Why (ITALIAN GENRE FILM) Matters by Nigel Maskell of Italian Film Review

Italian genre film matters. For Italian audiences it mattered because it responds to the challenging  political and social  climate in postwar Italy and it did so with an authentic Italian voice.  When the voice of history is supposed to be that of its victors it is especially important that it is the voice of the liberated is not drowned out, no matter how unintentionally, by the voice of the liberator.  How, after all, could Hollywood have possibly helped Italians to understand the corrupting influence of the Mafia, the assassination of Aldo Moro, the Bologna massacre or the idiocy and ineptitude at the heart of the post-war political establishment?

If any should doubt how and why Italian filmmakers addressed the challenge of the Hollywood movie machine they could do far worse than begin with Steno's Un americano a Roma. Co-written by Lucio Fulci, the “American” in Rome, played by the great Alberto Sordi, is a young Italian man who is seduced by an America of his dreams that is constructed entirely on Hollywood movies, comics, gum and baseball. In this he is a figure-of-fun.  The target here is, of course, not American culture.   Instead the filmmakers concentrate on those who are seduced by Americana.  It would not, however, be enough to have a laugh at the expense of the young and their love of all things American.  If Italian film was to succeed then it would have to adapt to changing fashions and tastes, including a taste for all things American.  It would mean that the Italian directors would make “American” movies, such as westerns or Rock n Roll movies. But it would do so in an Italian way. It would mean Westerns filmed in the Almeria desert region of  Spain, with Italian directors, and international casts. It would also mean youth-oriented Rock n Roll musicals with local stars such as the delightful Adriano Celentano. It would mean a journey into a 1001 genres and subgenres; some of them homegrown and others not so much so.

This leads us nicely to filone.  The concept of filone  describes both genres and waves.   The history of post-war genre film is one of a series of  film  genre waves within which filmmakers both attempted to connect with the desires of the audience and at the same time make something that was distinct from dozens of other titles that would be vying for attention within a particular film cycle.  There would  be a insatiable hunger for entertainment of the cinema going public that would be have to be met.

What began with during  the “Italian Spring” of 1945 as Neorealism  would lead to a cinema system that, at is peak in the 1970s, would be churning out over 300 films per year.   Often these would be little more than “hat movies” whereby a genre shift was no more than a costume change away.  So a Spaghetti Western could, easily enough, be remade as a Macaroni Combat or Poliziotteschi while a Women in Prison film could be re-costumed as a Nazisploitation or a Convent Sexy  with a Isla-like “wicked warden” type dominatrix being recast as a  love camp bordello madam or a stern Mother Superior of a Balsorano Castle based ribald nunnery being interchangeable and indistinguishable apart from the clothes on the back and the hat on the head.

Sure enough Italian genre film directors were responsible for the occasional turkey. But this is, in itself, understandable. After all, directors-for-hire rushed their titles to market to cash-in on a particular wave.  But in amongst this fevered cinematic hyperactivity the world would be treated to the product of  some of the most creative, and at times excessive, movie-making in the history of cinema.  From the Zapata Western to the commedia sexy all'italiana, creative voices, rather than give into the temptation to provide the pure escapism that was so characteristic of film of the fascist era, would, time and again, address the very real and pressing concerns of the target audience. They would make philosophy, art and polemic that, due to a blurring of the lines, would be indistinguishable from low-rent trashy fun.

It was a story of revival that, in essence, began in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and with a generation of filmmakers influenced by the radical ideas of  Antonio Gramsci. Even though communist theorist  Gramsci died in 1937 he had an incredible influence on postwar Italian cinema.  The resurgent Marxist left, influenced by his notions of cultural hegemony sought, through the publication of a film theory journal, to shape postwar Italian cinema.  Cinema is, after all, matters. It is an essential tool end defining, conveying and projecting the values and concerns of society. As such it was a serious political issue in a time of reconstruction.

While Mussolini had destroyed countless reels of Italian cinematic history he nevertheless understood the importance of film and his legacy was the Italian studio system and especially the world famous Cinecittà. However, in the immediate aftermath of the war, this was used as a camp for the displaced.  As with fascism, the film system created in its image lay in ruins and had to be recreated from the bottom up.  For the Italian left this presented a particular political question: who was going to shape post war Italian film.  In attempting to answer this the left would, in effect, be also dealing with the issue of not  simply  what stories were going to be told, but who would be doing the storytelling.  For a radical generation of filmmakers this was certainly not going to be Hollywood!  These adherents of Gramsci would be compelled, by conviction, to do it the Italian way.

Though this is not to say that Italian genre films are issues movies.  Indeed, they are far from it.   Without a ready audience it would be impossible to convey any sort of message at all and this leads to what is the great appeal of Italian genre films.  For the movies, more often than not, are populist crowd-pleasers.  They are films that at least do attempt to hit the sweet spot of the audience.  To do this producers were not afraid to borrow liberally from what was popular and even, on occasion, go as far as presenting their films as official sequels.  Sometimes this may be by hitching their clone wagon to an Italian success such as Blood and Black Lace or Django and at other times even to international movies such as Rambo, The Godfather, Jaws, Evil Dead or The Terminator.

So, if these Italian genre films are something that deal with issues that can't possibly resonate internationally or if they reheat already successful American themes for the B movie or VHS market, then why should  it matter to the rest of us? Why do we need a Leone western when we have a Ford or why a Fulci zombie film when we already have a Romero? Well, I think Martin Scorsese hit the nail on the head when he spoke of "the smugglers". These were the directors who were able to break through the rigidity of the producer-as-author theme that dominated the biggest American studios.  They were the directors who could, at least up to a point, do things their own way and "smuggle" personal themes and stylistic signatures into a project that was not of their defining.  These were directors who would be most able to shine on the smaller independent productions. These,  post-war Italian cinema had in abundance.

Ideas pitched with little more than a title and a budget would leave the skilled artist, the cinematic outlaw-maverick and idealist-auteur the space to create provided they delivered a product within budget and on time.  They could, up to a point, do things their way.  Happily stealing shots guerilla-style they would be able to experiment with styles such as  Justerini & Brooks soaked surrealism or Pop Art, tackle tricky themes such as incest, bestiality, necrophilia or infanticide and take cinema to  censor-defying gore fuelled excess. In doing so they could rewrite the rules of film, recast the notion of narrative and often due to necessity, but sometimes by choice, would redefine what it is we understand as film. Not only that, but this would all be done in a way that was both politically and socially relevant, but  also wildly entertaining.  It may be film the Italian way, but, as the VHS generation was to discover,  it was a beautiful  gift to the world.

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