In my review of Roberto Rossellini’s wonderful love letter to Italian culture and countryside, 1954’s Journey to Italy, I reflect on what this film’s highly romanticized depiction of an Italian way of life meant to me. Having had the opportunity to travel to Italy and experience the culture first hand I know the power it holds. Despite its history and challenges and problems (of which there are many of course), these romanticized ideals are more than the simple fascination and curiosity of an outsider. Italy has a way of uncovering, in a very short amount of time, not only the unspoken dissatisfaction and struggle (with the world, your life, yourself, and perhaps others) that is lingering within our souls, but also our passion and our desire to discover life in the fullest. If you live further West (as I do), it becomes clear that their way of life is so distinctly counterintuitive to our own that visiting the Country operates like a wake up call to how unaware of life’s cherished moments we can sometimes be in our addiction to business and productiveness. To embrace Italy is to embrace a way of life that makes time for doing nothing. That values a simple cup of coffee, lingering over meals, in person discourse and community over privatization, public spaces, appreciating ones surrounding be it architecture, natural beauty or artistic creativity.
I know for both my wife and I, we came back transformed but also disillusioned with how antithetical our life here was to these basic values. And in many ways this is precisely the same tension that we see seeping into the external relationship struggles that lies at the center of the story in Journey to Italy. These are two people who have become unknowingly disillusioned with their way of life, and their journey to Italy helps to expose them to a different way of life, one that challenges their own preconceptions about what is most important and opens them up to appreciating what matters most.
Since visiting Italy, I actually became deeply interested in learning and uncovering what it is that makes Italian culture so enrapturing and compelling. Over the years, my own research seemed to come down to these three things:
1. A unique and diverse National Identity
2. It’s focus on family and community
3. It’s focus on the arts
Given how integral the arts is to their culture, when I committed to travelling the world through film in 2020 it didn’t take long for me to land in Italy as my starting point. And the more I delved into its cinematic history over this past month, the more heightened these three ideas seemed to become as interconnected realities.
THE BIRTH OF CINEMA IN ITALY
It would be true to say that Italy was a relative latecomer to the growing popularity and growth of cinema in Europe. It is also true that Italy would go on to be one of the most influential forces in cinema in its pre war and post war development. What was interesting to discover is how both of these truths are a direct of product of Italy’s foreign influences, and that it was its dependence on these foreign powers that inhibited its ability to develop a true cinematic presence early on, and its development of a cinematic identity that later helped give rise its unique, nationalistic identity.
Like the rest of Europe, the history of film in Italy follows a similar path. The futurist movement, a modernist push that originated in Italy and pushed the world outwards towards a fresh, collective embrace of progress and technology, opened the door for cinema to thrive in some respects, and later, as a possible product or marriage of fascist leaning ideologies, inhibited it through the existence of oppressive regimes.
Leading up to the rise of Futurism, and heavily defined by French, Swiss and German influence, Italy’s early films- Eiloteo Alberini’s La Presa di Roma (The Capture of Rome) in 1905 is the first Italian fiction film, while L’inferno (in 1911) is considered the first full length Italian feature, reflected an initial insurge in collaborative efforts, followed closely by a brief period before the First World War in which we start to see the foundations for what would eventually emerge as a National, Italian cinematic identity.
Like the rest of Europe, Fascists restrictions on culture in the 1920’s/30’s limited the making of film, and it wouldn’t be until the 1940’s that we see the rise of the Neorealist movement, an artistic approach that would go on to become one of the most influential movements in film history, revitalizing the industry both in Italy and internationally (with Directors like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti emerging as distinct, Italian voices).
Much of what I read suggested that the biggest reason Neorealism was able to emerge was because of Italy’s early surrender in World War 2. One of the first Neorealist films, or at least the one most recognized internationally (Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, the same Director who built the first cinema in Rome) was actually filmed on location two months after Italy’s surrender. The reason for this connects back to this idea of foreign powers and influences. It afforded them time to adjust and reflect on Italian culture and experience while protecting what the war had stolen from them. They were able to take its influences (French, German and Soviet roots geared towards poetry and expressionism) and begin to use them in this space to rediscover their own voice.
At the same time, Neorealism became the first movement to reject the overwhelming presence of American Hollywood conventions, carving its own path against the pressure of a globalized front. As I heard one writer describe it, “Neo indicates the defying of traditional conventions, elaborating on the moral and social components of traditional realism, and of verismo, by nature extending and reformulating its borders. It’s this conversation between old and new is what allows realism to constantly be taking on new forms.”
What defines Neorealism as a movement and gives it a distinct Italian presence is that it found a way to give cinema back to the people. Emerging in a time and space largely undefined, both innately aware of the tragic and devastating reality of the war on one side, and an uncertain but hopeful future on the other, filmmakers emerged from the rubble with a desire to cast non-actors, to tell stories in sometimes unscripted ways, and to shoot on location. The themes that emerge through these films are honest and raw, dealing with matters of real social concern while elevating the strength of the Italian culture and countryside as an almost eternal force at the same time.
As one article I read suggested, Neorealists were immune to the critique that invaded the Hollywood form on an international level. This enabled them to persist the way they did because they could not be “popularized” or shoehorned in the same way according to adherence to specific styles and genres, with this writer making a specific connection between popularization and the politicization of films. These were films with a message, but they were the voice of the artists and the people whom the stories were bringing to light rather than the politics themselves. This is what gave Neorealism (and its inspired offshoots such as The French New Wave) a distinct and intimate documentary style as well.
From its very first expression (Ossessione in 1942), many of the films of this period are considered to be some of the best films ever made, defining not only a genre but a Country. What became known as the Marshall Plan (again, a mirror of a kind of globalization, albeit a very corrupted one) would lead to its dissolution, but because of the way cinema invested in an authentic Italian identity and pride the Country was able to maintain its position as a prominent cinematic presence, moving into new frontiers, and exploring new genres (it’s last recognizable one comes from the 70’s, a deviation into the horror genre with German influences called Giallo, and the infamous Italian Spaghetti Western is notable as well).
THE POWER OF ITALIAN CINEMA
As another article suggested in reflecting on one Italy’s most prominent Directors, “For De Sica, there is an answer to everything, except death. When the worst thing has happened, life nonetheless goes on.”
This to me is the sentiment embodied most readily in the Italian films I have had the privilege of seeing. I think back to the way Journey to Italy was able to capture the devastation of a broken relationship and set this amidst the glorious allure of the Italian way of life in a transformative fashion. There are the early indications of a culture interested in the creativity and craft on display in the impressive feat of Dante’s Inferno. The subtle beauty of Di Sica’s family drama mixed with such a stark social commentary in Bicycle Thieves. The stunning neo-realist sensibilities on display in Rome, Open City, a film brave enough to critique the social reality while imaging a glimpse of social reform.
The touching emotion of Umberto D that reaches across generational divides and discussions of the old and the new. The captivating intimacy of Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs which elevates themes of faith and family in a truly expressive fashion. The intimacy of Italy’s mobster genre that gave rise to its particular focus on faith and family, social and political relevance and violence. From the mesmerizing war fable of Life is Beautiful, to the stunning humanist and existential explorations of people lost in the volatility of life in La Dolce Vita and L’Aventura.
Perhaps the most special viewing experience for me, and one that I had before embarking on this journey, was the transcendent Cinema Paradiso. This was a film that helped give definition and longevity to Italian cinema after Neorealism had faded away. It is a film meant to remind a Country and a people of why film (and art in general) is so integral to who they are. It’s a reminder of how intricately tied they are to their past, but of how cinema opens up the possibilities of the future. It’s a love letter to the art form, but even more so its a declaration of the values that cinema can uphold- magic, imagination, community, shared experience, emotion, social awareness. It is a film that allowed me to fall in love with the movies all over again, and through this exercise to really understand how valuable film has been throughout Italian history.
THE FUTURE OF ITALIAN CINEMA
For as much as things in this world change, much stays the same. The challenges of globalization can be felt worldwide, and while modern movements such as streaming services have opened up inevitable access to different cultures and places and experiences, one of the realities of our modern age still reflects the familiar existence of these external forces that inhibit these places from being able to form and build a national identity. As the story of Italy shows, there is a fine line that exists between international influence and art that is being shaped by the people according to a particular experience. In a world defined by the most powerful, the most money and the most content, we often forget about about how important film in general is to shaping the Countries that make them (something that is emerging as a constant theme as I move into places like Ukraine down the road as well). International access is not the same as local investment, and when services like Netflix, positioned as rich and dominant outside forces, are the ones controlling output and funding sources that are struggling in many places worldwide, it can turn this idea of globalization into dependence on a singular entity rather than feeding back into the Country itself, which really is a mirror of what we saw emerging from the hollows of Futurism and the end of the Second World War.
This is why Italy remains so inspiring to me on the subject of culture and film. They are not as prestigious as they once were, but they are still just as authentic, unique and demonstrable as a Country interested in making diverse film for the people and by the people. Alongside this, in the onset of smartphones and streaming services and the loss of many community based endeavors, to visit Italy now is to reclaim those vital human points that connect us to story to begin with. It is a reminder that the only thing final is death, and that living is an artform all its own, and this marriage of a way of life and artistic vision is one that has stood the test of time and makes Italian cinema so endearing.
A final word dealing with De Sica, an “expert on the subject of being disregarded… who informed the actors of his films about how to capture the spirit and voice of the people.”
“He liked human beings most when they are unguarded, naive and possessed by a simple faith in life. He wanted to manifest a kind of trust before things, one that often fails, but at least is there to fail. It’s in the shoeshine boys’ love for the horse they save up to buy, in Umberto D’s feeling for a lonely pregnant girl and for his pet dog; it’s the compassionate openness that allows us to love others.”
HERE IS A LINK TO THE LIST OF FILMS I WATCHED ON MY TRAVELS THROUGH ITALY: