Thursday, September 1, 2011

Le Notti di Italia


Fellini, of course.
Hard at work as usual.

Another ritual my wife and I are really getting into is Italian Night.
We both love Italy and just about everything that goes with it, and Angela is learning the language, so we like to watch Italian movies, and have recently hit on the idea of making one night a week into a bonafide celebration of all things Italiano.
So we start with Italian music: Puccini if we're feeling grandiose, Mina if we're in retro mood, traditional songs from Tuscany at other times.
In the background while cooking we get the laptop out and watch the free Italian channels you can access online (the only TV we ever watch is Italian TV); our favourite is one called Yes Italia, which has interesting documentaries on different regions and cultural topics with English subtitles.
Angela prefers this to the kind of entertainment typically to be found on the Berlusconi channels, which tends to adhere to the golden formula of Italian live tv: men in weird foam rubber costumes and women in bikinis dancing in front of an audience clapping in time. I on the other hand can watch quite a lot of this without getting bored, but we both agree as to the excellence of the game show L' Eredità (so much more riveting when you don't have a clue what they're saying) and its startlingly orange presenter Carlo Conti.
Food-wise, we try to vary the menu, but we're creatures of habit, and have lately fallen in love with a deceptively simple concoction of spaghetti, garlic, olive oil, red peppers and flaked parmigiano-reggiano (which according to its own website is both the king of cheese and 'gives energy for sports' - only the Italians would promote cheese as an aid to athletic prowess).
I spent years avoiding spaghetti, and favouring every other imaginable pasta, because I had always associated it with its British incarnation, sold in tins of slimy tomato sauce and with a consistency so soft it only just held its shape before instant obliteration followed its first encounter with the human mouth. Nasty stuff. But proper spaghetti, I now realise, she is magnifico, and the perfect accompaniment to Federico and Giulietta.

We don't only watch Fellini, by any means, though he remains a kind of touchstone. Odd that he has been so unfashionable in recent times, but then, as a teenager, I too affected to prefer the colder pleasures of Antonioni; now I unashamedly prefer human warmth and the clink of glasses to slow immersion in ice water.
I have to say that Bicycle Thieves disappointed me this time round too, and I really wasn't expecting it to.
Realism is all very well, but pessimism is lazy, I've come to believe. Nobody needs a filmmaker to educate them in what real life is like, and it is patronising of them to suppose otherwise. Neorealism was a good idea, but the fact that it lasted such a short time tells you how much of it audiences needed. Escapism has become a dirty word, but surely that's what cinema is for, or 'transportation', perhaps, a term I prefer because it doesn't come trailing connotations of idle Spielbergian fantasy.
Of course one can argue that it is too easy to reach for the lazy absolution of a glib, unearned happy ending, and you'd be right. But it's easier still not to bother at all, and let the narrative lead its creator down the most predictable of cul-de-sacs until his nose is against the wall, as if it had a life of its own and there is no controlling intelligence shaping it at all.
The clever thing, surely, is to bring the narrative to a non-glib, well-earned point of transcendence, one that does play fair by the narrative but displays the effort its creator has put into getting it there (and the underlying worldview that compelled the attempt). Or, in the case of the best of Fellini, those combinations of tragedy and hope that leave the viewer truly lifted to another plane.
I don't mean to attack Bicycle Thieves, which is a great film in so many ways, but I was struck, as I never had before, that the ending I once thought so powerful now seemed merely inconclusive, and self-satisfied in a way that went against the spirit of empathy informing the gesture.

And really, what great principle would been violated if he had found his bicycle at the end? Would we have been less moved; less inclined to take seriously the plight of the people we have encountered?
Surely De Sica's point is that these are people buffeted randomly by fate, not actually cursed by it? If he can lose his bicycle, he can find it: it's all a lottery and the fates of us all hang on threads of circumstance and coincidence. After all, we knew how many other unemployed men were passed over so he could get the job. Presumably one of them will now get it? Or are they less important? In life, no; but in the film, inescapably yes, because the film has chosen to tell one man's story at the expense of the others. That in itself is a cinematic choice, an artifical choice, an anti-realist choice; it comes from conventional narrative structure, not realism which must surely aspire to documentarian non-involvement. If we are to invest prioritised interest in one man over another then it's folly to allow some the concomitant rules of fictive structure to be obeyed and not others.
And I think De Sica thought so too, which is one of the reasons why I still like him a lot. I think he got fed up with neorealism even before audiences did. There's a revealing quote in an interview shortly after Bicycle Thieves came out, where he says that his next film will be an exercise in "irrealism", aiming to make "the unreal seem real, the improbable seem probable, and the impossible seem possible", but all, he stresses, "without camera tricks". The Sight & Sound interviewer is frankly baffled ("this could mean plain fantasy," he ponders, "or, preferably, an experimental attempt to go beyond literal vision in the way Jean Vigo did").
What it sounds like is Fellini - what it is, of course, is Miracle in Milan (1951), which makes all necessary neorealist points, but boldly defies its governing ethic by daring to offer a last act that, as Halliwell puts it, "sends one out of the cinema in a warm glow".
Some critics never forgave De Sica for abandoning the streets and returning to the glossy cosmopolitanism with which, as an actor, he had begun his film career. But I love the fact that the director who made so vivid a success of casting amateurs and unknowns came home as a compositor framing Sophia, and Shirley Maclaine, and even Peter Sellers. (In a charming comedy called After The Fox, Sellers plays a master thief who disguises himself as an Italian film director and stages a gold robbery as if it were a movie. He steals his film equipment from De Sica, playing himself, and in a true gesture of exorcism, De Sica has Victor Mature, likewise brilliantly self-parodying as an ageing actor refusing to admit his pin-up days are behind him, ask "what's neorealism?" "No money," comes the reply.)

To take the raw indredients of sadness and tear them apart until you find the grains of hope they conceal, and then amplify them, is the noblest service drama can perform to the disaffected. It's what Capra did, and it's still such a controversial way of looking at things that many people still affect to passionately hate Capra, for this very reason. And it's certainly what Gianni Di Gregorio does in his brilliant Mid-August Lunch.
This was Italian night's biggest hit so far: our third time of watching, and it just gets better and better. Every time you notice something new, and every time it leaves you more moved and uplifted. Some critics called it a welcome return to neorealism, but if so its an altogether better, neo-neorealism.
And now there's a semi-follow-up, Salt of Life, which I had no idea was on the way at all. I can't remember the last time I was so excited about a new film that I could hardly wait. (Well actually I can: it was Rocky IV.)
Tonight, 6.25, the Little Theatre Cinema, Bath. Perhaps I'll see you there.

Go Mina!