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Francesco Rosi and Italian Political Cinema

  • Francesco Rosi and Italian Political Cinema

    On a global scale, Italian cinema is considered as one of the most socially conscious and genre varied creative hubs, and the tradition of so-called cinema politico, i.e., political cinema, which has survived ever since the sixties, occupies a special place in this regard. New generations are emerging, new filmmakers are cropping up with varyingly radical views. Some things are indestructible, it seems, such as their canonized and indefatigable directors, most notably Marco Bellocchio or Nanni Moretti, whose new films espousing a firm political creed came out this year. This creates a great opportunity for a new historical overview, after the retrospective presented by Cankarjev dom (in a more limited scope) fifteen years ago.

    The retrospective includes prominent works by some of Italy's greatest directors, filmmakers who honed the craft of political and socio-critical cinema largely around 1968, focusing on Italy’s current and past realities and frontally attacking the institutions of family, church and the republic. The list of directors who dedicated themselves to political cinema is most impressive. Francesco Rosi, Gillo Pontecorvo, Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellocchio, Elio Petri, the Taviani brothers, Damiano Damiani and later also the younger generation, most notably Gianni Amelio, Nanni Moretti, and others. Italian cinema, from the end of World War II identifying almost entirely with the tradition of neorealism (and perceived as such in the eyes of the international public), underwent radical changes in the early sixties.  

    On the one hand, popular film genres were born, the so-called commedia all'italiana, Italian Western, sword-and-sandal (also known as peplum) and Gothic horror, and on the other hand, a generation of directors emerged who addressed Italian social and political issues in an unprecedentedly straightforward manner. While not sharing a generational unity (there was an age difference of almost two decades between the oldest and youngest auteur), these filmmakers were united in their universal critique of amorality, corruption, clientelism, mafia’s power over the political centres, sexual perversities of the representatives of power, colonialism, imperialism.

    However, rather than grounding their often didactic Marxist messages in realism – they all read Antonio Gramsci, and many, although educated in the bourgeois environment of private schools, were members of the Communist Party at least briefly – these cineastes favoured idioms of popular film that spread to saturate Italian cinema fifteen years after the end of the war. For these directors, neorealism was a thing of the past, the raw black and white images and non-actors in leading roles were rather quickly replaced by vivid colour photography, international movie stars and production links with the US market. Elements of sarcasm, satire, and surrealism were added to the occasionally melodramatic treatment of political topics.

    One of the leading figures of this movement (if we can call it that) was Francesco Rosi, who, over a space of three decades – roughly between Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) – fiercely articulated the abovesaid controversial phenomena of Italian society, especially dealing with the proverbial "deep state", a term we also tend to use in our political space. Rosi, a native of Naples, tapped into the historic centre of southern Italy as a source of almost all his cinematic subjects. Even when not set in Naples, his films were imbued with the southern theme and temperament. Specifically, in addition to the above motifs, Rosi addressed the issues of oil monopolies, real estate speculation and white-collar terrorism, which rapidly spread over Italy in the seventies.

    Of all the Italian directors of the era, Rosi was probably to one to blend the fictional and documentary formats most eagerly, although he always argued that his films were not about reproducing or realistically portraying the state of affairs, but about interpreting reality. He was a great advocate for the aggressive director who, if necessary, creates "epic drama", adds theatrical flourishes, employs engaging narrative approaches (e.g. flashback) and convincingly uses both professional actors and non-actors. With this arsenal, Rosi produced a magnificent body of work, which essentially speaks of the post-war reconstruction of Italy, a rebuilding that took shape amid the confrontation between the two powerful Blocks, the East and the West.

    Simon Popek