From Naples to Hollywood (and Back): At TCMFF, Sophia Loren Reflects on Her Vibrant Career

sophiamarriageIt’s hard to imagine a time when Sophia Loren wouldn’t have been considered a dazzling beauty. However, at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood for TCM Classic Film Festival, Loren harkened back to her early days as an actress—and her disastrous first screentest.

In an extended interview with her son, director Edoardo Ponti, Loren recalled, “They put a cigarette in my mouth, so I started to cough like hell.”

Looking at the test footage, the cameraman gave a grim appraisal of Loren’s future in films: “She has a long nose. She has a big mouth. And she doesn’t know how to act.”

Loren was ready to give up and go home, but her mentor and future husband, producer Carlo Ponti, convinced her to keep trying, for which we can all be grateful.

More than 20 years the starlet’s senior, Ponti brought hope and stability into her life after a bleak childhood. “He was a very sensitive person,” Loren said. “I think he had a nice smile. I found great comfort in him.” Even today, Loren feels that he remains with her in spirit. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do, sometimes I have problems. I think of him and I don’t feel alone.”

Contrary to popular belief, though, Ponti did not rechristen Sophia Scicolone as Sophia Loren. She set the record straight; it was another producer, Goffredo Lombardo, who came up with her screen name. “He was doing a picture, Africa Under the Sea, and he said, ‘Look, Sophia Cicolone I don’t like. We have to change the name, because I like you, you look good in a bathing suit…’”

Greeted by a chorus of laughter from the audience at the Montalban, Loren paused, shrugged, and acknowledged her deservedly lauded figure: “It helps.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Flipping through a dictionary, Lombardo searched for words with a similar sound to the name of an actress he liked. Coren… Soren… Loren!

Her big break came with Aïda (1953), a lavish film adaptation of Verdi’s opera. The movie placed unusual demands on Loren, who more or less fell into the role to replace an American actress. Painted from head-to-toe to play an African princess, Loren acted in tune with a pre-recorded score—and had to put in extra practice to learn every beat of the music, including several famous arias.

She recalled, “For at least 2 months I was in a little room trying to sing the lipsynch of [the celebrated soprano] Renata Tebaldi, every day, all day, and then I did it.” Because the soundstages were cold in winter, crew members had to use hairdryers to eliminate the visible breath emanating from the star’s open mouth!

How did Loren feel about the results? “It’s great. It looks like I am singing!” At the Montalban, when Edoardo asked his mother, “Were you singing a little bit?” he got an incredulous response: “Ma tu sei pazzo?” Are you crazy?

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“Ma tu sei pazzo?” Sophia Loren and son Edoardo Ponti at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

The following year, in 1954, Loren began her collaboration with Vittorio De Sica, the director who would shape her greatest screen performances. She remembered her makeup man introducing her to De Sica at Cinecittà, warning, “She’s a wonderful girl. She’s very young, Vittorio. She’s very, very young.”

Thus reminded to remain a gentleman, De Sica suggested that Loren do a screentest for his next production, an episodic film set in Naples. Remembering her earlier experience, she baulked. “I started to take away the possibility of doing L’oro di Napoli, because I didn’t want to do a test,” Loren said.

Undeterred, De Sica invited Loren to visit his studio, where he discussed the role with her and decided to cast her without a test. “You leave tomorrow for Naples,” he told her.

A great actor as well as director, De Sica performed for his cast even when working behind the camera. Loren recalled, “Every director has a way of showing [what he wants] to an actor, with words sometimes, with gestures sometimes. For him, it was acting, from A to Z, little actors, big actors, a man, a woman… He would act the scene for everybody.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Some actors would no doubt bristle at a director showing them how to play their part, but Loren appreciated seeing how De Sica would act out her character: “That’s the way he felt that he could give some truth to the scene. So I learned from him. I was always in a lesson with him.”

Loren found plenty in De Sica’s directorial acting to emulate and ultimately make her own. She confided, “I like to steal—Naples, you know—I like to steal good things, the kind of things that make you grow.”

When asked what she “stole” from De Sica, she replied with one word: “naturalezza” or naturalness.

Like many screen legends, Loren honed her craft as an actress as she climbed the ladder of stardom—without studying acting in a traditional sense. Edoardo wondered whether the lack of formal training ever undermined her confidence. “Well, I felt insecure because I didn’t go to the actors’ studio, but I see so many people that did go to the actors’ studio who are more insecure than I am! Now I don’t feel insecure, because I learned from life… I learned to read the minds of people, to read the mind of the character I am playing.”

In the mid-1950s, she found herself increasingly in demand. When Loren met Suso Checchi D’Amato, then working on a script called Too Bad She’s Bad, on a train, the screenwriter mentioned a perfect part for her: an alluring thief who falls in love with the taxi driver she cons.

toobadshesbadAlthough the 19-year-old Loren had fun “playing the star” and telling D’Amato to see if Ponti could “fit your project into my schedule,” the movie turned out to be a personal and professional milestone. “It was really my first film where I had to open up and really show to people the little things I was learning.”

Too Bad She’s Bad (1954) also paired Loren with Marcello Mastroianni for the first time. From the moment she met Mastroianni on the set they were immediately simpatico. “Since I saw him, it was like he was my old friend. He was a gentle person.”

Their friendship was based on two things, according to Loren: “sense of humor and food.” The latter sounds like Mastroianni’s favorite subject. “When he came on the set in the morning the first thing he said wasn’t, ‘Come stai, Sophia?’ No. ‘Cosa mangerai stasera?’ What are you going to eat tonight?”

At the TCL Chinese Theater, when Ben Mankiewicz asked Loren if she and Mastroianni worked on their onscreen chemistry, she replied, “I don’t think you can work on chemistry. There is or there isn’t. So, as soon as I saw Marcello, there is.”

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Audiences felt the rapport, too, and a new screen team was formed. “When the film came out it was so successful that other writers started writing other things for us both, always for comedies, though, in the beginning.”

After Loren’s string of Italian hits in the 1950s, Hollywood beckoned, and Ponti offered her the opportunity to break the language barrier and prepare to enchant new audiences. She shared an anecdote that revealed the producer’s determination. Loren received a telegram stating, “‘Tomorrow you start learning English.’” As she was mulling the idea over, she reported, “The door rang—that was my teacher!”

Loren’s first English-language film, The Pride and the Passion (1957), entailed a 6-month shoot in Spain and sparked the actress’s legendary romance with Cary Grant. However, they didn’t exactly start off on the right foot.

“Cary Grant was being very funny, because he mixed my name up with Gina Lollobrigida. So, I went to him and I said, ‘If you keep on doing that, I’m leaving.” While making his apology, “He looked into my eyes and he was stuck. That’s all.”

Listening to stories about his mother and Grant, Eduardo Ponti got one of the biggest laughs of the day: “I have a bittersweet feeling about Cary Grant: sweet, because he’s somebody who meant a lot to you, bitter because my birth was threatened.” You know, I can’t really blame him.

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Who could turn down Cary Grant? Well, Loren explained that it wasn’t Grant so much as a break with her life in Italy that she was resisting: “I think that with Carlo [Ponti] I had found a kind of calm, a kind of tranquility. He came from Italy… I was afraid to change so quickly in my life and go to America.”

Knowing that her future as an artist, not merely a star, resided in her native country, Loren went home. Although she didn’t seem to find her English-language films particularly fulfilling, she confessed her fondness for a few: “I’ve done things that sometimes I thought were okay, like the picture I did with Cary, Houseboat, and then also a film I did, The Key with Carol Reed.”

twowomenIn 1960, Loren gave her most acclaimed performance in Two Women, as a mother struggling to help her daughter survive in wartorn Italy, again directed by De Sica. Initially slated to play the daughter, Loren ended up in the role of the mother after Anna Magnani turned it down—but suggested rewriting the script to feature Sophia as the older lead.

The artistic triumph emerged from a grueling production, leading up to the horrifying church rape scene. “I spent nights and nights and nights without sleep,” Loren said. “When the day came, we did a rehearsal and then we started shooting.

“On the first [take], De Sica said, “Print!” I said, ‘Don’t we do another one?’ He said, ‘No, we won’t do another one.’ All the scenes from that moment on until the end De Sica never did it twice.”

The one-take method made Loren nervous, “I was so preoccupied and I said, ‘My god, it will be terrible and and I will have to do the same thing [again]… he said, ‘No, you could never do it better. Shut up.’”

De Sica was right, as Loren learned on Oscar night when she became the first actor ever to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language performance.

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Ben Mankiewicz looks adorably starstruck in the presence of Sophia Loren before their interview at the TCL Chinese Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

At the TCL Chinese Theater, the day after her interview at the Montalban, Loren recounted how she received the word of her victory. Seized by the jitters, Loren had decided not to attend the ceremony, thinking, “I will stay in Rome, because if I win, I’m going to faint. If I faint in my own house, then it’s fine. Nobody sees me. If I faint on the stage, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Instead, Loren and Ponti enjoyed a quiet night at home. The clock ticked by, past the time when the winner was supposed to have been announced. Assuming that no news was bad news, the couple headed up to bed.

“At that moment,” Loren told the packed crowd at the Chinese Theater, “the telephone rang. I said, ‘Hello? Pronto? Chi è?”

What she heard at the other end is probably the best thing anyone has ever heard in the history of phones: “It’s Cary Grant. You won!”

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Marriage Italian Style (1964) reunited Loren with De Sica and her frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni. One of Loren’s favorites in her filmography, the bawdy, beloved dramedy allowed the actress to prove her talent to a surprising critic: her mother.

“Even though after a while I started to be in movies and they were giving me already good roles, one time we were looking at the television and there was a lady called Regina Bianchi, ah, mi ricordo… and she was doing Marriage Italian Style. My mother, because she was very natural, sometimes she could say things that could hurt you a lot.

“So, I said, ‘Maybe Carlo would like to do Marriage Italian Style.’ And she looked at the television and she said, ‘But you could never do it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because she’s so good.’”

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Perhaps Bianchi was good, but Loren is “a cinematic event” in Marriage Italian Style, to borrow Ben Mankiewicz’s description. Amazed by Loren’s walk in a certain iconic scene, Mankiewicz began, “When you walk, just walk in a movie—”

“I dance,” Loren aptly finished the sentence. “I walked like that because there was music underneath, so I had to do a double step, and I enjoyed it very much.”

Loren cherished the part of Filumena, a prostitute who longs for a loving marriage with her keeper of 20 years, for its range of emotion. “It’s a beautiful role for a woman. You can cry, you can laugh, but the tragedy of the woman at that time is always there.”

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Marriage Italian Style also captures the beauty and vitality of Loren’s heritage in Naples. “I think I owe everything to [being] Neapolitan,” She reflected. “Every kind of picture that I’ve done with De Sica, the source was always Naples in a way.”

What else is there to say? Grazie, Naples. E grazie, Sophia.

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A Reel Diva: Assunta Spina (1915)

bertini“It had been my idea to wander around Naples taking ordinary people from the streets. Now everyone’s invented Neorealism! The real Neorealist film is Assunta Spinta!” —Francesca Bertini in 1982

In her nineties, Francesca Bertini, the first great star of the Italian cinema, seemed like the kind of woman who’d slap Norma Desmond and tell her to get a grip. Beyond the trappings of her wealth and fame—the designer dress, the lacquered nails, the perfectly coiffed hair—La Bertini radiated every bit as much vitality and trenchant perceptiveness as she’d exhibited onscreen in the 1910s.

No self-doubt, no pandering humility, not a trace of maudlin auto-elegy crept into her brisk demeanor as she faced down cameramen in the early 1980s—advising them on how to shoot her for a documentary. Telling men sixty years her junior to “Get with it!” she berated film archivists for not transferring nitrate originals of her films onto prints that could be exhibited. She expressed her wish that her work be shared with a younger generation through television. She was the sort of woman who, when she told you she was The Greatest That Ever Lived, you wouldn’t question the fact.

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One look at Bertini at any age and you’d know: this is a goddess. A diva. A woman demands and deserves to be respected, obeyed, worshipped. An actress, an intellect, a force to be reckoned with.

At the height of her fame, Bertini owned a production company and handpicked her roles. When she made Assunta Spina in 1915, she was the highest-paid woman in the world—even Mary Pickford didn’t make as much then.

The strengths Bertini projected in her roles were far from celluloid charades. The passion, the grandeur, the ferocity you witness in her surviving films must have blazed forth from her soul, for these qualities continued to illuminate the diva from within—even when her body grew as frail as a paper lantern.

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Francesca Bertini in 1982

Bertini’s creativity and resolution brought her best-remembered movie, Assunta Spina, into being. While walking through Naples one day, it occurred to her that the story of Salvatore di Giacomo’s famous play would translate ideally to the screen with its colorful scenes of working-class romance and betrayal. Bertini contacted di Giacomo who gave her his blessing to film an adaptation.

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I cannot overstate the importance of this film—and of Bertini as its auteur. With some help from her leading man, Gustavo Serena, she directed the film. She collaborated on the screenplay. She corralled ordinary Neapolitans to appear onscreen and infuse the film with an authentic flavor. She insisted on authentic locations wherever possible. To watch Assunta Spina is to witness neorealism being born—decades before anyone spoke of neorealism.

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Real policemen escort actor Gustavo Serena down a real Neapolitan street

Unlike the colossal period films or sophisticated melodramas that dominated early Italian cinema, Assunta Spina has dirt under its fingernails. This peasant dance of violence and perversity stabs right to the heart of what Italy really was in the 1910s: a place where corruption, monotonous poverty, and primitive codes of honor constricted the pursuit of happiness (especially the happiness of women) like a sweaty corset.

This sordid tale revolves around Assunta, a spirited young woman who runs a laundry. She loves Michele, a simple butcher, but her flirtatious nature and sensual obstinacy inflame his jealousy. The fact that Assunta’s spurned suitor has been anonymously accusing her of infidelity doesn’t help. About to be married, Assunta dances with another man in defiance of Michele’s hotheadedness.

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He responds with a typically grisly manifestation of Italian machismo and slashes her face with a knife. In spite of Michele’s brutality, Assunta defends him at his trial, in vain. Desperate to keep Michele in Naples, even if he’s behind bars, Assunta agrees to become the mistress of Don Frederigo, an unscrupulous politico. (That’s Italy, folks.)

But what’s going to happen when Michele wins his release and finds out? Nothing warm and fuzzy, I assure you.

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Assunta Spina opens with a shot of the Bay of Naples, white buildings gleaming and water rippling. Then, slowly, a dissolve makes a striking woman in white materialize out of thin air onto one of the docks.

A shawl wrapped around her shoulders, she looks into the distance, as if foreseeing the tragedy in her future. The figure turns to the camera and looks practically at the audience, before slowly pivoting away.

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Out of context in terms of plot, this lilting yet vaguely tense shot testifies to the power of Bertini’s presence. With hardly a motion and, of course, no words, she conveys that all we need to know about Assunta—a woman of unexpected depth, a troubled low-caste beauty, a part of Naples just as much as the sea and the sun.

Like some of the best neorealist films (Bicycle Thieves comes to mind), Assunta Spina can sustain mildly surreal touches such as that dissolve… before veering back to gutter realism. After all, isn’t life like that too? Don’t we find that the surfaces of our daily existence serve as mirrors for what’s going on in our souls? For instance, Michele’s “Bucheria” (“Butcher’s Shop”) sign looms prominently in the background as his jealousy flares up and foreshadows his act of unthinkable hate against the woman he loves.

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Assunta’s strangely distorted and warped reflection in the door of her laundry elegantly conveys her divided loyalties.

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These symbolic hints, rather than diminishing the documentary importance of Assunta Spina, elevate the film as a whole. These psychological insights teased from quotidian existence demonstrate that, as André Bazin would later suggest, realism can coexist with more metaphysical and spiritual explorations of humanity.

Cameraman Alberto G. Carta, who worked with Bertini on her most acclaimed vehicles, including Tosca, Lady of the Camellias, and two versions of Odette, imbued Assunta Spina with an ominous lyricism. Naples street scenes take on a jagged, fragmented look in contrast to the all-engulfing skies of sequences near the Bay.

Negative space, dead space often gobbles up most of the screen as we struggle to look at the main characters—taking up only a small segment of frame in a long or medium long shot.

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The lack of close shots in the film reflects Bertini’s belief that they distract from the drama of the moment and can actually prove disruptive to the audience’s identification. Admittedly, I don’t think that close-ups had acquired a truly important place in Italian cinema at that time. Even so, the decision to keep editing to a minimum and to allow scenes to unfold in long takes enhances the realistic ambiance of the work: undivided space, unabbreviated time.

Cutting doesn’t micromanage or pre-digest the performances, which inhabit and fill each long take with searing drama. For the most part, the audience must dwell with the characters in real time (apart from the occasional cut or intertitle) and scan the screen for signs of rising tempers and escalating grudges.

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More importantly, Carta’s camerawork emphasizes a certain pattern in staging. This film’s visual refrain consists of variations on the image of Assunta in the foreground with a man—whether her lover, her spurned suitor, or her “protector”—standing sinisterly in the background.

Not only does this recurrent compositional choice create suspense and tension within a single frame, but it also suggests the theme of a woman haunted and threatened by unappreciative and predatory men.

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(See Raffaele in between Assunta and her father here?)

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And yet, Assunta Spinta does not linger on a “women’s weepie” tale of victimization as much as it traces a tough proto-feminist narrative. This flawed but enduring woman possesses more positive traits than any of the men in her life. She bravely lives down the consequences of the tragedy that unfolds around her and shows agency in her struggle to respect the one man she truly cares about.

The men who hover around Assunta seem at times like exteriorizations of her inner anguish. Like furies, they torment her and give her no peace. Each man serves to bring out a different facet of her personality: the tender bride-to-be with Michele, the coquette with Raffaele, and the femme fatale with Frederigo.

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One woman, three personas: with Michele…

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…with Raffaele…

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.54.09 PM…and with Don Frederigo

Whereas her different admirers possess rather one-track motivations, Assunta’s multi-layered psyche defies you to interpret her. Bertini’s earthy, beguiling performance eschews all neurotic hand-wringing while conveying the enigmatic, passionate nature of her character.

Why does Assunta form emotional bonds with men who hurt and use her? Why does she play with men’s affections? We receive no clear answer; affection, love, physical attraction, preconceived notions about martyrdom, the desire for sexual power, and the hope for a happy home all compete within her.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.38.43 PMThis visual motif of men in the background while Assunta silently wrestles with herself in the foreground also provides some of the most oddly composed shots in the film. Characters stand too close or too far from the camera for comfort, as though distant slices of reality were stacked on top of each other.

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It’s almost as though these men are just figments of her imagination—they exist only by virtue of their relationships with her. Unlike films that try to capture “a woman’s world” or some such hermetically-sealed cliché, Assunta Spinta gives us reality as a woman and a woman as reality. Admittedly, that sounds like a paradox: how can a single person represent reality? Wouldn’t that be allegory, sort of the opposite of realism?

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At the risk of generalizing, I would argue that, whereas narratives revolving around men tend to be goal-oriented, narratives about women often seek to unlock the truth of social conditions. Even the fact that Assunta’s body is made to feel and carry the signs of her ordeal—being scarred by the man she loves, forced to surrender her virtue to a slimy Don—links her as a character directly to irrefutable impact of her suffering, to the empirical evidence of poverty and abuse.

Reality leaves its mark on her, inside and out.

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Assunta, marginalized and forsaken

Moreover, the film’s intense attention to the textures of slum life somehow seems to echo Assunta’s own unflinching ability to size up a situation.

When Michele slashes her cheek, for instance, she immediately calls for a mirror. This scene didn’t exist in the play or the book. Bertini added it. She understood that this woman needs to see. Neither we, the viewers, nor Assunta herself can look away from the collision course of her sad destiny.

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Much of the movie consists of shots of Assunta simply sitting or standing, mulling something over. Her internal world—not one of imagination and fantasy, but of grim decisions and common sense—is echoed in the grime and roughness of Neapolitan streets and the ironic whiteness and bustle of Assunta’s laundry.

I once saw an old religious painting (I can’t for the life of me remember its title, shame on me) where one of the people in the composition is staring off into space but, from the expression on his face, the viewer immediately comes to the conclusion that the figure is somehow seeing the entire scene within himself. We perceive the connection between Assunta and reality through a similar intuition.

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In fact, she delivers the most important “line” of the film, at the very end, mostly offscreen. As she’s led away while the camera lingers on the empty set—as though the realism of the scene speaks for her, as if its textures had absorbed her, imbibed her. As if she were the environment and the environment was the most eloquent possible elegy for her.

The subtle psychological probing of the film, coupled with its insistence on verisimilitude (real locations, non-actors, dialect, an immersion into Neapolitan culture), make it a potent forerunner of post-WWII art cinema.

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And through it all, Bertini owns the screen. The cinema is her home, her country, her fiefdom. The camera was infatuated with this firestorm of a woman whose naturalistic, yet vividly theatrical style must have been to the 1910s what Magnani’s exothermic charisma became to a later generation. So many Method-like details combine to produce a believable human being—not an actor—before us.

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The way she pops a piece of bread into her mouth and chews it disdainfully. The way her hand clings to the side of a wall as she begs a man not to desert her. The way she can’t bear to look at Michele as she confesses what she did to keep him close to her. The dignified honesty of her every movement justifies why she was not only one of the cinema’s first great stars, but also one of its first great artists.

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If you appreciate the hardboiled poetry of Neorealism, make a point of tracking down Assunta Spina. Kino’s edition comes with a documentary on Bertini, L’Ultima Diva, in which she, in her nineties, sits down with interviewers, watches Assunta Spina, and offers, basically, a commentary track on her masterpiece. Listening to someone provide a minute-by-minute explanation of movie’s production a century ago—can you imagine a better portal into film history? And Bertini’s vibrant descriptions and blunt opinions revive this key moment in cinema’s development.

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She was the godmother of Neorealism, the idol of an era, and one of the most versatile, sublime women to electrify the screen. And she knew it, too.

Now, that’s a diva.

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I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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Blogathon, Italian Style: Week 4

Well, the harassment has paid off! Many of my online friends, old and new, have joined this online festival of Italian cinema. Feast on the results—from art house classics to splashy genre flicks—below!

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Pete of Furious Cinema discovers the intensity of Girl with a Suitcase, which he describes as “a rollercoaster of emotions.” Introducing us all to a less well-known maestro of cinema, he writes, “The black and white cinematography by Tino Santoni and the seamless direction by Zurlini are both spectacular. The gray backgrounds of the Italian skies and the ocean give the film an almost dreamlike appearance.” Well, thanks, I’ve added this to my must-watch list!

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“Fellini captured something of Italy that still resonates in the public and global perceptions of the country,” observes  Miss V of Girls Do Film. She digs into the substance of La Dolce Vita‘s iconic sartorial style—and she’s even got labels and brand names for you to drool over! Re-experience this film through a fresh lens. For instance, did you know “Fellini often claimed that designer Cristóbal Balenciaga’s sack dress inspired his vision for the film”?

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Speaking of style, Miguel of Monster Island Resort explores the dark side of Italy’s passion for fashion with his analysis of Blood and Black Lace. As he notes, “Underlying the immediate fear of murder and violence that flows through Blood and Black Lace seems to exist another, more subtle fear. Perhaps it is the fear of the greed and alienation that tends to accompany high fashion.” 

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There’s epic and then there’s EPIC! Cabiria falls into the later category. of Crítíca Retrô tackles this monumental silent period drama and illuminates just how important it is to cinema history. “Director Giovanni Pastrone created astounding scenes, filled the screen with crowds, reconstructed the distant past, and pioneered the use of artificial lights and camera movement.”

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RayRay of WeirdFlix celebrates The Inglorious Bastards, a tough-as-coffin-nails 1978 WWII flick with gore to spare… sound familiar? Well, where do you think QT learned his stuff? “When you talk about macaroni combat films, one name inevitably comes up. Writer-director Enzo G. Castellari has been called ‘the poor man’s Peckinpah.’ [H]e certainly knew how to make action movies on the cheap.”

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Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled decodes the fabled “spaghetti Western” for us through an exploration of the three Sergios who produced some of the most outstanding examples of the genre. “While the term ‘spaghetti Western’ was originally considered a negative slur,” as Kellee informs us, the form won over critics and audiences alike with its “uniquely edgy” style that marked “a definitive departure from the predictable American westerns.” 

If you enjoyed these posts (and, come on, you know you did), be sure to check back for the next course on July 4. And be sure to check out the previous entries for Week 1Week 2, and Week 3. Gripping stuff!

And please consider blogging about some aspect of Italian film culture yourself. Click on the banner below to learn more. 

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Blogathon, Italian Style: Third Course

Gather ’round, cari amici! We’ve got a superb batch of Italian fare this week, including classical American cinema with unexpected ties to Italy and the lowest (or highest?) example of exploitation cinema. Enjoy!

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Since this blogathon is about all facets of Italy’s relationship with cinema, The Bogie Film Blog—all Bogie, all the time!—takes a vacation in Ravello with a review of Beat the Devil. “Italy’s not just the setting for this film as much as it is a supporting character.  The viewer is treated to a constant tour of Ravello’s plazas, piazzas, cafés, villas, and tunnel filled, mountainous roads.”

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Ray of WeirdFlix never cared much for the simple good-versus-evil conflicts in American war films—but Italian “macaroni combat” genre flicks are a different story entirely! Commenting on Commandos, set in the sandy waste of WWII Africa, he notes, “Sergio Leone’s western characters didn’t wear white hats or black; their morality was colored in shades of grey. Imagine my surprise and joy to find this same ethic applied to the Italian war films of the same era.”

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You’d better have a strong stomach before you dig into Cannibal Holocaust“one of—if not the most—violent and exploitive films ever produced.” Fortunately, Charlie of Terrible Movies gives us the low-down on this cult classic, as influential as it is extreme: “we should note at the outset Cannibal Holocaust started the ‘found footage’ genre.” Warning: animals WERE harmed in the making…

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For some lighter fare, Quinn Hough offers a short review of Rosselini’s The Machine that Kills Bad People and discovers surprising nuggets of humor.

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Lastly, your humble host has cooked up a typically verbose love song to art house giant Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature. While discussing this lyrical film noir, Cronaca di un amore, I also commit sacrilege against the doctrine of auteurism. Hey, all in a day’s blogging…

If you enjoyed these posts (and, come on, you know you did), be sure to check back for the next course on June 27. Be sure to check out the entries for Week 1 and Week 2. Gripping stuff!

And please consider blogging about some aspect of Italian film culture yourself. Click on the banner below to learn more. 

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Telefono Nero: Story of a Love Affair (1950)

123Call me a philistine, but I often prefer a director’s debut picture over their more mature work. I find something supremely beautiful in the faltering first enunciation of a vision, unwieldy in its boundless ambitions, that you can only detect in early efforts of great artists.

So, it should surprise no one that, when pressed to name my favorite among Michelango Antonioni’s cinematic children, I will completely bypass L’Avventura, his color-saturated 1960s canon, and even The Passenger in favor of his first feature film: Cronaca di un amore (English title: Story of a Love Affair). This narratively conventional, yet formally flamboyant thriller bears all of the hallmarks of an Antonioni film. Long takes, surreally out-of-context shots, and absorbing camera movements contribute to a grisly analysis of dying relationships and upper-class—oh, well, I might as well say it, everyone else has—ennui.

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I had the honor to take a seminar class on Antonioni, so I’ve seen almost all of his films on a big screen. I consider him one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. And even I have to admit that his masterpieces can wear thin on you.

I was recently introduced to the idea of “beginner’s mind,” that magical state of creative openness that one inhabits when starting to wade into a new field of knowledge. This concept, as coined by the Zen master Suzuki, can be summarized by his adage: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Still couched in beginner’s mind, Antonioni unfolded a whole world of dark passions in a breathtakingly dark and distinct film.

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The alienation, the numbness of pleasure, the ugliness of wealth, the general squirmy discontent of post-war Italy writhe in each frame of Cronaca with a freshness that Antonioni never again achieved. By anchoring his penetrating gaze with the framework of a much-loved genre, film noir, the budding auteur delivers a movie that feels less forced and ponderous than his later art house classics. Antonioni delivers the pleasures of genre viewing while gleefully subverting them.

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Philip Marlowe? Sam Spade? No—it’s Signore Carloni, the detective!

The plot initially slaps you across the face with its echoes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice—which Visconti had already adapted/ripped off for Ossessione. A bored wife and her lover conspire to murder her wealthy, boorish husband. It’s the same old story… or is it?

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Cronaca begins with photographs, still images of an exquisite woman, being piled up on a desk as a private investigator comments on them (a movie opening that Chinatown would echo years later). A suspicious rich man has hired this private eye to look into the mysterious past of his wife, Paola. The detective does exactly that—and in so doing, he actually brings about what the rich husband had initially feared! Probing around, asking questions, the private eye unleashes a series of events that reunite Paola with her ex-lover Guido.

This bitter irony—the fact that the husband’s paranoia provokes the very situation that he wished to avoid—adds a touch of classical tragedy to the film. More importantly, the eerie self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of the tale motivates the abundance of inexorable camera movements that guide and control many a scene like the hand of fate and inscribes the motif of surveillance and guilt on the screen.

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The camera claustrophobically monitors Paola and Guido, these two lost souls, with a fixity that marries Neorealism to noirish romantic subjectivity. The ever-cagey Antonioni even confirmed that he was aiming for a deeply introspective gaze, a kind of interiorization of Neorealism:

“I chose to examine the inner side of my characters instead of their life in society, the effects inside them of what was happening outside. Consequently, while filming, I would follow them as much as I could, without ever letting the camera leave them. This is how the long takes… came about. At the time, everyone criticized me for avoiding social themes… But I was just acting as a mediator between these social themes and the screen.” (Quoted in The Architecture of Vision)

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In the film’s most famous long take, Paola and Guido meet up on a steel bridge and discuss their plans to engineer the death of Paola’s husband. The shot opens with the camera following a car down a road… before it suddenly pans to reveal Paola’s face, looking down at the vehicle from the bridge. The sudden shift from a long shot to a medium close-up without a cut is a little startling. The boundaries between exterior and interior life blur.

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In the ensuing masterstroke of simmering tension, the camera never leaves Paola and Guido alone as they swap recriminations for a death they caused years ago.  You see, Paola was in love with Guido, but he was engaged to another; they both chose to look the other way when she was about to back into an empty elevator shaft.

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The camera explores their ambiguous responsibility for her death. In one segment of the long take, Paola walks backwards towards the railing of the bridge and the camera tracks to follow her, in a movement reminiscent of the murder-by-silence that killed Guido’s fiancée. Even as she accuses her lover, “You killed her! You killed her!” and rejects her own guilt, Paola becomes a kind of stand-in for the murdered woman and reveals the extent to which she has internalized that guilt.

There’s no escape from the camera’s prying eye, just as one can find no escape from one’s own accusing conscience.

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Antonioni puts his own spin on the long take as a cinematic tool. Unlike Orson Welles’s deep focus coups de théâtre or Renoir’s emotionally-fraught, story-driven camera movements, the long takes in Cronaca di un amore, although not devoid of passion or drama, seem almost scientific, abstracted, psychological. Exactly what one would expect from a chronicle of a love affair. Not a love story, really, at least not in the traditional sense, but an interrogation of a relationship.

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In many of Antonioni’s films, the important moments seem cut out, missing, as though the key to the whole central love plotline had been omitted from the film. And so it is with Cronaca. The first time we see Guido and Paola together after years of separation, they drive to a set of stairs by the sea, sit, and haltingly talk. We, the viewers, are made to sense the awkwardness of their reunion through our own uncertainty of how to put together the pieces. Do they love each other? Do they desire each other? Why? What kept them apart? Who left whom?

In the black-and-white cinematography, the sea shimmers white, like a great absence, and the past and future lovers appear on the cusp of falling into it.

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Cronaca bristles with a sinister allure, a putrescent beauty barely contained by the impassiveness of the camera’s intent. This tug-of-war between an internal Neorealism and noirish perversity makes Cronaca one Maltov cocktail of a movie.

When making Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said that he wanted every shot to look like there was a corpse hidden somewhere. Well, every shot of Cronaca looks like a murder has just been committed—or is about to be committed. Not because of violence or grittiness, but because of the cockeyed angles, always a little too high or too low, every shot a little too close for comfort or too long to feel inviting. Characters face opposite directions or turn away from the camera as if ashamed.

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Cronaca also overflows with brilliant, self-assured stylistic touches—especially those that peel away at the surface of the oft-touted coolness of Italy and the glamour of its bourgeoisie.

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Two bottles fill the frame… and it takes a car whizzing by them to make us realize that we’re looking at a landscape and two giant advertisements, not a dinner table.

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The mirrors of a fashion salon turn a chic setting into an inferno of class warfare, jealousy, and self-loathing as Paola comes eye to eye with a woman she suspects of stealing Guido.

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A perfumed, glossy bedroom—which wouldn’t be out of place in one of Italy’s vapid, faux-Hollywood farces, or telefoni bianchi (“white telephone”) films—transforms into a place of discomfort. This idealized boudoir serves as the marketplace where Paola trades sex for her grotesque husband’s ongoing acquiescence in her flagrant, empty spending.

(If you’re in any way hesitating about watching this film, you ought to dig it up for the black pearl splendor of Lucia Bosé, a former Miss Italy and Antonioni’s lover at the time, whose muffled femme fatale sexuality as Paola steals the movie. She unceasingly mesmerizes.)

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Speaking of white telephones, I suspect that Antonioni intended to give his audiences a little sick joke by making sure that every telephone in the film is not white, in the manner of the telefoni bianchi, but a black one! The sheen of the “white telephone” film, the Neorealist lens, and the dark glitter of film noir all merge in Cronaca di un amore. It’s to die for.

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I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Please consider writing a post yourself and be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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Blogathon, Italian-Style: Week Two

Well, this week attracted a mighty duo of entries, both of which were written by bloggers who have participated in blogathons with me before. It’s an honor to have them here!

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, the exuberant proprietress of the blog Critíca Retrô, discussed not about a single film, but about the legendary film studio, Cinecittà, that churned out some of the most epic movies ever produced. As she notes, “If there was another dream factory that sometime rivaled Hollywood, this was the Cinecittà. In the 1950s, in particular, it was even the favorite destination of American masters to film productions that made history.”

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The insightful Ratnakar of Seetimaar: Diary of a Film Lover pays homage to the greatness of Italian art and culture through his review of Il Postino, the story of an unlikely friendship between a poet and a postman. He observes, “Love is dealt with in the purest form here. This is not a standard rich handsome Wall Street kind of guy, falling in love with a working class girl, kind… And that’s what makes this love story so touching. It is realistic and straight from the heart.”

If you’re hankering for more great blogging, be sure to check out the entries from week one of the blogathon! There are still more to come…

And, bloggers, if you’d like to submit—there’s still time! Click on the banner below to find out more.

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Blogathon, Italian Style: Week 1

I am honored to present a fabulous cross-section of film-bloggerdom for you this week, the first of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. From sci-fi guilty pleasures to elegant period dramas, from gritty Neorealist classics to modern masterpieces, this cinematic feast is worthy of a Roman emperor or a Don of the Corleone dynasty. Buon appetito!

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Jennifer of Close Ups and Long Shots explores the importance of Italian Neorealism and reflects on Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). “The film pulls no punches; it is unsparing in its realistic portrayal of what happens to people who really fight the true fight against the forces of evil.” 

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Christina of The Betamax Revolt revisits Luchino Visconti’s lavish Senso (1954), a breathtaking Technicolor tale of love and betrayal, and explains how this period drama set it the 19th century “ambitiously attempts to capture the spirit of Neorealism within the operatic melodrama of the upper classes.”

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“For me, however, even the worst of Italian science fiction has an undeniable charm.” Keith of The Merry Frolics of Teleport City savors the campy badness of Antonio Margheriti’s low-budget sci-fi flick Snow Devils (1967). Stay tuned for yetis, styrofoam blizzards, and mod futuristic parkas—hey, it’s Italian, after all.

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Teddy Casimir of Faster, Pussycat! Blog! Blog! delves into the hypnotic, complex experience of Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth (2003), in which “[a]ll of life’s mysteries, contradictions, evasiveness, treasures whirl and linger across the scenes.”

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Lastly, your humble host has prepared a post about Sergio Leone’s awe-inspiring 1961 peplum film, The Colossus of Rhodes.

If you enjoyed these posts (and, come on, you know you did), be sure to check back for the next course on June 13. And please consider blogging about some aspect of Italian film culture yourself! Click on the banner below to learn more. 

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