A Short History
of Italian Cinema

By Margherita Pellegrino

A couple of years ago, in an infamous interview, Quentin Tarantino heavily criticised New Italian cinema, saying that “Recent films I've seen are all the same. They talk about boys growing up, or girls growing up, or couples having a crisis, or vacations of the mentally impaired."

Although his comment has spurred indignation, Tarantino cannot completely be blamed. If we have a look at the current situation of Italian cinema, we see how the most popular (mainstream) films, (that is, the ones that occupy the most screens in the country) tend to reflect such description and adhere to two main paradigmatic storylines: coming-of-age, romance centred stories usually involving break-ups and make-ups; and trash-comedies typically featuring the same actors in similar roles and variations of the same adventure (the most famous being the Christmas holiday series which for some reason do quite well at the box office – blame the holiday inebriation perhaps?)

Tarantino’s bitterness spurs from the knowledge that Italian cinema used to be very different, particularly before the 1970s, when tv started imposing itself as the main source of entertainment and information.

Probably the most important and prolific manifestation of cinema in Italy is represented by Neorealism, which started developing during the Second World War and thrived on the country’s yearning for the freedom of speech and expression  which had been taken away by years of Fascism. Films like Roma, citta’ aperta (Rome, open city, 1945), Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle thieves, 1948) and directors Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica inaugurated and dominated the Italian neorealist tradition and are still admired to this day.

The so-called ‘Commedia all’Italiana’ (Italian Comedy) also represent a pillar of Italian cinema. While the name might have gained a negative connotation over the year, coming to be associated with films primarily aimed at making people laugh, this genre has also evolved into a sort of follow-up of neorealism when it started depicting and representing Italian culture and society. Important names of this period are Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, Ugo Tognazzi, Claudia Cardinale, amongst many others.

Directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni are also legendary and still remembered for their introspective and poetic filmmaking, examples of raw, emotional cinema which added to the tradition of representing Italy for what it was: a country wounded and impoverished by two World Wars (particularly in the South) and painfully aware of the wrongs of its society, but still willing to dream and hope for a better future.

The decades of 1970s and 1980s brought along a profound crisis in the cinema of the whole Europe, mainly because of the advent of television and the diffusion of privately –owned broadcasters. Moreover, because of the deep connection between Italian cinema and society, the situation of uncertainty, confusion and sometimes, outright dismay and concern caused by Italian politics has caused an equal state of crisis in the film industry.

However, quite a few names in this period do break the mould: directors like Giuseppe Tornatores, Sergio Rubini, Francesca Archibugi and actor/director Massimo Troisi, amongst others, have managed to produce critically acclaimed examples of cinema which either tie up with and develop the tradition, or transform it altogether. Another example of this is Roberto Benigni, who started with comedy and went on to craft the Oscar winning La vita e’ bella (Life is beautiful) which made him known overseas. Dario Argento, instead, reigns as ‘the’director of Italian horror films.

Looking at the current situation, we cannot say that the crisis is over. Italian mainstream cinema is mostly made of films which prove to be popular thanks to easy plots and comedic/romantic themes (the ones Tarantino was referring to). So, we have box office smashes like L’ultimo bacio (The last kiss) by Gabriele Muccino, which has also been remade by Hollywood; and other commercially successful rom-coms/dramas like Tre metri sopra il cielo (Three meters above the sky) and Notte prima degli esami (Night before the finals). Equally successful are the holiday-themed comedies, which feature cheap irony, constant sexual references and variations of the same plot: the so-called ‘cine-panettoni’ (a term which ironically merges the word cinema with the name of traditional Italian Christmas puddings).

There is a real divide between mainstream and independent, not only in terms of budget and visibility but also in terms of themes and overall quality of the films. While it is possible to find good examples of filmmaking in the mainstream, the independent sector still remains the place for experimentation and talent scouting.

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About The Author

Margherita Pellegrino Margherita Pellegrino moved to the UK from Italy five years ago, studied Sociology and is now about to finish a Masters Degree in United States Studies.

She is obsessed with cinema and the United States (especially New York) and loves to write (and talk) incessantly about both.

She would like to work as a reviewer/film critic, or maybe in casting because she has a sixth sense about people.

Margherita is presently intening at Raindance..

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A Short History Of Italian Cinema