Raymond Pichardo May 7, 2011
Disillusionment in Italian Film: From Reconstruction to the Early 60s
From the period of Reconstruction to the Economic Boom, there was a great many cultural, social, and political changes that occurred within Italy. Through directors such as Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni we are able to gain an understanding of the changes that occurred within film, caused both by the external influences of a changing society and internal changes with the directors. By exploring the sense of disillusionment present within each of the three films, we will be taking a journey both through the social messages present within the films and the minds of the directors themselves.
With the end of World War II comes the Italian Reconstruction period, which along with it brought a new perspective on film. This new perspective was neo-realism, and it came about through the independent works of various directors, one of which being Vittorio De Sica. As one of the first directors to arrive on the neo-realist scene, his focus on the lower working classes of society, use of non-professional actors, on-location shooting, and painstaking desire to imitate reality immediately gave him a prominent role as a leading neo-realist director.
Specifically looking at one of his early neo-realist films, Ladri di Biciclette, we see De Sica’s desire to show “the indifference of humanity to the desire of others” (Cardullo 177). He has a strong desire to focus on the banality of post-war society, highlighting the hunger, unemployment, and despair through his dramatic but realistic representations of the characters in the film. He specifically mentions “my purpose… is to find the element of drama in daily situations, the marvelous in the news, indeed, in the local news, considered by most people as worn out materials” (Marcus 55). De Sica wished to focus on the insignificant, on the poor worker who represents the everyday man, and transcribe this banal event into a cinematic experience. However, De Sica’s use of non-professional actors, on-location shooting, and social themes hide the other side of De Sica’s work behind the façade of neo-realism. He wished for this film to be seen as a work of art, as it is “an illusion of reality rather than a mere reflection of society” (Bondanella 57). We can see this through various examples in the film itself, such as the scene with Antonio Ricci putting up the poster of Rita Hayworth in an upcoming film, which reminds the audience that although we are watching Antonio at work, we are still only watching a representation of reality through film. In other words, this “reality” that we are seeing on screen was only possible through a carefully written script, a carefully controlled scene, and great attention to detail by De Sica; we are only spectators in a carefully choreographed scene, a result of the need to conform to the rigid template of neo-realist cinema.
There is no better expression of the neo-realist idea present in this film than through the disillusionment felt by Antonio Ricci and his son Bruno throughout the story. After finally have obtained a job and reclaiming the status of breadwinner in his family, Antonio’s happiness is taken away as quickly as it was given to him by the theft of his bicycle. With the police, the trade union, and the church all turning their backs on Antonio, and his failure to reclaim his bicycle from the thief himself, he is left with only one choice: becoming a thief himself. This highlights De Sica’s “indifference” in society, as the groups that are meant to help him only turn their back on him in his time of need, seeing his plight as something insignificant (the police), unworthy of their time (the union), or are inadequate to address his grievance (the church). In essence, the victim must now become the thief in order to survive. However, as Antonio attempts to steal a bicycle, he is quickly apprehended by bystanders in front of his crying son, losing not just his chance at a better future, but his standing as patriarch in the eyes of his son. The addition of a crying Bruno adds to the intensity of the scene, as this desperate action not only brought Antonio down to the level of a thief, but also brought him down from the pedestal his son had placed him on; Antonio and Bruno’s relationship morphs from one of patriarchal father and submissive son to one of father and son as equals.
This final scene, filled with the negativity of the ending, has one glimmer of happiness present. Antonio, having become a thief in his son’s eyes, begins to weep at what he was forced to do, his son staring at him as he does so. Bruno then holds Antonio’s hand as he looks up at his father, a gesture meant to highlight both the love Bruno feels for his father, and the shift in their relationship. Yet, there is no final resolution, no final “good feeling” at the end, as both Antonio and Bruno meld back into the crowd to continue their struggle for survival. Antonio will lose his job, Bruno will have to continue working at the gas station, and the bicycle continues to be missing. These are the realities of life in this economic climate, and neo-realism’s goal has been achieved with this ending.
As Italy began change politically and economically, social and cultural changes began to form that would affect the way that future films would be made. This period of economic prosperity, which lasted from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, was a period of immense economic growth for Italy. The immense poverty of the worker was replaced with a successful middle class, and a new generation of children grew up without knowing the hardships of war or the difficulties of the period of Reconstruction. This can be seen in the works of Federico Fellini, who directed various films during the height of the Economic Boom. Affected by this changing culture, Fellini reflected a new desire of directors to show their own ideas on screen rather than be constrained to doing films on the ideas of neo-realism. No longer was there a desire amongst young middle-class Italians to see an Italy destroyed by war, but an Italy that was recovering and reflected their new cultural and social values. Desiring to not have a label such as “neo-realism” attached to his films, and having viewed neo-realism as really only a moral position rather than a true movement, it should not be surprising that Fellini desired to change the focus from these specific neo-realist themes and techniques to something that agreed more with his views and with those of contemporary society. He said himself that “After the war, our subjects were handed to us, ready made…These problems were set before us, in an immediate, brutal way…But today the problems are different. Of course the neo-realists were not hoping that war and poverty would continue… but it sometimes seemed as if the neo-realists thought they could make a film only if they put a shabby man in front of the camera. They were wrong” (Fellini 152). He wanted the director to have more control over his material, and be able to incorporate fantasy and imagination into his films. The focus on documentary and fact, drawing no real dividing line between fantasy and reality, is not something that Fellini felt was a reflection of what he wanted to do with film. This is not to say that Fellini completely broke away with the ideas of his neo-realist predecessors, as his films still maintained a sense of belief in human honesty. However, he chose to focus not on the neo-realist characters, which were defined and constrained by their surroundings, but on characters that were unique and imaginary to the point of disbelief, allowing him to express his symbolism without being constrained by any type of social messages. He could be described as a director whose messages were social in origin and not social in intent; Le Notte di Cabiria is a perfect example of this Fellinian thought.
In Le Notte di Cabiria, you have the film’s focus around a young Roman prostitute, Cabiria Ceccarelli, as she experiences 5 different misadventures in her life. She is searching for love, but unfortunately only finds cruelty and disillusionment wherever she looks. In the opening scene of the movie, we see Cabiria with her current boyfriend, both who seem to be taking a stroll near a river. We then see this boyfriend push Cabiria into the river, take her purse, and run away, leaving her to drown. Fellini does this various times throughout the film, as Cabiria’s hope and optimism is suddenly transformed into disillusionment and despair. She never gives up hope, as we see her pick herself up every time she becomes disillusioned and continues on with her life. This returns to Fellini’s desire to portray the quest for meaning in life on screen, with the eventual salvation of Cabiria at the end of the film.
Looking at this final scene, we have Cabiria, who after being duped once again into having her saving stolen by a man pretending to love her, she returns to the road, a completely disillusioned wreck. She’s covered in dirt and leaves, her makeup is running down her face, and she is walking down the street with a completely faceless expression, as if dead. She then experiences something specific to Fellini, which can be called the Fellinian salvation: she is suddenly revived by the music played by the young walking group, as if the music was salvation itself for Cabiria. She is seen smiling in the last couple of seconds of the film, looking around her, and for just a second she looks directly into the camera. This small gesture, which adds immense significance to the scene, can be seen as Cabiria’s invitation to join her on her journey into the future. Just as she had picked herself up before, she is doing so now, and invites us to join her in what we can assume will be her continued quest for love and a way out of her life as a prostitute. Whether it is filled with disillusionment we cannot know, but we can see that, as Bazin put it, “here she is now inviting us, too, with her glance to follow her on the road to which she is about to return. The invitation is chaste, discreet, and indefinite enough that we can pretend to think that she means to be looking at somebody else. At the same time, though, it is definite and direct enough, too, to remove us quite finally from our role as spectator” (Bazin 92). Cabiria still believes in love and life, and all it took was this musical serenade to bring back out this inner grace. Cabiria, in the end, is saved through Fellinian salvation.
By the end of the 1950s/beginning of the 1960s, we have the sudden release of various great works of Italian film created by directors of the period. In direct competition with Hollywood, these films were no longer neo-realist or only experimental pieces meant to test the new cinematic landscape; these new films were meant to reach new commercial and cinematic heights, and the successes at the box office proved that Italian cinema was capable of competing on an international scale. One director that truly pushed the boundaries of the established cinematic landscape was Michelangelo Antonioni, whose films were meant to stretch our understanding of the cinematic narrative, focusing more on the act of seeing and hearing in the film rather than on the story itself. His exploration of the feminine character is also a first among male directors of his time, and would be heavily seen in his 1960 film L’Avventura.
Throughout L’Avventura, Antonioni explores society, the female, and relationships through his three main characters, Anna, Claudia, and Sandro. The film’s storyline is not what is considered traditional, with a problem, complication, and resolution, normally considered to be the main structure for a story. Antonioni, in an interview, mentions how he felt the need to “avoid certain established and proven techniques” and “was annoyed with all this sense of order, this systematic arrangement of the material,” (Antonioni 213) leading him to create this story with an emphasis on the emptiness of the relationships between the characters, seen explicitly in their only method of communication: expressionless faces in sexual scenes. Antonioni wished to connect the ideas of Italy’s financial and social advancements with the lack of a set of moral values that keeps up with the changes in society. These three characters, even if they enjoy lives with very little financial worries, do not have the social and moral skills necessary to survive in this new world. They are using antiquated values, and this incompatibility between themselves and their environment causes conflict within each of them. The importance of the female is seen specifically in Anna, as she is a woman that refuses to get married to Sandro and is rather trying to establish her own identity apart from Sandro and her affluent family. As this was not possible in the 60s, this would be one reason why she suddenly disappears without a trace; the other being her incompatible morals with a changing society. Anna is the most extreme example of what Antonioni wished to show, as her incompatibility causes her to literally disappear from the world. This is not a problem for Sandro, as he is able to substitute Anna for Claudia; Antonioni did this on purpose to highlight the male gaze in the film. In a way, the male gaze attempts to highlight that even though the women in the film are dramatically different from one another, this gaze seeks to make all the women the same, make them this one type of “essential” woman; no woman would need to be taken seriously. It is through these visual cues that Antonioni is able to show us what he wishes to critique without actually having to say it. Visual and audio cues are very important for Antonioni, who tells his story in the film more through what we interpret from these situations rather than from what the characters actually say. This, I felt, was very apparent in the final scene of the movie, which was a completely visual and audio explanation of resolution between Sandro and Claudia’s fragmented relationship.
In this final scene, which depicts Sandro sitting on a bench as Claudia approaches him from behind, we are not sure what to expect from Claudia. Having just seen Sandro with the prostitute on the couch, we are not sure how she will react, whether it is a violent reaction or whether she will talk at all. Antonioni, deciding to stick only with the visual and the musical, he puts no dialog in this final sequence. We see Claudia, hesitant at first to console a crying Sandro, but her pity for him eventually gives in and she consoles him with her hand on his hair, with no words exchanged. Music then begins to play, but it is not the type one would hear at the end of a happy tale. Rather, this music is very sharp and dramatic, leaving a pessimistic sentiment over what would traditionally call for a more positive tone. This music continues to play, and get more brooding, as the final image is placed on the screen: that of Sandro sitting on the bench to the right of a standing Claudia, with the screen perfectly split between the wall on the right and Mount Etna in the distance on the left. Watching this scene various times, and seeing the positions of the characters on the screen, we see Sandro, sitting down with his head hunched over and closer to the wall, as perhaps a representation of the pessimism present in the movie, but yet he is still in the frame on the side with Mt. Etna, indicating that there may yet be a positive future for him. Claudia, who is on the left of Sandro, standing over him and very far from the wall, as indicating optimism and a future that is about to “erupt” from Mt. Etna. The film leaves the relationship in limbo, as there is a sense of both pessimism and optimism at the end, with Sandro and Claudia having come together in their mutual pity and sadness, but whether this will hold them together we cannot tell. Antonioni’s disillusionment with the new Italian society is seen through the disillusionment between the three characters and their relationships with each other and their environments. Their lack of emotional connections, reactions, and their reliance on sex as their only form of expression shows Antonioni’s frustration with the new social classes and their inability to cope with a changing world. As he said himself, “Every day, every emotional encounter gives rise to a new adventure. For even though we know that the ancient codes of morality are decrepit and no longer tenable, we persist, with a sense of perversity that I would only ironically define as pathetic, in remaining loyal to them. Thus moral man who has no fear of the scientific unknown is today afraid of the moral unknown. Starting out from this point of fear and frustration, his adventure can only end in a stalemate” (Brunette 50-51). It is the moral unknown that has become the focus of Antonioni, as the financial unknown has faded away with the advent of the Italian Economic Boom.
In each of the three films directed by three different authors during three different periods of Italian history, we see drastic differences in the commentary made on the social situations present in Italy. With the end of the war and the beginning of neo-realistic films, the immense poverty, high levels of unemployment, and general despair felt by the working class is the focus for directors such as De Sica, who seek to comment on the financial difficulties faced by many Italians. In particular, De Sica does this through the disillusionment felt by Antonio, who has his only job taken away from him through the theft of his bicycle. This eventually leads to his breakdown as a character and his eventual failed theft at the end of the film. However, the character still has his son and family to fall back on for support, as even this dire financial crisis is able to maintain strong bonds between relatives. As we progress further down the historical timeline, Italy begins to experience the beginning of the Economic Boom, which improves the financial situations for many families in Italy, and causes a cultural shift in the priorities for social commentary from various Italian directors such as Fellini. With the ability to break away from neo-realism and its constrictive film style, he made a film that pulled ideas from a social situation, but its commentary was focused more on the idea of salvation and on love, something that Fellini himself was interested in. Directors have more freedom to develop their own ideas in film, but the idea of disillusionment still remains in the film; Fellini portrays Cabiria as experiencing disillusionment in her search for love, yet he leaves the audience with a feeling of hope for this woman to find it in the future, even if she has found herself at rock bottom. Finally, some years later, we have further experimentation with film in a director like Antonioni, who plays around not just with the topics of his film, but also with the structure of the film itself. With a focus on the audio and visual aspects more than the story, you have a beautifully made film that is not speaking just to your ears, but also to your eyes through its unspoken sensory dialog. The exploration of a new social situation in Italy, with affluent people unable to interact successfully with the world around them, leads Antonioni to comment on the lack of true emotional connections between people. This leaves sex as the only form of expression for the characters in his film, indicating the emptiness and solitude felt by Sandro, Claudia, and Anna in their interactions with each other. Antonioni expresses these subjective states of mind visually, especially in the disappearance of Anna and the subsequent departure of her from the story itself.
Ladri di Biciclette, Le Notte di Cabiria, and L’Avventura all explored the disillusionment felt by their directors with current social and/or financial situations within Italy. Whether it was De Sica and the poor worker, Fellini and the prostitute in search of love, or Antonioni and the inability to cope with modern society, we see each director’s film as a reaction to the societal events occurring around him. In exploring these films, I was able to make a connection between the films by the sense of disillusionment they created for the characters, and whether this disillusionment was overcome. Through this, we can see the social commentary that the directors intended to portray using their unique cinematic techniques, as well as the evolution of film in only little over a decade.
Antonioni, Michelangelo. “Cannes Statement.” The Criterion Collection. Web. 10 May 2011. <http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/100-cannes-statement>.
Antonioni, Michelangelo, Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, and Lea Massari. L’Avventura. [S.l.]: Criterion Collection, 2001. Print.
Bazin, André, and Hugh Gray. What Is Cinema?. Berkeley [u.a.: Univ. of California, 1972. Print.
Bondanella, Peter. A History of Italian Cinema. New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.
Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.
Cardullo, Bert. Vittorio De Sica Actor, Director, Auteur. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2009. Print.
Fellini, Federico. Fellini on Fellini. London: Methuen, 1976. Print.
Marcus, Millicent Joy. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986. Print.