Modernizing the Italian Family from Reconstruction to the Economic Boom- Sheila Reyes Film Analysis

Italian life revolves around family. Family is so central to Italian culture that two sections of the Italian Amendment are dedicated to it. While Italy participated in war and later in the postwar economic boom, Italy’s dominant notion of family life began to undergo a great transformation beyond just family structure. The consequences of an increasingly modern Italy on family meant that the family system too had to modernize to adapt and survive socially and economically. The social structures within families were altered greatly by migration, urban issues, changes in the labor system, and external changes in tourism and mass consumption. Although they struggled to maintain family stability and traditional structure, in the end families were somehow able to find balance for these social changes. Three films that demonstrate the social, economic, and cultural changes shaping the structure of the Italian family are that of neorealist filmmakers Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta, Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto, and Pier Paolo Pasoloini’s Terra vista dalla luna. Each film exposes the many dimensions and relationships within one particular Italian family through the narrative of the protagonists, cinematic devices, and settings.

World War II began in the fall of 1939, however Italy did not enter the Nazi German war until June 1940 under Mussolini’s rule.2] Italy was not prepared for this war and, in comparison to other European nations, Italy had a weak economy and was very behind other comparable nations, such as Britain and France, in adopting industrialization. In truth, Italy had more characteristics of a developing country including high illiteracy and poverty. In the end, the war left Italy in a more devastating state than before. Italy now found itself with hundreds of billions of lire in debt, with an exhausted army and increasing resistance against Mussolini’s government.

Post World-War II came the development of Italian neorealism. Neorealism was a form of cinematic poetics that dealt with human suffering, engendered a political and democratic consciousness, and attempted to distinguish itself from fascist-era aesthetics in cinema. The documentary feel of neorealist films offered the audience a sense that they were looking at reality. Italian neorealist filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Michelangelo Antonioni were able to masterfully imitate and project the real traumas of World War II onto the big screen. “The camera revealed how cinematic time penetrated real-time lives of Italians. Rossellini, De Sica, and Zavattini redefined the filmmaker’s pact with the viewer. They asked their audiences not to watch but rather to see as in the etymological sense of the Greek idein, to see with the mind’s eye, to witness, and to share.” [1] The characteristics of neorealism, which enabled it to create these real-life characters, plots and environments, included the use of nonprofessional actors, on location shots, natural lighting, and a focus on the poor working-class. In order to depict reality and have the audience experience it, all the details used in the creation of the film must be as close to reality as possible.

Roberto Rossellini, who Gian Piero Brunetta describes as “the father of the new Italian cinema” post World War II, had the incredible ability of using cinema to portray the truth about poverty and the war in Italy.[1] Thanks to Rossellini, neorealism gained global recognition after his film Roma città aperta debuted in 1945. The first part of Rosselini’s neorealist war trilogy, titled Roma città aperta, was a breakthrough in Italian cinema.  This film is the perfect example of what the Neorealist film movement wished to create, and present about this historic and tragic time in Italy’s history. The Italian war drama is set in Rome and is based on the true story of Don Luigi Morosini, who was tortured and killed by the Nazis for his collaboration with the Italian Resistance. The death scene of Pina (Anna Magnani), is one of the most vividly memorable, dramatic, and graphic scenes of Roma città aperta. On the day of their wedding, German soldiers separate Pina and her fiancé, Francesco. As Pina runs after her beloved, following her movement with the eyes of Rossellini’s camera, she is shot dead before she was able to reach him. The most emotional image is that of Pina’s son, Marcello, whose deafening cries for his mother and desperate struggle to free himself from the grips of German soldiers to embrace his mother’s lifeless body, seems too real.

Gian Piero Brunetta states in his book The Hisoty of Italian Cinema, “In the case of Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City)…we must take into account the fact that these were not just films but ‘events.’”[1] This is only one of many stories during this time in which families were torn apart by war. These neorealist films documented reality. Rossellini once stated in an interview, “in order to really create the character that one has in mind, it is necessary for the director to engage in a battle with his actor which usually ends with submitting to the actor’s wish. Since I do not have the desire to waste my energy in a battle like this, I only use professional actors occasionally”. [9] The use of nonprofessional actors in Rossellini’s film added to the stories realism and allowed the actors themselves to contribute their actual experiences to the film. Brunetta quotes Jean Desternes’ comment on Roma città aperta stating, “These films are great because they buttresss and support their plots with pure truth. They catch life in the act and even the smallest detail is authentic. [In these films] cities actually open up before our very eyes.”[1] In history, Italian neorealism gave Italians narratives that told their stories as a collective, their hardships together gave them an identity and hope for a better tomorrow. They would not forget their struggles. Instead, they will use these lessons and experiences to start anew.[4]

“Beyond any monumentalization of it’s defining elements, neorealism marked a complete reappropriation of visual power, not so much in the sense of the pure documentation of the existing world but rather in the sense that it captured shared feelings and experiences…Italian cinema publicly made use of the history of a country that had been materially and morally destroyed by a senseless war it had not wanted.” [1] However, as Italy’s circumstances changed, so did the plots in neorealist films change to reflect the time period.

Italy’s “Economic Miracle“ or “boom” transformed the once poor European nation into one of great mass consumption. The period roughly dated from 1958 to 1963 was an extraordinary time that brought rapid changes in Italy’s economy, culture and society. This includes its transformation from an agrarian society into an industrial super power. Postwar Italy’s northern region experienced tremendous industrial growth and was increasingly characterized as having a strong capitalist economy. Southern Italy, however, remained less prosperous than northern Italy and still maintained its agrarian economy. Paul Ginsborg, author of A History of Contemporary Italy, highlights this and other structural imbalances created in Italy’s economy during the “boom years,” including a “distortion of consumption patterns” and a dual economy.[3] However, it was these regional and economic differences, along with the many hardships the war and economic miracle left for much of the Italian population, which forced thousands of Italian families to migrate to industrial parts within Italy especially city centers in the northern regions. According to Ginsborg, “Between 1946 and 1957 the numbers heading north exceeded by 840,000 the numbers of those who came back.”[3]

 

Italian neorealist director, Ermanno Olmi’s 1961 film Il Posto offers a less dramatic yet emotionally saturated look into the changes affecting the Italian family than Rossellini’s film, Roma citta`aperta.  Through Il Posto’s protagonist, 19 year-old Domenico (Sandro Panseri), we are given entrance into his world and are able to observe some of the effects of industrialization on Italian families.  In this scene, Domenico leaves his working-class family home in the outskirts of Milan to travel into the city center in search of employment at a large corporation. It reflects the reality of many Italians around the time of the “economic boom” who needed to migrate out of rural areas and into modernized cities such as Milan in hopes of finding the “job for life”— the job that would provide for their families. Olmi is able to draw insight into Domenico’s emotions through a brilliant use of camera movement and close-ups. The constant transitions between Domenico’s face and the objects of his gaze allow us entrance into his internal thoughts and emotions. His quiet anxiety We begin to understand how emotionally difficult it is for him leave school at such a young age, and feel forced by his family to assume an adult role and find a job.

In addition to Domenico’s expressions and behavior, his surroundings help us understand his relationship with his family and work in an increasingly industrialized Italy. Domenico’s hometown of Meda is a remnant of the past. Its architectural walls are worn down by war. This was Domenico’s home and the only thing he knew. Acquiring the new job in the city, however, made all of this a thing of the past. His time spent with family shifted to time spent at work. The new industries in Italy demanded more time from its workers, and employees needed to work longer to provide more for their families. Thus less time was spent at home. The architecture in the images preceding this clip are a sharp contrast to the sleek, modern buildings we see upon Domenico’s exit from the train to Milan.

Through these images, we can see this film as a parody of Italy’s “Economic Miracle.” The ridiculous series of exams Domenico is subjected to is a criticism of the industrial system in modern society. Even Domenico and Antonietta have to laugh at it. The settings Omi includes in his scenes also call our attention to the cultural and social issues of the time, including the conditions in which families in the city peripheries lived and the failure of the housing projects. While the urban centers prospered and underwent great architectural and social development, suburbs like Meda lagged behind or remained incomplete.

According to Penny Sparke,  “By 1945…the housing crisis had become a familiar theme and the idea of a ‘home of one’s own’ had become a key aspiration for a large sector of the Italian population.”[6] Although after 1963, the rapid development of the “Economic Miracle” began to slow down yet the changes it brought to Italy continued to shape aspects of the country’s society, economy and culture and neorealist films continued to document them. Closing the period of Italian neorealism will be Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in the mid-fifties put under spotlights the still unresolved degradation of the more and more populous and downed villages on the outskirts of Rome.[2]

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1966 film La terra vista dalla luna is a comedic contrast to the previous two films mentioned. In this scene, Pasolini touches on the notion of home, family, the reconstruction projects, and the new abundance of wealth in Italy.  In a way this scene  too is a parody of the “Economic Miracle.” We see the changes in the “idea of the home in Italy” with the insertion of modern decoration, furniture, and other mass produced products. Luxuries became necessities and necessities became luxuries. It was these objects that gave Italians what they believed was “social symbolism.”[6] Almost like the idea of having a piece of the “American dream,” Italians wanted their homes to have a piece of the “Economic Miracle” by including these products of industrialization. The film puts into perspective the characteristics and consequences of the economic boom, from the increase in tourism, to social mobility and constraints, to improving the quality of one’s life through artificial changes in one’s home.

The readings by Sparke and Ginsborg introduce us to the greatly influential “economic boom” in postwar Italy and its influence not only on the Italian culture, specifically the home, design, consumerism and migration. Penny Sparke’s chapter, A Home for Everybody?, highlights the initial emphasis on addressing the postwar housing crisis by speaking to the “economic, social, technical, cultural and ideological” issues of the time, and making the family and human the focal point of design and architecture. However, not everyone could have the same home. As Ginsborg demonstrates in his chapter on the Economic Miracle, the distribution of wealth and opportunity from this ‘miracle’ did not go around as equally as was hoped. The working-class was largely excluded with poor reconstruction or lack of it, and increasing pressure to migrate from their homes in search of other opportunities for their families. Indeed, the Economic Miracle has a profound impact on the Italian home and thus the Italian way of life. Pasolini’s La Terra Vista dalla Luna touches on these serious points in a creative, comical manner.

The scene in which Assurdina rearranges the objects in her new home shows how ordinary and traditional objects, as in the new industrialized Italy of the 50s and 60s, could not escape the transformation into desired luxuries. As Sparke writes, “The democratising potential of materials was, however, transformed into another means of creating objets de luxe.” Assurdina manages to make the most ‘democratic’ and modern material, plastic, into an indoor fountain. The mix of traditional and modern elements are perfectly arranged and organized like the images of a modern interior design magazine. However, the home is filled with more objects than they really need, which demonstrates a consequence of the growing consumerism of the time. Still, the objects found within the poor little shack- a living condition experienced by many Italians- produced a home that was more desirable according to the new standards of industrialization and modernism.

War, migration, the economic miracle, housing projects, and mass consumption are but some of many issues that transformed traditional notions of family life in Italy. Throughout the postwar period, Neorealist filmmakers like Rossellini, Pasolini, and Olmi were able to use film as a vehicle for addressing or highlighting the social, political and economic issues many Italian families faced after World War II and throughout the “economic miracle.” They were able to capture and preserve remnants of the past, parts of Italy’s history, its stories, people, and shared experiences. It also set up thoughts for Italy’s future. How will Italy continue to change and how will these events in history affect their children- Italy’s future. The success of these films in depicting these images and documenting these changes in history can be best described by Brunetta:
“Thanks to some of the masterpieces and the dozens of commercial titles, today we can still understand the rythms and development of Italian cinema and society. These films give us a sort of vocabulary of the Italian journey from the founding of the Italian Republic after the war until the present. In these films we recognize certain directors who were capable of depicting the country’s soul.” [1]

References

1. Brunetta, Gian Piero. The History of Italian Cinema: a Guide to Italian Film from Its Origins to the Twenty-first Century. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.
2. Di, Michele Andrea. Storia Dell’Italia Repubblicana: 1948-2008. Milano: Garzanti, 2008. Print.
3. Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988. London, England: Penguin, 1990. Print.
4. Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower, 2006. Print.
5. Sitney, P. Adams. Vital Crises in Italian Cinema: Iconography, Stylistics, Politics. Austin: University of Texas, 1995. Print.

6. Sparke, Penny. Culture and Conflict in Postwar Italy: Essays on Mass and Popular Culture, London: MacMillan, 1990.

7. “Roberto Rossellini.” – Italian News, Culture, Business and Travel. Web. 5 May 2011. <http://www.italia-online.co.uk/article.php/Roberto_Rossellini/print>.

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