The portraits of women in Italian neorealist films, as early as 1943, were notably secondary and inferior to that of the male role in these films. Often times, the central point-of-view of the child tended to be the focus, as their naïveté and ingénue took center stage in films, such as in the “Naples” episode of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisa(1946) and even in Ermanni Olmi’s Il Posto (1961), a film that arguably bridged the gap between neorealism and modernism. On a larger scale, films in Italian cinema innately possessed a patriarchal structure, centering on the emotions and needs of the male protagonist. Women were severely underrepresented, or used to solely highlight an aspect of the male protagonist’s character. As modernist films started to transition into the spotlight of the Italian cinematic world, directors began to further develop the role of the woman. When Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita emerged in 1960, it was cause for much controversy and critique, on the terms of regressing moralist and religious values, and more specifically, the explicit sexuality that the film offers. La Dolce Vita was revolutionary for its time, because it placed the female figure in the center of the spectator’s and the male protagonist’s focus. This film was representative of the modernist films that would follow it, for it created a sexualized context for women to be perceived in as important figures in film. It portrayed the importance of women through the centralization of love affairs, relationships, and the illustration of the female body as an erotic image. This film is quite telling of the characterization women would continue to have in future modernist films, and the importance of creating a sexual context for women to be seen in. Films that followedLa Dolce Vita, such as L’Avventura and Matrimonio all’Italiana would also take women into a very fetishized scope. And it is through this context that the role of women began to expand over time.
There are many theories about the representation of women in these modernist films. In Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, she discusses the juxtaposition of the male protagonist and the female object of his affection, within the framework of a modernist narrative film. “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle”(Mulvey, 11). The projection of the male’s fantasy and erotic inner-thoughts are placed upon the woman in an effort to be materialized, and rationalized with throughout the film. She represents the culmination of his fantasies; his voyeuristic desires to look at her and watch her become seen as the physical representation of her figure. “Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself. Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire”(Mulvey, 17). The fetishization of the female figure is a practice seen quite explicitly in La Dolce Vita and inL’Avventura, yet is depicted in very different cinematic ways.
La Dolce Vita chronicles the events of a journalist named Marcello, who gets swept up in the spectacular atmosphere and nightlife that Rome has to offer. While trying to keep an objective viewpoint as he records the life and events of celebrities, he is unable to do so, and gets taken with the luxurious quality of the nightlife in Rome. He acts on this by having multiple affairs and pseudo-affairs with beautiful women, including Maddalena, Sylvia, and his fiancée, Emma.
One of the most pivotal points of the film is when Marcello encounters the beautiful and captivating Swedish actress, Sylvia, at the Ciampino airport, while on assignment to report on her. The two spend the night together in one of the most erotically charged sequences of the entire film. Well-endowed, and curvaceously desirable, Sylvia saunters into the renowned Trevi fountain, and starts to “bathe” in its water. Dressed in a revealing, tight-fitted black dress, the camera focuses intently on her as she closes her eyes, lifts her chin to the sky, and is taken with the environment around her. This image is explicitly sexual for many reasons. The image of Sylvia’s long, flowing hair, cascading down the nape of her neck onto her back; the fact that she is being saturated by the water in this fountain, and her body being exposed in very little clothing is all very appealing, not only to Marcello, but to the spectator of this film, as well. It is a very obvious portrayal of a bold archetype of sexuality. What makes this sequence a bit more cinematically stunning is Fellini’s use of the gaze. The camera pans from the image of Sylvia in the Trevi fountain, to Marcello sitting from afar, watching her, and it alternates between these two filmic shots. The effect this gives is one that Laura Mulvey discusses at great length, called scopophilia. It is the pleasure that the protagonist, and as an extrapolation, the spectator gets from looking and viewing. The camera shows Marcello looking at Sylvia as an object of his desire; the spectator is able to sense his craving for her, as we watch him, watching her.
What makes this sequence unique, and not a typical scopophilia-scene is the shift of gender power. Typically when referencing scopophilia, the man is at the forefront, looking at the female of his affection, and objectifying her. He relays all of his erotic and innate desires onto her, and he is in control of the scene; she is no more than the materialization of his passion. Yet in this sequence, it is Sylvia who is in control, even if only subtlety. Marcello is in awe of her presence, and she is the one to call him over, and order him to come join her in the fountain. Fellini does something quite revolutionary here, though understated to the untrained eye. By giving Sylvia a voice, Fellini gives her more purpose than just being an object to Marcello. She is certainly a sexual image, symbolizing the “castration threat”, as Mulvey puts it, but she is also much more than that. Sylvia functions to surprise Marcello. At this instant, the role of the woman in this film, and for future modernist films is significantly altered, for it gives women a quiet power, a voice amidst the strong men. All of the sexual desires he has for her are cut short when the fountains are switched off, and the climax of this scene is stopped at its prime moment of excitement. The two are forced to sheepishly remove themselves from the fountain, and this is a moment of clarity that hits Marcello strongly. He is brought back to reality in an instant, with a tension so palpable and so real. To clarify in Fellini’s own words, “More exactly La Dolce Vita is the private and confidential confessions of a man who speaks of himself and his aberration. It is as if a friend were telling to other friends his confusion, his contradictions, and his deceptions, trying to clarify for himself his own sentimental aridity” (Enzo, Federico Fellini). This internal sense of intimacy between Marcello and Sylvia, and the confusion that Marcello struggles with in this sequence is the vital epicenter of this scene.
A distinctly different film than La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura is still a story about finding pleasure, and chronicles the search for self-satisfaction. However, the characters in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film are filled with ennui, and are much more cloaked in despair than the livelier, over-the-top characters in Fellini’s film. This sense of melancholy wasn’t unusual, however, for early modernist films, but rather, a commonality. “The overwhelming majority of these films’ stories were built up around some kind of search…Either the character’s moving around seemed self-contained and aimless, or it seemed motivated by a life situation in which the character has a definable or indefinable feeling of discomfort or lack…”(Kovacs, 295). This film is the perfect example of this aimless search Kovacs discusses. L’Avventura depicts the journey of three friends, Claudia, Sandro and Anna, as they go sailing to explore a deserted volcanic island in the Mediterranean. Anna goes missing just as the friends are about to leave the island. Sandro (Anna’s boyfriend) and Claudia (Anna’s best friend) go on a search for her, and along the way, get involved in a complicated love affair with each other. Claudia is torn throughout the entirety of the film, between her love for Sandro, and her loyalty to Anna. This tension serves to remain active in the film, and characterizes Claudia’s behavior. She acts over-emotional at times, and her mood is ever changing between extreme poles of emotion. The way Antonioni films her is truly reflective of her persona. On the exterior, she is a very beautiful, very fashionable woman. Always clothed in chic, modern dresses for this time; she is certainly a figure of beauty and sexual appeal. Instead of emphasizing this eroticism however, Antonioni makes it uncomfortable and uneasy. He chooses to film many innately seductive sequences using strange camera angles and filming sequences with unusual filmic framing that de-sexualize Claudia, and her tryst with Sandro. What would seem to be erotic is transformed into discomfort.
One particular sequence that depicts this discomfort strongly is when Claudia and Sandro are kissing in a rural, open field. Claudia is lying on the grass, and Sandro is on top of her, as they kiss one another passionately. The way Antonioni films this sequence creates an incredibly unusual image, one devoid of any true eroticism. All that the spectator is able to see is the back of Sandro’s head, moving back and forth to kiss the woman beneath him. Claudia’s figure is completely covered by Sandro’s body, and only occasionally does the spectator see her face move back and forth, to try and keep connected to him. The sequence is one long shot, which emphasizes the length and longevity of this particular scene, making it seem quite stagnant and monotonous, without the presence of any filmic editing. The sequence is also completely silent; the spectator isn’t privy to receive any sound effects, or any other cinematic effects to enrich this scene, aside from seeing this long shot of these two bodies kissing. And for most of the sequence, only their backs and the backs of their heads are clearly shown, so not many actual kisses are filmed and shown clearly to the spectator. Any eroticism that could be felt is not at all captured in this sequence.
A second scene that creates great filmic tension is when Claudia is waiting for Sandro, outside of his building. This sequence becomes quite disturbing, and watching it is very uncomfortable. She is dressed in a fitted polka-dot dress with a pearl necklace; she is dressed to look beautiful and desirable. However, in the beginning of the shot, Antonioni films her from behind, as she waits for Sandro, and watches the building he is in. Antonioni builds suspense here, and puts up a metaphorical wall between the action happening and the spectator; there’s not a complete grasp of what is occurring because we aren’t privy to her facial expressions. All that the spectator can initially see her is body language as her back is being filmed. When she turns to face camera, the effect is that the spectator is re-seeing Claudia; seeing her anew, in a new environment. As the spectator re-sees her, she then witnesses all of the men in the square, leering and staring at her. It makes the spectator feel as if they are in Claudia’s position, and the uncomfortable tension arises yet again.
The way that Antonioni films Claudia, both alone and with Sandro, says a great deal about his view of women, and more generally, shows an archetype of the depiction of women in these types of melodramatic modernist films. This film was released a year after La Dolce Vita, and has similar themes as a whole to that film. However, the way that woman are perceived and are represented are far different. Antonioni plays with the uncomfortable intimacy of women, and their relations, instead of emphasizing the natural eroticism that women possess. Claudia, being the prominent representation of this type of woman is always shot from either very unflattering, or very awkward camera angles. There’s a great sense throughout the film that Claudia is filled with ennui; she is constantly in conflict with herself over her love for Sandro, and her devotion to her missing friend. Because of this, she remains a very mysterious character, and Antonioni keeps this mystique alive by his filmic choices. Highlighting the backside of her figure, using long shots to build suspense, and keeping her face often hidden while in a passionate embrace with Sandro, makes her a very passive character. She is the essence of an uneasy, enigmatic woman, and though she could be perceived as sexual, Antonioni doesn’t allow the spectator to view her in this way, for she is too emotionally unstable and submissive. Unlike Fellini, Antonioni characterizes the role of the woman as an untouchable, almost unreadable human being, brought out only by the role of the male protagonist. When discussing this film, Antonioni stated, “The tragedy in L’Avventura stems directly from an erotic impulse of this type – unhappy, miserable, futile. To be critically aware of the vulgarity and the futility of such an overwhelming erotic impulse, as is the case with the protagonist in L’Avventura, is not enough or serves no purpose. And here we witness the crumbling of a myth, which proclaims it is enough for us to know, to be critically conscious of ourselves, to analyze ourselves in all our complexities and in every facet of our personality”(Antonioni, Cannes Statement). The depiction of Claudia, in reference to Sandro, is precisely this futile, untouchable reflexive tragedy that Sandro suffers, and that Claudia illustrates.
It is important to reference different genres of modernist films, so that the portrayal of women can be analyzed from many different perspectives. However, keeping within a certain historical period of time is just as essential. The analysis of women in films that were made during a five -year period allows for a closer, more accurate hypothesis of certain filmmakers, and how they chose to represent women in their films. Taking a look at an entirely different film than the spectacle that is La Dolce Vita, and the melodrama that is L’Avventura, Matrimonio all’Italiana by Vittorio De Sica is a comedic interpretation of the trials and tribulations of a relationship, between a successful businessman, Domenico, and his mistress, Filumena. (Played by Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, respectively).
Being a man of great power and esteem, Domenico is depicted as a ladies man. Charming and handsome, he certainly finds great success in this department, especially with a young Filumena. Through the course of the film, she begins to prostitute herself, while simultaneously keeping a relationship with Domenico. Over time, Filumena secretly bears three children, as she witnesses Domenico plan to marry a young employee. To stop this marriage from happening, Filumena tricks Domenico into marrying her by feigning death. When he annuls the marriage, she then tempts him with knowledge of her three children, yet doesn’t tell him which are his. Confused and under the belief that they are all his, Domenico marries Filumena again, this time, willingly.
This film is incredibly complex, not only in its plot, but through its use of exaggeration and comedy. Being a comedic film, Matrimonio all’Italiana allows for a greater use of unrestrained passion and agency for the characters to explore. What is really wonderful and unique about this film, especially for its time, is the vitality and strength displayed by Loren’s character, Filumena. This film was made in 1964, only three years after L’Avventura, but the portrayal of the woman is completely different. Filumena is a prostitute, a profession that is inherently controversial. Since this film was made after the Merlin Law was passed, De Sica takes an even greater risk here by making her a prostitute. The Merlin Law outlawed the practice of state-controlled prostitution in Italy; up until this time, prostitution was legal. This cinematic decision by De Sica shows a sense of defiance to societal norms and regulations, and illustrates the courage that Filumena instinctually has a character, and more importantly, as a woman. De Sica chose to highlight the figure and role of the woman as being strong and defiant, and full of vitality.
The scene that truly illustrates this feminine agency and defiance is the sequence between Domenico and Filumena, discussing the paternity of her three children. Domenico gets increasingly more and more frustrated with Filumena as she withholds information that would allow him to know which children are biologically his. What’s very distinctive about this scene is how equally enraged Filumena gets. The spectator sees her yell passionately at Domenico, and as he walks away, the camera follows her, as she chases after him. In a very physical confrontation, the two struggle a bit, and he shoves her down to the ground. She falls with great dramatic effect, as the camera cuts quickly to her falling. Yet, she doesn’t succumb to his “masculinity”. She continues to fight with him, even causing him a deep gash on the side of his face. The aspect of this scene that is essential to take note of is the physicality that Filumena illustrates. She is in no way taking a passive approach, and respecting “ladylike” manners, but rather, fights with a physicality and vocalization that is on par with Domenico. This was a revolutionary choice for DeSica to make, because he gives Filumena a sense of urgency and an aggression that was mostly unheard of for women to portray during this time. Though she is a very beautiful and desirable woman on the exterior, she also represents strength and passion; De Sica breathed life into this female character. About creating his films, and his creation process, De Sica stated, “ My films are the faithful transcription in pictures of a life, usually a simple one, of an atmosphere, and of characters whom I can feel growing and unfolding within me, in whom I believe instinctively from the very first moment and in whose date I bear a part”(Cardullo, 167). This quote is a great representation of the authenticity that is depicted in Matrimonio all’Italiana.
Analyzing the role of women in Italian modernist films is important, because it gives a clear image of how the woman was perceived during this time in society, as well. There was always a need for a sexual context in which the woman could be placed into, and from there, individual directors could explore their own interpretations of what the woman should illustrate. Women had the task to not only depict sexuality and desire for the male protagonist, but over time, they also portrayed power, passion and agency, and their roles in film truly evolved in a most spectacular way.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen. (1975): Print.
Peri, Enzo. “Federico Fellini: An Interview.” Film Quarterly. 1961: Print.
Kovacs, Andras. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.
Antonioni, Michelangelo. “L’Avventura Statement at Cannes.” (1960): Print.
Cardullo, Bert. Vittorio De Sica: Director, Actor, Screenwriter. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002. Print.