- Few countries can boast a cinematic history as rich as Italy’s. The first kinetographs appeared at the end of the 19th century, and techniques developed rapidly. By the eve of World War I director Giovanni Pastrone was producing such innovative epics as Cabiria (1914) and Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii (The Last Days of Pompeii, 1913), which won a worldwide public and are still regarded as masterpieces of the early cinema. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Italians struggled to match Hollywood as the big-budget movies made possible by the American film industry’s superior financing made inroads into the Italian domestic market. The number of domestic films distributed in Italy dropped from over 200 in 1920 to less than a dozen a year by the end of the decade.This decline had a political dimension. In Mussolini’s Italy, the domination of foreign films was seen both as a symptom of the failure of Fascist policies of economic autarky and a relatively uncontrolled source of information about the rest of the world. Consequently, film production was centralized in 1935 in a single government-owned company, and the Italian government built “Hollywood on the Tiber”—the Cinecitta film complex near Rome. Influential film magazines such as Nero e Bianco (Black and White) and Cinema (the latter edited by Mussolini’s son, Vittorio) were started. By 1942, nearly 100 films were being produced every year. Although many of these films were propagandistic in tone, several were outstanding works of art. Alessandro Blasetti’s ambiguous fairytale La corona di ferro (The Iron Crown, 1941) and the romantic comedies of Mario Camerini were highly successful in technical, artistic, and box office terms. Even some of the propaganda movies—Blasetti’s La vecchia guardia (The Old Guard, 1935), Augusto Bianco’s haunting Lo squadrone bianco (The White Squadron, 1936) — reached high artistic levels.After the war, neorealist directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, and Michelangelo Antonioni made films hailed by critics everywhere. Yet the average Italian did not watch their grimly beautiful depictions of working-class and peasant life. In the 1950s and 1960s, Italians watched instead la commedia all’Italiana and a whole new generation of actors, many of whom (Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi) went on to achieve fame outside Italy. They also watched that unique Italian invention, the “spaghetti Western” of Sergio Leoneand, by the early 1970s, experimented with pornography in films. The relentless competition provided by Hollywood has arguably been resisted more successfully in Italy than anywhere else in Europe except France, although American films do dominate the box office. Hit comedies still tend to star Italian actors and have Italian settings. Moreover, in the 1980s and 1990s, a new wave of Italian directors made watchable, artistically successful films. Some of these films have even been successfully exported to the United States— Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema paradiso (Paradise Cinema, 1991), the Anglo-Italian coproduction Il postino (The Postman, 1995), and Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning La vita e bella (Life Is Beautiful, 1999) being particularly good examples. The Italian cinema’s resilience should not surprise anyone; there is a deep love for the cinema and its greatest artists in Italy. When the director Federico Fellini died in November 1993, there were several days of what amounted to unofficial national mourning. A similar emotional outpouring greeted the death, in December 1996, of Marcello Mastroianni.
Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. Mark F. Gilbert & K. Robert Nilsson. 2007.
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