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Exciting new critical perspectives on popular Italian cinema including melodrama, poliziesco, the mondo film, the sex comedy, missionary cinema and the musical. The book interrogates the very meaning of popular cinema in Italy to give a sense of its complexity and specificity in Italian cinema, from early to contemporary cinema.



1. The Fair and the Museum: Framing the Popular

Popular Italian cinema encompasses many delights: the foundational spectacle of the early historical epics and the passionate theatricality of the first screen divas take their place within a gallery of emotional and sensual pleasures. Even the canonical works of Italy’s post-war art cinema grew from the soil of popular genres and were nourished by traditions of theatricality and entertainment. And yet while Pasolini, Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni are icons of the European auteur canon and neorealism is a core unit of academic study, the vast and diverse output that made cinema a key popular form in Italy remains in many ways more unfamiliar. This volume aims to help correct this imbalance of attention by exploring films that may count in one way or another as popular entertainment. It interrogates the very meaning of the popular and hopes to give a sense of its complexity and specificity in Italian cinema.
Louis Bayman, Sergio Rigoletto

2. Italian Cinema, Popular?

Two things interest me in this chapter: one is the problematic nature of the adjectives ‘popular’ and ‘Italian’ the other is the way in which aspirations to the popular have emerged, as it were, throughout the history of Italian cinema. I want to ask whether there is some restrictive, useful meaning we can give to ‘the people’ who are covered by the adjective ‘popular’ (i.e., other than just ‘lots of them’), and I plan to start by pursuing the interrogative mode of the title and posing a number of questions, to some of which are attached more detailed reflections (an indication in parentheses at the end of a question directs the reader to a reflection placed later in the chapter). The questions are intended to develop the issue of ‘popular Italian cinema’ progressively from smaller, circumscribed issues to broader, theoretical issues. Direct questions can unfortunately often be perceived as having a polemical intent (‘Answer that, if you can!’), but it would be a mistaken perception in this instance, because what the questions are striving to do is carve out a useful, rigorous and meaningful sense in which we might distinguish popular Italian cinema from other kinds of cinema, Italian or not.
Christopher Wagstaff

3. The Prettiness of Italian Cinema

Popular melodramas such as Cinema Paradiso (1988), Il Postino (1994) and Mediterraneo (1991) in many ways defined Italian cinema for international audiences in the 1990s: Cinema Paradiso and Mediterraneo won Oscars for best foreign language film and all the films found huge worldwide audiences. Il Postino, for instance, took over $21 million in the United States (Mojo, 2011) and over $80 million worldwide (Guru, 2011). In terms of the sheer volume of people who saw and enjoyed them, these films represent some of the most popular Italian films ever. Their generic location as melodramatic romances also places them textually as popular films and yet they don’t fit entirely comfortably into the rubric of popular cinema. The very fact of their international success ensured they were read by some as art film, connected by association with the modernist Italian films of the 1960s and 1970s, screened in urban arthouses and enjoyed by those audiences interested in foreign cinema. Their emphasis on visual style consolidates this generic location. Both textually and institutionally, the films hover between the arthouse and the popular. This tension, I will argue, opens up what I call the prettiness of Italian cinema.
Rosalind Galt

4. The Pervasiveness of Song in Italian Cinema

A young man is yanked out of a café by a man and a woman and flung into a carriage. ‘Dove volete portarmi?’ (‘Where are you taking me?’), he wails. The young woman, cracking the whip for the horses, cries ‘Alla vecchia fattoria’ (‘To the old farm’) and the man adds ‘Ia ia oh!’. Suddenly, somewhere else a woman and three men come forward, dressed in natty cowboy clothes, and sing ‘Nella vecchia fattoria’ (‘In the old farm’), a song involving an ever-increasing number of repeated imitations of animal sounds (it is the song known in English as ‘Old Macdonald’s Farm’). As they carry on, the carriage careers its way along dusty roads, the young man tossed about in the back. On the roof of the farm a man says ‘Ma che stiamo diventando tutti matti qua?’ (‘Is everyone going crazy here?’) and the singers give a final ‘Ia ia oh!’; the man on the roof fires a gun in the air, and the singers run off as the horse and carriage arrive at the farm.
Richard Dyer

5. Melodrama as Seriousness

Melodrama has been one of the most prevalent forms in Italian film history. Its appearance acts as a principal signal of dramatic weight, heightened affect and seriousness of tone; to the extent that one can suggest that ‘almost everything in Italian cinema – except perhaps (and importantly) comedy – can be related back to melodramma […] spectacle and stardom, adventure and thriller, genres, as well as actual opera films and melodrama and even realism’ (Dyer, 2007: 230).
Louis Bayman

6. Moving Masculinity: Incest Narratives in Italian Sex Comedies

By the mid-1970s, Italian sex comedies had evolved from focusing on bawdy affairs between wives, husbands and lovers to depicting a wider range of narratives about sex, including those that exploited the behaviour of incestuous family members. It is not by happenstance that films from this period toyed with sexual misbehaviours and mishaps – and especially incest; the works were part of a larger output of products that exploited the breakdown of family morals and showed men desperately trying to woo women and meet constructed ideals of masculine mastery. Films that presented the sexual explorations of teenage boys held a special position among these narratives. These works not only depict the adolescent boys in a sympathetic light, they also show the objects of desire – the women – desiring back with a mixture of temptation and maternal affection. Why were the outcomes for adolescent boys so different from those of the other men? By examining the audience demographic for these films (men aged approximately 16 to 35) and studies on their shared sense of infantilism and generational disconnect, I argue that these popular films addressed particular challenges to the post-war Italian family and to Italian masculinity in ways that resonated for male viewers in 1970s Italy. The readings and interpretations of those films were potentially ambiguous to the upper half of the demographic (men aged approximately 25 to 35), who could reasonably be expected to identify with conflicting points of view – that of the older characters who struggle with mastery and that of the younger characters who struggle, but who also enact a nostalgic return to scenarios of innocence, maternal love, and vicarious social and sexual mastery.
Tamao Nakahara

7. Laughter and the Popular in Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimì

When her first feature film, The Lizards/I basilischi (1963), was released in Italy, critics almost unanimously welcomed Lina Wertmüller as one of the enfants terribles of 1960s Italian cinema. That same year, Wertmüller had worked as assistant director for Federico Fellini on (1963). In acknowledging the debt that her first film paid to neorealism and to Fellini himself, critics were celebrating the rise of a young director whose work seemed to be entirely within the great Italian tradition of auteur cinema (Brunetta, 1993: 291; Micciché, 1975: 156). After The Lizards, Wertmüller did some work for the Italian state television company RAI. She directed the first edition of the show Canzonissima and then went on to make the first musicarello (music-comedy) ever broadcast on Italian TV, Il giornalino di Gianburrasca (1964–65). In the 1970s, Wertmüller returned to the attention of film critics and achieved her first major international success on the big screen, The Seduction of Mimì/Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore (1972). This was a very different film from The Lizards. It was full of gags, crass humour and had a virtuoso visual style that was far from the restrained realist aesthetic of her first film. Wertmüller went on to make some of the most commercially successful Italian films of the 1970s. On the year of its release, The Seduction of Mimì took 820,725,000 lire in Italy and had the seventh highest box-office receipts, while Swept away/Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto had the fifth highest in 1975 (Colombo, 2001: 81). In the same period, Wertmüller’s films became a sensation in the United States where she was nominated for an Oscar for best director.
Sergio Rigoletto

8. Strategies of Tension: Towards a Reinterpretation of Enzo G. Castellari’s The Big Racket and The Italian Crime Film

In this chapter I will be using Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 film, The Big Racket/Il grande racket as a case study in order to question traditional critical interpretations of the poliziesco – a short-lived but highly successful cycle of well over 100 crime films produced in Italy between 1972 and 1979. The poliziesco can be considered the direct heir of the Spaghetti Western for three reasons: firstly, because its rise coincided with the Spaghetti Western’s decline; secondly, because virtually all of the filmmakers and actors responsible for the poliziesco came directly from a background working on Spaghetti Westerns; and thirdly, because it borrowed many of the narrative and stylistic conventions of the Spaghetti Western and relocated them to a contemporary Italian setting. Like the Western the poliziesco features an isolated hero who uses violence to bring order to a corrupt world in a contemporary restaging of the classic ‘hero myth’.
Alex Marlow-Mann

9. ‘Il delirio del lungo metraggio’: Cinema as Mass Phenomenon in Early Twentieth-Century Italian Culture

In early twentieth-century Italy, cinema had already gained a place as a mass phenomenon. Around 1905 a capillary proliferation of movie theatres (Bernardini, 1981: 15–36) began remodelling the urban landscape, transforming the spaces of social life and redefining urban culture. In 1906 the magazine L’Albo d’oro noted that in Rome, after the opening of the Cinema Moderno, ‘movie theatres started springing up like mushrooms, so now […] one can find a movie theatre on every corner’ (‘I cinematografi’, 1906: 36), whilst in Naples novelist Matilde Serao denounced cinema as a new kind of ‘virus’ having a profound impact on contemporary society:
Today cinema is the ultimate expression of Neapolitan epidemics and manias, the dernier cri of success. […] Cinema reigns supreme, ruling and dominating and bossing around and invading everything, society life, charity, the arts, the theatre!
(Gibus [Serao], 1906)2
Irene Lottini

10. Dressing the Part: ‘Made in Italy’ Goes to the Movies with Lucia Bosé in Chronicle of a Love Affair

‘Made in Italy’ is a term associated with style, elegance and quality goods (Fortunati and Danese, 2005). The nationally-specific dimension of Italian fashion emerged in the 1950s as the industry sought to break away from its over-dependency on Parisian style and to establish itself as an important force on the international stage. While numerous texts exist on Italian fashion and style, relatively little scholarly attention has been devoted to assessing the place of costume in Italian cinema.1 This disparity in Italian film studies appears at odds, for example, with the now established body of work existing on fashion, style and costume in Hollywood movies including Stella Bruzzi’s Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies (1997), David Desser and Garth Jowett’s edited volume Hollywood Goes Shopping (2000), Sarah Street’s Costume and Cinema: Dress Codes in Popular Cinema (2001) and Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s Hollywood Catwalk: Exploring Costume and Transformation in American Film (2010), to name but some. These and other texts have clearly illustrated the significance of costume to the film text in terms of mise-en-scène, assessing character and plot development, identifying genre, denoting the class, gender and sexuality of the wearer, and its extra-textual meanings to audiences (Stacey, 1994).
Réka Buckley

11. Hercules versus Hercules: Variation and Continuation in Two Generations of Heroic Masculinity

Italian popular film has enjoyed periods of mass appeal on a global scale. My chapter is concerned with the peplum or sword and sandal cycle, one of the most important genres in the history of Italian cinema in relation to international distribution and commercial success. Discussion of the background to the peplum and a comparison of two cinematic depictions of Hercules, the fictional character most associated with the genre, allow an opportunity to explore both the contexts in which the films were produced and their respective representations of masculinity. The 1958 Hercules/Le fatiche di Ercole is widely credited with launching the peplum; the 1983 Hercules belongs – in part at least – to the science fiction-fantasy cycle inaugurated by the American-produced Star Wars (1977), blending the mythical elements and iconography of the peplum with the trappings of the revitalized science-fiction genre. Produced 25 years apart, these Hercules films have significant qualities in common. Italian-made, with a mostly local crew and cast, both feature an American bodybuilding champion in the title role, respectively Steve Reeves and Lou Ferrigno. The question regards the extent to which it is legitimate to characterize the 1983 film as a ‘neo-peplum’, deriving its themes, iconography and ideology – in terms of political outlook, patriarchal authority and male potency – from the earlier version. I argue that, for all their similarities, these Hercules films offer divergent and ultimately incompatible depictions of masculinity. While both films draw on body culture, classicism and Italian–US cross-cultural exchange (cinematic and otherwise), only one of them chimed with the wider social and cultural climate of its era in terms of a projection or performance of male strength and virtue that enjoyed worldwide success.
Daniel O’Brien

12. On the Complexity of the Cinepanettone

The cinepanettoni are a series of farcical comedies, one or two of which are released annually in Italy for the Christmas period, and attendance at which has come to be an integral part of the festive celebrations for many Italians so that the films are often among the most successful of the year. Though the cinepanettoni date back to 1983, the term itself seems to have been coined in the early 2000s and was certainly intended pejoratively, meant to suggest that these films are a matter of mere consumption (the preferred industry term is ‘film di Natale’ (Christmas film)). My aim is to introduce the history and variety of the cinepanettoni, and analyse a sample of the criticism or parody of the films in scholarship and in popular culture. Through a discussion of history in S.P.Q.R. 2000 and a Half Years Ago/S.P.Q.R. 2000 e ½ anni fa (1994), a satire of contemporary Italian politics and justice set in the classical Roman period, I argue that the film’s satire is directed as much at the pomposity of historical discourse as it is at its explicit targets of political corruption and judicial incompetence. Secondly, I discuss a literal version of ‘toilet humour’ in Natale sul Nilo (2002), directed by Neri Parenti. Parenti’s cinepanettoni from the new century have been the subject of particular derision, and I deliberately focus on what is seen as the irredeemable vulgarity of the Parenti films, in an attempt to better understand their humour of the lower body. My modest aim in this chapter is to argue the complexity and interest of the cinepanettone against its discursive construction in scholarship, criticism and in the wider Italian culture as crude, simplistic and beneath consideration.
Alan O’Leary

13. Cinema and Popular Preaching: the Italian Missionary Film and Fiamme

This chapter focuses on Italian missionary cinematographic production, an increasingly important area within the realm of Italian Catholic cinema studies. ‘Missionary film’ refers to a substantial group of movies made by missionaries as directors, screenwriters, dubbers1 and producers, in Italy and in other countries around the world during the last century. This phenomenon has been linked to the official use of images by the Catholic Church from its origins until now. The Church has for centuries used images in support of words for the purpose of preaching its message in a number of art forms and media: painting, sculpture, stained glass, photography, magic lanterns, lithographs, cinema and, more recently, the internet.
Maria Francesca Piredda

14. Dolce e Selvaggio: The Italian Mondo Documentary Film

The most eagerly awaited film of the 1962 Cannes Film Festival was Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. Film critic Ian Cameron, like many, anticipated that after the disappointing response to L’Avventura the previous year, 1962 ‘would be the year that Cannes capitulated to Antonioni’ (Cameron, 1962: 1). Cameron had to report, however, that the most rapturous welcome went instead to a shock documentary film called Mondo Cane fashioned by a team led by the lesser-known Italian cine-journalist Gualtiero Jacopetti; a film that Cameron describes as a ‘two-hour hymn to mutilation’ (1962: 1). Cameron dismisses the excitement over Mondo Cane as a further example of the ‘perversity’ of the Cannes audience and, writing in 1962, set the tone for subsequent critical reception of the work of Jacopetti, and the sub-genre of documentary cinema (mondo) that his film invented.
Mark Goodall


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