Italian Cinema Week 1: Roma, Citta Aperta and Ladri di Biciclette

How appropriate that the big horror fan of the site starts the month of October off with a series about 20th century Italian films, …you know…exactly what you’d expect me to write. Be that as it may, I figure it’d be worth it to talk about the films and corresponding history that I take away from my Italian Cinema class. We’re learning together! *Cue Kermit the Frog flailing his arms around*

Context: The Second World War left Italy, formerly aligned with the Triple Entente before the 1943 declaration of Armistice, impoverished and without any leadership.  Former dictator Benito Mussolini had encouraged filmography in the form of propaganda, going so far as to appoint a ministry, but now left the field of the Italian film industry lost for a sense of direction. The aftermath of the war left filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini to inaugurate a new film movement, called Neorealism, which focused on the sociopolitical changes and plights of the lower/working class of Italy. These films characterized the financial and moral complexities of the post-war existence, using real locations and non-professional actors to express the themes of poverty and injustice in the daily Italian life. The following films, Roma, Citta Aperta (Rome, Open City in the US) and Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief/Bicycle Thieves), are key examples of the Italian Neorealism Movement, a double-feature showcase of Italian life during WWII and immediately after. The only comfort you can find in movies such as these is knowing the historical outcome, but it doesn’t undermine the harshness and detriment to the human spirit these films portray. Neorealism lasted not quite a decade before the Italian audiences grew dismayed at watching their history and real-world realities portrayed on film, seeking instead the escapism of comedies and romance, resulting in the movement to peter out.

Roma, Citta Aperta (1945)

A portrayal of real-life Occupied Italy near the end of the War, when the government had fallen and Germany had already made its presence in the country known; this film depicts the destruction of a few select characters and the seemingly hopelessness that surrounds them. Based on an event in which a Catholic priest, Don Pieto Morosini, was captured and shot to death by German soldiers for helping the Italian partisans, the film was financed by an elderly woman in Rome who wanted to finance a documentary about the priest in addition to a story about a group of child resistance fighters. The movie incorporates both elements, culminating in the film’s final moments where the helpless children can only whistle in respect to priest in his final moments.  The film is touted as a melodrama, (meaning that the actions on screen can be heightened and emphasized by emotional music), and the film was created in a near-guerrilla style due to the limits of film and finances that Rossellini had. The only noted actors in the movie are Aldo Fabrizi (who plays Don Pieto, seen above) and Anna Magnani (who plays Pina), which was a catalyst for the latter actress’s already lucrative career.

The interesting thing about watching both movies was the use of subtitles. In both cases the subtitles were sometimes subdued to allow conversations to just happen, never mis-identifying the important moments in the dialogue but allowing the more benign discussions to flow in their original language. Considering how Citta Aperta‘s script was partially improvised, it was refreshing to see those personal moments between Magnani and her family and her fiance just breathe, letting us relate to them before they’re torn apart by the impending Nazi invasion. The character Pina is the anchor of her family; living and fighting with extended members, reigning in her young son who runs around with the resistant children who hide bombs in the attic, while waiting for her impending marriage to her fiance and father to her unborn child, encompasses a frankness and likeness in her homeliness and exasperated emotions. Like anyone, she’s trying to get by, which makes her death brutal not just because we’ve lost an endearing character but because we know that women like Pina were killed so effortlessly and flippantly in reality.

The other important factor is the use of Roman Catholic imagery and belief; a fine example of how religion might be the only guiding force in times of extreme tragedy. The third act revolves around Don Pieto’s capture along with other members of the Italian resistance, and how the German soldiers aim to “break” them in order to reveal names and information about the movement. Faced with having to watch the resistance leader Giorgio beaten and whipped to death, Don Pieto notes in the man’s final moments: “You could not kill his soul, so you killed his body“, before he blesses the dying Giorgio. If anything this only invigorates the priest’s beliefs, proving that perseverance of the human spirit is willfully stronger than the physical body. Standing up for one’s morals is stronger than breaking them. These men and women are unbreakable, holding on to their belief and hopes that one day the Germans will leave and that their salvation lies in their faith. The children that Don Pieto teaches seek solace and safety around him, when their parents are disappearing and dying, when they try to fight back because they don’t understand the capacity of their consequences, he is there to protect them and always step forward to do what’s right.

Again by making this film a melodrama, it’s depictions of who is good and who is evil are as black and white as the film stock it’s filmed on. Interestingly though it’s in that final act where we see just a glimpse of humanity in one of the Germans, the Commander in fact, who waxes on about the superficial differences of the “slave race” and the “master race” and how the violence begets violence but never any form of happiness and success. The scene reeks of anguish from the Commander’s speech and from the sight of drugged out Lauretta who willingly sold out Giorgio and the priest for protection and a fancy fur coat. The movie is about survival in times of misery, ultimately ending on the young children walking away from the death of Don Pieto towards the city, without protection but holding on to their hope and faith.

Ladri di Biciclette (1948)

Desperation continues once the war has ended. No there isn’t the threat of being absconded by the Nazi regime and being shot to death in the street, but now the citizens of Italy have to continue life in the shambles the war left them in. There is little work, little money to be made, with the working class barely scraping by. That’s the elements that created Vittorio De Sica’s Biciclette both on screen and off: there are no studio sets, this is all filmed on location and the actors are non-professional, including a factory worker (Lamberto Maggiorani) and a boy selling flowers (Enzo Staiola, both pictured above). The focal point of the movie is the necessity of getting by and how poverty was a ruthless ladder to climb up. As a tale about a husband and father who needs to find a bicycle that was stolen from him on his first day of work (see: the kind of work that would ensure financial security and stability for his young family), the movie is a downward spiral of desperation and defeatism.

Biciclette exemplifies my personal favorite kind of narrative; a simple story that is mired in complexity by the performances and writing. The film’s cyclical sadness is grounded by the father and son relationship, hitting a range of emotional beats that concludes in the final shot of the film with the two of them disappearing into a crowd holding hands, having just grazed the possibility of a better life only to have it cruelly taken away from them. This film is unkind to its protagonist; unlike Citta Aperta which finds redemption in perseverance, Biciclette sets out to build up and completely break down our hero until he accepts the inevitability of the slight and unanswered injustices of life. The film even has more of a comedic spark to it, in the romanticism between lead Antonio Ricci and his wife Maria, and the frankness and great maturity of his elementary-aged son Bruno, (“You’re like a father-in-law.” Antonio snaps at his son at one point, to great humorous effect). But this only makes the crushing reality that Antonio and Bruno observe over the course of the film more humiliating and tragic.

The movie depicts Italian citizens looking out for only themselves, an untrusting and unhelpful lot who don’t see the plight of a man trying to provide for his family any more in need than they are. This is mostly seen in the film’s confrontation with the titular bike thief, a young man who arrogantly hides behind his feisty neighbors and mother who unquestioningly defend him, claiming his record is clean so abhorrently that you’ll find yourself questioning whether Antonio has identified the right person. Despite this, there’s a personality to the film with its characters and the city itself; the locations are varied and the people who inhabit those environments are all colorfully different from each other. In one scene you find a group of men fighting for jobs and representation in the government, only to turn the corner and find a lousy song and dance show with unenthusiastic dancers and a lead who can’t sing the song correctly.

There’s also a sense of pride among the citizens, something that constantly pushes back against Antonio until he is defeated by it. The beginning of the movie has Antonio and his wife trading in their bed sheets just so he can afford the bicycle, and the telling title causes an uneasy stir as we wait for that moment when the seemingly hopeful and responsible Antonio suffers the misfortune of thievery. Antonio’s sense of pride is represented in taking care of his family, specifically his son (who even at his age has a job, because child labor laws are for squares). The pivotal moment comes after Antonio and Bruno meet an unrelenting old man who doesn’t wish to help them, which results in Antonio slapping Bruno out of frustration. The boy runs off, shocked that his father hit him, and in Antonio’s manic anger he faces a sudden bout of terror when a bunch of people begin screaming about a boy drowning in the river. Bruno however is waiting just where his father told him to stay on the bridge, but the madness that arose in Antonio is silenced by the realization that his search for this bicycle could cost him something greater than a job.

This is the idealistic turning point of the movie, a mainstay that is subtly re-enforced in the film’s final moments. The only mercy Antonio is shown is that he is a father, and when Bruno interrupts a quarrel surrounding Antonio and a poor decision he makes, that boy is the only redemption he has left. He finds his father a broken person, ashamed of what he has done at his most desperate hour. However as with the bridge scene, we know that Antonio needs his son just as much if not more than his son needs him. The movie’s lack of resolution and bleakness is rooted in it’s true to life harshness; we will at some point disappoint our loved ones. We will sometimes do shameful things and we will have bad things happen to us. In the case of Antonio Ricci’s story, it is a fight that was astrologically out of his control, but in the end he was not a criminal. He was just a father.

Final Thoughts: Neither film ends on a high note (not even close), as neorealism was a cinematic portrait of the Italian life, one that was a rather miserable place to be during the 1940s. However I think Biciclette, in its simpleness and extremely blunt example of having absolute shit luck, has a kind of longevity that transcends historical context. Yes, it is a huge component to the film that when the film was released Italians were only just having their first formal elections after being abandoned by their fascist leaders, but there is something greatly relatable about Antonio Ricci and how his frustrations manifest in poor decisions that affect him and his family that are ultimately out of his control. The melodrama of Citta Aperta is just that, a portrayal of pure good and evil. We all know Nazis are the worst and to live in that time is unimaginable because of how horrific and tragic it was and the people who survived could be defined as heroic. It’s an important film for its time and for its country as a carbon footprint in national cinema, but I did ultimately prefer the latter film and Enzo Staiola’s performance. He needed a hug. Everyone in these movies needs a hug.

Next Friday: La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2

*Apologies if I spelled anything wrong, I think I did okay this time.*