Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A Troubled Inheritance: A Cultural History of Post-War Italian and French Cinema

The works of post-War Italian and French film are vastly important to the aesthetics and history of the cinema, most crucially, for the former, in the impact of Neo-Realism and its subsequent mutations, and, for the latter, the era of the Nouvelle Vague and its influence. And yet neither France nor Italy as nations had the happiest histories in the period following World War 2, illustrating perhaps the adage that troubled times generate great cultural energy. Italy, a battleground for much of the war, was left poverty-stricken and shattered, to move painfully and inconsistently out of the Fascist era into a modernising, industrialising period. France contended with a distinct and visible decline in its colonial and international political influence, most baldly revealed by the military defeats in Vietnam and Algeria, and the lingering suspicions of the myth of the Resistance obscuring the truth of widespread collaboration with the Nazis. Each nation reacted to the powerful influence of the United States, both politically in the era of Cold War side-taking, and culturally, in contending with Hollywood and the new popular culture.

The Italian film industry, and by that I mean the whole industry and not merely the momentary vogues for Neo-Realists and filmmakers who took “alienation” as subject matter, was arguably one of the most consistently productive and commercially successful in post-War Europe. The huge number of genre works, a sea of Maciste and Hercules flicks, spaghetti westerns, and horror films, established Italian cinema as the low-rent Hollywood of choice through the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it’s highly possible today more cineastes are familiar with the works of Sergio Leone, Mario Bava, and Dario Argento than with Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. That this productivity owed a certain debt to the Fascist-era infrastructure, the large new studio Cinecitta and the industrially-honed of skills of filmmakers like Visconti, De Sica, and Rossellini, considering the conscientious attempts to erase the Fascist memory from the cinema landscape as well as political, had a certain irony. But no country, or industry, can begin with a completely clean slate.

The correlation of a shift from the so-called ‘white telephone’ or bourgeois melodramas, to nitty-gritty subject matters, and the political death of Fascism and the new democracy, is easy to note. Perhaps too easy, considering the debt owed to pre-war ideas, and the way in which individual Neo-Realist films often channelled generic influences ranging from broad melodrama to Chaplinesque comedy. But certainly, they were the product of a time and place, and a confluence of ideals, ideas, and influences. Neo-Realism was, as most film scholars concede, hardly a consistently codified aesthetic approach, despite the efforts like those of the films’ leading screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, to define it. Raw necessity and expedience, and a desire to reflect a cultural moment in all its drama, drove the production of the initial Neo-Realist films like Roma Citta Aperta (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) and Paisa (Rossellini, 1946). The aesthetics of Neo-Realism were essentially that of no-budget, rock-bottom filmmaking: natural lighting, no colour (the prettiness of the era’s Technicolor seen more as decoration than accuracy), and use of non-professional actors, and so the movement was as much a provisional stop-gap as artistic response, as Roberto Rossellini readily confessed.

This blossomed into a powerful and momentarily popular genre of films that took as its building blocks people and experiences often left out of the Fascist, and, indeed, out of much of cinema in general – ordinary tradesmen, working women and street kids – without recourse to sentimental narrative arcs of tribulation and triumph. And yet as Italy moved into the Fifties, and both the nation and the cinema became richer, more confident, and able to take on a broader range of references and aspirations, it was probably inevitable, even without social context, that Neo-Realism would come under strain. By the mid ‘50s, it seemed that Neo-Realism was dying out, and yet possibly this was misconceived: neo-Realist techniques became a permanent part of the lexicon of domestic and indeed world cinema, and the directors, though no longer to rely only on its precepts, could still build upon it. Even if they’re more psychological, ‘bourgeois’, symbolic, or altogether stylised, subsequent films like Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, Fellini’s I Vitelloni, La Strada, La Dolce Vita, and , Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi Fratelli and Il Gattopardo, and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, can be seen as taking neo-realism into “unexplored territory”, as John Russell Taylor put it in 1964. They maintain a consistent, even compulsive, interest in the relationship of individual protagonists with the society and temporal identity they share.

No longer motivated by the necessities of survival as dictated by war or extreme poverty, and consumed by anxiety in a world losing traditional parameters of church, state, family life, and musty morality, the frigid, lost bourgeoisie of L’Avventura and La Dolce Vita, the wayfaring circus folk of La Strada, the can-do family of Sicilians in Rocco, all fall victim to disintegrating assurances and consuming, irrational passions without any apparent goal. Il Gattopardo, although set a century earlier, in many ways captures the zeitgeist of the previous eighteen years, as its narrative stretches from the chaos of war and the exhilaration of new possibilities and shifting power, to the settling of a new order, the forceful repression of rebellious forces, and the end of a moment of possibility.

As in France, the next generation of filmmakers were vitally concerned both with leftist politics and questions of cinematic semantics. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Prima della rivoluzione(1964), both as a title and a film, can be seen as summarising the attitudes of the new cinema and its creators – young men and women under the influence of left/socialist ideals, waiting for the new society, righteously critical of the old, and yet all too aware of the seductive force of seemingly frivolous things – sex, money, movies. Whilst socially revolutionary possibilities in Italy came to look less and less likely, the arrival of counterculture mores demanded new varieties of self-examination.

Bertolucci’s Novocento (1975) took a valiant stab at portraying Italian society up until the end of World War Two with a thematic interest in recording the violent conflict of proletariat and bourgeois social strata, and creating a new scope for reconciliation without violence. At the same time Pier Paolo Pasolini looked at the mores of the past through countercultural perspectives in works like his own vicious look at the Fascist era, the notorious Salo. The ghosts of Fascism, both Bertolucci and Pasolini suggested, far from having been exorcised, still haunted every repressive instinct, and the schism between capitalism and socialism threatened to consume the orderly new world with war every day.

From the early ‘60s on, the growing popularity of Italian genre fare overseas, with their westerns, obviously indebted to American models, and yet, in essence, repositioned versions of the Hercules and Maciste films, called ‘neo-mythologism’ by Vittorio Cotofavi, and horror films, led into a new era of pop-aesthetic, and also cultural cross-pollination. The works of high-style maestros like Leone, Bava, and Argento had common roots in the newly lush approach of Visconti and Fellini, and had an effect on Hollywood product. Leone’s westerns gave that genre a last shot in the arm before running out of steam in the mid-’70s. Although the ‘art’ cinema model lived on, and some filmmakers – the Tavianni Brothers, Ermanno Olmi, Giuseppe Tornatore and Nanni Moretti, a chief satirist and portraitist of Berlusconi-era Italy, to name a few – have maintained visibility on the world stage, Italian cinema largely lost the relevance and force it had in this era, at least in terms of overseas perception, before the Cannes success of Gomorrah and Il Divo in 2008.

The post-war French cinema differed from the Italian in that, initially, its cinema went on largely as it had before, in the interregnum that the Nouvelle Vague critics and filmmakers disparaged with the label of “the Cinema of Quality” or the more directly generational le cinéma du papa, lacking aesthetic and political immediacy or risk. Which is not to say the era lacked good filmmakers: the diverse styles and preoccupations of directors of Marcel Carne, Jean Renoir, René Clément, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Henri-Georges Clouzot, Andre Bazin believed, kept alive “French art's talent for a certain novelistic, by which I mean transformative, intelligence”, as Bazin said in his 1957 essay, ‘Fifteen Years of French Cinema’. Men like Melville, who had worked for the Resistance, and Clouzot, who had been banned from working for a time for making films for a German-sponsored company, personified in complex ways the divided national spirit. They, and cultural nurturers like Bazin and Henri Langlois, prefigured the Nouvelle Vague, a grouping which it was recognised early on was, like Neo-Realism, more a concordance of spirit than a real school of aesthetics.

The younger directors’ redefinition of the cinematic outlook drew on a new cultural eclecticism distinctly more cosmopolitan and multicultural in breadth; they also seemed to reject the “social pessimism” Bazin felt had defined many of the pre- and post-war directors. The openness and vivacity of the Nouvelle Vague, and also its air of dedicated criticality, announced a generation whose experiences were formed not by engaging in a period of struggle but in having been young during it. It’s possible that the atmosphere of endemic struggle and visions of the everyday world collapsing in Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous Appartient (1960) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963) and Week-End (1967), reflect a fear of the repetition of a recalled WW2 as much as they are statements of contemporary political engagement.

The New Wave, like Neo-Realism before it, often made virtues both political and artistic out of the limitations of low budgets, location filming, and the attendant baggage of anti-establishment attitude. Unlike Neo-Realism, they openly embraced virtues beyond mere tactile realism and simple humanism, using their array of diverse influences as an aesthetic weapon, utilising the widest variety of cinematically expressive techniques. This wasn’t merely aesthetic, for their outlook was deconstructive and interrogative. The cinema of a mob of young critics was inherently intellectualised even when chasing poetic subjects, intensely aware of the problems of the control and employment of image.

The defeat of Dien Bien Phu signalled the faltering attempts to bring about a French Colonial renaissance, and the culture soon reflected disenchantment, breaking up the loose post-War consensus and setting genuinely fractious political forces in play. In such a setting, a film like Paris nous Appartient reveals a quietly paranoid, even self-destructive bohemian-left subculture contending with blocks of power. Playful disseminations on genre filmmaking like A Bout de Souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) and Bande à Part (Godard, 1964) and personalised visions of childhood like Les Quatre Cents Coups (François Truffaut, 1959) were all well and good, but tackling more charged material, like tangentially depicting the political schisms invoked by the Algerian war with Le Petit Soldat, was enough to get that film temporarily banned. Battle lines were being drawn.

Those lines were well illustrated in Godard’s excoriating letter to Culture Minister and former leftist author Andre Malraux, for banning fellow director Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966). Godard’s personal drift towards ever-more politicised and radical filmmaking was rare in its extremity, indeed he was the only real radical of the movement, but it seemed in tune with the zeitgeist that culminated in the epic May riots of ’68. In such a milieu a film like Melville’s personal, haunting Resistance tale L'Armée des Ombres (1969) could be dismissed as “Gaullist filmmaking”. But the Gaullists won, the political crisis faded, and the spirit of revolt was left somewhat floundering afterwards, as documented in Jean Eustache’s epic La Maman et la Putain (1973).

Echoes of the era’s cultural arguments still ring through the discussions of French cinema, up to the minor controversy surrounding Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain (2001), in which leftist critics like Serge Kaganski and Philippe Lancon accused the filmmakers of fulfilling a reactionary fantasy in painting a fairy-tale Paris, erasing the bustling, often fractious, multicultural city now inclusive (and often un-inclusive) of the citizens of former colonies and the third world, portrayed in works like Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), and condemning fantasies of simpler times.

Such remarks can be seen as part of a wider modern fray, setting an ill-defined native French model, which in some ways is once again the Cinema of Quality, against a more vigorous but fantastic Hollywood cinematic template, exemplified by the efforts of Luc Besson. Unlike the Italian industry, the French never really exported its native genre cinema in large quantities, except for relatively odd creations by directors like Melville and Claude Chabrol, and so to try and keep up with Hollywood’s game, rather than using it for own ends, is a relatively new and culturally problematic departure.


how to bowling said...

I've always been keen on films that bring learning to my vida.Ademas I love learning about different cultures, so Post-War Italian and French film will be a good option for this Wednesday!

Roderick Heath said...

I presume you'll be bowling on Thursday.