“I really loved the Italian movies of the 1960s and 1970s. But what happened? It’s a real tragedy. The Italian films I’ve seen over the past few years all seem the same. All they talk about is boys growing up, girls growing up, couples in crisis and holidays for the mentally disabled.”
So is he right? Is the American director correct in his assessment of the status of Italian cinema? On this blog I have reviewed in the past Italian films, and more often than not I have found them to be truly remarkable works. From the Academy Award winning best foreign film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), to Oscar nominee Youth, passing through films such as Tale of Tales, My Mother (Mia madre), and Leopardi (Il giovane favoloso), most of the movies I have seen and discussed are worthy of praise and are impressive, regardless of country of origin. Of course, as someone who truly loves cinema and holds a lot of admiration and respect for Italian films, I have seen a very large number of movies from the boot-shaped country (also because I used to live there) helmed by illustrious maestros like Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, Bertolucci, De Sica, Pasolini, and many many more. A lot of these directors, however, were at the top of their games during the period of time that Tarantino was praising, or before. It must be said that Tarantino seems to have a predilection for films that would be defined as B movies, and the homages present in his own filmography prove it. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are remakes of Italian genre films by the same names, the spaghetti western is one of the most influential genres on his oeuvre, from the entire construction of the Kill Bill films, to the director’s decision to hire the maestro composer Ennio Morricone twice. Art films and excellently crafted classic cinema, that have brought fame and respect to Italian cinema, are not Tarantino’s flick picks. The director’s quote, though, (which was made a few years ago) requires some attention. Has Italian cinema become synonymous with coming of age dramas and boring films depicting romantic couples in crisis and dealing with strife? I decided to watch a number of films from the past few years, some of the most successful and seen Italian films, to really decide if Tarantino’s assessment is correct, or if he was dismissing an entire country’s cinematographic production based on ignorance and his own ideology and perspective. I will discuss the films in alphabetical order. Without any further ado, so here goes.
BLACK AND WHITE (BIANCO E NERO) – 2008
The first of a few films directed, or associated with, Cristina Comencini. I love her work both as an author and as a director, so I took this opportunity to catch up on some films by her I had yet to see. The film would fall under the category of a romantic comedy, although in true Italian fashion it also contains a healthy dose of drama. The story is one of infidelity (how Italian!), but it focuses on an affair between two married people of different races and nationalities. Carlo is a married Italian man whose wife is attempting to make up for the white guilt she feels for having had black maids and because of her over-the-top racist parents. Nadine is a Senegalese woman who works for the embassy, whose husband’s job seemingly consists of making white people feel bad about themselves. Both reject their spouses and find themselves drawn to one another. Comedy ensues. While at times the film is preachy, other times it seems to be committing the very sins it is chastising and admonishing. It’s a valiant attempt to deal with the complex subject of race and racism in Italy, and it is an enjoyable watch, but it’s also quite far from perfect. At least it tries… Let’s be positive! It’s only the first movie.
DON’T TELL (LA BESTIA NEL CUORE) – 2005
Not the most recent of films, but given that this specific film was not only Italy’s submission to the Academy Awards, but was actually nominated for best foreign film, I felt the need to include it and watch it. This isn’t the only Cristina Comencini film on this list, given that she is not only the best female director working in Italy today, but one of the best period. This film was written by the director herself, based on her own novel: so she knows the material intimately. The subject matter is bleak, but is handled well and with respect – hard to do when the topic is childhood sexual abuse. There is a storyline of infidelity and unhappy Italian relationships, which is both cliché and tired. The bizarre stylistic choice is to include a lesbian subplot love story, all the more bizarre since it’s done with comic effect, a tone in sharp contrast to the rest of the film’s somber mood. An interesting film, though not stellar, with a great cast. But Oscar worthy? Not so much.
DUE PARTITE – 2009
Adapted from a stage play by Cristina Comencini (there’s that name again), this film can be split in half temporally but not geographically. With the exception of a couple of exterior and transition shots the entire film takes place within one apartment (a little like Polanski’s adaptation Carnage, but much better). The two segments take place roughly thirty years apart – the first in the 60s, the second closer to nowadays. In both segments four women discuss life, fears, and their status of women in Italy. During the first part the women chat while playing a game of cards (the title of the movie), in the second section their four daughters gather in the apartment after a funeral. The action is minimal, there is some comedy and over the top Italian acting, but the film is a delight. The topics are organic and never come off as preachy, the patriarchy of Italian society is discussed indirectly and always pointedly, and the acting is superb, including the always amazing Margherita Buy.
THE INVISIBLE BOY (IL RAGAZZO INVISIBILE) – 2014
Already this first film seems to immediately disprove Tarantino’s statements. A couple of years ago Italian director Gabriele Salvatores made a film which provided a fresh and new take on, what I consider to be, the tired superhero genre which has grown formulaic and stale. In this movie, a middle school aged child who is constantly picked on and derided by his friends suddenly begins to experience some bizarre experiences. Then, all of a sudden, Michele turns invisible and doesn’t know why. What does a child do with his newfound special power? Well, get back at the boys who make his life miserable is his first mission, followed by a peek into the mysterious world of female locker rooms. The film picks up the pace and becomes a traditional superhero film, yet with much lower and more personal stakes than usual films in the genre which ask the hero to save the entire world immediately after discovering their talents. The film is very much influenced by American Marvel movies, but reads as extremely Italian at the same time, providing a nice balance between the two worlds. It’s not innovative, but it’s not setting out to be. It does, however, fit nicely into the genre and is action packed. Viewers who are fans of superhero movies will very much enjoy it and like a foreign take on what has become a little too cookie-cutter and mainstream Stateside.
AN ITALIAN NAME (IL NOME DEL FIGLIO) – 2015
This film is a remake of the French 2012 film What’s in a Name? (Le prenom). The concept is simple: at a dinner party, Paolo announces to his sister, her husband, and a close friend that he and his wife will be bestowing a quite controversial name to their soon to be born son. The other members of the dinner party react as negatively as one would expect, and over the course of a few hours secrets, grudges, and truths will come to light. It is the classic ‘commedia all’italiana’ with a twist and brought into the 21st century by Francesca Archibugi, who has been churning out great films set in the domestic sphere for over twenty years.
LATIN LOVER – 2015
This film was one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in recent memory. I especially appreciated it because it reminded me a lot of Pedro Almodóvar’s comedies, and he ranks amongst my absolute favorite directors of all time. The film is zany, funny, touching, and at times an absolute riot. Story-wise it depicts a family reunion of sorts. A small town is preparing a festival/memoriam for an illustrious actor who was from there. Said actor, who has since passed away, was a world renown thespian who was as talented as he was lascivious. His prolific extra curricular activities resulted in him producing five daughters with five different women from five different countries. All the daughters and two former wives come together to celebrate the life and career of Saverio Crespo. A comedy of errors, at times slapsticky, but with an expertly crafted pace orchestrated by the always mesmerizing writer/director Cristina Comencini results in a strong comedy that hits all the right notes.
THE MAFIA KILLS ONLY IN SUMMER (LA MAFIA UCCIDE SOLO D’ESTATE) – 2013
What do you get when you take a topic as serious as the mafia and the many murders that it committed in Palermo, Sicily, from the 70’s through the 90’s and turn it into a comedy? This surprisingly charming and well made film by first time director Pif. This film traces the violent history of the Sicilian city through the eyes of Arturo, from childhood to life as a young adult navigating the dangerous political and criminal currents on the Italian island. The title refers to a white lie told by Arturo’s father to calm and ease the young boy after he expresses concern over dying at the hands of the Cosa Nostra. The first two third of the film focus on elementary school aged Arturo and the young crush he nurses for Flora, and the film is at its best, mixing nostalgia, childhood innocence, and showcasing strong acting and pacing. The shift to adult Arturo, played by Pif himself, begins to lag and proves that Pif is a better director and screenwriter than he is an actor, he is, in fact, quote a terrible one with very bizarre diction. The crush on Flora stops being cute when it’s a 4o year old (playing I guess someone meant to be in their late 20’s) professing these intense feelings, and Arturo reads creepy and desperate. All in all, it’s still a very funny movie about a very serious topic I remember discussing in school with my classmates back then as well. Pif will have a good career, but he’s better off sticking behind the camera and leaving the acting to those who actually know how.
PITZA E DATTERI – 2015
It’s great to see a movie that confronts head on an issue that most Italians would rather ignore and pretend doesn’t exist. Italy doesn’t handle its multicultural society very well, and in spite of Italians pretending that racism in the country is not an issue, they are quite mistaken. This movie decides to confront the issue, along with islamophobia, sexism, and terrorism, head on and in a comedy no less. When a Venetian Muslim group loses their prayer space to the ex-wife of its owner, the men must find a new place to meet. When the ex-wife, who is Middle Eastern, decides to turn the space into a hairdressing salon, the men become furious and call upon a religious leader to come to the Italian city to help and counsel them. The film is very well made and while it does poke fun and shed light on stereotypes, assumptions, and ideologies. While an open mind is necessary while viewing this film, it is also very respectful in its narrative. A resounding success.
THE RED AND THE BLUE (IL ROSSO E IL BLU) – 2012
This film was kind of hard to watch. It hits all the notes that can make Italian cinema insufferable and is a shining example of what Tarantino was criticizing. And while the American director decided to essentialize the entire country’s film production as such, this film is not an indication of all that is released, but it does showcase that there is an Italian obsession with coming of age dramas that don’t really go anywhere or say anything. In this film a youngish substitute teacher arrives at a school with stars in his eyes and big dreams of changing the lives of each and every youth he comes across. So obviously he immediately begins acting unprofessionally and blurs the lines in the teacher-student relationship. Once again another Italian film depicting a protagonist with a Lolita complex. A jaded and ancient professor is present to highlight the fact that millennials are supposedly the worst ever generation. The school’s principal learns a very special after school lesson that would be hilarious if it didn’t take itself so seriously. The film is riddled with cliches and is better left forgotten. Thankfully, in spite of its well known cast, this film is not representative of what Italy is capable of producing, in spite of what Tarantino may think.
LA SOLITA COMMEDIA: INFERNO – 2015
Even Italy makes really dumb comedies that appeal to the lowest common denominator. There is, however, a difference to this specific movie. The satirical film attempts to hold a mirror to modern Italian society, making light of Italy’s growing dependance on technology, the rage that seems to be barely contained in every single person making their way through the day, and a series of funny and grotesque flaws amongst the nation’s citizens. To deal with all these sins God decides to send Italy’s most lauded medieval poet, Dante Alighieri, back to earth to catalog these infractions that hell doesn’t know what to do with. Who better to decide where in hell these sinners belong than the man who took on the same task 800 years ago in his seminal text The Divine Comedy? And this is what makes the movie very Italian: the marriage of extreme lowbrow and literary/academic framing devices. The film has many flaws and many jokes fall flat, but there are a few moments of brilliance. Anyone familiar with Italian culture or with Dante and his texts may get a kick out of it.
SUBURRA – 2015
This was one really kick ass film. No wonder Netflix has decided to produce an Italian language television series inspired by it. This film is two hours of non stop action, with unrelenting tension, and an unbelievably thrilling plot. The visuals of the film are gorgeous and stylized, matched perfectly by a pulsating soundtrack by the French electronic band M83. The film depicts the inner workings and struggles to build up Rome’s beach front with the goal of turning it into the Las Vegas of Europe. The problems arise when everyone, from the church to politicians to every organized crime subgroup in the city, want a piece of the action for themselves. The final result is an ultraviolent bloody mess. And that is not a bad thing. I did take issue with the film’s obsession with exploiting women and their bodies, which is a sad trope that plagues Italy’s movies in general, but there are some attempts at depicting female agency which I did appreciate. Overall the movie is exciting and will appeal to fans of action, crime thrillers, and Scorsese flicks.
TERRAFERMA – 2011
On a small island off the southern coast of Sicily, an Italian family struggles to make a living off of a meager fishing business and a fickle tourist industry. Much like Lina Wertmüller did decades ago, using the sea to shed light on the disparity between social classes, Emanuele Crialese juxtaposes the relationship that tourists and “clandestine” immigrants have with the Mediterranean Sea. This film is Crialese’s second in which he confronts issues of immigration and voyages by sea, the first being Nuovomondo (Golden Door), which told the tale of the Italian experience migrating to the United States. This film is not as stylized or oneiric as his previous one. Gone are images of hope and dreams of a land of literal rivers of milk and gigantic vegetables. The harrowing truth of the journey and the very real chances of death in the pursuit of some semblance of sanctuary affects the mood and provides a stark contrast with the beautiful and peaceful setting of a small volcanic island in the middle of the blue crisp water. The film is not an easy watch, but it is a very well made depiction of the side of immigration, the human side, that rarely is showcased in a “sea” of hate speech and accusatory rhetoric.
I think I have proven through this post that when we talk about and discuss Italian cinema, it is a big mistake to dismiss it as lame or obsolete, no matter what world renown directors may have you believe. Just like Chinese films are not all kung-fu movies, it is asinine to make sweeping generalizations about what any given country is capable of producing. It would be like saying that all American films are about man-children who refuse to grow up, only smoke weed, and somehow manage to eventually bed beautiful women. Thankfully, though, not all American films star Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, or Kevin James. And not all Italian movies are about kids growing up, couples in crisis, etc. They have superhero movies, badass action crime films, and hilarious comedies. Yeah, they’ve got some stinkers, but who doesn’t?