The Economic Miracle and the Feminine – M. Nalven Film Analysis

The complex relationship between men and women in Italy is especially apparent in cinema. The relationship between these two sexes was further complicated after the economic miracle.[i] The increase of prosperity throughout Italy allowed for films to become more superfluous in their content. No longer were films about bodily survival, now the issue most fervently represented was that of moral survival. The industrialization of Italy led to a crisis in morality as people left the church in search of material fulfillment. There are three representations of women most dominant in media during the period during and after the economic boom. These representations or “stereotypes” can be loosely interpreted as: the wife/mother figure, the whore, and the savior – whether religious or otherwise. I will examine these representations and the effect that the economic miracle had in producing them in three films: La dolce vita (Fellini, 1960), Divorzio all’italiana (Germi, 1961), and Le streghe (1967). Within the compilation film Le streghe, I will focus on the short film Una sera come tutte le altre directed by Vittorio De Sica.

The economic miracle had vast effects on cinema. Neorealism,[ii] which had been a major genre of Italian film in the prior period, was now struggling to hold on as consumers demanded “less rags, more legs.”[iii] After a long cycle of fascist repression, poverty, displacement, and unemployment most Italians were ready to move on from the past, and forget the trauma that fascism and the war had brought. The war period also challenged gender roles and the patriarchal society, as women entered the workforce and took on more dominant and historically male roles.[iv] In response the church was on a crusade to stem the increasing communist presence by reinforcing the traditional family roles: as Morris writes,”the Vatican used all the resources of the traditional parochial and hierarchical networks, and the new media, to try to stem the communist threat by turning Italy into a model Christian country.”[v] These parallel demands prompted a new type of cinema closer to the Hollywood style: a cinema of comedy and romance. It also changed the ways in which women were represented in cinema. This was all a result of a changing of gender roles in the modern world. Much like women in America during World War II, Italian women also had to enter the workforce to ensure the economic survival of their family, which led to the portrayal of strong feminine characters during the war and post-war period,[vi] perhaps most notably Anna Magnani in Rossellini’s Roma, Citta Aperta. But these representations of strong feminine characters were short-lived. Soon women in cinema would again be dependent on the masculine.

The post-war period resulted in many changes for Italian families. One important change was the increase in isolation and solidarity of the family.[vii] While this brought greater autonomy to the youth it marginalized the women who were already in their typical socio-gender role as wife or mother. Paul Ginsborg writes “the 1960s also saw a distinct shift in the woman’s role within the family. With the new emphasis on house-based living and consumption, more Italian women than ever before became full-time housewives.”[viii] The percentage of women in the Italian workforce during this period was one of the lowest in Europe.[ix] This served to remove women from political and public life. While their male counterparts focused on production outside of the home, the women focused on consumption inside the home.[x] Thus, the housewife became equated with consumerism, Günsberg states, “the status symbol of the leisured, non-working wife, [was] soon to become stereotypically associated with a form of parasitic consumption.”[xi]  With more autonomy given to the younger generations the paternal influence became less stringent which led to a crisis for the masculine figure in the traditionally patriarchal society of Italy. This crisis is present in a variety of movies produced after industrialization. The challenging of the patriarchal society that had always been a dominant presence in Italy is what led to the manifestation of these gender roles in film. However, they are at times contradictory. The wife/mother was the only remaining figure subject to the masculine, but she is often represented negatively in the films of this period. These representations all lie in the hindrances that are represented by the feminine as well as what the feminine represents. The new material world, manifested in the consumerism of the wife, becomes a threat to the male. It is her representation of the post-industrial world, the ability of her to consume and live a life of luxury that is of a threat to the masculine, for the old patriarchal structure has little place in the modern world. Many representations of this period depict women in this traditional role as the consumer driven housewife, further solidifying society’s image of women as “parasitic consumers.”

In the short film Una sera come tutte le altre, we encounter Giovanna played by Silvana Magano a housewife who is no longer happy in her role as her husband, Carlo, played by Clint Eastwood, has desexualized her. The film begins with Giovanna imagining Carlo enticing her to come to bed, telling her “I want to swallow you.” It is an intensely sexual moment for Giovanna but Carlo barely registers what is being said to him as she recounts her fantasy. For the first three minutes of the film Giovanna is in the kitchen cleaning while Carlo inhabits the living room, where he is lounging – he barely bothers to look at her. Here in this scene, there is an absence of the generally persistent masculine gaze of the feminine. Giovanna wishes to be seen, wishes to exhibit herself, but her husband will not look at her. As a wife she becomes undesirable: as Cottino-Jones writes “the woman is the man’s exclusive property and her asexuality the site of his honor” (132). Giovanna is isolated in this film, stuck inside the house while Carlo is able to leave the house to work, and she is made to be asexual, as her husband has no sexual desire for her. The film is a compilation of Giovanna’s brief interactions with Carlo and her exhibitionist fantasies. It is the absence of the gaze that births Giovanna’s consumerism, as it is only in her fantasies that the viewer is made aware of it. In one of her many fantasies Giovanna recounts the dissemination of herself as a sexual object to her husband. In this fantasy she is still confined to the bedroom, but in every scene she is wearing different lingerie: a clear signal of superfluous consumerism.

It is through her fantasies and frustration with her husband that the viewer is allowed a true taste of the isolation felt by housewives brought by the new prosperity following the economic miracle. Giovanna’s narrative voice speaks to the viewer of her frustration of being a slave to a sultan, her husband. Furthermore she is not only a slave to her husband, but she is a slave to a husband who is effeminate himself, which debases her further. Where a man once had dignity, he is now slave to a man in a suit. Unlike Emma and Rosalia, who will be discussed later, Giovanna is not happy with her “kitchen and bedroom” lifestyle. Maybe she would be happy if she had an active bedroom life. Giovanna wishes to be seen as a sexual object but her husband will not allow this, Giovanna tries to hold the gaze of her husband, she plays to masculine desire but she is incapable of holding the look.[xii] It is not the masculine that subjects her to the gaze, it is she herself who subjects herself to the gaze. As a wife, a mother, she is no longer sexually desirable to her mate, a theme common in Italian films of this period. Though it was still taboo at this time to discuss the sexuality of a woman the subject is at the forefront in this film. It is interesting to note that in films where the point of view is inhabited by the man, the woman or women in the film act merely as an agent in the progression of the story of the male protagonist. Budd Boetticher states:

What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.[xiii]

In this short film, though the woman is the protagonist, she is not the agent of the plot line, and it is not the male who is simply there to serve her needs, as the feminine character would do in a male generated plot. The woman is still the one serving the needs of the male. And it is the lack of action of the male figure that spurs along the plot line. Though the film may be progressive, as it is told from the feminine perspective, it is still the male who guides the scene and the plot. It is his actions that spur her narrative, her fantasy, their move to the bedroom, and even the end of the film, as it is over when he, not she, falls asleep.

The wife figure in La dolce vita is also undesirable to her mate. Emma, played by Yvonne Furneaux, inhabits the role of wife/mother as she is Marcello’s long-time girlfriend. Marcello criticizes her  “kitchen and bedroom” view of life. It is the excess in her nurturing and her concern for Marcello that make her so undesirable. Though she encompasses all that a male could seem to desire, it is the fact that she dotes on Marcello that repulses him. To Marcello, Emma’s suffocation is what hinders him from finding the pleasure, or moral fulfillment that he seeks.[xiv] Emma does prove to get in the way of his work on two occasions. The first time the viewer encounters Emma it is after she has attempted suicide and Marcello must take her to the hospital, though he should be out working on the cronica nera- the Roman gossip columns on which Marcello is a writer. The second time is when Emma insists on accompanying Marcello to the Miracle sequence.[xv] It is the hindrance that the wife/mother figure represents that makes her so undesirable to her mate. Her hindrance is also reminiscent of the new prosperity enjoyed by Italy. A woman previously would not have had the time to incessantly worry about the love afforded to her by her lover; she would have been busy working, taking care of her family, and trying to survive. Her excess of emotion is a manifest of the economic miracle.

Emma constantly overwhelms Marcello. She is portrayed by a very beautiful actress and we often see her in her undergarments. It is obvious to the gazing viewer that Emma is an attractive sexual being. However, this is no longer obvious to Marcello. Once a woman is made into a wife/mother figure she is no longer permitted to be desirable, Mulvey asserts: “she [the wife/mother] is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualized. But as the narrative progresses she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalized sexuality.”[xvi] As the camera allows the voyeuristic viewer to gaze at Emma this is not something done by Marcello, who constantly avoids her throughout the film. This is especially clear in the sequence when Emma and Marcello are on their way to the miracle. Emma dotes on Marcello, acting as the quintessential nurturing wife and mother figure. However, Marcello obviously doesn’t want this, and he rejects of all that she offers him: the coffee, the banana, the hard-boiled egg also serve as a representation of their relationship; for, Marcello also rejects Emma. Emma is not what Marcello wants, and as hard as she fights he will never be faithful to her. Because Emma is over-nurturing her love cannot be reciprocated, because it detracts from Marcello. And at the end of the day, Marcello is the man and it is his needs that need to be satisfied.

The wife/mother figure is also represented as naïve, unattractive, and overbearing in Divorzio all’italiana. Just as Emma restricts the pleasure that Marcello seeks, Rosalia, the wife in Divorzio all’italiana impedes Fefé from achieving his desire. It is the masculine pleasure, and the masculine search for moral and self-fulfillment, that is important to these films – not the feminine.

Rosalia is also represented as having a “kitchen and bedroom” lifestyle. She has no other concern in the world outside of Fefé and her home. Divorzio all’italiana is filmed from the point of view of Fefé, the male protagonist and husband of Rosalia. It is due to this representation that the viewer sees Rosalia as unattractive and unintelligent. Fefé minimizes Rosalia because he no longer finds her sexually attractive and is ready to move on to someone he finds more sexually enticing. This is the tale of an aristocrat who wants a divorce from his wife. However, divorce was not made legal in Italy until 1974. Fefé devises a plan to get his wife to cheat on him so that he may find her in a compromising position, and therefore have his honor jeopardized. Italy still had a law that gave sentences of only 3-7 years if a man killed his wife, sister, mother, or daughter to protect his own honor. The same judgement was not afforded to women. However, the humorous treatment of this movie allows for a social commentary, on both the feminine condition and the absurdity of Italian society – a society that only recently had become industrialized but whose societal norms were still archaic. Cottino-Jones writes, “the film delivers an important lesson of social criticism, by making its audience very aware of the contradictions and unfairness of a social system that concentrates all authority, and even the power of life and death, in such a despicable character” (132). Divorzio all’italiana may represent stereotypical feminine characters, but these characters offer a social critique of the Italian relationship between men and women: women can be wives, whores, and saviors; but never all three. Your wife can’t be sexual, and your mistress can’t be nurturing. Through the absurdity of the situation and the portrayal of Fefé the viewer is made to question the social and especially feminine condition in Italy.

This focus on women inside the home was only possible because of the change in the economic situation in Italy. Before the economic miracle, Italian films, and the women in them, focused on issues of survival. Anna Magnani in Rome, Open City helps the partisan movement and is eventually shot when she runs after her husband who is being taken away by the Nazis. In this new era, women are inside the home. Italian woman outside the aristocracy had never before had the opportunity to be housewives: they were mothers who had to work in fields, farms, and factories. This new society of consumerism was what allowed for and created these films. There was a shift in focus from survival, to pleasure. Emma and Rosalia are modern characters because they play the role of casalinga, but they cannot be portrayed in a positive light because they represent consumerism and also hinder the masculine goal or journey.

La dolce vita is a commentary on the moral decay of Italian society after the economic miracle. Bondanella writes of the film “La dolce vita [is] a contemporary world cut adrift from traditional values and symbols, especially those of Christianity, and bereft of any dominant cultural center…a world of public relations, press conferences, paparazzi, empty religious rites, meaningless love affairs.”[xvii] It is a film of excess. Maddalena, one of Marcello’s acquaintances, is also defined by her excess. While the wife figure is defined and characterized by her consumerism inside the home, the whore figure is defined by her excesses outside the home. These excesses are both materialist and sexual. When the viewer first encounters Maddalena at the nightclub she is a strong, independent woman. She walks into the club by herself and orders a drink, Cottino-Jones says of Maddalena “as soon as she appears on the screen framed in full-length shots, she shows a clearly masculine bearing.”[xviii] Her face masked by her glasses signify both her powerful masculine role and her material excess. Maddalena wears these sunglasses at night inside – clearly their role is merely for style, they are superfluous. And as Cottino-Jones affirms “she also uses her gaze from behind dark sunglasses in a masculine way.”[xix] The gaze, however, is focused on Maddalena in this scene, but not in a sexual way. She commands the shot. This continues throughout our first meeting with Maddalena. She and Marcello leave the club and it is Maddalena, not Marcello who drives. The role of the driver is typically associated with power, with the masculine. Maddalena picks up a prostitute on her drive around Rome with Marcello. It is still Maddalena who commands the scene, it is still Maddalena who the gaze is thrust upon, in such a way that it connotes power and not sensuality (see image below). However, along with this power and independence Maddalena is also set up as a whore, more so than the literal prostitute. In fact, it is she who sleeps with Marcello in the bedroom of the prostitute. The viewer is allowed to feel sympathy for the uneducated prostitute who is doomed to live in poverty, because for her there is no other choice. It is not sympathy the viewer feels for Maddalena, who acts as a whore merely out of boredom, not out of necessity. A woman cannot have power without being a whore. And it is the power that Maddalena commands that ultimately unravels her.

This is Maddalena holding the power and the gaze.

The next time the viewer encounters Maddalena is at an aristocratic party outside of Rome. Again, it is Maddalena who takes control from the start. Is is she who initiates contact with Marcello, “[Maddalena] playfully sneaks close to [Marcello] from the back and covers his face with a veil, in defiance of the traditional use reserved to veils… one may read Maddalena’s action toward Marcello as an attempt to… suffocate his masculinity.”[xx] Maddalena also separates herself from Marcello when they later have a serious discussion. It is Marcello who in these scenes encapsulates the role of the feminine lover. But in a patriarchal world, that cannot be. It is in this final scene that Maddalena finally loses her power, and succumbs to a man. Not only does she do this, she professes herself a whore. Previously Maddalena had held the shot, and the gaze but in her final scenes we see her vulnerable, succumbing to another mans will. And finally in her last moment, her face is completely obscured by the man. It is her role as an independent woman that necessitates her demise. A woman cannot be in control in a man’s world.

Maddalena also poses a threat to the father figure. Maddalena is autonomous because her father is wealthy. However, unlike women in the pre-war period a father’s wealth wouldn’t signify an autonomous daughter. But the new Italian society allowed for women to be independent from their fathers. Ginsborg confirms, “for the young, urban life offered many opportunities not previously available… the young found that they enjoyed greater freedoms than previously… authority structures within the family became less rigid, as did paternal control over the family’s finances.”[xxi] Maddalena does not only pose a threat to a male lover by encapsulating the masculine gender role, she also poses a threat by being an autonomous daughter. Her father even laments her independence in the movie. Because her father’s face is never seen, the Italian male viewer is able to commiserate with him and his jeopardized condition.

The role of the savior is often characterized by her purity, connection to nature, or her religious affiliations. In Italian film the role of the savior does not have to represent sexual purity, in fact she may be the embodiment of desire. Such is the role of Sylvia in La dolce vita. Sylvia is a Hollywood actress. A blonde-bombshell. Her body is lush and sensuous. But it is a body of a woman, a body to be desired for by men. It is not the strong, slender body of Maddalena. Yet, Sylvia represents salvation for Marcello. Sylvia inhabits the traditional characteristics given to a woman. She is beautiful, well endowed, and plays on her assumed lack of intelligence. Sylvia is also repeatedly shown as being close to nature. She wanders through the streets of Rome with a kitten that meanders from her arms to her head. She howls with the wolves. Sylvia is most comfortable in nature, it is here where she stops acting and starts being herself. Sylvia wades into the Trevi fountain in Rome, and it is here where Fellini lets his viewer know that Sylvia offers Marcello some sort of salvation. As Marcello takes off his shoes to get into the fountain with Sylvia he says to himself “She is right! I am doing everything wrong. We are all doing everything wrong”. He reaches Sylvia, who reaches out to him with water in her hands. It is almost as if she is baptizing him. But alas, the water turns off and the moment is over, Bondanella declares “ Paradoxically, this blond bombshell actually personifies the very essence of spontaneous and innocent sensuality, but when Marcello joins her in the fountain, it mysteriously ceases to flow, a clear sign of his spiritual impotence.”[xxii] However, Sylvia cannot be saved by the masculine world. Even she isn’t close enough to the ideal feminine figure to be saved in La dolce vita. It is her femininity, and her awareness of it, that gets in the way of the happiness of her jealous lover Robie. And therefore, she too must be put back into her place.

The only woman in La dolce vita who is saved from excesses, and therefore makes it through the film, is Paola. It is Paola’s face that we see at the end of the film, not Marcello’s. This signals both the hope and purity of Paola. Paola represents the final salvation for Marcello. She is both pure from materiality and from sensuality, “with her beautiful and angelic face, she stands for innocence and self-reliance, an authentic breath of fresh, clean air, within the corrupt and useless existence of Marcello and his debauchee friends.”[xxiii] She encompasses the ideal woman for a Christian Italian man. Hope is given to Paola at the end of the film, which ends with a framing of her face, because she embodies the perfect feminine characteristics: she is beautiful, quiet, and subservient. Unlike Emma or Rosalia she does not try to push her desires onto the masculine, but she is there if he wants her.

Angela represents salvation, but she also represents the whore. From the point of view of Fefé Angela is his salvation. Angela has the ability to save him from his uneventful life. For Fefé Angela is the embodiment of the perfect feminine character. She is religious, as she goes to school with nuns. She is pure, as she has yet to be touched by a male. And she loves him, as he surmises from her own words in the garden and then from the letters she sends him once she is taken back to school. What Fefé doesn’t realize, however, is that he also represents salvation for Angela. Angela is the daughter of a controlling and jealous father who subjects her to gynecological examinations by nuns to ensure her virginity. She too needs to be saved, and she needs Fefé just as much as Fefé needs her. Fefé cannot see this, as is clear from the narrative – but the viewer is skeptical from the very beginning. Angela does not give kind glances toward Fefé. And a times seems to be feigning her love for him. Finally at the end, the viewer is

gratified and Angela is shown in her true whorish light. As Fefé kisses Angela, she caresses the foot of the young Sailor. Unlike Fellini’s La dolce vita, though the woman may be absent from the film, her character is not used simply for the gratification of the masculine, she is also self-gratifying.

Angela and Fefé as newlyweds.

Angela and Fefé as newlyweds.

Angela caressing the foot of a the young sailor.

Angela caressing the foot of a the young sailor.

Through the condemnation of these feminine figures materialism, excess, and avarice are also condemned. The post-industrialization Italian society was seen as immoral and lacking religiosity by many filmmakers of the time. There was a call for a reformation of society. The characters of the wife/mother figure are largely fated due to their ties with consumerism: their excess is observed in their overwhelming relationships with their husbands. The whore is doomed because of her sexual and material excesses: Maddalena drives an expensive car and is seen wearing expensive clothing and accessories, both her foulard and sunglasses are extravagant. Even Sylvia is damned because she is overly aware of her beauty. What all these characteristics have in common is that they are also dangerous to a patriarchal structure. Underlying all of these negative portrayals is the need to condemn a woman and society for the crisis in their power.

The wives hinder the male from succeeding in finding fulfillment. This fulfillment can be for pleasure, morality, or sometimes both. They also encapsulate this new social structure in which the male power is in jeopardy, for the housewife is a symbol of consumerism and industrial society. Representing a powerful woman as a whore is another way to condemn this new society and press for traditional gender roles. It is the danger to the masculine dominance posed by the feminine that necessitates these negative representations of women. At the root of these new feminine figures is the economic miracle, which is what ultimately birthed and empowered a change in the role of the feminine, whether it is the autonomous independent woman or a woman with too much leisure time.


[i] The Economic Miracle “Miracolo a economico” was the period of the mid-fifties in Italy of increased industrialization. The economic boom led to a greater, even if only marginally so, lifestyle for Italians in Italy.

[ii]   Neorealism was a genre of film popular in Italy from the mid-1940’s to the early 1960’s. Though         there is no definite neorealist manifest it can be characterized by the presence of: on-location shooting; natural lighting; grainy, fast film stock; the use of non-professional actors; little make-up; the use of dialect; shots in the long-to-medium range; objective camera angles; and functional as opposed to artistic editing. It dealt with micro-history and the struggle of survival for the everyday man.

[iii]  Bizzari, Libero. “L’economia cinematografica”  In Women in Italy, 1946-1960: An Interdisciplinary Study, Gordsonville; VA: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006: 53.

[iv]   Morris, Penelope. Women in Italy, 1946-1960: An Interdisciplinary Study, Gordonsville; VA: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006: 53.

[v] Morris, Penelope. Women in Italy, 1946-1960: An Interdisciplinary Study, Gordsonsville; VA: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006: 54.

[vi]    Morris, Penelope. Women in Italy, 1946-1960: An Interdisciplinary Study, Gordonsville; VA: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006: 53.

[vii] Ginsborg, Paul.  A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988, New York; NY: Penguin Books, 1990: 244.

[viii] Ginsborg, Paul.  A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988, New York; NY: Penguin Books, 1990: 244.

[ix]    Ginsborg, Paul.  A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988, New York; NY: Penguin Books, 1990: 244.

[x]     Günsberg, Maggie. Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre, New York; NY. Palgrave Macmillian, 2005: 68.

[xi]    Günsberg, Maggie. Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre, New York; NY. Palgrave Macmillian, 2005: 68.

[xii] Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema In The Sexual Object, edited by John Caughie and Annette Kuhn. New York; NY: Routledge, 1992: 27.

[xiii] Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema In The Sexual Object, edited by John Caughie and Annette Kuhn. New York; NY: Routledge, 1992: 28. No source for quote.

[xiv] Cottino-Jones, Marga. Women, Desire, and Power in Italian Cinema, New York; NY. Palgrave Macmillian, 2009: 107.

[xv]  The miracle sequence from La dolce vita is a sequence in which two children have claimed to see the Madonna and many people, especially the media flock to see the spectacle.

[xvi] Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema In The Sexual Object, edited by John Caughie and Annette Kuhn. New York; NY: Routledge, 1992: 28-29.

[xvii] Bondanella, Peter.  A history of Italian Cinema, New York; NY: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2009: 291.

[xviii] Cottino-Jones, Marga. Women, Desire, and Power in Italian Cinema, New York; NY. Palgrave Macmillian, 2009: 108.

[xix] Cottino-Jones, Marga. Women, Desire, and Power in Italian Cinema, New York; NY. Palgrave Macmillian, 2009: 108.

[xx] Cottino-Jones, Marga. Women, Desire, and Power in Italian Cinema, New York; NY. Palgrave Macmillian, 2009: 109.

[xxi]    Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988, New York; NY: Penguin Books, 1990: 243.

[xxii] Bondanella, Peter. The Cinema of Federico Fellini, Princeton; NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992: 147.

[xxiii] Cottino-Jones, Marga. Women, Desire, and Power in Italian Cinema, New York; NY. Palgrave Macmillian, 2009: 115.

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