Alienation in Modernist Film (LKIM analysis)
The Economic Miracle and its Alienating Effects on Love and Romance
– by Leena Kim
The Economic Miracle that took place in Italy from 1958-1963 was an unprecedented and remarkable moment in history that did both good and bad to the nation. High levels of unemployment in the 50s meant that the demand for work exceeded supply, leading to the exploitation of the low cost of labor at very high productivity. Industrial production doubled, as Italian-made products like refrigerators, cars, typewriters and washing machines found immense popularity abroad. There was increased mobility, increased spending, rising standards of living, large-scale manufacturing and the development of a new consumer consciousness. But this miracolo brought with it some unpleasant consequences. Paul Ginsborg called it the “distortion of consumption patterns” (216), where the emphasis fell on luxury and private goods without any regard for public necessities like schools, hospitals, housing and transportation. The miracle also further separated the North and the South – the dynamic cities of the North prospered, while the rural sectors of the South suffered. This, of course, meant Southerners had to leave their homes and migrate to the North in order to reap the benefits of the boom. This mass influx of immigrants led to housing and employment crises of all kinds. From an economic standpoint, the rich became richer as the poor became poorer. But from a cultural and social view, the miracle had a profound emotional effect on members of all classes, from the factory worker to the socialite, and not always in the best way.
According to Ginsborg, per capita income in Italy grew faster than in any other European country between 1950 and 1970. “The years of the ‘miracle’ were the key period in an extraordinary process of transformation that was taking place in the everyday life of Italians – in their culture, family life, leisure-time activities, consumption habits, even the language they spoke and their sexual mores,” he wrote in A History of Contemporary Italy (239). This meant that as society became more consumerist and industrialized, Italians’ values changed. The family unit became increasingly isolated and less open to community life; advertising and television promoted materialism and the acquisition of luxury goods; and the onset of modernity meant a decline in religion and a loss of tradition. All of these factors contributed to a deep-seated sense of alienation that didn’t discriminate between classes. Ideals of morality, family, community and tradition were traded in for wealth, urbanization, consumerism, glitz and glamour.
These cultural changes happening in Italy were perhaps most interestingly translated into film. By the boom years, Italian cinema had transitioned from the neorealist movement of the 40s and early 50s, to modernism. The flourishing economy and fast-changing society meant more imagination and creativity in films. It allowed for a more subjective depiction of reality that didn’t have to abide by neorealism’s confined rules. Michelangelo Antonioni put it nicely when wrote in Making a Film is My Way of Life, “I think filmmakers should always try to reflect the times in which they live; not so much to express and interpret events in their most direct and tragic form, but rather to capture their effect upon us, and to be sincere and conscientious with ourselves, to be honest and courageous with others” (22). Modernist cinema pushed boundaries, experimented with and explored cinema’s different properties, scrutinized the condition of modern man, and was an innovative way of painting a portrait of the world. Obviously, the economic miracle and its influence on Italian culture were recurring themes treated in many modernist films. As Antonioni stated, “In today’s return to normal conditions, the relationship between an individual and his environment is less important than the individual himself in all his complex and disquieting reality and in his equally complex relations with others” (22).
Here, the exploration of alienation and its depiction in modernist cinema focuses on relationships in the context of love and the idea of Eros being sick. The four films to be discussed – La dolce vita (1959), Una sera come le altre (1966), L’eclisse (1962) and Il posto (1961) – have very different explanations of why love fails. Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ermanno Olmi each took to a certain social milieu to illustrate the failure of human relationships as a result of the economic miracle, proving that this problem wasn’t class-specific. From the aristocracy of La dolce vita to the working class of Il posto, isolation, estrangement and the failure of love was universal.
La dolce vita, as many know, was Fellini’s scandalous and controversial masterpiece that was interpreted to be a scathing attack on a decadent and morally corrupt society in a perpetual state of ennui. It follows Marcello Rubini, an inept society journalist, who frolics around Rome with the city’s rich and beautiful, sleeping with socialites, seducing actresses, and altogether ignoring his tortured, doting fiancée Emma. Marcello is on a twisted and sick search for meaning and salvation in life. He simultaneously disdains the glitzy and vapid culture he observes, while at the same time is unable to stay away and be loyal to Emma. His quest is half-hearted and he searches for salvation in all the wrong places – with Sylvia, who he can’t communicate with, or the phony intellectual, Steiner, or the emotionally unstable Maddalena – completely oblivious to the fact that his salvation is right in front of him, in the form of Emma, who is the only character truly capable of giving him what he wants. Emma is the one person in La dolce vita with real feelings. She loves Marcello unconditionally and she can give him stability, but he doesn’t want it. No, but he does. Or not. In the scene before Steiner’s suicide, Marcello and Emma get into a violent fight. She wants him to love her the way she loves him. “Don’t you see you’ve already found the most important thing in life?” she asks. Marcello replies that a man who lives that way is nothing but a worm. He has no use for her maternal, aggressive love.She leaves him, comes back. He kicks her out of his car, but returns. The scene ends with him sleeping in her arms, like a lost and helpless child. But of course, this doesn’t last long, as Steiner’s abrupt murder-suicide throws Marcello into his final downward spiral into moral decay.
The reasons for Marcello’s inability to love are many. The modern man is lonely in this modern world that no longer values marriage, family or religion. We see this most clearly in the opening scene, when the statue of Christ is being flown over Rome. At first, it seems like Christ is blessing the city, embracing both the old and the new. But this impression is quickly shattered when we realize that Marcello is in the helicopter behind, sensationalizing this flight, and quickly becomes distracted to pick up some girls sunbathing on a rooftop. In this society that is becoming increasingly exploitative, hedonistic, decadent and abundant, it’s almost impossible for man to find any substance. In La Dolce Vita: Twentieth-Century Man?, Bernard Knieger writes that “the view of man suggested by La dolce vita itself and by its exploitation is that modern man is degenerate as demonstrated by his sensation-seeking” (29). He adds that Marcello and his pleasure-loving friends “enjoy the decadent atmosphere for what it offers them; they even enjoy seeing suffering and making others suffer” (29). There are too many distractions and temptations that real communication and real human relationships can’t exist. Knieger further attributes man’s degeneracy to the failure of Christianity. “What is here dramatized is man’s alienation from God and consequently from his fellow man [and] is man as the living dead inhabiting a Waste Land” (28). Christianity was unable to successfully adapt to the modern world and instead became something to sensationalize – as portrayed in the sequence with the children and Madonna – rather than something that would give modern man a moral direction. For Knieger, the monstrous fish found on the beach at the end of the film also takes on a biblical meaning, meant to imply that Christianity is dead.
Eros is sick in La dolce vita because Marcello is sick. He self-destructs and voluntarily plunges into a moral abyss. He is too tempted by glamorous society and the ennui is even irresistible. Emma waits for him with open arms but he cringes at the thought of a boring, average life – even though this life would be the most substantial and meaningful. In the end, he is given one last chance to save himself when he meets Paola on the beach, but he doesn’t. He shrugs and walks away permanently from any hope of finding salvation and love.
Una sera come le altre, a short film by Vittorio de Sica that appeared as part of 1966’s Le streghe, is a comic exploration of alienation from the female point of view. Silvana Mangano plays Giovanna, a tortured housewife who is largely disregarded by her husband, Carlone, played by Clint Eastwood. She finds an outlet through daydreams, fantasizing about a life where she isn’t passive, takes control, tells her husband how she really feels, and is the object of his desire. This film demonstrates the effects that consumerism had on women and their role in society. The culture and ideal of the home changed drastically during the miracle years, shifting from an emphasis on the casa umana that put the human being at the center of the home, to an emphasis on the home as a showroom of style, status and wealth. The human inhabitants were no longer of first-rate, but rather fashionable, modern furniture, glossy magazines, American dream kitchens and objets de luxe. “In addition to providing security and shelter, the home became increasingly – particularly for the bourgeois sector of society – the place in which possessions were paraded as signs of affluence,” writes Penny Sparke in her essay, ‘A Home for Everybody?’ Design, Ideology and the Culture of the Home in Italy, 1945-1972 (237).
As a result, the emphasis on the stylish home with the latest sofa, painting or refrigerator confined women in the house and made them full-time housewives. The 1960s in Italy saw a fall in the percentage of women in the workforce. Whereas in France, a wave of feminism put women in the workforce, the opposite held true for Italy. Ginsborg states, “The women’s magazines and the television advertisements of the time exalted this new figure of the modern Italian woman, ‘tutta casa e famiglia’, smartly dressed, with well-turned-out children and a sparkling house full of consumer durables” (244). Of course these images of perfection were limited to the idealized world of advertising, and not at all relevant in real life.
In Una sera come le altre, Giovanna and Carlone live a comfortable, middle-class life. Their house is decorated with mundane objects-turned-sculptures (the beach ball, the decorated bowling pin, painted plates hanging on the wall) that were characteristic of the consumerist lifestyle. The short 20-minute film takes place in the living room and in Giovanna’s mind, but we are never given the sense that she ever leaves the house or has much contact with the outside world, and she probably doesn’t. Only in her daydreams is Giovanna out and about and in the presence of people. It’s evident that she is so isolated and stuck at home, spending her days alone cooking, cleaning, maintaining, and looking after her children. She looks forward to her husband’s return from work, in the vain hopes of having some real human contact but he barely notices her and falls asleep whenever she is talking to him. When Carlone begins to read from the film guide, she clings to him, hoping maybe they will go on a movie date. But his monotony and boredom is a turn off. He is too exhausted from working to have the energy to deal with his wife. She – and the family – is of second-rate importance, and moneymaking comes first. Carlone complains of his numb, monotonous and exhausting life – office and home, repeat – but it is what he must endure to maintain their bourgeois lifestyle. The economic miracle put a rift between husband and wife because it trapped the woman in the home on the one hand, while forcing the man to work like a dog and give up his social and familial life. Poor Giovanna, therefore, has nowhere to turn but to her imagination. But essentially, both are victims of consumerism.
Giovanna is far removed from public life, and the era of consumerism and fashionable living has turned her into the tacit housewife who is a prisoner in her own home and a slave to her husband. He bosses her around, asks for whiskey, for her to close the window, and she obeys. From a feminist standpoint, as France moved forward, Italy moved backward. The housewife crisis of the economic boom forced the woman to accept an inferior position to her husband and devalue her importance in society. Adds Ginsborg, “The idealized confinement of women to the home in the 1960s served to enclose them in a purely private dimension, and to remove them even more than previously from the political and public life of the nation” (244). When Carlone falls asleep on her yet again, she says to herself, “I’d like to know just what I am in this house, really! The truth is we’re just slaves. And they’re sultans!” Like Giovanna, women were forced to take on a passive role, with no outlet for the expression of their feelings.
(Giovanna, angry that her husband has fallen asleep on her again, passively complains about the servile role she has been reduced to in her home)
L’eclisse, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1962, is also a look at the effects of the economic miracle on the female character. The film follows Vittoria, a middle-class woman, as she tries to find her place in the modern, industrialized city of Rome. She breaks up with her boyfriend, Riccardo, and begins to form a relationship with another, Piero. But in the end, this one also doesn’t work out because her immense alienation from the world around her makes it impossible to sustain a romantic relationship. In Antonioni’s Women, Lost in the City, Clara Orban argues that women have a more difficult time getting accustomed to urban and industrial environments and that they are much more at ease in natural settings. Women are the ones who are more profoundly affected by the alienation of the city. “It is the contrast between men’s and women’s ability to inhabit the modern landscape that allows Antonioni to comment on the destructive nature of society,” writes Orban (12). Vittoria, much like Claudia in L’avventura, possesses a certain malaise and discomfort with her surroundings. She is anxious and awkward when walking through the streets of Rome or through the thick crowds at the stock exchange. She is prone to mood swings and is uncertain. She doesn’t seem to know what she wants. She loves Piero but hesitates to develop their relationship because she can’t overcome her uneasiness.
Vittoria is also easily claustrophobic – there are many times when she will open a window and gaze out in longing and contemplation. She is constantly looking for nature to find comfort in. Adds, Orban, “The landscape itself reminds Vittoria that she is trapped” (20). On the other hand, Piero is completely at ease in his environment. He works in the stock market so he can control and understand the busy, bustling city. According to this portrayal, men are more attuned to the capitalist world and they understand it. Vittoria, then, is stuck in a man’s world and is suffocating in it. She needs nature to have peace in mind – most of the time, the mere sight of trees suffice in easing her.
The love between Vittoria and Piero can’t materialize because of Vittoria’s estrangement from her surroundings. The two – and men and women – don’t see their world through the same set of eyes. As a result, no common ground exists between them. “Love itself cannot thrive; men and women cannot inhabit spaces in the same way, so they cannot share the same emotional language,” writes Orban (26). In the increasingly fast-paced, industrialized, impersonal and capitalist world, emotions can’t flourish and women suffer as a consequence because they can’t accept and adapt to the changes as easily and swiftly as men. The emotional connections they yearn for “are no longer possible in the alienating cityscape” (26).
(Vittoria leaves Piero’s, feeling uneasy and trapped in her urban environment, until she notices trees and the presence of nature and feels at ease again.)
Finally, Il posto by Ermanno Olmi treats the problematic effects of the economic miracle in the working sector. Olmi takes us into the bureaucratic world of Milan, as seen through the eyes of Domenico, a young teenage boy from Meda who leaves school to find “un posto sicuro per tutta la vita.” After a long day of examinations, he gets a job as a messenger in the administrative department of a large and nameless corporation. He also meets and develops a crush on Antonietta, a young woman from the suburbs, who is also hired. Unfortunately, nothing comes of this crush because Domenico and Antonietta are placed in separate departments.
This big bureaucracy of the postwar economic miracle years is a dehumanizing force that thwarts human contact and strips away the essence of life. To obtain a coveted position within the “secure” walls of this ambiguous, sterile business means to be condemned to a bureaucratic life sentence. In his analysis of the film, entitled Olmi’s Il posto: Discrediting the economic miracle, Millicent Marcus explains that the phrase, “un posto sicuro per tutta la vita” is nothing but a paradox, “for the stasis implied by job security is no life at all, but a kind of suspended animation which finds its fitting fulfillment in death” (215). Once Domenico enters the corporation, he is no longer an autonomous individual but property of the bureaucracy. If he wants to have a secure job for life and a steady income, he needs to sell his soul and become capitalism’s puppet – that’s the price he needs to pay. “The closer to the top of the hierarchy we get, the less happy and the less human the characters become,” observes Marcus (217). Domenico will only be free again in death, as in the case of the novelist.
It is by chance and coincidence that Domenico and Antonietta meet on the day of their examinations, and are luckily both hired. At first, the viewer gets the impression that perhaps Domenico will shatter the unwritten rules of bureaucracy and have a successful relationship with Antonietta while holding on to his job. But alas, this isn’t the case. The same bureaucratic system that allowed the two to meet in the first place will put them in different departments with conflicting schedules, making it impossible for them to meet and “no sooner is the romantic plot set in motion by the deus ex machina of the bureaucracy than it is blocked by the same seemingly superhuman force” (218). After being separated into their respective departments, Domenico tries in vain to find Antonietta and run into her again. He eventually does and they are having a conversation in the hallway, which is abruptly cut short when Antonietta’s supervisor walks by, reminding them both that they don’t have the kind of freedom to pursue relationships at their will. They have already abdicated their right to choose and be free. Antonietta shuts the door and Domenico stands in the hallway, alone and helpless.
(Domenico and Antonietta meet in the hallway — their last time seeing each other in the movie — and their conversation is cut short by the appearance of Antonietta’s supervisor.)
To conclude in brief, after the economic miracle of the late 50s and early 60s, newfound feelings of alienation and estrangement – especially regarding love and romance – were felt by members of all social classes, from the aristocrats to the white-collar employees. As the initial excitement of consumerism, materialism and employment subsided, people began to realize that they were giving up a chance for meaning, fulfillment and happiness in return for money and status. The modern world had a sterilizing effect that devalued tradition and also, love. The four films studied depict alienation in very distinct ways to show how certain aspects of the economic miracle affected individuals differently. But the plights of Marcello, Giovanna and Carlone, Vittoria, and Domenico and Antonietta relay the same message: as a result of this great miracolo, lifestyles improved (more or less) at the great expense of human relationships.
Ginsborg, Paul. “The ‘Economic Miracle,’ Rural Exodus and Social Transformation, 1958-1963. A History of Contemporary Italy. New York, London: Penguin, 1990. pp. 210-250.
Antonioni, Michelangelo. “Making a Film is My Way of Life.” Antonioni on Antonioni. Criterion insert of L’eclisse. pp. 20-22.
Knieger, Bernard. “La Dolce Vita: Twentieth-Century Man?” College Composition and Communication. Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1962). National Council of Teachers of English. pp. 26-31
Sparke, Penny. “‘A Home for Everybody?’ Design, Ideology and the Culture of the Home in Italy, 1945-1972.” Culture and Conflict in Postwar Italy. London: The Macmillan Press, 1990. pp. 225-241.
Orban, Clara. “Antonioni’s Women, Lost in the City.” Modern Language Studies. Vol. 31, No. 2 (Autumn, 2001). pp. 11-27.
Marcus, Millicent. “Olmi’s Il posto: Discrediting the Economic Miracle.” Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton University Press, 1986. pp. 211-227.
La dolce vita, Federico Fellini, 1959
Una sera come le altre, Vittorio de Sica, 1966
L’eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962
Il posto, Ermanno Olmi, 1961