Tuesday, November 3, 2009

LIFE LESSONS: the FSLC looks at Italian Neorealism & the birth of modern cinema

One of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's most interesting and important series in a long while has just begun. Called Life Lessons, it lasts for nearly an entire month (October 30 through November 25) and offers some 40 different films that cover the 20-year period from 1943 to 1962 and are examples of the cinema come to be known as Italian Neorealism.

Although Visconti's terrific Ossessione (the first and best-yet adaptation of James M. Cain's "Postman" story) was made in 1943, the other films in the series date from immediately post-WWII until the early 60s and take in an amazing array of content, directors and actors (mostly unknown, which was a hallmark of the genre, though some -- Magnani, Mastroianni, Gassman, Mangano, Lollobrigida and the like (that's Gina in Bread, Love and Dreams, above) -- would become household names in Italy and wherever international cinema mattered). Director-wise, the big guns on view may be Lattuada, Rossellini, DeSica, Rosi, Germi, Olmi, Pasolini and even Antonioni and Fellini (the latter two are not now known as neorealists, yet they worked in and passed through the genre), but you'll find plenty of lesser-known but deserving names like Lizzani, Comencini, De Santis and Pagliero among the directors whose work is honored here.

Pagliero's Roma, città libera (Rome: Free City), though nowhere near as impressive as Rossellini's Roma, città aperta (known in the USA as Open City and which Pagliero himself appeared in as an actor) is still a fascina-
ting and often funny look at survival schemes of the working (and stealing) class in post-war Italy. It's rather amazing to think that Italians were able to laugh at themselves so soon after WWII (the film was made in 1946). Pagliero's movie also offers a chance to see the beautiful and talented Valentina Cortese and Vittorio De Sica (such humor & charm) in plum roles.

Italian neorealism sprang from the situation in Italy during and immediately after WWII, once Mussolini and the Facists had been eliminated and/or melded into the new post-war society. While the films generally deal with the poor and working class, they sometimes glancingly show us the well-to-do. Their sense of immediacy and reality was shocking in their time and can still surprise us. The use of real locations, non-professional actors and even something as simple (but tricky to use) as available light have since influence film styles and directors as different as Jules Dassin and Lars von Trier, the French New Wave and America's 50s-style docudramas. And the sometimes surprising tonal changes may well have influenced a guy like Tarantino.

What constitutes Italian neorealism has been argued about for decades -- most recently (and interestingly) by A.O. Scott and Richard Brody. However one defines it, TrustMovies is happy to bask in as many of the examples as the FSLC wants to toss his way, then consider them, and their place in in the canon, at his leisure. He hopes you'll have some time to do the same.

For me, the biggest treat may be finally seeing a movie I'd long heard of but had somehow managed to miss till now: Vittorio De Sica's SHOESHINE. The first foreign language film to be nominated for a best-original-screenplay Oscar, the film is a beautifully photo-
graphed and told story of two street boys (played by Rinaldo Smor-
doni, left, and Franco Interlenghi), their love for each other and a horse, and their (and their elders') criminal shenanigans that get them tossed into prison. The look at the life of juvenile incarceration that the movie gives us remains rich, powerful, funny, surprising and extremely moving. The performances, too, hold up well -- better in Shoeshine I'd say, than do some performances in other of the films from actors much more famous than the kids on view here.

Italian neorealism set the bar for realism in its own time, and yet some of the scenes we see in Shoeshine seem almost sentimental in their kindness and caring. Times and mores change, it's true, yet the world that DeSica has created has its own truth and beauty -- as worth experiencing now as when it was originally made.

Shoeshine shows Wednesday, November 4th, at 3:20 and again Sunday, November 8, at 9pm. All screenings of the Life Lessons series are at the Walter Reade Theater at NYC's Lincoln Center. You can find the entire program here.

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