The Melancholy of Sex
Love destroys your will. And where there is no will, there can be no guilt.
– Giancarlo Giannini, La Grande Bourgeoise*
*Unless a film is better known internationally by its English or French title, the original Italian titles have been used throughout. English translations are given where relevant.
Let us start with a puzzle. Mauro Bolognini was a leading force in Italian cinema, opera and theatre for 35 years. Critically and commercially successful, his films featured international stars (Marcello Mastroianni and Gina Lollobrigida, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve, Laurence Harvey and Ingrid Thulin) and won top prizes at the Cannes, San Sebastian and Locarno festivals. In the ’60s and ’70s, his reputation spread beyond Italy – building up a cult and arthouse following in Europe and Latin America (but not, curiously enough, in the English-speaking world). Today, barely five years since his death, both Bolognini and his films are largely forgotten.
Before rising passionately and polemically to his defence, it may be worth a moment to stop and ponder why this is so. Looking at those Italian directors whose fame endures, one tends to see artists with a consistent and instantly identifiable style. The icy high-fashion melancholy of Michelangelo Antonioni; the glossy designer Marxism of Bernardo Bertolucci; the lushly operatic decadence of Luchino Visconti; the in-your-face carnival freak show of Federico Fellini. The most casual film buff can spot their work a mile away; the most erudite critic can hear one of their names and know, more or less, what to expect.
Bolognini, in contrast, produced an oeuvre that defies description and confounds expectation. It is unjust to say, as Mira Liehm does, that he lacked a style. (Writing of Bolognini’s flair for filming literary works, Liehm insists: “He had no ambition to impose his own vision or his own personality upon the works he adapted. He can best be described as an understanding, intelligent illustrator.” (1))
In purely stylistic terms, there are scenes in Bolognini’s work that rival any of the illustrious names mentioned above. His orgy in a Sicilian villa in Bell’Antonio exudes a chic anomie that Antonioni’s most jaded partygoers might envy. His radical anti-Fascist mamma, swathing her children in red in Libera, amore mio, outdoes Bertolucci in her vision of Marxism as fashion statement. His monochrome Venice in Agostino throbs with all the decadent hothouse passions of Visconti’s more famous film. His masked ball in a madhouse in Per le antiche scale (Down the Ancient Stair) is as eye-popping as anything Fellini might dream up.
Nor is it fair to suspect, as some observers might, that Bolognini was simply a highly polished imitator of other men’s work. In 1955, his first major film Gli innamorati (Wild Love) had as its central set piece a night in a working-class Roman dance hall. The frantic and faintly menacing boogie-woogie of the young couples seems like a Neo-Realist rehearsal for a more stylised and self-consciously “poetic” scene in Visconti’s Le notti bianche (White Nights) made two years later. When a diva of the fotoromanzi (a uniquely Italian brand of photographed comic strips or “photo-novels”) drops by in search of a man, the orgiastic dancing that hails her arrival looks forward to a far more glamorised visit by Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960). While neither film is a conscious hommage to Bolognini, scenes like these demonstrate his place at the forefront of Italian film style. In some cases, to put it crudely, he got there first.
Nor is it true, as other critics maintain, that Bolognini is a triumph of style over content. “Best known for his passionate interest in the Italian social scene,” writes Jerry Vermilye, “Bolognini has acquired a reputation as a stylist whose films occasionally offer more surface glitter than substance.” (2) Ironically, the film under scrutiny here is the 1961 melodrama La Viaccia (The Love Makers). A turn-of-the-century tale of a naïve country boy (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his obsessive passion for a heartless prostitute (Claudia Cardinale), it shows an incisive social criticism and a wrenching emotional impact that make nonsense of Vermilye’s claim.
Viewed lucidly and without prejudice, La Viaccia (like any one of a dozen Bolognini films) is enough to establish its director as a poet of sexual and romantic disenchantment. With the exception of Kenji Mizoguchi and Max Ophuls, perhaps no other filmmaker has captured so fully that quality which the Spanish writer Ramon del Valle-Inclan called “the melancholy of sex, seed of the great human sadness.” (3) Indeed, a steady diet of Bolognini’s films may drive the viewer to a state of romantic despair commensurate with the director’s own troubled sexual life.
Tellingly, the world of Mauro Bolognini is one of powerful and passionate women – monstres sacres who thrive at the expense of weak and malleable men. The typical Bolognini heroine lives by violating all the most sacred taboos of Italy’s conservative Roman Catholic society. Most frequently, she is a prostitute (Cardinale in La Viaccia, Ottavia Piccolo in Bubu or Isabelle Huppert in La vera storia della signora dalle camellie [Lady of the Camellias]). At other times, she is a restless and unhappy older woman who consoles herself through a secret and “illicit” liaison with a much younger man (Gina Lollobrigida in Un bellissimo novembre or Laura Antonelli in La Venexiana). In more extreme cases, she manipulates a man to commit murder for her sake (Catherine Deneuve in La Grande Bourgeoise) or turns murderess herself in a spree of blood-soaked homicidal dementia (Shelley Winters in Gran Bollito).
This emphasis on female transgression has left Bolognini open to charges of misogyny, of a stereotypically homosexual fear of women. (Although he never came out publicly, Bolognini’s sexuality was very much an “open secret”.) The critic Molly Haskell has attacked homosexual writers and directors for seeing in women “the repository of certain repellent qualities which he would like to disavow.” (4) She claims that Italian filmmakers “even at their most enlightened usually think of women in terms of the awesome and all-powerful mother.” (5) Valid up to point, these criticisms hinge on the rather prissy notion that any transgressive behaviour by a woman must be something wholly negative. Most often, the outrageous conduct of Bolognini’s women is a necessary “survival mechanism” in a society that is itself rotten to the core.
More immediately, Bolognini’s focus on female promiscuity and prostitution (which functions even as a comic background in his 1959 farce Arrangiatevi) is not simply the self-indulgence of a salacious voyeur. It may also mark a homosexual filmmaker’s quest for any form of sexual representation beyond the strict Roman Catholic norms laid down by Italian censorship. While officially frowned upon, prostitution has historically enjoyed a quasi-normalised “protected” status within Italian society. (Arrangiatevi, in fact, deals with the impact of the 1958 Merlin Law that put an end to legal, state-sanctioned brothels.) For decades, it was a common joke that the typical middle-class Italian male had “one foot in the church and another in a brothel” (6). Prostitutes function throughout Bolognini’s work as “acceptable” metaphors for any person who dares to break Italy’s rigidly conservative sexual norms.
In the slightly melodramatic words of Camille Paglia, “Prostitution is not just a service industry, mopping up the overflow of male demand, which always exceeds female supply. Prostitution testifies to the amoral power struggle of sex, which religion has never been able to stop.” (7) It is precisely this “power struggle” – in all its lurid and sensual splendour – that is Mauro Bolognini’s abiding theme. Men, it must be said, are not treated any less brutally in his oeuvre than are women.
In his less inspiring incarnations, a Bolognini male is no more than a handy doormat on which some formidable woman wipes her feet. (Bruno Cirino as a hapless husband swept up in his wife’s radical politics in Libera, amore mio, or Julian Sands as a passive witness to his wife’s torrid S&M amours in La villa del venerdi). In other cases, he is a heartless but irresistible young stud who exploits a woman economically while remaining largely if not wholly dependent on her (Jean-Claude Brialy and Laurent Terzieff in La notte brava or Antonio Falsi as Bubu). Even in those rare Bolognini films in which a man assumes a dominant social role – notably the two starring Marcello Mastroianni – his dominance is revealed, sooner or later, as a tragic and hollow farce. In Bell’Antonio, the handsome Sicilian seducer turns out to be impotent; in Down the Ancient Stair, the womanising psychiatric doctor turns out to be mad.
As they seduce us and lure us in, the films of Mauro Bolognini grant us entry to a strange and contradictory world. On the one hand, a world of exquisite visual surfaces, of flawless recreations of period and place that have led him to be dubbed “the most Proustian of Italian directors” (8). On the other hand, a world of raw passions in which doomed lovers push one another to extremes of emotional and physical cruelty. (As Cardinale remarks candidly in La Viaccia, “At times, I need someone to show me how vile I am.”) Imagine if you can, a film by James Ivory as remade by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Or vice versa. Or, if that puts too much of a strain on the imagination, just try to see one of the films.
Until I was 18, I made love only in my dreams.
– Marcello Mastroianni, Bell’Antonio
It is a rare artist who does not develop as part of a generation; Bolognini’s generation was perhaps more traumatic than most. He was born in the Tuscan city of Pistoia in 1922, the year of Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome and the subsequent seizure of power by the Fascist Party. Mussolini would reign more or less unchallenged until 1943 – when Il Duce and every other Italian institution went up in the flames of World War II. Inevitably, Bolognini would spend his first two decades in the grisly day-to-day reality of a Fascist regime. His cinema, his politics and his sexuality would all be indelibly marked by a young idealist’s opposition to it.
The generation of which Bolognini was part would come to artistic and cultural prominence in the heady climate of Italy’s post-World War II economic boom. “Around 1960,” wrote Raymond Durgnat, “the ‘economic miracle’ and a governmental ‘opening to the left’ presented [the Italian cinema] with a new battery of themes, and it could call on the talents of the ‘school of Visconti,’ a bunch of highly cultivated young Marxists.” (9) Among this group Durgnat would number Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Giusppe Patroni Griffi, Francesco Rosi, Ermanno Olmi and Lina Wertmuller. While it may not be strictly accurate to call all of them Marxists, each of these directors was, broadly speaking, of the Left. Many of them, additionally, were homosexual – giving them one more interest in common with Luchino Visconti, their alleged spiritual leader.
First, however, Bolognini had to grow up as best he could under the less-than-benign dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. Cinema, of course, was central to the Fascist regime. In 1937, Il Duce personally inaugurated Rome’s massive Cinecitta studios. The date, 21 April, was allegedly the anniversary of the founding of ancient Rome. More important for a budding director, 1934 saw the founding of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the school at which most of Italy’s future filmmakers would train. Lively and polemical articles on all aspects of cinema were published in Bianco e Nero, a magazine edited from 1938 onwards by Vittorio Mussolini, the Duce’s son.
Amid this climate of “repressive tolerance” (10) the cinema enjoyed, if not total freedom, at least a measure of autonomy denied to most aspects of Italian life. Yet as the reality of World War II began to take hold, a group of young aesthetes opposed to the Fascist regime evolved a school of cinema that would leave an indelible mark on Bolognini’s style.
Filmmakers of the “Calligraphic” school – notably Mario Soldati in Piccolo mondo antico (1940) and Malombra (1942) or Renato Castellani in Un colpo di pistola (1942) and Zaza (1943) – sought refuge from the horrors of Fascism and war in meticulously mounted film versions of 19th century classics. With their emphasis on “meticulously reconstructed décor” and “beautiful” photography” (11) the Calligraphic films have been widely rejected, as Bolognini’s have been, as pretty but rather vacuous exercises in Art for Art’s Sake. Yet an actual viewing of these films tells a different story.
As Marcia Landy points out so perceptively, the Calligraphic directors show “a preoccupation with form through the creation of a highly patterned, claustrophobic and destructive world where violence and aggression are commonplace. The central characters in the films were often somnambulist, depraved noblemen, avaricious priests, or mad and suicidal women.” (12) Such a description might apply just as aptly to most films by Bolognini. As a Belle Epoque chanteuse in love with a married man in Zaza or a haunted and deranged aristocrat in Malombra, the ’40s star Isa Miranda (in many ways, Mussolini’s answer to Greta Garbo) is a spiritual mother to many of Bolognini’s women.
Bolognini did not initially plan a career in cinema, enrolling instead at the School of Architecture in Florence. Yet as World War II ended, Fascism collapsed and Neo-Realism brought filmmaking out onto the streets of a ruined nation, he switched to a course in set design at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome. As an impoverished student, he shared a flat just off the Piazza di Spagna with two former schoolmates from Florence. One was the stage and film director Franco Zeffirelli. The other was the set and costume designer Piero Tosi, who went on to design most of Bolognini’s films. “Our Florentine group shared everything we had,” Zeffirelli remembers. “One would bring pasta, another salad, another wine or bread; it was always possible to eat.” (13)
After the Centro Sperimentale, Bolognini worked as an assistant to a leading Neo-Realist director, Luigi Zampa, on Anni difficili (1948), Campane a martello (1949) and Processo della citta (1952). “Zampa taught me so much,” he recalled. “At the same time, he terrified me because I was extremely shy while he had a forceful and extroverted nature. I kept thinking to myself ‘I’ll never be able to do this job! I’ll never have the strength that he has!’ Every time he called me, I used to blush and start to shake for no reason.” (14) Bolognini also spent a year in France, assisting Jean Delannoy on La Minute de vérité (1952) and Yves Allegret on Nez de cuir (1952).
Returning to Italy, he found the cinema a political and economic minefield. Neo-Realism was dead, “killed partly by audiences’ dislike of its drabness, partly by government dislike of its picture of an Italy where people were poor and it rained all the time.” (15) In 1948, a right-wing Christian Democrat government enacted the Andreotti Law, which denied state subsidy to any film that painted a negative (i.e. realistic) picture of the new Italy. Furthermore, the state now had the power to deny an export license to any film it might deem slanderous to the nation. The new style was popularly known as “Pink Neo-Realism” – which used vaguely realistic settings to display the latest sex symbol and her buxom charms (e.g. Silvana Mangano in Giuseppe de Santis’ Riso amaro [Bitter Rice, 1948]).
It took the notorious “Red Count” Luchino Visconti to break the deadlock. His 1954 melodrama Senso was a lushly operatic costume drama, which combined the searing emotional impact of Neo-Realism with the exquisite pictorial sense of the Calligraphic school. Although it was meticulously set in the 19th century, its story of an Italian noblewoman betraying both her principles and her country for an Austrian officer was rich in resonance for Italians, who had endured both Nazi and Allied occupation within the past decade.
Blending lavish period splendour, tortured sexuality and left-wing politics in a new and revolutionary way, Senso defined the “school of Visconti” – a style perhaps best described as “operatic Marxism”. It was in this style that Bolognini and others would do their finest work.
Love exists in every being, in every sex.
– Barbara Bouchet, Down the Ancient Stair
Mauro Bolognini’s debut as a director was modest enough. Ci troviamo in galleria (Let’s Meet in the Gallery, 1953) and La vena d’oro (The Vein of Gold, 1955) are light romantic comedies with music, notable for two early roles by a young actress named Sophia Loren. A few years later, she would marry Carlo Ponti, one of Italy’s most powerful producers, and become – not quite coincidentally, perhaps – Italy’s most internationally famous star. Around this time, Bolognini also directed some episodes of a costume adventure series for TV. A few of these were spliced together and released as a film in cinemas – I cavalieri della regina (The Queen’s Musketeers, 1954) – although Bolognini never acknowledged it as his own work.
His first major film, Gli innamorati (1955) is essentially a work of “Pink Neo-Realism”, albeit of a highly superior kind. (It won that year’s Nastro d’Argento for best screenplay.) Set in the slums of the Trastevere district in Rome, it centres on a pulchritudinous working-class heroine (Antonella Lualdi) and her travails with various men. Her men, however, are an unusually complex and conflicted bunch. Her ever-watchful brother (Sergio Raimondi) is forced to earn a living via the “unmanly” job of posing for fotoromanzi – Orientalist fantasy akin to Fellini’s Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1953). Her fiancé (Nino Manfredi) is a gentle and unassuming hairdresser, whose interest in girls is (we suspect) more aesthetic than erotic. Her true love (Franco Interlenghi) is a no-good but sexy layabout, who frequents the port of Ostia for nefarious unnamed deeds.
In the end, Lualdi chooses the bad boy – as Bolognini heroines inevitably do. The character that Interlenghi plays is a precursor of the ragazzi di vita, wild boys of the Roman slums who were beginning to populate the novels and stories of Pier Paolo Pasolini (minus, of course, their explicit bisexuality). The most resonant figure in Gli innamorati is a voluptuous and slightly older woman (Cosetta Greco) unhappily married to a much older man. Sexually frustrated to the point of despair, she consorts provocatively with the boys of the street, and has a brief fling with Interlenghi before he settles down with his girl. A possible alter ego for Bolognini himself, such a woman will recur throughout his films.
Two other early films fall under the heading of commedia all’italiana. A popular genre throughout the ’50s and ’60s, such films go beyond mere laughter to offer a bitingly satirical view of Italy at its most insane. Peter Bondanella writes: “Perhaps no other nation’s popular culture so consistently dared to display its worst features and to subject them to such hearty laughter.” (16) The 1956 comedy Guardia, guardia scelta, brigadiere e maresciallo (Guard, Special Guard, Brigadier and Marshal) – incidentally, Italy’s very first wide-screen film – is a satire on the country’s stifling yet inefficient bureaucracy and the often decent men who are forced to work within it. Its heroes, four Roman traffic cops, are touching in their frustrations and foibles. Most fondly remembered is Alberto Sordi, struggling to better himself in a doomed effort to learn French.
Italy’s schizoid sexual mores as a Roman Catholic nation are the butt of humour in Arrangiatevi. (The title, virtually untranslatable, refers to the Italian art of arrangiarsi – working out one’s problems in a pragmatic if not strictly legal way.) A working-class Roman family, headed by Toto – a legendary clown who was Italy’s answer to Charlie Chaplin – can solve their housing problems only by moving into a former brothel, one that has been recently closed under the 1958 Merlin Law. Here, albeit in comic form, is a foretaste of Bolognini’s career-long exploration of prostitution as the “forbidden” undercurrent of Italian sexual life. Here also is an early sign of his flair for telling a story through décor. Throughout the film, the shabbily genteel trappings of lower-class family life do battle with the riotous Art Nouveau vulgarity of the whorehouse.
In the late ’50s, Bolognini became close friends with the young writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, and invited him to script a number of films. Although they had interests in common, artistically the two men could not have been more different: Bolognini a fastidious aesthete, Pasolini a prophet of raw realism and shock. (Not least, Pasolini was open about his homosexuality in a way the more reticent Bolognini could never be.) Maybe for that reason, each man sparked a creative explosion in the other. Of all the distinguished writers that Bolognini worked with, Pasolini was perhaps “the only one…to suggest to him in his script the degree of melancholy, the heartbreak resulting from the absence of love.” (17)
Their first joint effort was Marisa la civetta (Marisa the Flirt, 1957), a somewhat misguided attempt at a serious vehicle for Marisa Allasio, a sex symbol known as “the Italian Jayne Mansfield” (18). Its disastrous outcome is memorably expressed by the producer Carlo Ponti, who wandered into the screening room by mistake. “All I saw was a woman walking through a train station. And she walked, and she walked. My God, what a boring piece of junk!” (19) More of a success was Giovani mariti (Young Husbands, 1958), a study of sexual and social frustration in a provincial town. But it would take another year for Bolognini’s partnership with Pasolini to bear its full artistic fruit.
Made in 1959, La notte brava (The Big Night) is a loose adaptation of Pasolini’s 1955 novel Ragazzi di vita (Children of Life). Also known in English as On Any Street and Bad Girls Don’t Cry, the film – as its original title suggests – tells of one very busy night in the lives of two small-time Roman hustlers (Jean-Claude Brialy and Laurent Terzieff). Brawling, pimping, stealing and, in one uniquely daring sequence, an all-male orgy. Such daring had only become possible in 1958, when a new left-leaning government loosened the grip of the Andreotti Law, allowing films to tackle more mature and provocative themes. Production was booming, and Rome had become known as “Hollywood on the Tiber”. Young filmmakers had money and resources to experiment; few experiments were bolder than La notte brava.
The impact of this film is staggering and immediate, right from its first scene where two hookers (Rosa Schiaffino and Elsa Martinelli) come to blows beside an autostrada. Two starlets often relegated to decorative roles in tatty international epics, the women here come across with all the brio of Anna Magnani in full cry. The infamous orgy, to which the boys are lured by a well-heeled thug (Tomas Milian), is perhaps the most explicitly homoerotic sequence in any commercial movie up to that point. Lounging about bare-chested in an isolated villa, boys exchange smouldering glances – as Milian dangles a chicken leg suggestively over Terzieff’s hungry mouth.
A proletarian cousin to Fellini’s more upmarket La dolce vita, La notte brava was a vastly influential film – even though it is rarely seen today. One sequence in particular, where Brialy takes his dream girl (Antonella Lualdi) to a swank restaurant and pays it to stay open just for them, was copied almost verbatim by Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The minor character of Bella Bella (played here by Franco Interlenghi) provided the basis for Pasolini’s 1961 debut as a director, Accattone.
Yet La notte brava also showed the first signs of a creative split between Bolognini and Pasolini. Predictably, the radical Pasolini was none too pleased by the casting of glamorous French actors as impoverished denizens of the Roman borgata. As Bolognini recalled: “He didn’t agree at all with using professionals, foreigners to boot. When he made Accattone he cast Franco Citti because, as far as he was concerned, a person from the slums could only ever be played by a person from the slums.” (20) But in 1960, the two men collaborated on another film in a similar vein, Una giornata balorda (A Foolish Day) – hailed by Paul Morrissey as the inspiration for his 1968 underground classic Flesh, starring Joe Dallesandro.
Pasolini also helped to script Bell’Antonio (1960), a film that made Bolognini world-famous and won the Golden Leopard at Locarno. Based on a novel by Vitaliano Brancati, the film tells of an aristocratic young Sicilian (Marcello Mastroianni) who can function sexually with prostitutes but is impotent with any woman he loves. It is telling that Mastroianni was not originally cast in the role (first choice was the more sexually ambivalent Alain Delon) but its subversion of his roué Latin Lover persona only makes his dilemma that much more shocking. Joining him in her first leading role was Claudia Cardinale as his young wife; her progress from blushing bride to avenging angel is a sight to chill the blood.
Although it is updated from the novel’s Fascist-era setting to the present day, Bell’Antonio is Bolognini’s first film in the “Marxist operatic” style of Visconti – intricately blending a man’s troubled sexuality with history and politics. Peter Bondanella writes: “Brancati’s novel linked gallismo, or the Don Giovanni complex characteristic of Southern Italian males, to a Fascist mentality, and Bolognini is faithful to the spirit of his source.” (21) The hero’s father, once a Fascist federale, drops dead in a brothel trying to prove that his son’s malady is not genetic.
A brothel is also the setting for La Viaccia, an adaptation of Mario Pratesi’s turn-of-the-century novel L’erredita (The Inheritance). In Florence in 1885, a hapless country lad (Jean-Paul Belmondo) falls for a hard-bitten whore (Claudia Cardinale). Abandoning his family and their traditional rural life, he goes to work as a bouncer in the brothel – making love to his girl only during her rare breaks between clients. Fatally wounded in a knife fight at a Carnival ball, he crawls back to the home from which he is now an outcast. He dies just before he can knock on the door.
Having planned to shoot La Viaccia in colour, Bolognini was forced by a drastically reduced budget to switch to black-and-white. For once, a lack of resources works to a film’s advantage. Every frame of La Viaccia captures the look of “erotic” postcards from the European fin de siecle. Misty shots of a rain-washed Piazza del Duomo seem to have been sculpted entirely out of silver – while Debussy’s mournful Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra conjures up a fragile autumnal mood. In the obsessive but doomed passion uniting Belmondo and Cardinale, La Viaccia bears out Valle-Inclan’s notion that “supreme delight exists only after cruel betrayals.” It evokes, as few films do, “the glorious exaltation of the flesh.” (22)
If Bell’Antonio and La Viaccia were huge international hits, the three literary dramas that followed have fared less well. Adapted in 1962 from an Italo Svevo novel, Senilita (As a Man Grows Older) won the Best Director prize at San Sebastian but failed to impress worldwide. Set in a wintry Trieste, its glum story of an aging intellectual (Anthony Franciosa) smitten with a free-loving girl (Claudia Cardinale – restyled for the 1920s in Louise Brooks mode) “suffered from an over-aestheticized treatment, Bolognini’s trademark and also his greatest weakness.” (23)
Agostino (1962), based on a novella by Alberto Moravia, was barely released at all. Although it is exquisitely directed and shot, this story – a boy stays in a plush Venice hotel with his sexy mother (Ingrid Thulin) and falls in with a band of urchins who roam the Lido under the semi-erotic tutelage of an older man – has overtones of incest and paedophilia that are disturbing enough today, never mind in 1962. La corruzione (Corruption, 1963) was a second Moravia story. A cynical businessman (Alain Cuny) gets his mistress (Rosanna Schiaffino) to seduce his son (Jacques Perrin) in order to lure him away from the priesthood and into commerce. Its relative failure brought the first phase of Bolognini’s career to a close.
His most striking and individual work was still to come.
I never regret a thing. I’ve always had a sweet tooth for forbidden fruits and sharpened senses.
– Fabio Testi, The Inheritance
As Bolognini’s career languished in the mid ’60s, hard financial necessity forced him to direct episodes for numerous films a sketches. Seizing any chance to employ a clutch of box-office stars on a low budget, Italian producers churned out around 50 such films in the ’60s – in a mood that “clearly reflects the domination of economic motives over artistic ones.” (24) Some of them can be politely described as “vanity projects”, notably La mia signora (My Lady, 1964) and Le streghe (The Witches, 1966), two valentines from movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis to his wife, Silvana Mangano. Even more crass was I tre volti (Three Faces of Woman, 1965), a foredoomed effort to make a film star out of the former Empress Soraya of Iran. (Allegedly, the result did not find favour with the Peacock Throne, and all extant copies have mysteriously vanished.) In Le fate (The Queens, 1967), Bolognini helped successfully to make an icon out of a busty American starlet, Raquel Welch.
Wretched as many of these films were, they did offer bolder directors a chance to experiment. “Luciana”, an episode Bolognini made for La mia signora, is a mini-masterpiece – a wistful brief encounter between two unhappily married strangers (Mangano and Alberto Sordi) in a Rome airport. Better still is “La balena bianca” (The White Whale), a lurid bit of black humour in La donna e una cosa meravigliosa (Woman Is a Wonderful Thing, 1964). A circus dwarf named Eros tries frantically to murder his wife – a mountainous fat lady who gets fired out of a cannon to the tune of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. All his efforts are vain; this “white whale”, like most of Bolognini’s women, is indestructible and all-powerful. Sparking a near-riot at the Venice Film Festival, this episode remains the only one Bolognini himself ever liked.
Much of the ’60s, meanwhile, foundered amid unrealised projects. One that did get made, La Madamigella di Maupin (Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1966) was a lavish Technicolor romp based on Theophile Gautier’s raunchy novel, about a cross-dressing swordswoman (Catherine Spaak) who blithely seduces lovers of both sexes. Virtually unseen today, the film does have its admirers. The critic Ronald Bergan, who slated Bolognini for his “pictorially self-conscious” style, conceded that Maupin “was less of a drag than usual.” (25) It also won a second Best Director prize at San Sebastian. Opinion has been less kind to Arabella (1967), a farce about an aristocratic girl (Virna Lisi) who turns to crime to save her grandmother (Margaret Rutherford) from the poorhouse. It was distinguished, if at all, by Piero Tosi’s typically sumptuous costumes.
By 1968, it was high time for a return to form. One duly came about with Un bellissimo novembre (A Beautiful November), a film of Ercole Patti’s novel about a claustrophobic and near-incestuous Sicilian family. Gina Lollobrigida (whose skimpy costume sparked a censorship row in Le bambole [The Dolls, 1965], another episode film) gives what is easily the performance of her career as a glamorous but wretchedly unhappy woman locked in a clandestine affair with her nephew (Paolo Turco). Outwardly taboo, their liaison offers both a slender chance of escape from the day-to-day perversions of family life – embodied in a lavishly crumbling villa that is “heavy with mysteries and whispers.” (26) Another erotic drama, L’assoluto naturale (He and She, 1969) – starring Laurence Harvey and Sylva Koscina – has long since vanished from sight.
The social and political upheavals of 1968 threw the Italian cinema into a crisis. Not only had the economic boom of the ’50s and ’60s come to a grinding halt. Kidnappings and terrorist bombings by extremists on both Left and Right followed in the ’70s, until “on several occasions, the very existence of Italy seemed to be in question.” (27) The film industry was split down the middle – between the radical leftist ANAC and the more moderate AACI. Student demonstrators occupied the Centro Sperimentale and the Venice Film Festival shut down its international competition from 1969 to 1980.
Ironically, in the midst of this crisis, Bolognini entered his most productive phase. As Peter Bondanella wrote, the social chaos of the ’70s saw “the weakening of public confidence in the government, the bureaucracy, the military, political parties, and trade unions following the discovery of successive scandals that touched the highest level of Italy’s governing class.” (28) In other words, a systematic questioning of every aspect of the country’s life. Bolognini’s films of the ’70s are central to this process.
Metello (1970) remains his most critically respected film after Bell’Antonio, winning a Best Actress prize at Cannes for Ottavia Piccolo and a Golden Globe nomination as Best Foreign Film in the USA. Based on Vasco Pratolini’s novel about a young labour leader in turn-of-the-century Florence, it was a project Bolognini had long cherished, starring his own personal “discovery” – a handsome pop-singer-turned-actor called Massimo Ranieri. A close professional and personal bond would link him to Ranieri for some years.
Mira Liehm holds the majority view that “Metello is Bolognini’s best film, pervaded by a warmth and a personal involvement, atypical in light of Bolognini’s detached approach.” (29) Perhaps I am alone in disliking it. Its relentlessly inspirational view of the class struggle offers none of the dark moral ambiguities of Bolognini’s more provocative films. This flawed but heroic young worker (Ranieri) and his insufferably saintly wife (Piccolo) are – quite frankly – bores. The one involving character is a sexually voracious older woman (Lucia Bose) who seduces Metello some years before he sets about saving the world. What saves Metello is its visual style, inspired by the Macchiaioli – a group of 19th century Florentine painters who turned an Impressionist eye on proletarian themes.
Following on from the overrated Metello, the vastly underrated Bubu (1971) is at once darker and more compelling. Ottavia Piccolo gives a far stronger performance as a young laundress in the Belle Epoque, lured into prostitution by a diabolically handsome pimp (Antonio Falsi). An idealistic student (Massimo Ranieri) tries to save her, but all three characters fall prey to syphilis – the sexual plague of the 19th century, as devastating in its impact as AIDS today. Adapting a French novel by Charles Louis Philippe, Bolognini hoped to film on location in Paris – but budgetary woes forced him to shoot in Italy. There he conjured up a Paris of his dreams, a film whose every frame glows like a Renoir painting sprung to life.
After uniting Ranieri and Piccolo a third time in a small-scale political drama, Imputazione di omicidio per uno studente (A Student Accused of Murder, 1972), Bolognini would make his most overtly polemical film so far. Libera, amore mio (Libera, My Love, 1973) stars Claudia Cardinale as an anti-Fascist wife and mother who endures years of persecution under Mussolini. Refusing to blame Fascism on a handful of nasty fanatics, as Bertolucci would do in 1900 (1976), Bolognini portrays the “normalcy” of Fascism – the insidious way it pervaded every aspect of Italian life, making dissent possible only at great personal cost. Once World War II is over and “democracy” restored, Cardinale finds a society run almost entirely by one-time Fascists. Unable to keep silent, she protests and is gunned down in the street. Amid the political turmoil of the ’70s, Libera was such a blow to Italian amour propre that its release was delayed for two years.
Political concerns also underlie La Grande Bourgeoise (1974). (Its rather cumbersome Italian title, Fatti di gente perbene, translates literally as Drama of the Rich.) This film is based on a real-life murder case, involving a liberal Bologna family at the fin de siecle. The daughter (Catherine Deneuve) manipulates her too-adoring brother (Giancarlo Giannini) into killing her brutal right-wing husband; the state uses this scandal to destroy the family entirely. A melodrama of dark visual splendour, La Grande Bourgeoise has a moral and emotional ambiguity worthy of Henry James. It is tantalisingly unclear just how complicit Deneuve is in her husband’s murder, or how abnormally close she and her brother may be. Bolognini also conveys the historic impotence of the Italian Left, a theme as current in the age of Silvio Berlusconi as it was in 1900.
Returning to a literary source, Bolognini next adapted Mario Tobino’s novel Per le antiche scale (Down the Ancient Stair, 1975). Set in a lunatic asylum in the 1930s, the film uses the clinical insanity of the asylum as a metaphor for the political insanity of the outside world. An illustrious doctor (Marcello Mastroianni) pursues wildly dysfunctional affairs with three women: the director’s wife (Lucia Bose) a suicidal depressive who rarely leaves the grounds; a doctor’s wife (Barbara Bouchet) a stylish but troubled nymphomaniac who smokes opium and enjoys ménages a trois with Fascist Black Shirts; a saintly nurse (Marthe Keller) who lets him humiliate and terrorise her in the nude. All three women consider themselves “normal” and the patients “sick”, as does Mastroianni – who turns out to be the biggest lunatic of the lot. The mise en scène glows with the lurid colours and sharp angles of a painting by Tamara de Lempicka – up until the end, when a tide of Fascist black engulfs the screen. As a portrait of psychosexual illness in a Fascist society, Down the Ancient Stair is a worthy (if more discreet) companion piece to Pasolini’s Salo (1975).
L’Erredita Ferramonti (The Inheritance, 1976) is another costume melodrama, set in 1880s Rome and based on a novel by Gaetano Chelli. A ruthless working-class girl (Dominique Sanda) schemes and seduces her way to power in a rich, decadent family ruled by a dying patriarch (Anthony Quinn). If it ultimately less successful than La Grande Bourgeoise, it may be that Sanda’s villainy is too boringly obvious after the subtlety and ambiguity of Deneuve. Still, she won a Best Actress prize at Cannes. The film was dubbed into English and sold in the ’80s with the tag line: “Dynasty was never like this!” Unfortunately it was, all too often.
Yet Bolognini followed this rather dull outing with Gran Bollito (1977), possibly his most brilliant and audacious work. In Italy in 1938, a deranged bourgeois matron (Shelley Winters) is released from a mental home but is plagued by visions of the coming World War II. In a pact with the Devil to save her only son (Antonio Marsina) from the army, she takes to murdering her neighbours and boiling their corpses to make soap. (The title translates as “the big stew”.) She grinds up their bones to make biscuits, which she serves at tea parties in the afternoons. To make things more bizarre, her neighbours are all middle-aged women played by male actors in drag. (Among them, I kid you not, is a spookily convincing Max von Sydow!)
When the carabinieri arrest her, Winters launches into a fierce tirade: “Yes, I have killed! But that is nothing compared to what you will do! A terrible war is coming! You will all kill and be killed!” If she is guilty of her crimes, how much more guilty will Italy become under Il Duce? A whole nation will soon be complicit in mass murder; the people are marching blindly towards their own doom. The police, of course, do not understand her. No more, it seems, did the critics or the public understand Bolognini. A spectacular flop, Gran Bollito is all but impossible to see today.
Old men are either calm or mad.
– Gino Cervi, Gli innamorati
In the late ’70s, Bolognini suffered a period of ill health. His condition was mirrored, alas, by the woeful state of Italian cinema. During that decade, cinema attendance in Italy dropped by half; the number of films produced plummeted from almost 300 in 1968 to less than 100 ten years later. What remained of the industry kept going on memories of its prestige in the ’50s and ’60s, rather than on any vital new impulse from young directors. As Peter Bondanella writes, “the handful of films produced by major directors continued to garner awards and the praise of critics at international festivals.” (30) By the ’80s, like the Italian film industry as a whole, Bolognini was working on borrowed time.
He did manage one final masterpiece. La vera storia della signora dale camellie (The Lady of the Camellias, 1981) tells the real-life story of the 19th century Parisian courtesan so ruthlessly sentimentalised by Alexandre Dumas fils in his play La dame aux camelias and by Giuseppe Verdi in his opera La Traviata. With all due respect to Greta Garbo and Maria Callas, this is the one version of the story where an audience can seriously believe the heroine is a prostitute. Neither a heartless floozy nor a sacrificial saint, this young woman (Isabelle Huppert) sells her body because she has no other option. Showing neither defiance nor shame, she descends a staircase – nude apart from her red-and-black stockings – and enters a room full of men, with the air of a vendeuse selling her vegetables in an open market.
Huppert’s consumptive yet erotic pallor gives her the aura of a Pre-Raphaelite model in a Rossetti painting. As Camille Paglia remarks: “The sleepy vampires of his late paintings are chillingly oblivious to the masculine, upon which they have already fed.” (31) Her very blankness embodies her indifference to, and power over, every man in the film. After her death, her voice on the soundtrack undercuts the romanticised version of her myth in rehearsal on a Paris stage. “I will never resign myself to leaving this world of beggars and whores.” Coming from Bolognini, it has the sound of a last farewell.
Not entirely, however. Two of his later films, though far from his best, are richly resonant in light of his whole career. La Venexiana (The Venetian Woman, 1986) is a glowingly erotic drama set in 16th century Venice. Its heroine, a reclusive and aging aristocrat (Laura Antonelli) enjoys one last night of love with a young country bumpkin (Jason Connery). Their one-night stand is as light and inconsequential to him as it is meaningful to her. His nude body is eroticised with an intensity rare even in Bolognini’s work, while the melancholy grace of Antonelli – not to mention lustrous visuals worthy of Veronese or Titian – elevate what is essentially a very classy soft-porn film into a moving study of age and love. When Connery leaves her, Antonelli pulls down all her shutters and withdraws into a world of shadows. From now on, she will live only on memories.
Adapted from an Alberto Moravia novel, La villa del venerdi (The Friday Villa, 1991) tells of a couple united in physical and emotional pain. A writer (Julian Sands) is a passive voyeur to his wife’s (Joanna Pacula) sadomasochistic affair with a pianist (Tcheky Karyo). Slow and uneven, yet often hauntingly beautiful, this film was slaughtered by the critics and ignored by the public. Yet it is a classic Bolognini work, shot through with “the melancholy of sex”. He was philosophical about its failure: “It was about a woman with two men, and people didn’t like that. It was too shocking. If I’d made it about a man with two women, then it would have sold tickets.” (32)
He kept busy directing theatre and opera, plus an occasional film for TV (notably a lavish mini-series, La Certosa di Parma [The Charterhouse of Parma, 1982] based on the classic by Stendhal). Yet he never gave up nurturing film projects. One of his last, Una stanza nel buio (A Place in the Dark) was to focus on the audience in a pornographic movie theatre. “I will not show the images on the screen,” Bolognini said. “That is not interesting. But the way people receive and respond to those images. Why they go and what they do when they are there. Ah, that is fascinating!” (33)
Unfortunately, his new films never happened. His old films were neglected and his death in 2001 was barely noticed. Yet even the weakest film by Bolognini is a vivid and vibrant contrast to the pallor of most contemporary Italian cinema. It is not enough to write him off, as Mira Liehm does: “His oeuvre, which contains no truly brilliant successes but also no spectacular flops, sums up the merits but also the flaws of Italian film’s venture into literature.” (34) One of the last and greatest artists in one of the world’s great film traditions – a poet of love and pain, of the ineffable but enduring melancholy of sex – Mauro Bolognini deserves more than our benign neglect.
He deserves, at the very least, a viewing of his films. As, in fact, do we.
- Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, University of California Press, Berkely, 1984, p. 169.
- Jerry Vermilye, Great Italian Films, Citadel Press, New York, 1994, p. 129.
- Ramon del Valle-Inclan, Sonata de estio in Sonatas – Memorias del Marques de Bradomin, Espasa-Calpe SA, Madrid, 1969, p. 162. Translation from Spanish by author.
- Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape – The Treatment of Women in the Movies, second edition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1987, p. 244.
- Haskell, p. 308.
- Liehm, p. 187.
- Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 26.
- Pietro Bianchi, quoted in Liehm, p. 171.
- Raymond Durgnat, Durgnat on Film, Faber and Faber, London, 1976, p. 105.
- Quoted in Liehm, p. 2.
- Liehm, p. 30.
- Marcia Landy, Italian Film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, p. 13.
- Franco Zeffirelli, Zeffirelli, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1986, p. 136.
- Quoted in L’avventurosa storia del cinema italiano, 1935–59 – raccontata dai suoi protagonisti (Volume 1), edited by Franca Faldini & Goffredo Fofi, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, Milan, 1979, p. 126. Translation from Italian by author.
- Durgnat, p. 105.
- Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema – From Neorealsim to the Present, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1983, p. 158.
- Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini (translated by John Shepley), Bloomsbury, London, 1987, p. 226.
- Liehm, p. 143.
- Quoted in L’avventurosa storia (Volume 1), p. 351.
- Quoted in L’avventurosa storia (Volume 1), p. 401.
- Bondanella, p. 154.
- Valle-Inclan, p. 284.
- Liehm, p. 171.
- Bondanella, p. 159.
- Ronald Bergan, A–Z of Movie Directors, Proteus, London & New York, 1982, p. 17.
- Michel Chion in Dictionnaire du Cinema A–K, edited by Jean-Loup Passek, Larousse, Paris, 1995, p. 240. Translation from French by author.
- Bondanella, p. 318.
- Bondanella, p. 318.
- Liehm, p. 273.
- Bondanella, p. 319.
- Paglia, p. 493.
- Mauro Bolognini, interview and translation by author, Rome, July, 1995.
- Bolognini, interview as above.
- Liehm, p. 273.
NB: Given that many of Bolognini’s films were Italian/French co-productions, a French title is often listed alongside the English.
Ci troviamo in galleria (Let’s Meet in the Gallery) (1953)
I cavalieri della regina (D’Artagnan, chevalier de la reine/The Queen’s Musketeers) (1954)*
La vena d’oro (The Vein of Gold) (1955)
Gli innamorati (Wild Love/The Lovers) (1955)
Guardia, guardia scelta, brigadiere e maresciallo (Guard, Special Guard, Brigadier and Marshal) (1956)
Marisa la civetta (Marisa the Flirt) (1957)
Giovani mariti (les Jeunes Maris/Young Husbands) (1958)
La notte brava (les Garcons/On Any Street/Bad Girls Don’t Cry) (1959)
Il bell’Antonio (le Bel Antonio/Bell’Antonio) (1960)
Una giornata balorda (Ca c’est passe a Rome/A Foolish Day) (1960)
La Viaccia (le Mauvais Chemin/The Lovemakers) (1961)
Senilita (Quand la chair succombe/As a Man Grows Older/Careless) (1962)
La corruzione (la Corruption/Corruption) (1963)
La mia signora (My Lady) – episodes I miei cari (My Dear Ones) and Luciana (1964)
La donna e una cosa meravigliosa (Woman Is a Wonderful Thing) – episodes La balena bianca (The White Whale) and Una donna dolce, dolce (A Sweet, Sweet Lady) (1964)
Le bambole (les Poupees/The Dolls/Four Kinds of Love) – episode Monsignor Cupido (1965)
I tre volti (Three Faces of Woman) – episode Gli amanti celebri (Famous Lovers) (1965)
La Madamigella di Maupin (Mademoiselle de Maupin) (1966)
Le streghe (TheWitches) – episode Senso civico (Civic Duty) (1966)
Le fate (The Queens) – episode Fata Elena (1967)
Arabella (La ragazza di Charleston) (1967)
L’amore attraverso i secoli (Le plus vieux metier du monde/The Oldest Profession) – episode Notti romane (Roman Nights) (1967)
Capriccio all’italiana – episodes Perche? (Why?)** and La gelosa (Jealous Woman) (1968)
Un bellissimo novembre (Ce merveilleux automne/A Beautiful November) (1968)
L’assoluto naturale (He and She) (1969)
Bubu (Bubu de Montparnasse) (1971)
Imputazione di omicidio per uno studente (A Student Accused of Murder) (1972)
Libera, amore mio (Liberte, mon amour/Libera, My Love) (1973)***
Fatti di gente perbene (La Grande Bourgeoise/Drama of the Rich) (1974)
Per le antiche scale (Vertiges/Down the Ancient Stair) (1975)
L’erredita Ferramonti (l’Heritage/The Inheritance) (1976)
Gran bollito (La signora degli orrori/Black Journal) (1977)
Dove vai in vacanza? (Where Are You Going on Holiday?) – episode Saro tutto per te (I’ll Be Everything to You) (1978)
La vera storia della signora dalle camellie (la Dame aux camelias/The Lady of the Camellias) (1981)
Gente di Pistoia (Men of Pistoia) (documentary) (1983)
La Venexiana (The Venetian Woman) (1986)
Mosca addio (Farewell, Moscow!) (1987)
12 registi per 12 citta (12 directors for 12 cities) (documentary) – episode Palermo (1990)
La villa del venerdi (The Friday Villa/Husbands and Lovers/In Excess) (1991)
Films for TV
La Certosa di Parma (la Chartreuse de Parme/The Charterhouse of Parma) (1982)
Gli indifferenti (Time of Indifference) (1988)
La famiglia Ricordi (The House of Ricordi) (1993)
As Assistant Director
Anni difficili (Difficult Years) (Luigi Zampa, 1948)
Campane a martello (Bells in the Tower) (Luigi Zampa, 1949)
La Minute de la vérité (The Moment of Truth) (Jean Delannoy, 1952)
Nez de cuir (Leather Nose) (Yves Allegret, 1952)
Processo alla citta (City on Trial) (Luigi Zampa, 1952)
* Although this compilation of TV episodes was credited to Bolognini, he never acknowledged it as his work.
** Shot as part of Le streghe, this episode was cut and included in the later film.
*** Due to its sensitive political content, this film was not released until 1975.
Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema – From Neorealsim to the Present, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1983.
Raymond Durgnat, Durgnat on Film, Faber and Faber, London, 1976.
Franca Faldini & Goffredo Fofi (eds.), L’avventurosa storia del cinema italiano, 1935–59 – raccontata dai suoi protagonisti (Volume 1), Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, Milan, 1979.
Franca Faldini & Goffredo Fofi (eds.), L’avventurosa storia del cinema italiano, 1960–69 – raccontata dai suoi protagonisti (Volume 2), Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, Milan, 1981.
Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape – The Treatment of Women in the Movies (second edition) The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1987.
Marcia Landy, Italian Film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.
Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, University of California Press, Berkely, 1984.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Penguin Books, London, 1991.
Gian Luigi Rondi, Cinema Italiano Oggi 1952-1965, Carlo Bestetti, Edizioni d’Arte, Rome, 1966.
Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini (translated by John Shepley), Bloomsbury, London, 1987.
Jerry Vermilye, Great Italian Films, Citadel Press, New York, 1994.
Franco Zeffirelli, Zeffirelli, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1986.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Il Bell’Antonio by Oloruntoba John Olubnmi
Centro Mauro Bolognini
Founded in the director’s memory and based in his home city of Pistoia. Organises film festivals and other cultural events. Keeps a library of Bolognini titles on DVD and 35 mm. (In Italian)
Internet Bookshop Italia
Good selection of Bolognini titles for sale on DVD. (In Italian)
Fair selection of Bolognini titles for sale on DVD. (In Italian)
Comprehensive Bolognini filmography, photos and film summaries. (In Italian)
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