“The cinema is unequaled for revealing all the basic truths about a nation.”
Two years since the last physical edition of Locarno, the festival’s message of hope is displayed brightly in bold letters before each screening: “Cinema is back.” For nearly a year and a half I had longed for the physical experience of returning to the all-compassing darkness of an auditorium, surrounded by strangers, being completely immersed in images created through light. Perhaps this is what I missed most, the darkness that relates directly to the very essence of cinematic creation, as through cinema, in its act of the creation of imagery through light, the ability of revelation is born.
This year’s retrospective at Locarno, curated by Roberto Turigliatto, was dedicated to one of the more underappreciated if not forgotten Italian directors, Alberto Lattuada (1914–2005), who showed that cinema was simultaneously a way to marvel and to be horrified at reality in its representation as it is projected onto the screen. Lattuada helped shape the cinematic landscape of the post-war period alongside Federico Fellini (with whom he collaborated many times), Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, etc, by radically challenging both the idealised portrayal of reality and its neo-realist counterpart in cinema by making use of the irrationality of existence to breathe life into his films. Lattuada was a humanist above all else, as he believed the cinema was the perfect tool to counter what he deemed the “disintegration of all moral values […] together with the destruction of conscience”2 that he had witnessed under the fascist regime of Mussolini, during the second world war, and its aftermath in a society that had been torn apart.
In this instance, I am reminded of a passage from Henri Bergson’s Memory and Matter, when he states that “matter, in our view, is an aggregate of ‘images’. And by ‘image’ we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls representation, but less than that which the realist calls a ‘thing’ – an existence placed halfway between the thing and the ‘representation’.”3 Lattuada understood this delicate balance, cinema’s ability to embody this existence, this idea of the image as an entity existing between matter itself and the representation it carried. The way in which the whole of the image had the ability to open up a space to contemplate not only the nature of existence, but also to allow the transcendence of the cinematic medium into a form of action, within life itself. In Locarno, however, it also opened up a space to consider the fragility of cinema.
In his excellent article “A Journey Through Italian Cinema”, Alberto Pezzotta argued that the fact that Lattuada has mostly been forgotten is mostly due to a matter of memory and cultural history.4 Here he refers to the fact that Lattuada has always been seen outside of the wider context of Italian film history that predominantly focuses on canonical directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, etc. Lattuada collaborated with Fellini many times, either as a screenwriter on many of his films or as co-director. A telling example of the shadow that Lattuada fell under is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that with the release of Luci del varieta (Variety Lights, 1950), for which Fellini was a co-director, there emerged a conflict surrounding the ‘real’ authorship of the film. The critics mostly attributed the film to Fellini, leaving Lattuada nearly completely out of the picture, something he would keep contesting throughout his life.5
Locarno is now attempting to right that wrong by shining light on the wrongfully forgotten work of Lattuada. The retrospective also highlights the fragile situation of film historiography that closely relates to the role festivals play, and their duty, in keeping film history alive. A retrospective reminds the spectator of cinema’s fragility not only due to the destructive properties of time, but also as a visual manifestation of the world that requires effort to be understood. With an oeuvre spanning over fifty years, from the early 1940s to the late 1980s, Lattuada’s was a retrospective of considerable size. And as brilliant as it is that such a major festival reserves such a big part of its program for a retrospective, it came as a major surprise, and a real shame, that only 16 out of the 41 films screened were English subtitled (undoubtedly because of the cost), thus, excluding a considerable part of the international visitors and press from enjoying these films. This also provides context for the choice of films that I write about in this report.
Born during the confusion and destruction of World War I, Alberto Lattuada came into an unsettling and agitated world that was drastically changing. Since the 1890s, Italian nationalism had become an ideology increasingly taken over by the political right that emerged from the crisis of liberalism, 6 eventually creating a breeding ground for the emergence of fascism. As a young man Lattuada was an avid opposer of fascism, contributing to anti-fascist publications such as Camminare and eventually Corrente di Vita. The latter was a publication formally known as the Young Fascist Newspaper, from which emerged the Milanese Corrente group, who took advantage of the relative “generosity” of the regime. They wanted the newspaper to be independent and sought to reject the Fascist values and fight their ideological vision via art.7 The danger of refusing to adhere to the fascist regime’s control on Italian art came very close when in 1941, according to André Bazin, Lattuada, as co-founder and head of the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana in Milan, was nearly sent to prison for showing the complete version of Jean Renoir’s anti-war film La Grande Illusion (1937), as the film was prohibited in Italy at the time under fascist rule.8
As the son of the Italian composer Felice Lattuada (who would also provide the musical scores to some of his son’s films), Alberto’s ideas of musical composition in relation to his aesthetic response to the world influenced his way of perceiving that found its visual reflection in his cinema. Lattuada understood, as many Italian directors did at the time, the vital importance of original sound. Together with directors such as Antonioni, Bertolucci, Pasolini and De Sica, he signed Il Manifesto di Amalfi in 1967, arguing against the post-synchronisation of Italian films and the dubbing of foreign films.9
Lattuada’s oeuvre is predominantly a testament to his ability to capture both the darkness that can be found in each individual and the despairing agony of life, contrasted with its fleeting, but overwhelming, moments of light and humanity. He is predominantly remembered as one of the early contributors to neorealism and later as an initiator of the commedia all’italiana (comedy Italian style) because of his exceptional ability to combine comedy and tragedy. Humour is an integral part of most of his films, often adding an extra layer to his cinema and revealing a very specific structure of perception that he used to explore the contradictory components and revelations of life.
Nothing ever seems to end well in the films of Lattuada. The comparison with Aristotle’s structure of the Greek tragedy is easily made, as nearly all of his protagonists, good at heart at first, at some point fall from grace and are shrouded by a touch of tragedy. There always seems to be a peripeteia, a tragic twist, that causes this downfall of his characters and that ultimately reveals his rather conflicted view of life. But while this twist within Greek theatre is one based on the inability to change one’s fate, Lattuada’s sudden shifts in fortune ultimately highlight this duality in his view of humanity. Where on the one hand, the distinction between good and evil is one that relies on arbitrariness and on the other hand, relies on humanities’ fatalistic tendencies.
It is a theme that became immediately visible in one of his earliest films, Il bandito (The Bandit, 1946), in which the trauma of the Second World War is explored via the return of a prisoner of war. Ernesto (Amedeo Nazzari) returns to a society marked by a loss of idealism and quickly finds out that the distinction between concepts such as goodness and evil is one based on chance and arbitrariness. The thin line separating these two realms of value is not as clear-cut in a society marked by loss and destruction. After the umpteenth time Ernesto fails to find honest work, one evening he follows a woman to a brothel only to find out she is his missing sister Maria (Carla del Poggio) who has turned to prostitution in order to provide for herself. The twist, if you will, takes place when Ernesto attempts to take Maria with him when they are confronted by her pimp on the staircase. While struggling, the pimp accidently shoots Maria, who dies right there and then, before Ernesto throws him over the stairwell and flees. As fate would have it, he seeks refuge at the house of gangster Lidia (brilliantly played by Anna Magnani), whose wallet he earlier found. Ironically, by making the right decision of returning a wallet full of money in a time of extreme hardship, Ernesto eventually loses nearly all sense of moral goodness by turning towards crime, only to find salvation in death by saving the epitome of pure goodness, Rosetta (Eliana Banducci), the small daughter of his best friend and returned prisoner of war Carlo (Carlo Campanini).
Ruth Ben-Ghiat draws an interesting comparison between fascist masculinity and the redefinition of these values during the transition after the dictatorship of Mussolini in Il Bandito, by arguing that the film is a study of the shifting Italian values of masculinity and plays an important role in the redefinition of these values.10 The character of Ernesto embodies the ideal fascist man in crisis; returning as a prisoner of war, a symbol of the failures of the fascist regime, he turns towards crime in order to survive and is consequently punished for his aggressive lifestyle. But Lattuada carefully manages to create a portrait of a man who is constantly in a dilemma concerning his own behaviour and choices, arguing that this traditional form of masculinity is no longer of that time and belongs to the past, as exemplified by Ernesto’s friend Carlo.
In Il delitto di Giovanni Episcopo (Flesh Will Surrender, 1947), a cinematic adaption of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s famous novel from 1891 and the first film that Fellini co-scripted for Lattuada, Giovanni Episcopo’s (Aldo Fabrizi) tragic fate is similarly used as a way to analyse the human condition by the exploration of the relation between fatality and free will. In this literary adaptation – one of many that Lattuada would adapt to the screen, as among others he adapted Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov and Machiavelli – Episcopo, a weak and compliant creature, recounts the story of his demise via a voice-over. The book featured many themes that would become recurrent in the work of d’Annunzio, such as the anxiety surrounding the loss of power and once again the theme of loss of masculinity, that would eventually lead to Episcopo’s tragic final act, that equally fascinated Lattuada.
This film also highlights Lattuada’s eclecticism and his love for film noir and more stylised elements in his cinema. There is a subtle narrative arch as at the beginning of the film Episcopo goes out on town on the fatal evening when he meets the orchestrator of his impending unhappiness, the decadent forger Giulio Wanzer (Roldano Lupi), and he walks past a worker lighting lanterns. He gets a job near the end of the film after a series of fatal decisions, as he desperately tries to keep his family intact: “At last, after years of misery, I had found a job. At the cost of indescribable suffering and hypocrisies, I managed to keep together the family of the accountant of Mr Episcopo.” This fleeting relief does not last long, as after marrying Wanzer’s lover Ginerva Canale (Yvonne Sanson), resulting in a disastrous marriage, Wanzer suddenly shows up to take Ginerva with him. In a terrible sudden rage, built up after years of humiliation, Episcopo charges at Wanzer and kills him.
It is interesting, but perhaps less surprising after having seen most of Lattuada’s films, to learn that before turning towards cinema, Lattuada graduated as an architect. His specific take on architecture strongly defines his cinema. The abovementioned fatalistic themes were often mirrored or enforced through Lattuada’s particular use of architecture as visual representation of space within the frame and as a reflection and reinforcement of the main characters and society at large. This way, Lattuada’s use of architectural structures within the frame as a way to find the reality hidden beneath the existence of the characters and their relation to their surroundings, determines a very specific cinematic unity. The architecture conceals a deeper reality, one that does not immediately become evident, but that reveals itself throughout his films, lingering on the surface and always accessible to the viewer. Lattuada invites the spectator to pay attention to these intertwined relations. For example, in Il bandito Lattuada sets the framework of the specific cinematic world which the spectator is about to enter in the devastation of the Second World War. The ruins function as the backdrop to the story of Ernesto who returns to Turin to learn his mother has passed away and his sister disappeared while he is standing surrounded in the rubble of his former home, now completely destroyed.
Lattuada’s cinema is an exercise in understanding the close aesthetic connection between architecture and the cinematic frame. In the brilliant La spiaggia (The Beach, 1954) Lattuada’s ability to use architecture to further highlight the individuality of his characters perhaps most beautifully comes to light. Anna Maria Mentorsi (Martine Carol) is the embodiment of the modern single mother. Working as a sex worker, she picks up her young daughter from the nuns that took care of her to take her away on a beach vacation. Due to the interference of the mayor on board the train, who lures her to his town by slacking off the neighbouring seaside town, they end up in a resort where everything is fully booked, so she is forced to stay at a high-end hotel filled with bourgeois guests and their children.
The film offers not only an insight into Lattuada’s pessimistic view of the false values of the bourgeois but it also shines a light on the archaic and changing values surrounding sexuality in post-dictatorship Italy. The fascist regime had tried to moralise the Italian society via regulations. Those working as sex workers officially still had to register their presence if they left their places of residence. La spiaggia’s value lies within its negative depiction of the way in which sex workers were treated and viewed by society, a view that gains signification throughout the film, both as a political critique and philosophical enquiry into human nature. Perhaps the ending of La spiaggia is more gut-wrenching than any of his other films as it mirrored the absolute disillusionment and debasement of human existence. Having been exposed as a sex worker, Maria now faces the hypocrisy and falseness of the people she had befriended before, who now reduce her to an insignificant shell. The modern, young and idealist mayor tries to find her work in another hotel in a desperate attempt to show her he is indifferent to her position. But reality overtakes them and in an embrace of the hardship of life, she turns away from him, averts her eyes, and takes the arm of the capitalist hotel mogul who as a lingering presence throughout the whole film has watched her via his binoculars. La spiaggia ultimately shows that “the whore is the saint made to fall, the idol whose seduction makes phallic narcissism swell”,11 to reference the words of German Professor Hartmut Böhme, as Anna is forced to adhere to the impossible patriarchal standards and consequently blamed for not fulfilling these.
Lattuada’s oeuvre also seems to be filled with contradictory elements. He simultaneously made a significant contribution to the development of neo-realism, depicting the painful reality of what would otherwise have been deemed irrelevant, as he had a “fierce love of honesty”,12 while consequently critiquing the neo-realists’ tendency to diminish the role Italy played in the Second World War. He managed to capture this duality perhaps best in the combination of his tendency towards realism, or what he called truth, and comedy. Thus, proving that the line between tragedy and comedy is a thin one. Perhaps treading this line was what Lattuada was best at. However, it is also a line that throughout his work becomes increasingly confusing. Lattuada is as much of a contradictory director as he is brilliant.
The film in which this combination of tragedy and comedy achieves its apotheosis, and to Lattuada’s best ability, might be Mafioso (1962), a film made towards the end of the golden era of the commedia all’italiana (1958 – 1964).13 We follow the story of Nino Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi), the frontman of a car manufacturer in Milan who returns to his family home in Sicily with his northern family. The film seemingly starts out as a comedy, highlighting the clash between the industrialised north and the rural south of Italy, as a result of the years of the post-war economic boom that accelerated the migration of workers from the south. Slowly, Lattuada starts bursting the bubble of Nino’s idealised memories of Sicily as he introduces elements of the painful reality of a region still in the grips of the mafia, in which the naïve Nino gets caught up. The film then builds up to an incredible ending, making Mafioso perhaps one of the most striking films by Lattuada, skilfully combining his mastery of his portrayal of human nature as Nino’s innocence is gruesomely taken away, and his mastery over the camera.
Some of Lattuada’s work contains increasingly problematic elements, such as the particularly unsettling film Le farò da padre (I’ll Take Her Like a Father, 1974), in which the much older Saverio Mazzacolli (Gigi Proietti) has to marry Clotilde (T. A. Savoy), the mentally disabled young daughter of a countess (Irene Papas), in order to receive the money that he was promised by the countess. He then hatches a plan to kidnap Clotilde to get out of the marriage – but his plan fails as he unexpectedly falls in love with her. According to Lattuada the film exemplified the “triumph of innocence over the corruption of money”,14 thus presenting the film as an anti-capitalist erotic satire in which a corrupted man is eventually persuaded – and ‘saved’ – by the innocence and purity of a young uninhibited girl. It seems to be a reoccurring theme that runs throughout Lattuada’s oeuvre: the salvation of man brought forth by the symbolic presence of a young girl yet unaware of the horrors of the world. Clotilde, however, seems to be completely unaware of anything, except that she can be calmed down by sexual gratification, raising questions of agency, language and possession. Lattuada positions her as the epitome of purity, there to offer salvation, yet simultaneously as a mentally deranged sexual being.
Which brings us back to Lattuada’s duality in his view of humanity. He is not a director that is easily classifiable. His mastery over of the camera and his understanding of cinema as a medium that can be used to simultaneously expose reality and change the spectator’s perception of it, is sometimes placed in opposition to some of the more complex and problematic themes that emerge in his cinema.
After having seen a significant portion of Lattuada’s oeuvre, I am reminded of a sentence by film critic Ricciotto Canudo. Lattuada’s films, above all, remind us of, but also make us forget, “in greater or lesser measure [our] isolated individuality.” 15 His cinema concerns itself with questions early film theorists grappled with, namely cinema’s specificity, not necessarily in relation to its mechanical properties, but rather in relation to the portrayal of humanity within a radically changing society, as above all Lattuada put his faith in life.
Alberto Lattuada Retrospective – Locarno Film Festival
4-14 August 2021
Festival website: https://www.locarnofestival.ch/LFF/home
- Ben Lawton, “Italian Neorealism: A Mirror Construction of Reality,” Film Criticism vol. 3 no. 2, 1979, pp. 8-23; 8. ↩
- Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, p. 51. ↩
- Henri Bergson, Memory and Matter, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1911, p. vii. ↩
- Alberto Pezzotta, “A Journey through Italian Cinema,” Senses of Cinema 26 2003. ↩
- Liehm, op. cit. p.115. ↩
- Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, Abacus, 1987, p. 159. ↩
- André Bazin, “Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation,” in in What Is Cinema?, trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2009), 217 (article page numbers: 215-249). ↩
- Immi Tallgren, “La Grande Illusion,” The Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence vol. 15, no. 2, 2002, pp. 297 – 316; 298. ↩
- Scott MacKenzie, Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014, p. 809. ↩
- Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Unmaking the fascist man: masculinity, film and the transition from dictatorship,” Journal of Modern Italian Studies, vol. 10, iss. 3, September 2005, pp. 336-365; p. 338. ↩
- Hartmut Böhme, Fetishism and Culture: A Different Theory of Modernity, trans. Anna Galt, De Gruyter, 2014, p. 300. ↩
- Alberto Lattuada, “Italian Neorealism: A Mirror Construction of Reality,” p. 8. ↩
- Maggie Günsberg, Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre, Palgrave Macmillan UK, London, 2004, p. 60. ↩
- Locarno Film Festival website. ↩
- Ricciotto Canudo, “The Birth of a Sixth Art” in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988, pp. 58-65; 65. ↩