After years of neglect, the story and films of Giorgio Mangiamele has now become the object of wider attention with the release of a DVD box set and publication of two books in 2011 and in 2012. Mangiamele (1928-2001) was a pioneer of Australian cinema. As a self-financed filmmaker in the 1950s he was the first to document the new migrant phenomena with Il Contratto (The Contract, 1953). His early film style prioritized filming on location with a documentary aesthetic, but later Mangiamele went on to produce Clay (1964), first Australian art film and the only local feature to be selected for screening at Cannes in 1960s. Mangiamele’s story is not just about his films but also that of a human struggle for personal identity and recognition of cultural diversity.
The Giorgio Mangiamele Collection
The NFSA/Ronin Film’s DVD published in 2011 is perhaps the greatest contribution to the knowledge of Mangiamele’s work as it presents his major films in a restored version, available for the first time to the public. The DVD includes the unfinished Il Contratto (1953) (edited but never properly dubbed), two versions of the short The Spag (1960 and 1962), the medium length Ninety-nine Percent (1963) and the feature Clay (1964).
Each of these films are presented in high definition, making it possible to appreciate them in the best possible way, particularly considering the importance given by Mangiamele to images.
The DVD comes with a wealth of critical and contextual material to introduce Mangiamele’s cinema. Together with the films there are 70 minutes of video commentary. A good place to start is with the historian Graham Shirley’s interview Restoring Mangiamele (14 min) which introduces the curatorial choices of “getting as close as possible to the original without altering it” orienting the restoration process at NFSA (1). This explains why the restoration was “controlled” without the remaking of the sound columns. Remembering Mangiamele (14 min) is a passionate collection of memories of Giorgio by his wife Rosemary, including the many struggles and disappointments that they experienced in trying to have the films financed. Finally, a third section (40 mins) provides a serious, in-depth, critical discussion of Mangiamele’s work. The three main collaborators on this project: Graham Shirley (NFSA), Quentin Turnour (NFSA) and Gino Moliterno (ANU) touch on a wide range of topics, expressing three different points of view. Shirley discusses the historical aspects of Mangiamele’s work, its documentary value and the technical side of the restoration. Turnour is captivated by the filmic quality, the references to silent and French cinema, the struggle to achieve a particular film style. Moliterno is passionate about Mangiamele’s dedication to a poetic cinema as the first instance of an art house cinema in Australia. Each voice contributes towards building a complex profile of a filmmaker, something that is not easy to outline in the quickly changing social context of Mangiamele’s life and work.
In the printed booklet, within the DVD box, Turnour writes about the difficulties in defining Mangiamele within an Australian perspective: “the baggage of Italianness and neo-realism has, I believe, done considerable disservice to views of Giorgio’s work, enforcing on his career a naturalist narrative formal model to which he rarely had any interest in aspiring to”. (2) This thread also links the three publications. The need to un-think Mangiamele, and to re-think him again today, reconceptualises him as a multifaceted answer to wider sets of contemporary realities. This re-thinking allows him to be seen as part of Australian film culture, pre-1970, alongside Nigel Buesst, Tom Cowan and Brian Davies, whose work has been out of DVD distribution for too long. Mangiamele’s story is also an ideal cross-cultural terrain where issues of identity and migration can be explored. Finally, his cinema demands a reconsideration of multicultural films not as other, and probably not just as minor, but as a variant of a single Australian culture.
In post-1970 multicultural Australia Mangiamele’s films were the first to speak about migration. Occasionally they were screened at the Melbourne Cinematheque or at ACMI, like one of those old antiques, dusted off the shelves only to be reshelved later. As both books note in an introductory review on Mangiamele’s film reception, the first in-depth article came as an interview with Graeme Cutts in Cinema Papers in 1992. Then there were the 1996 notes on his film by Quentin Turnour for the screening at the Melbourne Cinematheque, partially reprinted in Senses of Cinema and now in the DVD booklet. But with the passing of time Mangiamele’s cinema was able to inspire a small group of passionate followers. Bill Mousoulis’s website “Innersense”, a true Decalogue of independent cinema made in Melbourne, had the first “Giorgio Mangiamele page” with filmography and bibliography. This is where I first encountered Giorgio when I came to Melbourne in 2008. But while all Mangiamele’s cinema is shot in Melbourne, the experience of migration was also resonant in other cities. In 2005 Silvana Tuccio brought Mangiamele’s films to Italy. In 2005 Giorgio’s film were screened in Sydney for the “They are a Weird Mob” festival, organized by Massimiliano Civili in collaboration with FILEF. Here Moliterno and Rosemary Mangiamele met during a forum on the director creating a decisive link for the project.
Celluloid Immigrant: Italian Australian Filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele
While the restoration was under way Gino Moliterno and Gaetano Rando co-wrote Celluloid Immigrant. Italian Australian Filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele, published by ATOM in 2011. One of the declared goals of the book is to set Giorgio Mangiamele’s life and work in “the social context of his time, as well as the artistic traditions that have inspired his cinematic productions”. (3) Thanks to a thorough investigation of Mangiamele’s archives, a consideration of the locations of his life and contact with family and friends, the two authors were able to locate Mangiamele in a factual historical context. The episodes of Mangiamele’s life are re-told by Rando with a new level of detail and accuracy: his birth in Catania, the early studies, his work on the police force in Rome, the trip to Australia, his career as a family photographer, the emergence of the first shorts, the screening of Clay at Cannes, right up to the impossibility of securing funding, the move to Papua New Guinea and finally the return to Melbourne. The production context of each film is reported with new details. Clay was founded on a contract signed with the actors and crew. The film was a “collaborative effort in both artistic and financial terms since the actors […] and the technicians […] were asked to pay a contribution in order to take part ‘in the making of said film’”. (4)
Together with the interest in providing a detailed social and cultural context, the film analysis by Moliterno is centered on reclaiming Mangiamele as Australia’s first art house director. In his last interview Giorgio stated that, “my aim was always to make art films”. (5). The claim is well supported in the book by historical and aesthetic evidence. Mangiamele was probably the first to use images for their poetic content, connecting expressivity and narrativity. An example of a cinema of poetry is at the beginning of Ninety-nine Percent when “the stratagem whereby the cyclical structure of the film is visually represented: the son traces a circle in the ground and fills it with Moreton Bay figs, forming a sort of necklace, which the camera then swirls around as it cross-dissolves into a merry-go-round of children dancing around the Australian drunk”. (6)
As important as they are in this context, one would have wished that the expressions ‘art cinema’ and ‘poetic cinema’ were the object of a larger discussion. A notion of art house cinema based on market economics, a general notion of art cinema as European cinema, and a more specific idea of art cinema as expressive-driven narrative (where Mangiamele is located in the book), are not necessarily the same.
Mangiamele’s work has a strong preference for the image against the written or spoken word, but his films also appear to struggle in getting rid of that last verbal obstacle, probably due to technical and financial limitations. Thus only after repeated viewings of his films, that is only when the verbal structure has worn off, one is able to fully access his images and appreciate the richness that lies beneath the surface. Once that happens, as Moliterno shows well in relation to Ninety-nine Percent, the iconic visual language is quite powerful and innovative. The repetitive use of backlighting, for instance, shifts the realist settings towards a surreal aesthetic. The frequent use of close ups intensifies and abstracts the visual rhythm like a musical score. Beyond that, images open a connection to an instinctual world, which evokes deep emotions both in the author and in the spectator. The most powerful moments in Mangiamele’s cinema are when there is a contrast between the perception of the image and its cognitive resolution, like the close up of Miss Coskas’s mouth in Ninety-nine Percent. Moliterno writes that the woman is first “shot as a giant figure dwarfing the little man but soon, in a technique reminiscent of the daring 1920s French impressionist experiments, she is reduced to nothing more than a huge disembodied mouth cackling her laughter and disdain out into cosmos itself”. (7) The scene shows a remarkable use of the image to underline the physical properties of the character.
The book does also a nice job in chronicling Mangiamele’s conception, production and the reception of Clay, including details of the adventurous trip to Cannes. When it comes to interpreting the film Moliterno argues, that Clay, “appears quite clearly, at least at one level, to be staging a Cocteau-like allegory of art and the artistic struggle”. (8) The Cocteau influence (The Blood of the Poet) is in the “use of negative for positive to create the eerie landscape with which the film now opens is an ingenious and effective stratagem, prompted, one imagines, by Mangiamele’s background in photography”. (9) Mangiamele’s photography (all shot on Ilford 35mm photographic stock) does indeed contain an oneiric dimension, but the use of film negative for a dream sequence can also be dated back beyond Cocteau, at least to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). (10)
In keeping with the oneiric status of Clay I would also suggest reading the film as a dream of the other, as the imaginary manifestation of the foreign body. It is the dream of a woman, an artist, that through her work visualises Nick, a foreign man found on the road. He embodies qualities she does not find in the men she knows. He comes from nowhere and from within. He has a troubled past, but he is essentially coming from clay, from that very material she is working with. As Moliterno suggests “Nick also appears in some ways to be an artwork”. (11) When Nick sees that “Margot has indeed fashioned an effigy of him out of clay” (12) one may well think that the effigy is the reality while Nick is the fantasy. Beyond the film, it would not be difficult to see in Nick Mangiamele himself, a foreigner artist in the community of Montselvat, and a foreigner in his own new country. But the foreigner is also part of the dream. Wouldn’t the desire of the foreigner Mangiamele have been to be the dream of (to be recognized by) his new country?
Giorgio Mangiamele: Cinematographer of the Italian Migrant Experience
Raffaele Lampugnani’s book is the latest to be released but he can claim a long connection with Mangiamele and a lasting experience with Mangiamele’s work, having interviewed him several times in 1996 (the last of these interviews closes the book). The publication groups together a number of essays, most previously presented or published and re-edited for this book. The introduction does a good job in reviewing the critical reception of Mangiamele’s cinema (Rando, Moliterno, Tuccio, Turnour), summarizing the main contribution in three “impervious compartments of criticism”. Mangiamele’s films, Lampugnani says, ”have been perceived mainly either as neorealist cinema, ethnic sociological accounts of the post war migration experience, or art cinema”. (13) Thus, he claims, that this way of pigeonholing the filmmaker lead to “a sterile unproductive criticism, and would seem to imply furthermore that rather than ‘marginal’, Mangiamele was ‘marginalised’ precisely because his work was widely perceived as having a significant impact or a destabilizing effect”. (14) On the contrary he rejects an identity based on an exclusive “diasporic dislocation” arguing for a filmmaker who “was remarkably consistent in articulating a well-conceived and firm set of values, moral principles and ideas, carefully and skillfully integrating them into the historical context in which his stories were set”. (15)
The way Lampugnani re-thinks Mangiamele is by framing the whole book according to the concept of minority culture adapted from Deleuze and Guattari. For Lampugnani “minor literature” is comparable to a minor cinema in that “it is sensitive to the societal attitudes and services to preserve majoritarian visualisation and representation of society through marginalization and typecasting of the minoritarian ‘other’ and actively engages with such representations creating an alternative iconography and, at times, exaggerated visualization.” (16) The result is a complex book full of references and ideas, but also one that is difficult to read from beginning to end as it constantly goes back and forward connecting the biographical, the political and the artistic within this theoretical framework. The ‘minority’ element, that is the argument that Mangiamele’s cinema is not other from Australian culture, but it is an intrinsic ‘minor’ part of it, is a productive one. One problem, however, is that the bulk of the discussion still rotates around the same categories (realism, migration, art cinema) Lampugnani intends to overcome. The impression is, therefore, that the idea of minority culture needs to be reframed to a larger extent, informing these concepts instead of holding them together as it appears to do now.
In conclusion, Rando and Moliterno’s Celluloid Immigrant: Italian Australian Filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele produces solid factual research developing a credible profile of Mangiamele as a strong authorial figure. Giorgio Mangiamele: Cinematographer of the Italian Migrant Experience provides a good theoretical companion suggesting new angles that can be further developed. Celluloid Immigrant performs an excellent analytical scrutiny of the films, but the impression is that it has only just touched the surface. Lampugnani cites the importance of this task by saying: “A purely aesthetic, visual, cinematic analysis of Mangiamele’s oeuvre […] has never been carried out”. (17) This close visual analysis is yet to be done.
The Giorgio Mangiamele Collection: 4 Films by Giorgio Mangiamele
2 DVDs (Ronin Films-NFSA, 2011)
Gaetano Rando and Gino Moliterno
Celluloid Immigrant: Italian Australian Filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele, (Melbourne: ATOM, 2011).
Raffaele Lampugnani, Giorgio Mangiamele: Cinematographer of the Italian Migrant Experience, (Ballan, Victoria: Connor Court Publishing, 2012).
- Graham Shirley’s comment appears in “Restoring Mangiamele”, in Giorgio Mangiamele Collection (Disc 2), (Ronin Films-NFSA, 2011).
- “Giorgio” by Quentin Turnour, DVD Booklet of “The Giorgio Mangiamele Collection”, (Ronin Films-NFSA, 2011).
- Gaetano Rando and Gino Moliterno, Celluloid Immigrant: Italian Australian Filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele, (Melbourne: ATOM, 2011) p.12.
- ibid, p.26.
- ibid, p.73.
- ibid, p.76.
- ibid, p.78.
- Gaetano Rando and Gino Moliterno, Celluloid Immigrant: Italian Australian Filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele, (Melbourne: ATOM, 2011) p.78.
- Other examples are the experimentation by Hans Richter, Maya Deren and, in the 1950s, Stanley Kubrick (himself a photographer and cinematographer) who also used the film negative for the dream sequence of The Killer’s Kiss (1956).
- Gaetano Rando and Gino Moliterno, Celluloid Immigrant: Italian Australian Filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele, (Melbourne: ATOM, 2011) p.80.
- ibid, p.14.
- Raffaele Lampugnani, Giorgio Mangiamele: Cinematographer of the Italian Migrant Experience, (Ballan, Victoria: Connor Court Publishing, 2012) p.14.
- ibid, p.15.
- ibid, p.29.
- ibid, p.14.