In Italy, the Neorealist school had long since evaporated. Vittorio De Sica acted in and/or directed a long series of conventional romantic comedies simply to keep working, although he did complete one final masterpiece, Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), in 1971. However, Roberto Rossellini, ever adaptable, reinvented himself completely with a string of remarkable television movies for RAI, Italian television, beginning with the historical drama La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Rise of Louis XIV, 1966), a French-Italian co-production, and continuing with many similar films, including Atti degli apostoli (The Acts of the Apostles, 1969), Socrate (Socrates, 1970), Blaise Pascal (1971), and II Messia (The Messiah, 1976). What makes these movies remarkable is their vibrant use of color, their long and complex tracking shots, often lasting as long as ten minutes, and the painstaking degree of historical accuracy that the director insisted upon in their creation.
For many viewers, they remain the most satisfying and intellectually challenging historical dramas made for the screen.
Lina Wertmüller, born in Rome in 1926, initially produced a number of avant-garde plays and worked as a puppeteer, stage manager, set designer, and writer for radio and television. Her first major break into the film industry came when she worked as an assistant on Federico Fellini’s 8 V2 (1963). Fellini financed Wertmüller’s first film, I Basilischi (The Lizards), in 1963. Both The Lizards and her second film, Questa volta parliamo di uomini (Let’s Talk About Men, 1965), examined male gender roles. She then teamed up with actor Giancarlo Giannini for many of her most famous films, notably Mimi metallurgico ferito nell’onore(The Seduction of Mimi, 1972), nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza (Love and Anarchy, 1973) was a commercial and critical success for the director, who became a cult figure in the United States after the film’s release in 1974.
Many of Wertmüller’s films are comic sociocultural studies of Italian machismo and sexuality; she has been consistently interested in sexuality and leftist political activism, especially in her early work. This is aptly demonstrated by Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto (Swept Away, 1974), a socialist comedy in which a rich woman, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), and some friends rent a yacht to sail the Mediterranean; one of the sailors on the boat, the socialist Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), finds Raffaella and her friends spoiled and overbearing. When Rafaella impulsively decides to visit a small island, she orders Gennarino to take her in a little motorboat, which promptly conks out in the middle of the trip. The two seek shelter on another island, which is completely uninhabited. Gennarino, used to fending for himself, quickly adapts to the situation, while Rafaella can do nothing for herself and must now beg for Gennarino’s aid. The tables have thus quite neatly turned, and the two begin a dance of sexual attraction with decidedly political overtones.
Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties, 1975) is a bizarre comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp, starring Giancarlo Giannini as a ladies’ man who suddenly has to deal with the horror of battle in World War II; when captured, he learns to survive in the camp no matter what the cost. But as the 1970s progressed, Wertmüller seemed to have lost her edge. A brief flirtation with Hollywood in the late 1970s produced the English-language The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain (Fine del mondo nel nostro solito letto in una notte piena di pioggia, 1978), which was neither a commercial nor critical success. In 1992, she wrote and directed Io speriamo che me la cavo (Ciao, Professore!), a sentimental comedy about poor schoolchildren in Naples, considerably less compelling and challenging than her earlier work. In 2004, Wertmüller directed the English-language comedy Too Much Romance … It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers (Peperoni ripieni e pesci in faccia) with Sophia Loren and F. Murray Abraham.
Bernardo Bertolucci came to prominence with Il Conformista (The Conformist, 1970) and La Strategia del ragno (The Spider’s Stratagem, 1970), compelling political dramas remarkable for their penetrating social insight. Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972), with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, was scandalous in its day for its frank sexuality, while Novecento (1900, 1976), The Last Emperor (L’Ultimo imperatore, 1987), and The Sheltering Sky (Il Tè nel deserto, 1990) showed the director moving into the realm of epic spectacle. In his Stealing Beauty (Io ballo da sola, 1996) and The Dreamers (I sognatori, 2003), Bertolucci seems to be trying to recapture his youth, with narratives that recall the spirit of unbridled optimism present in his early films, especially his hymn to youthful rebellion, Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964 ).
The flamboyant Franco Zeffirelli, renowned for his work in opera, directed a series of popular successes, such as The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Romeo and Juliet (1968), Endless Love (1981), and, with Mel Gibson delivering a creditable performance, Hamlet (1990). He also contributed a well-received look at Fascist Italy, Tea with Mussolini (1999). Other key Italian figures of the period include Dario Argento, whose smart and violent thrillers such as L’Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970) brought a new level of graphic bloodshed to the screen, and Lucio Fulci, whose E tu vivrai nel terrore—L’aldilà (The Beyond, 1981) is a surrealistic series of gory set pieces centering on a decaying Louisiana hotel. Fulci rapidly developed a cult following among horror enthusiasts and enjoyed a prolific career as a director.
The veteran master Federico Fellini directed the social satires La Città delle donne (City of Women, 1980) and Ginger e Fred (Ginger and Fred, 1985), while such up-and-coming auteurs as Maurizio Nichetti, with Ladri di saponette (The Icicle Thief, 1988), a parody of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, and Giuseppe Tornatore, with Nuovo cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso, 1989), attempted to revive an industry that had lost much of its commercial vitality. Roberto Benigni created the crowdpleasing comedies Il Piccolo diavolo (The Little Devil, 1988), Johnny Stecchino (Johnny Toothpick, 1991), and the enormously successful World War II comedy fable La Vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful, 1997), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.