‘Umberto D.’

A classic of post-war Italian neorealism, Umberto D is the story of an old man’s struggle to keep from falling from poverty into shame.

Umberto D. Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), a retired government worker, struggles to survive on his meagre pension. Behind on his rent, his landlady threatens to evict him unless he can pay the 15,000 lire owing within the next few days. Selling personal possessions fails to raise the necessary amount. Whilst sympathetic and on friendly terms with Umberto and his beloved dog, Filke, the young maid of the house (Maria-Pia Casilio – Thérèse Raquin, An American in Rome) cannot help him.

In choosing to work with an almost exclusively non-professional cast, director Vittorio De Sica (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Bicycle Thieves) achieves an ingrained sense of unadorned authenticity. Mundane simplicity is both dramatic and poetic as Umberto’s despair slowly unfolds.

Nominated for the 1957 best writing Oscar (five years after it was first released in Italy).

Rating: 74%

 

‘A Ciambra’

When his father and older brother Cosimo are arrested, 14 year old Pio Amato appoints himself head of his Romani family living in a run down Calabrian estate.

A strutting teenager, he’s more than adept at surviving on the streets and following in his brother’s footsteps. But there’s little in the way of a true sense of dramatic tension within A Ciambra – director Jonas Carpignano (Mediterranea, A Chiara) choosing to focus more on a fly-on-the-wall style documentary as Pio flits between tough-boy home life and a more vulnerable teenager among the equally marginalised and unwanted African community.

With its largely non-professional cast with many from the same Amato family, A Ciambra is a raw commentary on the less visible issues of European migration along with the exploration of Pio’s emerging understanding of manhood. Combined, Carpignano is highlighting the vicious circle that encompasses marginalised communities as Pio puts family first above his friendship with Ayiva (Koudous Siehon – Mediterranea, A Chiara).

Rating: 67%

‘I Am Love’

Elegant in its telling of personal and sexual awakening, I Am Love is a painterly yet thrilling brushstroke of a traditional narrative as Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer, The French Dispatch) transitions from faithful but repressed wife and mother to passionate lover.

Married into the wealthy Milanese industrialist family, Emma is the perfect host and mother to her three twenty something children. A bored dilettante of sumptuous meals, shopping and lunches out, her main confidant is housekeeper, Ida (Maria Paiato – La pelle dell’orso,  Il testimone invisibile). But life and aspirations change when eldest son, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti – Parlami d’amore, To Rome With Love) introduces friend and potential business partner Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini – Ovosodo, Ora o mai più) to the family.

It’s a grand sweep of a feature with a gorgeously brash and climactic score by John Adams (Run Lola Run, Call Me By Your Name) and directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash).

Nominated for best costume design Oscar in 2011.

Rating: 79%

‘Amarcord’

A nostalgic reflection on life in a small Italian coastal town over a period of one year in the 1930s as told in a series of vignettes by director Federico Fellini (La dolce vita, La strada).

Centred primarily around the young Titta (Bruno Zanin – The Good Soldier, City Under Siege) and his family, snapshots of the everyday are interspersed with teenage fantasies and scenes highlighting the national fervour stoked by Mussolini. The visit by Il Duce to the town is balanced by Titta’s father, Aurelio (Armando Brancia – Mogliamante, Il gatto) being questioned by the authorities for his anti-fascist opinions. Town beauty Gradisca (Magali Noël – Rififi, La dolce vita) attracts attention from more than just the authorities whilst the annual spring bonfire and the Mille Miglia car race passing through the town provide celebrations for all.

Loosely autobiographical, Amarcord is a fragmentary world of memory and imagination, with characters lacking any real substance, created for the viewers cinematic entertainment. Italian tropes abound as the family fight over the pasta, the buxom Gradisca stops (male) traffic, the Blackshirts march through the town. It’s all a little unnerving and superficial, a bloated circus of emptiness.

Winner of the 1975 film in a foreign language Oscar, nominated for best director and original script Oscars in 1976.

Rating: 50%

‘The Hand of God’

Director Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God is a deeply personal film set in 1980s Naples as friendless teenager Fabietto ‘Fabi’ Schisa (Filippo Scotti – The King Dies) follows his passion – Napoli FC – within a large and bositerous extended family. But tragedy changes the direction of his life.

Close to a father (Toni Servillo – The Great Beauty, Il divo) who, it transpires, has a second family, Fabi’s relatively uneventful life centres around whether footballer Diego Maradona will join Napoli. Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins all have opinions as the city reaches fervour. But sexual awakening (particularly towards the buxom aunt, Patrizia – Luisa Ranieri, Valeno, Naples in Veils) and the family tragedy deflects Fabi’s interests.

For such autobiographical material, Sorrentino (Loro, The Great Beauty) is surprisingly inert in his telling. The Hand of God certainly has its moments (and its characters) and it’s a homage to the city, but there’s an inexplicable, impenetrable emotional distance.

Nominated for 2022 best foreign language film Oscar.

Rating: 59%

‘The Battle of Algiers’

Social realism extraordinaire, The Battle of Algiers is a stunningly shot, simply told tale of armed insurrection against colonial French rule.

Shot in a grainy black and white, director Gillo Pontecorvo (Kapò, Ogro) weaves archival news footage into the fictional documentary-style narrative as Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin – The Day of the Jackal, My Name is Nobody) tightens the military grip on the city. Organised strikes and demonstrations are met with violence and torture leading to the bombings of cafes and milkbars as the struggle escalates.

Pontecorvo marshalls his predominantly non-professional cast to astonishing effect, whether it’s local youth moving through the narrow passages of the city or the extraordinary choreographed troop manoeuvres as they close down the Muslim quarter. Seen from both sides, The Battle of Algiers is a powerful and brutal docudrama commissioned by the Algerian government to highlight cause and effect in the use of violence.

Nominated for the 1967 best foreign language film, nominated for 2 Oscars in 1969 for best director and original screenplay.

Rating: 90%

‘L’avventura’

Revelatory in 1960 with its subject matter and visual aesthetic, Michelangelo Antonioni’s (Blowup, Red Desert) L’avventura is regarded as one of the essentials of world cinema.

It’s a simple enough story. A disaffected and priviledged Anna (Lea Massari – Christ Stopped at Eboli, The Four Days of Naples) mysteriously disappears whilst holidaying on the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. In spite of disinterest by her friends, lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti – I Am Love, Le amiche) and Anna’s best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti – Red Desert, Woman with the Gun) form an alliance to find her. But in their search, they find themselves attracted to each other.

A meditation on the human condition, L’avventura is a beautifully shot black & white naturalist melodrama (if that’s not an oxymoron!) exploring the vicissitudes of relationships. Yet it’s ultimately unengaging. Artful arrangements of Sandro and Claudia on windy clifftops or convent bell towers may look beautiful, but as the wealthy socialite friends continue with their priviledged lives, so patience wears thin. Especially when the film runs for nearly 2.5 hours.

Rating: 62%

‘La dolce vita’

As a philandering journalist and PR rep, Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni – , Marriage Italian Style) certainly enjoys the good life. It’s the early years of gossip columns and paparazzi as the rich and famous enjoy (mostly) the limelight.

Whether it’s affairs with Swedish/American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg – Blood Alley, War & Peace) or wealthy heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimee – , Lola), it all seems aimless and empty: Rubini is a writer with no meaning.

Full of iconic scenes (Ekberg and Mastroianni in the Trevi fountain; the Christ statue carried by helicopter across Rome), director Federico Fellini (, Amarcord), at more than three hours, over indulges. Commentary is mundane and repititious. It’s seductive in its black and white majesty but Mastroianni ultimately grates – the hollow man of a charming seducer. Fellini’s point may well be just this – but it’s all style over substance.

Nominated for 4 Oscars in 1962 including best director & art direction, won 1 for best black & white costume design (Piero Gherardi).

Rating: 59% 

‘Marriage Italian Style’

In order to survive in a destroyed post-World War II Naples, the pennliess Filumena takes to prostitution, with wealthy Domenico Soriano (Marcello Mastroianni – La dolce vita, ) a regular customer. The young beauty soon becomes his mistress – and over many decades, their lives are intertwined. But as Filumena, Sophia Loren (Two Women, The Life Ahead) is slow in telling him that she has borne three sons – and not necessarily to Domenico.

A tragicomedy melodrama, passions run high in Vittorio Di Sica’s (Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D.) adaptation of Neapolitan author Edoardo De Filippo’s novel. Unfortunately, whilst Marriage Italian Style sees Loren at her glorious best as she refuses to conform to her expected subversive role, caricature and farce is too often the order of the day. What could and should have been a social commentary becomes a narrative played for laughs.

Nominated for 1965 best actress Oscar.

Rating: 44%

‘Theorem’

Heavily symbolic, deeply academic, cinematically cathartic, socially judgemental with an underlying religious commentary – if it’s Italian, made in the 1950s or ’60s and shot in black and white, chances are it’s a film of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo or 120 Days of Sodom, Oedipus Rex).

A young man (Terence Stamp – Modesty Blaise, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) arrives at the Milan home of a wealthy family. Leaving just a few days later, he has seduced mother, father, daughter, son as well as the maid. Their lives will never be the same. But who was he?

Pasolini’s religio-political allegory, with its backdrop of Italian industrialisation and unionisation, with its sparse dialogue and surprisingly little action, is indulgent, unengaging and oddly sterile. Imagery of bleak, windswept desert is interspersed with the mother (Silvana Mangano – Death in Venice, Ludwig) sleeping in full makeup, thick mascara and false eyelashes or the maid (Laura Betti – 1900, La dolce vita) returning to her home village and becoming a worshipped saint-like figure. It’s all a little too intangible, a little too allegorical in its uncertainty.

Rating: 42%