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Italian cinema in the 1960s

11.01.2011

In Italy, Federico Fellini made his first color film, the beautiful Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), again starring his wife, Giulietta Masina, this time as a woman who is alone and unloved in her marriage while her husband is off having an affair. Juliet of the Spirits is deeply sympathetic to the powerlessness of women in 1960s Italian society, but perhaps for this reason it was not well received critically or commercially and failed to make Giulietta Masina (right), as Juliet, comes to terms with her fantasies in Federico Fellini’s back production costs, nearly bankrupting its producer. 


Fellini closed out the decade with Fellini Satyricon  Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965). (1969), a hallucinating vision of first-century Rome, in which two young men, Encolpio (Martin Potter) and Ascilto (Hiram Keller), give themselves over to a life of endless decadence. The film’s look is sumptuous, but for many it was an empty spectacle, more interested in visual excess than any thematic content.


Michelangelo Antonioni created a series of deeply despairing films of triumphant nihilism during this decade: L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961), and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962), in which his protagonists fitfully struggle against the society in which they live in a futile attempt to break free and better their emotional and spiritual condition. Even in his first film in color, Il Deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964), Antonioni suggests that alienation and isolation are the predominant state in the modern world and that all attempts at “meaning” are a waste of time—which is just what his characters do: waste time. Whether watching the approach of dusk in Rome (in L’Eclisse), wandering through the city at night in search of something to do (in La Notte), or destroying the interior of a boat as a perverse game out of sheer boredom (in The Red Desert), his protagonists are possessed of an air of predestined fatalism, born into a world they neither understand nor control. Power, money, influence, friendship, love: all are fleeting, precious, and ultimately unattainable. Like the characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, Antonioni’s men and women must wait, and wait, and wait—but for what, they have no idea.


Pier Paolo Pasolini, on the other hand, was just beginning his career, with the near-Neorealist Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), both gritty slices of Italian life with a typically uncompromising view of human existence. Pasolini’s breakthrough film, however, was Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964), which stunned critics with its bold, newsreel approach to the life of Christ; many feel it is the most expressive religious film ever made. Shot using nonprofessional actors on the simplest of locations, Gospel gives us a Christ at once fiery and compassionate, in touch with the concerns of the world but still not of it, who deals with matters directly and aggressively, sure of his heavenly vocation. As portrayed by nonprofessional Enrique Irazoqui, Pasolini’s Christ is above all a man of action whose words flow from his deeds. Pasolini also cast his own mother as the Virgin Mary and surprised viewers of his earlier works with the reverent humanism of his approach to the material. This is all the more surprising when one considers the fact that Pasolini was an atheist, a Marxist, and an early and outspoken gay activist; he dedicated The Gospel According to St. Matthew to Pope John XXIII, whom the director felt had brought the Church into the modern era. Honored with three Academy Award nominations, and winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a direct and accessible life of Christ, as a savior who is open to all.


After creating a violent version of Edipo re (Oedipus Rex, 1967), Pasolini turned to another religious parable, Teorema (Theorem, 1968), based on his own novel, and then to versions of Il Decameron (The Decameron, 1971), I Racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1972), and finally, his most despairing film, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom, 1975), a brutal, openly sadistic allegory set in Fascist Italy in 1944. Pasolini was murdered on 2 November 1975 under mysterious circumstances; the violent manner of his death (he was repeatedly run over by his own car) provides an ironic postscript to his controversial career.


Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970) is a much more somber work, which won an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film. Gian Maria Volontè plays an unnamed police inspector in Fascist Italy who kills his mistress, then misdirects the official inquiry into her murder with false evidence. The police suspect the inspector but fail to arrest him because of his social position. Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966) is an Italian/Algerian co-production that examines the Algerian War against French colonialism, told in flashbacks to 1954, when the battle began in earnest. Shot in a grainy, black-and-white newsreel style, The Battle of Algiers looks more like a documentary than a staged film. Attacked by many as being too explicit in its methodology, as if it were intended to be a blueprint for revolutionary resistance, the film uses nonprofessional actors to create a realistic and devastating effect. Indeed, looking at many of the films in this section, we can see that the influence of  Neorealism remained strong twenty years after Rossellini’s Open City; the use of actual locations, black-and-white film, nonprofessional actors, and handheld camerawork lends The Battle of Algiers, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and other 1960s Italian films a veracity and authenticity that more polished films lack.


Luchino Visconti continued his fascination with corruption, decadence, and power in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), in which Burt Lancaster plays an aging nobleman whom time has passed by, and La Caduta degli dei (The Damned, 1969), which documents the downfall of a German munitions dynasty during the Third Reich, featuring Dirk Bogarde. As the decade came to a close, Visconti would cast Bogarde as the aging Gustav von Aschenbach in his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1971). Von Aschenbach, on vacation in Venice, becomes hopelessly obsessed with the handsome young man Tadzio (Bjørn Andresen), failing to notice that all around



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