- The Mass Is Over
In this week’s issue of the Reader, I wrote at length on King Hu’s supremely entertaining The Fate of Lee Khan (which screens again tomorrow night at 6 PM), but that isn’t the only great revival screening happening at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week. On Thursday afternoon you can catch Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) in its complete, nearly four-hour version, which had never been released in the U.S. prior to this new restoration. I can’t recommend Rosi’s film highly enough. Not only is it a brilliant piece of epic storytelling, it’s an emotionally resonant account of how author Carlo Levi spent his two years of internal exile (on the grounds of antifacist activity) becoming a better human being.
This revival of Christ Stopped at Eboli also serves as a reminder of how rich Italy’s national cinema was from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s. One could argue that the Italian cinema never flagged during the four decades following the end of World War II, but I feel that this particular era (call it the “post-Pasolini decade”) merits special attention. This period brought masterpieces from a number of filmmakers who began their careers in the 1960s—Rosi, Ermanno Olmi, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Ettore Scola—as well as the final flowering of directors—namely Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini—best associated with the immediate postwar years. This decade also saw the arrival of bold new comic talents—Nanni Moretti, Roberto Benigni, Maurizio Nichetti—who made some of the greatest Italian comedies since the 1950s. On top of all this, the period saw the continued international prominence of Federico Fellini and Lina Wertmuller, narrative experiments from Marco Bellocchio, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s pioneering work with video.
Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of some of the greatest hits of this decade of Italian cinema. Because I wanted to keep this positive, I chose not to include the reviews we have on file of Scola’s A Special Day and Bellocchio’s Henry IV (two of my favorite films of the period), which do not recommend the works in question.
- Allegro Non Troppo
Allegro Non Troppo Bruno Bozzetto's parody and spin-off of Disney's Fantasia is a collection of animated sketches accompanying classical music pieces (by Debussy, Dvořák, Ravel, Sibelius, Stravinsky, and Vivaldi), with live-action slapstick sequences featuring cowriter Maurizio Nichetti (The Icicle Thief). It's not only a hilarious send-up of Disney's excesses but a splendid cartoon feature in its own right—funny and imaginative and lively. The “restored” version of this 1976 Italian picture includes more Nichetti footage and a stereo soundtrack. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
- The Tree of Wooden Clogs
The Tree of Wooden Clogs Ermanno Olmi's 185-minute study of peasant life in turn-of-the-century Italy (1978) is rich with incident but thin on ideas—less an advance over the standard film festival peasant epic than an unusually accomplished rendition of it. The characters and situations are oppressively familiar; Olmi's wide-eyed, wondering point of view helps to freshen them, but not enough to overcome completely the Marxist sentimentalism inherent in the concept. I found the film most successful when it left its tenant farm setting for a lovely, lyrical boat trip to the big city, the one moment of expansiveness in Olmi's otherwise hermetic narration. Still, the film is consistently engaging and suggestive, though it never explodes into the masterpiece it's clearly intended to be. —Dave Kehr
- Three Brothers
Three Brothers A film of quiet reflection and strengthening resolve (1980) by the superb Italian director Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli, Salvatore Giuliano). Three brothers who have gone their separate ways professionally and politically gather for the funeral of their mother at the southern farm where they grew up. For each man the homecoming is a chance to retreat from the wider world, make contact with his peasant upbringing, and consider his part in the complex social fabric of Italy. Though the conception is rather schematic and the acting isn't all it could be, Rosi's deep-focus camera work spins a vivid, lyrical drama of regret and rebirth, abstract ethics and pinpoint sensuality. Not Rosi's best, but still an important film by a major talent. With Philippe Noiret and Charles Vanel. —Dave Kehr
- The Night of the Shooting Stars
The Night of the Shooting Stars For all of the American cinema's infatuation with "childlike innocence" in the late 70s, this 1982 film is the only one of its era I know that captures a child's point of view both convincingly and movingly. Directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have brought a sense of premorality both to the composition of the images and the shape of the narrative: the cosmic and the trivial have equal importance in the balanced frames, and no one episode is stressed at the dramatic expense of another. The time is 1944, and the residents of the small Italian town of San Martino are escaping from the German occupying forces; among them is a little girl who will grow up to tell the story to her son—and us. —Dave Kehr
The Mass Is Over Writer-director-actor Nanni Moretti is one of the brightest stars in contemporary Italian comedy, and, in the opinion of many European critics, the most interesting Italian director to have come along in years. This 1985 feature is less formally and thematically audacious than his subsequent Palombella Rossa, about the political and ideological soul-searching of an Italian communist water-polo player, but it still gives one some idea of what makes Moretti distinctive: here he's a former 60s radical converted to the priesthood who bumbles his way through well-intentioned encounters with parishioners that usually end in mutual incomprehension.—Jonathan Rosenbaum v