It was not supposed to be like this.
I try to visit Italy, which I have often covered and where my roots are deep, once yearly. I had planned a trip to Rome for the last 10 days of May. The pandemic nixed it, so I postponed to the last 10 days of October. Foiled again. Instead, I spent our two lockdown periods dreaming of Italy, and watching a bucketful of Italian films. I tried to avoid classics by Fellini, Rossellini, Bertolucci, and instead sought gems I previously had not known. Here are some of my discoveries, films from the golden postwar period of Italian cinema that stand the test of time, pandemic or not.
Gli Uomini Sono Nemici/ Carrefours des Passions “Men Are Enemies”/”Crossroads of Passion” (1947) directed by Ettore Giannini and Henri Calef
This postwar French-Italian film, a female-centered take on the classic Casablanca-style wartime tragedy, was considered a lost film until the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana found a copy a few years ago. It’s worth watching just for the shimmering presence of French actress Viviane Romance (what a great name!), but also for its complex rendering of war’s effects on women.
The film opens, a little like Casablanca, in a city spared the bloodshed and bombings of World War II but not the human flood of misery: Lisbon, capital of a neutral Portugal through which as many as a million refugees flowed (even Casablanca’s Ilsa and Rick want to get there). The film is a symphony of European languages as a result: Portuguese, French, Italian, Polish and even German, as Nazis are there too, rooting out enemies. Here an exhausted Irene gains refugee status. Then we learn in a long Roman flashback that she had been the apolitical lover of a wealthy Italian engineer who was building fortifications for the Nazis. However, a partisan bomb killed him and left her and Mario, the partisan chief, trapped underground. Mario escapes, but she is left looking complicit to her Nazi interrogators and manages to flee and take to Europe’s refugee trail before her arrest. Fast forward again to Lisbon, where she unexpectedly encounters Mario, himself now a refugee partisan plotting new attacks on the Nazis. She burns with hatred toward him for killing her lover and, caught up in a Nazi dragnet, offers herself as a collaborationist to get revenge. But she is also falling in love with this good and noble man, and he recruits her into the resistance. The end, of course, can only be tragic in a way that offers an antidote to the tearful but ultimately feel-good ending of Casablanca.
The Cineteca Milano website offers Gli Uomini Sono Nemici (with only Italian subtitles for its many languages) for free with registration. Please note: this is a restoration of a damaged copy, so there are some breaks near the beginning, but nothing serious enough to mar its appreciation.
La Romana “Woman of Rome” (1954) directed by Luigi Zampa
Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia and set in pre-war fascist Rome, this powerful film about a woman torn by life’s and love’s choices makes no pretense from the start of a possible happy ending. Sensual Gina Lollabrigida is Adriana, a poor girl pushed by her mother to exploit her one asset, her beauty, as a nude painter’s model. “They know people,” her mother says of painters. “It’s all about who you know.” In quick succession she comes to know, and falls into the arms of, four men: the ambitious but dishonest Gino, a chauffeur for a rich family; the well-connected Astarita, a fascist official; the brute Sonzogno who nonetheless wants to marry her; and finally the noble antifascist Mino, who cannot live with the fact that under interrogation he broke and betrayed his comrades. Unlike many films set in Rome, this one is dark, an Italian film noir from a female perspective.
Lollabrigida, who battled Howard Hughes for artistic independence, starred in many great ‘50s and ‘60s films, usually transcending her sexpot stereotype with sublime acting. Then in the 1970s she began a second successful career as a photojournalist, and she is still with us at age 93. In 2000 she told Parade magazine, “I’ve had many lovers and still have romances. I am very spoiled. All my life, I’ve had too many admirers.” Brava, Gina!
La Romana is available with English subtitles on YouTube via the wonderful Film&Clips channel, which I spent many pandemic nights perusing and sampling without ever settling on anything but simply adding more to my must-watch list.
Questi Fantasmi! “These Ghosts!” (1962) directed by Eduardo de Filippo
Creator and lead actor Eduardo De Filippo – known to Italians as simply the beloved “Eduardo”— wrote this exquisite comedy in 1945, but this is a 1962 Italian TV film. It opens with a doorman and movers entering a dark, spacious apartment in a 16th century Neapolitan palazzo, bringing the new owner’s belongings. The porters are eager to leave quickly; the building’s doorman, Raffaele, makes them stay. Finally, the new owner, Pasquale Lojancona, (De Filippo) arrives, carrying a dead hen, a canary in a cage, and some umbrellas. We learn then why the porter was afraid to wait alone in the apartment: centuries ago, a Spanish lord caught his wife and lover in the act, and walled them up alive in the very room where they had betrayed him. Also, the porter recounts, the count’s sister went mad, and she too haunts the place. Now Pasquale is terrified, and the great Eduardo plays that terror to a dizzying comic pitch. The doorman tells him, in order to show neighbors the palazzo is no longer haunted, that he must wander its balconies, beating the carpets, laughing and singing.
Pasquale agrees, because it is his last financial hope and best chance to win back his wife, who has lost her love and respect for him. The doorman leaves, the disaffected wife arrives, and Pasquale enters the bedroom to begin wooing her back – but then the big armoire opens and a ghostly young man emerges, leaving flowers and a cooked hen on the table. He is her lover Alfredo, married with children, though neither the terrified Pasquale, who sees him, nor we, know that. Soon poor Pasquale, who dreams of turning the place into a pension, is beset by apparent ghosts that are really people who have invaded his life. It is funny, sad, and wise, raised to hilarious sublimity by De Filippo.
Note: do not confuse this film with the 1967 Questi Fantasmi, released in English as Ghosts, Italian Style – an amiable take-off on the same script with Sophia Loren, for sure, but really just a farce lacking the original’s subtlety.
Dailymotion has a full version of the 1962 Questi Fantasmi, broken into three acts, but alas without subtitles. Despite that, its roots in the pantomime-like commedia dell’arte tradition make it accessible. Even though I am fluent in Italian, I did not get a lot of the Neapolitan dialect, but still enjoyed it.
L’Oro di Napoli “The Gold of Naples” (1954) directed by Vittorio De Sica
De Sica’s heartfelt tribute to Naples, where he spent his early years, is an anthology of six different stories, a favorite Italian format of this era (check out De Sica’s 1963 romantic trilogy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow also with Sophia Loren). “Neapolitans, like children, always look good on camera,” De Sica once said, and almost every single actor here looks amazing: not just the famous ones like the inimitable comic Toto, the divine “Eduardo”(De Filippo), Loren, Silvana Mangano, de Sica himself, but also unknowns like the brilliant child actor Pierino Bilancioni who plays cards – and always wins – against an impoverished nobleman, played by De Sica. De Sica famously lavished his camera on Loren, orchestrating her every move.
It is hard to say which episode is best. There is Toto, finally booting a chronic and leeching bully out of his house and celebrating with a hilarious terrace dance; but then there is the voluptuous Loren, sensual and sad and funny as the unfaithful wife who pretends to lose her wedding ring in her husband’s pizza dough. A segment on a poor child’s funeral is raw and heartbreaking, and De Filippo is whimsical as a “professor” who sells wisdom. The most compelling performance, however, comes from Mangano as a prostitute who accepts a surprise wedding offer in hopes of changing her life, only to find the promise is empty.
The only available version dubbed in English seems to be an old poor-quality DVD on Amazon, which also offers the original Italian version on DVD – but remember that it’s mostly Neapolitan dialect. Amazon.uk offers an email link to a version with English subtitles. Dailymotion has a version with Spanish subtitles.
Il Giorno della Civetta “The Day of the Owl” (1968) directed by Damiano Damiani
Don Corleone, take a back seat. This 1968 film, preceding Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather by four years, offers none of that blockbuster’s semi-rationalizations for Mafia culture while presenting a much grittier view of its societal tentacles, set against a starkly beautiful Sicilian landscape. Franco Nero is Carabiniere official Captain Bellodi, sent from northern Italy where rule of law at least gets lip service, to investigate the murder of a builder who had refused to give a contract to a Mafia-infiltrated company. The murder was probably witnessed by troubled Rosa Nicolosi, played heartbreakingly by Claudia Cardinale, whose husband disappeared the same day as the murder. She has a reputation for loose morals, which she denies, but reputation is all that matters here.
Mafia boss Don Mariano Arena (Lee J. Cobb!) plays on those prejudices to twist Bellodi’s investigation toward the possibility that the builder was murdered by her husband because he was having an affair with her, thus prompting the husband’s disappearance, too. Rosa’s portrayal as a woman caught between a rock and a hard place is riveting and disturbing, again more complex than The Godfather’s ensnared women. On Don Mariano’s side is an entrenched code of honor wherein witnesses withhold information and lie, pushing Captain Bellodi to incrementally shed his own ethics as he harasses Rosa, jails witnesses, and forges accusing statements to uncover the truth. Finally, he jails Don Arena, whose henchmen are a delightfully slimy bunch of Italian character actors: their curse of being a grandissimo cornuto (“a big cuckold”) hurled repeatedly, is unforgettable.
Don Arena takes his arrest in stride, for he even respects the fearless Captain. He tells him: “I divide humanity into five categories: real men, half-men, fake men, then (excuse me) thugs, and chatterers. There are extremely few real men, and few half men, and far more fake men. They are like children who think they are grown up. As for the thugs, they are becoming a real army. And finally, the chatterers: a flock of geese.” The padrone of course gets himself off the hook through political connections, and all returns to normal when Bellodi is transferred for his inappropriate tactics and a new Carabiniere captain arrives. Don Arena’s henchmen say the new officer looks like a friendly face, not like the despised Bellodi, but he stops them. “Bellodi was a man,” he says. “This one looks like a chatterer.”
The Day of the Owl is available in a dubbed English version (it was released in the U.S. as Mafia) from Amazon Prime. The original without subtitles is on YouTube.
You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW