Showing posts with label neorealism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label neorealism. Show all posts

11 February 2024

Giuseppe De Santis - film director

Former Resistance fighter famous for neorealist classic Bitter Rice

Giuseppe De Santis used his films to highlight social problems in postwar Italy
Giuseppe De Santis used his films to highlight
social problems in postwar Italy
The writer and film director Giuseppe De Santis, who is best remembered for the 1949 neorealist film Bitter Rice - screened as Riso Amaro for Italian audiences - was born on this day in 1917 in Fondi, a small city in Lazio about 130km (81 miles) south of Rome.

De Santis is sometimes described as an idealist of the neorealism genre, which flourished in the years immediately after World War Two, yet it can also be argued that he moved away from the documentary style that characterised some of neorealism’s early output towards films with more traditional storylines.

Bitter Rice, for example, while highlighting the harsh working conditions in the rice fields around Vercelli in the Po Valley and the exploitation of labourers by wealthy landowners, is also a tale of plotting, jealousy and treachery among thieves.

Nonetheless, De Santis, a staunch opponent of Mussolini and Fascism, an Italian Communist Party member who fought against the Germans with the Italian Resistance, inevitably underpinned his work with a strong social message.

The son of a surveyor, De Santis wrote stories from an early age, drawing on the day-to-day lives of the people around him in Fondi and the surrounding countryside. He enrolled to study literature and philosophy at university in Rome, making friends among the city’s young intellectuals, meeting poets, writers and artists who shared his vision. The Osteria Fratelli Menghi in Via Flaminia was a popular hang-out.

Luchino Visconti, with whom De Santis worked on Ossessione
Luchino Visconti, with whom De
Santis worked on Ossessione
He identified cinema as the art form in which he would most like to work and began to attend Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a cinema school established under Mussolini - who at one time banned all foreign films from Italian cinemas - to encourage the development of a thriving Italian film industry.

Despite their opposition to Fascism, De Santis and other anti-Fascists in the industry did not turn down the chance to take advantage of the facilities available at the CSC. At the same time, aware that a group of talented young directors could achieve his aims for the industry, Mussolini turned a blind eye to their political views, which some of the articles De Santis and others - including fellow future directors Antonio Pietrangeli, Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni - wrote for the fortnightly Cinema magazine did not disguise.

While working for Cinema magazine, De Santis met the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, under whose influence he became proponent of early neorealist filmmakers such as Visconti, who sought to make films that mirrored the reality of life for working-class Italians in the tough years of post-war rebuilding, shooting on location and giving parts to ordinary people with no acting experience.

De Santis, in fact, worked with Visconti on scripting the latter’s 1943 film Ossessione, a crime drama based loosely on the James M Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which the Fascists initially banned as morally corrupting.

His own directing debut came in 1947 with Caccia Tragica (Tragic Hunt), the first of three films protesting about conditions for working people that culminated in Riso Amaro, which starred the already-established Vittorio Gassman and the American actress Doris Dowling in the headline roles, with former footballer and journalist Raf Vallone making his debut.

It is remembered largely for the performance of Silvana Mangano, a voluptuous 19-year-old in her first credited part, who conveyed a combination of physical strength and earthy beauty that audiences and critics found entirely convincing in the role of a peasant worker accustomed to hours of slog in the rice fields, but still with the energy to dance the night away to her beloved boogie-woogie music.  Mangano ultimately married the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis.

De Santis's Bitter Rice turned the previously  unknown actress Silvana Mangano into a star
De Santis's Bitter Rice turned the previously 
unknown actress Silvana Mangano into a star
The film, which premiered at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival and was a finalist for the Palme d'Or, was a box office success in Italy and the United States. The film was nominated for Best Story in the 1950 Academy Awards.

De Santis made another important neorealist film three years later entitled Roma, ora 11 (Rome, 11 o’clock), a dramatic reconstruction of a real-life event in the Italian capital the previous year when a staircase collapsed under the weight of women queuing for job interviews, causing one death and multiple injuries.

In 1959 he won a Golden Globe with La strada lunga un anno (The Road a Year Long), which gained him another Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

However, none of his subsequent work really had the same impact as Riso Amaro, which has been included on several subsequent lists of the best films in Italian cinema history.

De Santis directed his last feature film in 1972. He returned to the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in the 1980s and ‘90s, this time in the role of lecturer. In 1995 he received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Film Festival and came out of retirement to direct, jointly with Bruno Bigon, a documentary called Oggi è un altro giorno (Today is Another Day) - Milano 1945-1995, a documentary about the Resistance in Milan.  

He died in Rome in 1997 at the age of 80, suffering a heart attack. A day of mourning was declared in Italy. His widow, Gordana Miletic, joined friends in establishing the Giuseppe De Santis Foundation, which gives an annual award in his memory to an emerging young film-maker. 

The Castello Baronale, parts of which date back to the 12th century, stands proudly over Fondi
The Castello Baronale, parts of which date back
to the 12th century, stands proudly over Fondi
Travel tip:

Situated on the Via Appia, the former Roman road that was once the main route from Rome to much of southern Italy, the city of Fondi rarely features on tourist itineraries, yet travel guides often include the word charming, even enchanting, in their description. Situated on a small plain - il Piano di Fondi - between the Ausoni and Aurunci mountain ranges and the Tyrrhenian Sea, it was founded by the ancient Romans, it became an important commercial centre in mediaeval times, when the powerful Caetani family built the impressive Castello Baronale, which still dominates the skyline. Subsequently the home of the literary court of Giulia Gonzaga, in more recent times it has housed a museum. The Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta,a beautiful Gothic-style church, is another attraction. The plain also benefits from a fine stretch of natural beach and Fondi has a tradition of excellent seafood.

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An arch over the original Via Flaminia in Umbria
An arch over the original
Via Flaminia in Umbria
Travel tip:

The Osteria Fratelli Menghi, the historic tavern in Rome where De Santis would hang out with painters, actors, musicians and writers, was located in Via Flaminia on the site today occupied by the Caffè dei Pittori. The osteria was just 300m on foot from Piazza del Popolo, one of the major squares in the heart of Rome, yet there is much more to the Via Flaminia than simply a street in central Rome. It follows the route of the ancient Roman Via Flaminia, which was built by Gaius Flaminius in around 220 BC, going due north to cross the Tiber by way of the Ponte Milvio and continuing via a course over the Apennine Mountains to Ariminum (Rimini) on the coast of the Adriatic, a distance by the more recent of two routes of 328km (204 miles). The modern route from Rimini to Rome still follows closely the path of the original Roman road, a distance of 341km (), tracking the Adriatic coast to Fano, turning inland to pass close to Urbino, Perugia and Assisi and onwards towards the capital.

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More reading:

Luchino Visconti - the aristocrat of Italian film

The enigmatic ‘last great’ of Italian cinema

The director known as the ‘father of neorealism’

Also on this day:

1791: The birth of architect Louis Visconti

1881: The birth of painter Carlo Carrà

1929: The Lateran Treaty gives independence to The Vatican

1948: The birth of footballer Carlo Sartori

1995: The birth of singer Gianluca Ginoble

(Picture credits: Via Flaminia by Imcarthur via Wikimedia Commons)


15 November 2021

Enzo Staiola - actor

Child star of neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves

Director Vittorio De Sica was struck by Enzo Staiola's naturally expressive eyes
Director Vittorio De Sica was struck by
Enzo Staiola's naturally expressive eyes
Enzo Staiola, who found international fame as an eight-year-old boy as one of the stars of the Oscar-winning neorealist drama Bicycle Thieves, was born on this day in 1939 in Rome.

Staiola’s character in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film was Bruno Ricci, the eldest child in a working class Roman family desperately trying to survive in the hard economic climate that followed the end of the Second World War.

The central character in the film is Bruno’s father, Antonio, who lands a job posting advertising bills around the city but is required to have a bicycle to transport himself, his ladder and bucket to wherever his services are required.

Antonio buys a bicycle after pawning some of the family’s few possessions of value only to have it stolen on his first day at work. The remainder of the film follows Antonio and Bruno as they try to find the bicycle.

The essence of the neorealist genre was that directors achieved authenticity by eschewing the use of professional actors in favour of ordinary people who lived in the city or neighbourhood where the action was set. 

De Sica chose Lamberto Maggiorani, a steel factory worker, to play the part of Antonio, turning down the chance to employ established Hollywood star Cary Grant.

Staiola with his Bicycle Thieves co-star Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker who played his father
Staiola with his Bicycle Thieves co-star Lamberto
Maggiorani, a factory worker who played his father
He picked Staiola as his Bruno almost by chance, after filming had already started. He recalled speaking to Maggiorani about what he wanted in the next scene when a crowd gathered round in the street where they were shooting. He noticed there was a young boy with particularly expressive eyes. It was Enzo. 

Unable to break off filming, De Sica dispatched an assistant to find out where the boy lived. In interviews years later, Staiola remembered being followed by a car as he walked home from school and, fearing he was about to be kidnapped, running as fast as he could until he reached the building, in Via Capo d’Africa, not far from the Colosseum, where his family lived.

The following day, De Sica decided to stage impromptu auditions in front of the building in the hope that Enzo would be curious enough to want to know what was going on.  Enzo did not disappoint and as he emerged from the building De Sica walked across to him, telling his crew ‘He’s the one.’

Staiola and another young hopeful took part in screen tests in front of De Sica, taking turns to act out the same scenes, but the director’s mind was made up. Staiola remembered being offered the part but being envious when the unsuccessful candidate was given a new bicycle as consolation for missing out.

Vittorio De Sica was a master of the neorealism genre
Vittorio De Sica was a master
of the neorealism genre
Although Bicycle Thieves was given a decidedly lukewarm reception when it was released in Italy, where critics and audiences craved escapism rather than reminders of life’s daily struggles, in time it came to be regarded as a masterpiece was was cited by numerous film-makers as one of their biggest influences.

Released in the United States as The Bicycle Thief, the movie was named best foreign language film at the 22nd Academy Awards in 1950, winning a BAFTA - awarded by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts - as overall best film in the same year. 

Despite the success of Bicycle Thieves, Staiola’s acting career did not sustain him into adulthood. He appeared in another 12 films as a child, including, in 1954, a small part in The Barefoot Contessa, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner, but soon afterwards the parts began to dry up.

Thereafter, although he accepted cameo roles in two films as an adult, he lived a relatively anonymous life, working for many years in the offices of Rome’s catasto - land registry.

Now 81, he still lives in the Garbatella neighbourhood of Rome, where his family had its roots.

Garbatella is regarded as a charming district with a village feel within the city
Garbatella is regarded as a charming district
with a village feel within the city
Travel tip:

Many of the houses in the Garbatella district of Rome - which adjoins the Testaccio and San Saba neighbourhoods to the south of the city - were created originally with the intention of housing workers on a proposed canal linking central Rome with the port of Ostia. In the event, the project never happened and the area was instead populated by families displaced when Mussolini flattened parts of the city to build the Via della Conciliazione, which leads to St Peter’s Square, and the Via dei Fori Imperiali, linking Piazza Venezia with the Colosseum. Nowadays, it is regarded as a charming neighbourhood characterised by streets lined with climbing bougainvillea and small squares with a village feel.

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Rome's Colosseum is very close to Via Capo d'Africa, where Staiola lived as a boy
Rome's Colosseum is very close to Via Capo
d'Africa, where Staiola lived as a boy
Travel tip:

Via Capo d’Africa, where Staiola lived when he was given the part in Bicycle Thieves, is literally opposite the Colosseum, one of Rome’s most famous monuments. Built of travertine, tuff, and brick-faced concrete, the Colosseum was the largest of all the Roman amphitheatres. Construction began under Vespasian in 72AD and was completed by his son, Titus, in 80 with further modifications were made during the reign of Titus’s younger brother, Domitian (81–96), the three emperors who made up the Flavian dynasty. It is estimated the amphitheatre could hold up to 80,000 spectators.  It is thought that, having been known first as the Flavian Amphitheatre, it became known colloquially as the Colosseum because of its proximity to a colossal statue of Nero.

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Also on this day:

1848: The murder of government minister Pellegrino Rossi

1905: The birth of conductor Annunzio Mantovani

1922: The birth of film director Francesco Rosi

1940: The birth of fashion designer Roberto Cavalli