Italy was still a young nation when cinema was invented, with 1861 marking the meeting of the first Italian parliament and the founding of the modern Italian nation. In truth, the Italian state was born from a long series of struggles stretching from 1815 to 1870 with Italian nationalists led most significantly by Giuseppe Garibaldi driving the Bourbons out of southern Italy and the Austrians out of the north. This arduous struggle towards a unified nation-state has been named the "Risorgimento," from the Italian word for "resurgence," chosen for its echoes of the word "renaissance."
From its beginnings, the cinema of Italy has been drawn to narratives exploring the establishment of Italian identity, a fascination legible in the many epics of the Roman empire created during the silent era and resurrected as the peplum genre in the 1950s and 1960s. The films chosen for the current program all depict military and political events from the crucial decades in the middle of the eighteenth century when the Italian state took shape.
Different eras have naturally offered distinct visions of these historic events. Risorgimento films fit the purposes of nationalism and nostalgia during the Fascist era, although both Blasetti and De Sica could plausibly claim that their films were meant to be subversive by presenting their nationalist protagonists as underdogs hunted by the authorities. Later filmmakers, like Pietro Germi and the Taviani brothers, offered a revisionist perspective, presenting deliberately non-heroic visions of the Risorgimento years.
Of course the two Italian filmmakers most concerned with history, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, both embraced Italy's unification as subject matter with Visconti's first two period pieces masterpieces set during the Risorgimento and Rossellini, even before his film about Garibaldi, presented the defeat of Italian fascism as a kind of modern Risorgimento in Paisan.
This program is a co-presentation of the Harvard Film Archive and the Consulate General of Italy, Boston. Special Thanks: Giuseppe Pastorelli, Consul General of Italy, Boston; Ubaldo Panitti Cultural Affairs, Consulate General of Italy; Laura Argento Cineteca Nazionale; Carmen Accaputo Cineteca di Bologna.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Alida Valli, Farley Granger,
Italy 1954, 35mm, color, 123 min. Italian with English subtitles
Visconti's endless fascination with the lives of those who walk against the winds of history finds sumptuous expression in Senso when a self-possessed Venetian countess who supports the fight against the Austrians falls madly in love with a soldier from the occupying army. The conflict between her heart and her head is echoed on a soundtrack also at odds between the music of Austrian late-romantic composer Anton Bruckner and Giuseppe Verdi who was indelibly associated with the Risorgimento. Shooting in color for the first time, Visconti signaled a decisive move away from neorealism, painstakingly crafting the sensual, decadent atmosphere surrounding the illicit lovers against the cold, gray dawn both must face. Print restored by the Cineteca di Bologna with funding from the Film Foundation.
Directed by Filoteo Alberini
Italy 1905, 35mm, b/w, 6 min. Silent, Italian intertitles with English subtitles
Filoteo Alberini's depiction of the entry into Rome by the Italian army – marking the unification of the central peninsula – is the first major historical film in Italian cinema. Of the original fifteen-minute length, only a few fragments survive. Print restored by the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome.
Directed by Alessandro Blasetti. With Giuseppe Gulino, Aida Bellia, Gianfranco Giachetti
Italy 1934, 35mm, b/w, 75 min. Italian with English subtitles
Considered today the most significant Italian filmmaker to emerge during the 1930s, Alessandro Blasetti is best known for this great masterpiece. 1860 is the story of Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily told from the viewpoint of a newly married shepherd and the wife he leaves behind when he joins the fight against occupying Bourbon forces. With its use of location shooting and non-professional actors, the film is justly considered an important forerunner of neorealism, though the original version artfully concludes with a sequence set in Mussolini's Rome which Blasetti excised after WWII. Regarded as more nationalistic than fascist, 1860 is subtly detailed with complex battle scenes and a variety of dialects – articulating the voices of ordinary people in epic circumstances. Print courtesy of Ripley's Film.
Directed by Vittorio De Sica. With Carla Del Poggio, Maria Mercader, Leonardo Cortese
Italy 1942, 35mm, b/w, 83 min. Italian with English subtitles
Like Visconti and Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica began his career in the early 1940s, when the film industry was still under fascist control. One of his earliest films as a director is this charming character study about a young man fighting for Italy's unification. Wounded and left behind by his comrades, he is given sanctuary in a convent which also happens to be the location of a girls' boarding school, setting the stage for a romantic triangle when two students vie for the soldier's affection. Though sentimentally presented, this seriocomic melodrama's politics remain fascinatingly canny; there is plenty of Italian nationalism on display to please the Fascist censors, but the hero actually belongs to an underground militant movement and is hiding from hostile authorities. Print courtesy of Cinecittá Luce.
Directed by Roberto Rossellini. With Renzo Ricci, Paolo Stoppa,
Italy 1961, 35mm, color, 138 min. Italian with English subtitles
After the success of General della Rovere (1959), Rossellini received a commission to make a film commemorating the centennial of Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily, the same events depicted by Blasetti in 1860. Working with a fairly ample budget, clearly visible in the number of extras and the film's realistic costumes, Rossellini balances finely crafted scenes of historical exposition with nonstop action that reveal the measure of Rossellini's popular ambitions at the time. Nevertheless, his brilliant experiments abound, such as long takes within powerful battle sequences using only subtle zooms to vary the framing. An often underrated product of Rossellini's commercial period from the early 1960s, Viva l'Italia! attempts to demystify the hero and the history in sweeping, expansive strokes. Print courtesy of Cineteca Nazionale.
Directed by Vittorio and Paolo Taviani. With Marcello Mastroianni,
Lea Massari, Mimsy Farmer
Italy 1974, 35mm, color, 115 min. Italian with English subtitles
With their signature blend of historical sweep and magic realism, the Taviani brothers explore the waning of revolutionary hopes in early 19th-century Italy. Marcello Mastroianni plays a Lombard aristocrat and would-be insurgent whose utopian ardor, stoked by the French Revolution, withers in the face of incarceration and the Bourbon Restoration. Upon his release from prison, however, his former associates goad him into supporting a peasant uprising in southern Italy. Featuring a stirring Ennio Morricone score, the film is half-operatic, half-Brechtian in its stylizations, with a glossy melodramatic theatricality constantly undercut by an absurdist irony. Made at a time of high political passion in Italy, Allonsanfan is a rather melancholy meditation on the status of the radical who remains distant from the people he would serve. Print courtesy of Cinecittá Luce.
Directed by Roberto Rossellini. With Carmela Sazio, Dots M. Johnson, Maria Michi
Italy 1946, 35mm, b/w, 134 min. Italian, English and German with English subtitles
The middle film in Rossellini's famous "war trilogy" – between Open City and Germany Year Zero – Paisà is not a film about the events of the Risorgimento, but instead a series of sequences from the lives of everyday Italians, both civilians and antifascist partisans, during the fight for the liberation of Italy by the Allied armies in 1943 and 1944. Starting in the south and moving north, the episodes follow the armies as they traverse the different regions – depicting tales of everyday heroism, a kind of neorealist "history from below." Framed by a map of Italy whose pieces are illuminated one by one, the stories express a hope that fascism's authoritarian hierarchies would be replaced with a pluralist Italy which acknowledged and celebrated regional differences. Print restored by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Directed by Pietro Germi. With Amedeo Nazzari, Cosetta Greco,
Italy 1952, 35mm, b/w, 97 min. Italian with English subtitles
Best known in the States for 1960s comedies like Divorce, Italian Style, Pietro Germi originally worked in the neorealist vein – gradually infusing his style and subject matter with elements of genre. Co-written by Frederico Fellini, The Bandit of Tacca del Lupo is a Western set in Sicily during the turbulent 1860s, when unification meant not autonomy but a new conquest, this time by the forces of northern Italy. In a battle over the control of a small town that draws the terrorist campaign of bandit leader Raffa Raffa and a wily team of sharpshooters, Germi's eye for military action in a dramatic landscape exposes his deep adoration of John Ford, and his clear-eyed, cold-blooded filmmaking takes no sides – both the government forces and the rebels appear more capable of cynical calculation than ostentatious heroics. Print courtesy of Cinecittá Luce.
Directed by Mario Soldati. With Alida Valli, Massimo Serato, Ada Dondini
Italy 1942, 35mm, b/w, 106 min. Italian with English subtitles
Though little-seen in the US since its release during WWII, Italy's equivalent to Gone With the Wind was also inordinately popular, imbued with nostalgia and based on a novel that set a melodramatic romance against a backdrop of major historical events. The events here are those of the Risorgimento, and the love and heartbreak are those of a nobleman and his humbly born beloved. Cut off by his family for marrying below his station, he faces war fighting the Austrians and a different kind of war with a vengeful grandmother and neglected wife. An established writer before turning to film, Soldati constructed Alida Valli's star vehicle and what remains his best known film. Print courtesy of Cineteca Nazionale.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon
Italy 1963, 35mm, color, 187 min. Italian with English subtitles
Like the classic novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa on which it is based, Visconti's masterpiece is an opulent evocation of a society in flux during the fight for Italian unification. Burt Lancaster plays the Sicilian nobleman of the title who attempts to maintain his power amid the escalating rise of the bourgeoisie. Visconti weaves intimate details about a large cast of characters from a variety of positions in society into a novel-like density. The tragic and triumphant changing of the guard culminates in the long and famous ballroom sequence during which "The Leopard" reaches a summit of understanding and acceptance. Restored print from 20th Century Fox. Funding provided by Gucci and The Film Foundation.