurlini; Italian with subtitles; (1961)
Open City starring Anna Magnani; directed by Roberto Rossellini; Italian with subtitles; (1945)
L’amore starring Anna Magnani & Federico Fellini; directed by Roberto Rossellini; Italian with subtitles; (1948)
Bread, Love and Dreams starring Gina Lollobrigida & Vittorio De Sica; directed by Luigi Comencini;  Italian with subtitles; (1953)
The Widower starring Franca Valeri; directed by Dino Risi; Italian with subtitles; (1959)

Among the films I missed were three I had already seen - Bellissima, Mamma Roma & The Leopard.  The films I regret missing were Oh! Sabella! & Two Women.  Although La Strada was scheduled for July 7, I recall that they replaced it with something else (La Dolce Vita?) at the last minute.


One of my favorite (perhaps the qualifier can be omitted) musical films is Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine.  Aware that it was based on Nights of Cabiria, I have long wanted to see the Fellini film for comparison purposes.  The first difference is the profession of the lead character.  Charity (MacLaine) is a taxi dancer in Sweet Charity (1969).  Thirteen years after Cabiria and released during Vietnam War and Free Love movement, it is telling that the American version had to resort to a profession which was on the verge of extinction at the time.  Are there any taxi dancers left today?  Although the film hints at the unsavory side of "taxi dancing," the film is surprisingly tame.

Nights of Cabiria is heartbreaking as Cabiria (Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife for 50 years) is a flat-out streetwalker.  Although the strolls are mostly played for laughs, it's Cabiria personal relationships which tugged at my heartstrings.  The two films follow the same plot roughly until the end when the most significant difference occurs.

In Sweet Charity, the boyfriend abandons Charity when he realizes he cannot look past her "taxi dancing."  In Nights of Cabiria, the boyfriend abandons Cabiria after robbing her of her life savings and nearly killing her.  Both moments were emotional but Cabiria's ending had a greater sense of tragedy.  Charity suffered heartbreak.  Cabiria experienced breathtaking cruelty.  Charity is whitewahsed; Cabiria is sordid.  Charity's upbeat demeanor is quirky; Cabiria upbeat demeanor is surreal given the ugly circumstances of her life.

Both films are outstanding but Nights of Cabiria puts your emotions through a workout as the audience follows Cabiria's tragicomic plight.


Open City is a famous film.  Often billed as Rome, Open City, the Roberto Rossellini production was filmed in Rome while fighting was still occurring on the Italian peninsula.  Based on the life of Don Pieto Morosini, a Catholic priest who had been killed the Gestapo for helping the resistance, Open City is the grandfather of the neorealist film movement.  Filmed less than a year after Rome was liberated by US troops, the title refers to Rome's status after the Nazis pulled out.  The general events depicted in the film must have been very personal to the many non-actors who appear in the film.

The film is fascinating because it is set so close to the actual events it depicts.  Rossellini made films when Mussolini was in power and during Allied occupation.  The natural question is how he gained favor with the Americans so quickly.  Also during the filming of Rome, Open City, Rossellini began a romantic relationship with star Anna Magnani despite both being married.  In fact, most biographers imply Rossellini left Magnani for Ingrid Bergman although technically he had to get divorced from his wife (Marcella De Marchis) to marry Bergman.  A decade after the divorce, De Marchis would collaborate with Rossellini as his costume designer on Garibaldi.

Open City is best known for a harrowing sequence where the Gestapo torture an insurgent (Marcello Pagliero) in front of the priest (Aldo Fabrizi in a memorable performance) and Magnani's death scene as she is shot while chaseing after a truck.  The camera angle is from the back of the truck and we see Magnani fall and die.

Open City is still a powerful film which really lays bare the double dealing consequences of Nazi sympathizers.  This is common theme as Army of Shadows transplants the action to Paris.  Nazis brought the worst in humans (both in real life and in film).


Bread, Love and Dreams is a showcase for Gina Lollobrigida's earthy sexuality.  Of the mid-century Italian actresses, I have always found Lollobrigida's screen image to be most appealing.  In Bread, Love and Dreams Lollobrigida plays a country girl whose headstrong manner captures the attention of a Carabinieri colonel (Bicycle Thieves' director Vittorio De Sica).  A good natured comedy, De Sica arranges for Lollobrigida's character to encounter one of the men (Roberto Risso) under his command and the object of her longings.  For his part, the Colonel refocuses his attention on the local midwife (Marisa Merlini).  A sex farce (the Colonel's love life is the topic of much discussion among the villagers) with some laughs at the expense the rural and backward townfolk, Bread, Love and Dreams is an entertaining if not terribly memorable film.


Two Claudia Cardinale films gave me a greater appreciation for the actress.  Sandra, also titled Sandra of a Thousand Delights, is a variation on the Electra complex complete with an incestuous relationship between the eponymous Sandra (Cardinale) and her brother (Jean Sorel).  Set in a decaying palazzo, the setting matches Sandra's decaying family - incest, Nazi sympathizers, Jewish concentration camps, etc.  Sandra, filmed by Luchino Visconti in black and white, is a beautiful looking film about ugly secrets.

The Girl with a Suitcase was, perhaps, my favorite film of the series.  A coming of age story with the 23 year old Cardinale as the older woman, Girl with a Suitcase is as much Jacques Perrin's film as Cardinale's.  Aida (Cardinale) arrives at the Fainardi house looking for her boyfriend Marcello who has dumped her.  Marcello's teenage brother, Lorenzo (Perrin) meets Aida and quickly smitten.  I can't blame him as Cardinale has never looked better.  A bit of a fantasy courtship ensues - age differences and class differences separate the two.  There is a scene where an older man "seduces" Aida while Lorenzo looks on; treated like, acting like and feeling like a little boy.  Aida is far from naive and is fully aware of her effect on men but that doesn't necessarily mean she isn't passionate about Lorenzo.  Girl with a Suitcase is a love story for realists.


Alberto Sordi play the would-be title character in The Widower.  A black comedy about a con man scheming to kill his wealthy wife (Franca Valeri), The Widower is a memorable film which also comments on the industrialization occurring in Italy at the time.  The comedy is farcical at times but Sordi is up to the task.  Sordi made a series of films in the 1950s with similar and progressive titles - The Bachelor, The Husband and The Widower.

L’amore with Anna Magnani & Federico Fellini and directed by Roberto Rossellini was my least favorite.  Consisting of two unrelated stories, Anna Magnani first plays a woman who believes she is St. Mary and is pregnant (but not immaculately) by a man she thinks is St. Joseph (Fellini).  In the other story, Magnani is a woman who speaks on the phone in a desperate plea to save her romantic relationship.  Neither story appealed to me and four months later, I cannot recall much about either.  I just recall being disappointed in the film when it screened.

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