26 December 2013

Va' Pensiero: Storie Ambulanti (2013)

For various reasons the subject of African immigration doesn't make it to screens very often in Italy, but a new movie was brought to my attention that adds to this subgenre. Va' Pensiero: storie ambulanti, directed by a rescued immigrant named Dagwami Yimer, tells the story of several African immigrants and their struggle to survive in an unwelcoming country. I haven't yet seen the film because it is just being released in Italy and may not make it to an American theater, but hopefully this post will at least attract the attention that I think this film necessarily deserves. I am posting some sources to videos made by the crew of the film, including an interview with the cast and several video diaries. None of them are particularly satisfying without having seen the film, though. 

Italy has, at first glance, a somewhat unique rich-country problem: its socioeconomic relationship with its poorer immigrants is horribly 'behind' by contemporary standards. The European immigrant now enjoys legal integration, but African immigrants, particularly black Africans, are held to unjust social and legal standards in the black market, no pun intended. Part of this treatment is racist, but as I've learned, Italians don't approach racism from the same angle that Americans do; the term racism isn't quite relevant in the sense that skin color alone does not necessarily motivate anti-immigration sentiment. Part of it is also legal - Italy does not have a clear legal framework to naturalize citizens who weren't born in Italy, nor does its visa system make it easy to work there. Mostly, though, it is cultural. The Italian "imagined community," to quote Benedict Anderson's often used phrase, simply does not include people from outside of Italy. The very concept of becoming Italian sounds strange indeed.

Although I don't know if the people involved in Yimer's film want to become Italian, I do know that their struggle to make a living is worth attention. Va' Pensiero is an attempt to shine light on marginalized Africans who immigrated to Italy to work and support their families within the cultural framework that I described above. Drawing connections to Verdi's hugely popular opera song "Va' Pensiero," Yimer argues that Africans are being held back by the Italian people, much like the Hebrew slaves who sing the song, and that they have as much right to live and work in Italy as Italians do. By also attaching Verdi's legacy to this documentary, Yimer is claiming a certain degree of Italian-ness in his role as director.

Yimer is also clearly motivated by African griot storytelling, as the film's website quotes him stating that the griot "accompanies the story of the incident from a remote past that seems to continue to persecute the victims (accompagna il racconto degli avvenimenti partendo da un passato remoto che sembra continuare a perseguitare le vittime)". That the director is an immigrant in Italy and that he has created a film with both African and Italian qualities places Yimer among the ranks of those who have decided to speak out about the inequality they face in their lives.

To illustrate Yimer's point, the very timely and horrifying scandal involving Cécile Kyenge comes to mind. Kyenge, a Congo-born immigrant, was selected as the new Italian Minister for Integration. Embarrassingly for the Italian government, she was harassed and threatened by politicians when she arrived at her new job and has since become the shining example of Italian racism and bigotry. To see a video of her at the film's screening, see video diary 3

None of this should come as a surprise from a country that treats its poorer immigrants the way depicted in Yimer's film. It will be interesting to see what impact Va' Pensiero has across Italy as it is gradually released throughout the country.

Click here to see the trailer on Vimeo.
Interview (italiano)


Diaries (italiano)

1 - https://vimeo.com/81596199
2 - https://vimeo.com/81830669
3 - https://vimeo.com/82045341


Nonleggerlo, Will. "Kyenge, cento giorni di insulti". L'Espresso. 19 August 2013. http://espresso.repubblica.it/palazzo/2013/08/19/news/kyenge-cento-giorni-di-insulti-1.57931

Scherer, Steve. "Insight: African immigrants use films and books to fight Italian racism". Reuters. 22 December 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/22/us-italy-migrants-racism-insight-idUSBRE9BL02220131222

Va' Pensiero: storie ambulanti website

08 December 2013

La Grande Bellezza / The Great Beauty (2013)

Note: I originally wrote this post previous to the 2013 European Oscars Film Awards, and the recent recognition for La Grande Bellezza (including European Film, Director, Editor, and Actor) only adds to my assertions on the film's popular appeal, which I make below.

One of the reasons I am fascinated by Rome and films about Rome is the juxtaposition of elements that envelops and shapes the course of its history. Whether one walks through the scattered ruins of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, littered with over two-thousand years of architectural and cultural history, to the current slow-motion political ping-pong that brings politicians from far-right, far-left, and everything in-between to Montecitorio, Rome has long set the standard for putting things together in quite unusual and, sometimes, painstaking ways.
Contemporary, juxtaposed Rome

This juxtaposition is rather unique to this particular city, and quite different from cities like Dubai (with its unsustainable desert skyscrapers) or Rio de Janeiro (with a poverty line clearly visible from above), for example. Roman juxtaposition surfaces in several Italian films from the past century. Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza / The Great Beauty is one of them.

The storyline is a smattering of scenes related to the latter years of the life of the high-society author, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). Jep, who is aptly Neopolitan, narrates the film from a detached point of view, using Rome as the setting for all of the film's episodes. At points his voice is off-screen (and in textbook Italian), and at points he explains things in 'foreign' dialect to those involved in his daily rituals of sauntering about Rome, partying until the night's end, and interviewing people for the newspaper that he writes for. Overarching this rough narrative structure is his desire to write another novel, which he hasn't done in over forty years.

I find it challenging to assign meaning to this film. In some ways it is a pastiche of Federico Fellini's filmmaking techniques. In some ways it is not. My first impression of the film is that it is the bastard child of a ménage à trois between Fellini's La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Roma. Moreover, one could write an entire book comparing Fellini's depictions of Rome and Sorrentino's. For the sake of length, I wish to highlight a few important similarities with Fellini's well-known films and also question the film's use of juxtaposition, within the text and between texts.

On the macro scale, the film expresses the role of the Italian director as storyteller, a hallmark of the Fellini era. This can then get very specific: these films share phallocentric narration and employ the protagonist as a guide to the text. In La Grande Bellezza and in La Dolce Vita, our storytellers are detached writers; in 8 1/2 he is a hapless director; and in Roma, Fellini himself is the storyteller via the camera.

And even more specifically, there are direct ties to La Dolce Vita within the film. Jep alludes to a sea monster in La Grande Bellezza, while Fellini shows one. Using the same set as Fellini, Sorrentino places a magician and a giraffe in the famous baths of Caracalla, amounting to a circus act that Fellini would have approved of; "It's all a trick," the magician says. But perhaps the most obvious allusion is the mysterious key man who gives Jep and his lover, Ramona, a night tour of Rome. Dressed in strikingly similar haute couture with the same candelabra, Sorrentino's characters are firmly situated within a time and space detached from reality by juxtaposing the so-called glorious past with the superficial present.

Candelabra and setting in La Dolce Vita

Candelabra and setting in La Grande Bellezza

Fashion and dress in La Dolce Vita

Fashion and dress in La Grande Bellezza
Both films utilize chiaroscuro lighting in these scenes with different outcomes; in Fellini's scene the lack of light is spooky, while in Sorrentino's it is romantic and endearing. In addition, the episodic structure and fragmented editing of Fellini's masterpiece is directly reflected in Sorrentino's film. The editing is jumpy, erratic, static; shots fly at you, they swoon, stop, and sweep. Combined with myriad jib camera movements, widely varying shot lengths, and static shots, the pace of the film is hard to pinpoint. This in turn supports an episodic structure. In one instance, Sorrentino even uses the same episode as Fellini by including the "saint" Maria, which closely mirrors the episode in La Dolce Vita when two children create a spectacle when they see the virgin Mary under a tree. Furthermore, the endings of both films are almost identical: in both, the last shot is an image of a young woman looking toward the camera, cut to black, followed by the title of the film over a black screen.

Juxtaposed one step further with Fellini's ouvre, Sorrentino adds a dose of reality to his film to give it contemporary relevance. Mixing current events with the film has the effect of bringing it out of the clouds and down to earth again. The island, Isola del Giglio, where Jep falls in love, is also conveniently the site of the recent Costa Concordia cruise ship wreck. Given that his editor begs him to write an article about the wreck at the beginning of the film, it is also a timely narrative opportunity for Jep to come to terms with his lost love toward the end of the film.

Another aspect of La Grande Bellezza's contemporary relevance is its out of touch, high-society purview. Indeed, the spectacle of the rich in Rome, from pop singers to decaying nobility, combined with modern cinematography, imbue the film with a commercial feeling similar to a Gucci perfume advertisement. As Fellini used Nico and Adriano Celentano, Sorrentino uses popular figures like Antonello Vinditti and Sabrina Ferilli to allude to the mini-spectacle of the 2001 National Championship game in which Ferilli gambled to emerge nude at Vinditi's concert if Rome won. Notably above the street, overlooking the city, Jep's swank apartment is literally next door to the Coliseum and Nero's gardens, yet none of these shots include a single tourist and they hardly ever feature a pedestrian without cocktail attire. Is this really today's Rome? It seems as if his characters live in the Rome of the past, when tourists were few(er), nuns were ubiquitous, and prime real estate was within a journalist's salary range.

In the end, all of these contemporary allusions enhance the film's relevance and Rome's artistic importance, but they also firmly separate it from reality in the sense that they mimic, and perhaps mock, current events. Superficial juxtapositions of real events and realistic events thus blurs the lines between art and commercialization. In a time where excessive wealth is particularly frowned upon in southern Europe, Sorrentino posits his characters as out of touch with reality. Perhaps for this reason, Maurizio Acerbi titled his review of the film, "La dolce vita è diventata amara (the sweet life became bitter)", with direct reference to Fellini's optimistic decadence.

This brings us back the original dilemma: what meaning are we to make of this film? Why does Sorrentino go through so much trouble to juxtapose present and past? Given that La Grande Bellezza earned handsome returns within Italy, repaying its budget in the domestic market in its first weekend, suggests popular support. And given the alternatives for audiences in tongue-and-cheek rom-coms and family dramas in Italian theaters today, the film is a breath of fresh air, but barely exportable. Is this, then a commentary made for Italy? Has the sweet life for Sorrentino indeed "gone sour"?

Perhaps the great beauty of Rome lies in Sorrentino's juxtaposed presentation of the city as both prison and playground, inspiration and distraction. La Grande Bellezza thus serves as a stark reminder of the faltering Italian capital, while also decadently distracting the viewer from this very fact.

Box office statistics from BoxOfficeMojo.com and MyMovies.it

Further Reading
Acerbi, Maurizio. "La dolce vita è diventata amara," Il Giornale, 30 May 2013. http://www.mymovies.it/film/2013/lagrandebellezza/pubblico/?id=667618

Vivarelli, Nick. "Italo Film Industry Elated About 'Great Beauty' Golden Globe Win," Variety, 13 January, 2014. http://variety.com/2014/film/news/italo-film-industry-elated-about-great-beauty-golden-globe-win-1201051797/

8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1960)
LA DOLCE VITA (Federico Fellini, 1960)
ROMA (Federico Fellini, 1972)

29 January 2013

The Formation of National Identity in the Italian Musical: A Study of Carosello Napoletano (1954)

The following essay is adapted from a presentation I gave at the University of Southampton Genre Beyond Hollywood Postgraduate Conference, 2012.

Labeled a nonexistent genre, one of popular escapism, and indebted to American influence, the Italian musical has become a misunderstood and often overlooked genre that merits further study and clarification within Italian national cinema studies. Simone Arcagni argues that due to the Hollywood production standards and theatrical precedents of the musical genre, the Italian musical was considered a one-hit wonder, and exists solely in the form of Carosello Napoletano / Neapolitan Carousel (Ettore Giannini, 1954). However, many other Italian films with musically-waxed narratives, singing, and dancing clearly exist. How does Arcagni account for this discrepancy? Furthermore, if Carosello is indeed the only Italian musical, an assertion which I openly challenge, then what differentiates this musical from other musical films produced in Italy? I argue that what distinguishes Carosello Napoletano is its creation of a sense of hybridized national identity that is reworked in future Italian musicals, and that these newer musicals do not merit a separation from the musical genre.
First, I will provide a basic industrial and cultural context for the production of the Italian musical, which will outline Carosello’s relationship to the influence of the American film industry (Hollywood). Second, I will analyze cultural representations in Carosello and the way that Italian identity is formed and sustained through what Arcagni calls “fragmented structure” (struttura frammentaria) and what Daniela Treveri Gennari calls a “cross-fertilisation process”. Although I focus mostly on Carosello Napoletano, I will also draw comparisons to later Italian musicals and their representations of national identity such as the musicarelli of the 60s and 70s, Roberta Torre’s “postmodern” musicals from the 90s, and John Turturro’s musical documentary Passione / Passion (2010). In briefly touching upon these newer musicals, I challenge the belief that the Italian musical is a “one film genre.”

Music, industrial influence, and Italian identity
Early musical films combined the arts, opera, and the commedia dell’arte, which struck a chord with diverse Italian audiences. In tandem with the changing Italian industrial economy, an individualist rationale, a lower birth rate, and other aspects of modernization, the musical film evolved at the end of World War II. As a result of the collapse of fascism in Italy, the invasion of the American film industry in Italy can be seen in the significant proportion of American films screened and consumed in Italy during the time of production of Carosello. In 1954 alone (the year of Carosello’s release), American films claimed 56% of box-office intake as opposed to 36.2% of Italian films, accounting for some 800 million total film spectators. As Daniela Treveri Gennari argues, there was a considerable amount of American influence in political and religious circles.
Giulio Andreotti
She mentions the influential Giulio Andreotti, aka the Little Pope, of the ruling post-war Christian Democrat party as a key figure in the connection between the Italian government, the Pope, and the United States (On a side note, Andreotti is still in the Italian government and has been deemed Senator for Life, one of the highest political honors in Italy). Added to this connection between church and state, Andreotti was instrumental to the changing film environment as he “executed a cinema policy that sought both to respect Catholic morality and to favour the American film production industry.” However, Andreotti’s production laws instituted conflicting protections for national films by limiting the importation of American films, while at the same time increasing funding for domestic production with American money. As Pierre Sorlin argues, this constant battle between domestic producers and international interests is not so much an issue of protecting national identity or promoting values; instead, he says it is “no more than the attempt of professionals to keep in the business.” I would argue that, based on these facts, a careful balance of audience interest, cinema law, the business of domestic production, and the systemic preference toward Catholic values and American films can be traced in Carosello. Indeed, the mixture of industrial, cultural, and creative elements along these lines suggests that this is a film of the hybrid kind, neither completely Italian nor American, Catholic or secular. Its outstanding quality is its ability to fuse fragments of national and international influence into a unique representation of Italian identity.

Carosello and fragmented structure
Arcagni attributes the struttura frammentaria of Italian musicals to the variety show, in which random acts would alternate within one continuous spectacle. As it shares similarities with the narrative flow of the theater, this fragmentation of the continuous spectacle has “defined the experience of [the Italian] musical” and paved the way for the film revue (la rivista), which “attempts, for the first time, to create unity in the spectacle.” This type of unified, yet fragmented, narrative structure is precisely what Carosello resurrects in its treatment of the history of Naples, as it was originally a touring play written also by Giannini, the director. Unlike earlier filmed plays, Carosello does not seek an exact reproduction of its literary or historical text, but rather a new “linguistic approach” that employs attributes of the American musical as a way to seamlessly fuse fragments of Italian history.
So how does this fragmentation create a unified narrative in Carosello? By looking at other well-received American musicals released in Italy around the time of Carosello, notably An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Guys and Dolls, a trend emerges that marks similarities with the narrative structure and mise-en-scène of Carosello. In these American films, heterosexual romance is psychologically negotiated through a progressive narrative of magnificent song and dance numbers, in what Rick Altman terms “the American film musical as dual-focus narrative.”
Paolo Stoppa leads the family as well as the story.
In Carosello, this dual-focus structure is fragmented between the progressive narrative of the homeless musical family, led by Don Salvatore (Paolo Stoppa), as they are constantly displaced on the streets of Naples. Each movement of the family elicits a distinct song and dance sequence that ruptures a sense of the present by progressively inserting past historical events.
In one particular scene, Stoppa explains the history of trade in Naples. It starts with the development of trade and the insertion of the foreign into the Italian community. The various audiovisual, spatial, and temporal interruptions and juxtapositions in the trade sequence are no exception. The whole film continues in this manner, telling history by mixing it with past and present. The combination of operatic music and staging with jazz, the juxtaposition of Italian and English, and the literal split set between past and present (going from left to right), suggest a connectedness that is difficult to deconstruct. In addition, the extremely crowded compositions create an entity teeming with particularities that necessitates that the eye darts around looking for pieces of information. This narrative and stylistic stitching occurs so often in Carosello that it is the defining rule by which Ettore Giannini “hides many threads that weave the story of the theater and the cinema beside the Italian musical” and unites the history of Naples into a cohesive structure. The layering of sequences and a piecemeal musical score in Carosello supports Arcagni’s assertion that it is this fragmented structure which lends itself to a unique Italian musical, analogous to the American musical. Despite obvious gaps in history, Carosello creates a sense of unity through its fragmented, and perhaps intentionally omitted, representations of the past, like its lack of mention of World War II. The final scene of Carosello sums all of these aspects nicely, culminating in a grandiose finale number rarely seen in Italian cinema:


Carosello’s fragmentation creates a choreographed spectacle of the Italian mass in an attempt to elicit a harmonious sense of community and commonality, but its sheer narrative excess, saturated imagery, and solid two-hour score turn a blind eye to historical relevancy. What accounts for Carosello’s contradicting structure is that it represents an attempt to define Neapolitan and Italian history through the lens of an international industrial framework, namely the competition with contemporaneous American musicals, as mentioned previously. Therefore, Carosello’s contradictory structure and historical representations, bundled in an excessive spectacle, call attention to the “cross-fertilisation” of American and Italian musical characteristics. One way of looking at Carosello’s American-ness can be the way it translates American musical elements into a metaphor for Italy itself, its culture, values, and identity, whether imaginary or real.

The formation of the national in Carosello Napoletano and the Italian musical
Pierre Sorlin asserts that the main challenge to Italian cinema was, and is, the need to produce, distribute, and exhibit films within a global capitalist market that simultaneously resonated with fragmented domestic regions. When applying Sorlin’s two main Italian national traits, Catholicism and communalism, to Carosello, there are obvious similarities, but also striking differences in relation to these characteristics. While the film revolves around the importance of family and community cohesion through Don Salvatore’s migrant street family, as well as touching upon the Catholic Adam and Eve ballet sequence, it also deviates to include other, not-so-Christian representations of the female body...
Clearly, these “self-contradictory structures” show in Carosello, highlighting the differences between national interests and cultural tastes. Carosello also molds Italian nationality by introducing characters throughout the film that represent other nations.
The city is constantly bombarded with foreigners: from the beginning we witness the invasion of the Saracen pirates, the European traders who strip Nadia Gray (as a symbol of Naples), then the Gershwin-esque American sailor who causes the harbor to freeze for a moment while he saunters in, and also the loathsome Scandinavian tourist (Gustafsson) who complains of the noise (but later starts a business in Naples). These contrasts delineate not only the cohesiveness of the Naples’ harbor community, but also the acceptance of foreigners in the Italians’ daily activities. In the end it is difficult to determine what is untouched by foreigners, or whether foreign influence has had a positive or negative effect on the local community. As the community embraces these outside influences, the result is a mixed culture of global influence, set in the perfect community. Even the film’s content and distribution, with its blend of Neapolitan folk song, Italian opera techniques, and American jazz, the fact that it was partially filmed in Rome, and the Grand Prix it received at Cannes would also suggest a broad acknowledgement of the hybridization of Italian cultural and national specificities.
Interestingly, Carosello was challenged by Achille Lauro, the Mayor of Naples at the time of the film’s release, as “exhibiting to foreigners that jumble of clichés that seem collected and mixed together by an enemy of Italy and Italians." Although Lauro considered Carosello as misleading, the wide success of the film contradicts this statement. Reviewed and praised by audiences and critics at the time, Carosello did very well at the box-office, and was praised by Gianni Rondolino as “one of the first and most valid examples of the Italian ‘film revue’.” Carosello still maintains a positive critical reception as an example of Italian culture. Out of several recent reviews, critics have described Carosello to be “unanimously considered as an authentic masterpiece,” or “a vintage jewel…that challeng[ed] Hollywood,” and that it “represented the sense of a culture.” I would argue that the domestic and international acclaim would strongly suggest that Giannini’s film did not fit comfortably within a purely national framework. Carosello’s exceptional quality is its hybridity. The successful weaving of regional, national, and international specificities through music, culture, and foreign influence set the standard for future Italian musicals.
Arcagni’s entire book is set upon the “one film genre claim,” but he confusingly proceeds to define other types of musicals using terms that subdivide the genre, such as the musicarello, “rock musical,” and the “postmodern musical.” I agree that an essential definition of the musical genre would be problematic, particularly from a non-Italian perspective, but these films all exhibit generic qualities that do not compartmentalize very neatly. Although they differ in form and content from Carosello Napoletano, the Rita Pavone star films like Rita la Zanzara / Rita the Mosquito (Lina Wertmüller, 1967) and Little Rita nel West / Crazy Westerners (Ferdinando Baldi, 1967) strike me as ‘updated’ musicals, or what Arcagni labels the musicarello. This musical subgenre refers to the period between 1960 to the mid-1970’s that features music for a younger generation, often employing famous singers to play protagonists, with screaming voices (urlatori), that resemble drawn-out music videos with thin, romantic plots. Arcagni asserts that these films are not musicals because the interests of the film center on the music rather than the plot, and they insert new themes, sounds, and rock and roll to create a new category of film.

However, Arcagni’s assertion is problematic because it is impossible to describe these films without referring to their indebtedness to the musical; the films recycle, instead of recreate, Italian themes, such as the spaghetti western or the use of Verdi opera, and introduce new elements like rock and roll, English-language songs, and Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin impersonations to create contemporary appeal.
The Roberta Torre satirical musicals Tano da Morire (1997) and Sud Side Stori / South Side Story (2000) are considered by Arcagni to be “postmodern musicals” due to their indebtedness to Italian television spectacles with different stock characters, and are full of “parodic rereading and the grotesque real.” Both films feature Sicilian communities as they struggle with family, marriage, the Mafia, and religious customs. However local the films’ appeal, there remain ties to foreign influence such as American hip-hop in Tano Da Morire, and Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story as the foundation of Sud Side Stori’s plot. Rather than subdivide the genre, I assert that these films give breadth (and breath) to the Italian musical and contradict Arcagni’s claim that an Italian musical is an exclusive category defined by theatrical codes, whether American or Italian. It is important to include these films, and many others, within the genre because the further it becomes defined along other lines, the easier it is to claim that the Italian musical does not exist at all.

Carosello Napoletano may have been the first recognizable Italian musical, but it certainly is not the last to have surfaced in Italy. John Turturro’s gritty musical documentary Passione (2010) is also set in Naples, features Neapolitan music, and utilizes the people and spaces of the city’s streets, and it still retains hybrid qualities that hearken back to Carosello. It is similar to Carosello in the sense that it uses song and dance to drive an ephemeral narrative about the culture, people, and history of Naples. Furthermore, it features Italian, American, and North African music, foreign languages, gawking crowds and tourists, John Turturro’s American English narration, and a candid, wandering feeling reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (1999). Yet it is still a Neapolitan-focused, Italian musical with global influences like Carosello. That the “process of glocalization” is evidenced in the lineage of these films supports Treveri Gennari’s research on the historically-based and lasting influence of American and foreign film industries in Italian society.

The difficulty of pinning down the Italian musical rests primarily in its definition; for Italians and non-Italians, terminology subjugates these films to categorized scrutiny, but examined cohesively they exhibit a striking dependency on musical narratives, dance, mass spectacle, cultural specificity, religion, communalism, and foreign influence. Achille Lauro’s claim that Carosello Napoletano does a disservice to representations of Italy by jumbling cliches together does not mean that it is not representative of national identity. Instead, his claim highlights the fluidic and diverse tastes of Italian audiences, producers, distributors, and exhibitors as they collectively reform Italian identity and its cinematic representations.

Arcagni, Simone. Dopo Carosello: Il Musical Cinematografico Italiano. Alessandria: Ed. Falsopiano, 2006.

Brunetta, Gian Piero. The History of Italian Cinema: A Guide to Italian Film from its Origins to the Twenty-First Century. Translated by Jeremy Parzen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Caprara, Valerio. Spettabile Pubblico: Carosello Napoletano di Ettore Giannini. Naples: Guida, 1998.

Dalle Vacche, Angela. The Body in the Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Higson, Andrew. “The Concept of National Cinema.” Screen 30, no. 4 (1989): 36-47. http://screen.oxfordjournals.org/content/30/4/36.extract

Landy, Marcia. Italian Film. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Mereghetti, Paolo. “La Napoli del Cinema che Achille Lauro Censurò.” Corriere della Sera, 14 November 2006. http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/2006/novembre/14/Napoli_del_cinema_che_Achille_co_9_061114011.shtml.

Pezzotta, Alberto. “Dagli Anni 50 il Raro ‘Carosello Napoletano’.” Corriere della Sera, 6 March 2005. http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/2005/marzo/06/Dagli_Anni_raro_Carosello_napoletano_co_7_050306149.shtml.

Porro, Maurizio. “Sette Quadri Musicali con Sophia Loren.” Corriere della Sera, 21 August 2007. http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/2007/agosto/21/Sette_quadri_musicali_con_Sophia_co_9_070821055.shtml.

Smith, Anthony. National Identity. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991.

Sorlin, Pierre. Italian National Cinema, 1896-1996. London: Routledge, 1996.

Treveri Gennari, Daniela. Post-war Italian Cinema: American Intervention, Vatican Interests. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Willemen, Paul. Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Further reading
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2006. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.01609.

Comuzio, Ermanno. “Il Musical Italiano. Un Fantasma?” Cineforum 48, no. 2 (2008): 96. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88 -2004&res_dat=xri:fiaf&rft_dat=xri:fiaf:fulltext:005/1467310551.

Bolton, Lucy and Christina Siggers Manson, eds. Italy on Screen: National Identity and Italian Imaginary. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

Bondanella, Peter. A History of Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York; London: Continuum, 2009.

Dyer, Richard. Nino Rota: Music, Film, and Feeling. New York: Palgrave Macmillan on behalf of the British Film Institute, 2010.

Grassi, Giovanna. “Francesco Rosi: ‘Il Cinema Deve Entrare nelle Scuole’.” Corriere della Sera, 55, 10 January 2004. http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/2004/gennaio/10/Francesco_Rosi_cinema_deve_entra re_co_10_040110066.shtml.

Piepergerdes, Brent. “Re-envisioning the Nation: Film Neorealism and the Postwar Italian Condition.” ACME 6, no. 2 (2007): 231-257. http://www.acme -journal.org/vol6/BJP.pdf.

Russell, Catherine. “Senso.” Cineaste 36, no. 3 (2011): 52-54. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:fiaf&rft_dat=xri:fiaf:fulltext:004/0389700.

Speck, Oliver. “Addressing European Identity in National Cinemas.” Film International 4, no. 21 (2006): 112-114. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88 -2004&res_dat=xri:fiaf&rft_dat=xri:fiaf:fulltext:004/0335085.

CAROSELLO NAPOLETANO (Ettore Giannini, 1954)
LITTLE RITA NEL WEST (Ferdinando Baldi, 1967)
PASSIONE (John Turturro, 2011)
RITA LA ZANZARA (Lina Wertmüller, 1967)
SUD SIDE STORI (Roberta Torre, 2000)
TANO DA MORIRE (Roberta Torre, 1997)

01 July 2012

Pasolini's Pimps and Prostitutes: Accattone, Mamma Roma, and the Popular

The following essay was written for the Popular European Cinema: Italy 1960 module at King's College London with professor Richard Dyer.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s body of films has received much critical attention for its artistic, mythic, and cultural qualities, as well as its foundations in linguistics and film form. Because many of his films take place in a pre-industrial realm, many critics focus their attention on literature, myth, or the sacred. However, Pasolini’s first two films, Accattone / The Scrounger (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), deviate from this realm and root his characters firmly within the social realities of the Roman slums around 1960. As I will argue in this essay, these two films are a product of the economic changes in Italy during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, but they also seek to preserve a certain past ideal through those who least benefit from these socioeconomic developments. As Angelo Restivo and Dimtris Eleftheriotis assert, it is difficult to analyze these films within the context of art cinema while divorcing them from the capitalist restructuring of the economy in which these films operate and are consumed. In particular, these two films revolve around the idea of the popular, or at least a certain idealization of the popular embodied in the specificity of the Roman borgate culture on the fringes of the city.
As Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau note in their book Popular European Cinema, “the term ‘popular’ is notoriously slippery or, alternatively, rich.” The use of the word “rich” here has a useful connotation; on one hand, popular cinema may refer to films that produce great wealth or are well-received by many people, while on the other hand they may appeal to cultural diversity or a conception of ‘the people’. It is this notion of the popular as a “cultural dialectic,” as Stuart Hall calls it, which is the condition of being at once part of particular classes of society but also intrinsically tied to dominant hegemonic systems, which provides fodder for popular cinema analyses like this essay. In the context of Pasolinian cinema, the people (il popolo) connotes the “lumpenproletariat” that operates outside of, or runs parallel to, bourgeois hegemony. In these two films, I will use the pimp-prostitute relationship as a representation of Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the national-popular within the socioeconomic conditions of the post-war years. Although these films were questionably popular in terms of profit and immediate critical acclaim, Pasolini certainly blended successful popular genres like melodrama and comedy in order to portray the culture of the Roman subproletariat. To measure the monetary success of these films is important, but scholars conflict each other about the performance and reception of Accattone and Mamma Roma. Vittorio Spinazzola, for example, states that he is “struck by the positivity of [Accattone’s] economic performance,” which he lists as 388 million lire, “a very notable figure for a film made by non-professionals, free from erotic exhibitions, with a hard spoken dialect and a deliberately ungrammatical visual language.” Of Mamma Roma Spinazzola states that the film brought in less than half at the box-office due to certain weaknesses. John David Rhodes also realizes a weakness in Mamma Roma, but attributes this instead to Pasolini’s awareness of the polemic response to Accattone’s release. He notes that “Accattone was threatened with censorship, admission to it was restricted…and the film was temporarily pulled from screens…it was also the object of much abuse by the mainstream.” Although both scholars illustrate valid points about both films, these contrasts illustrate the “slippery” aspect of the term popular.
In this respect I will organize my analysis around Hall’s popular dialectic: the first part will focus on the popular as the cultural organization of “social and material conditions of particular classes” in relation to the Gramscian national-popular, while the second part will draw on dominant hegemonic systems in the form of popular genres like melodrama and comedy, and how they are represented in the pimp-prostitute relationship in terms of an ethical and aesthetic orientation. I will also turn to several other films for their depiction of similar subjects, although there are others: Le Notti di Cabiria / Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957) and La Commare Secca / The Grim Reaper (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962), which Pasolini served as a screenwriter in both cases, Nella Città l'Inferno / ...and the Wild Wild Women (Renato Castellani, 1958), and Rocco e i Suoi Fratelli / Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960) connect these ideas to a larger trend in popular Italian cinema.

Pasolini, Il popolo, and the Popular
Much has been written on Pasolini’s life and his films; for the interests of this essay I will draw primarily from texts by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Oswald Stack, and Sam Rohdie for the analysis of his representation of the Italian peasantry as well as his views on Italian modernization. I will also use Christine Gledhill’s writing on melodrama for my analysis of popular genre and borgate culture. I also wish to acknowledge Pasolini’s own writing, two books which provide much of the inspiration for the films in question - Ragazzi di Vita / The Ragazzi (1956) and Una Vita Violenta / A Violent Life (1959). These books contain many similarities with the films in question, which also extends their history into the roots of the economic boom.
Although he had served as screenwriter for a number of Cinecittà productions when he first moved to Rome in 1950, Accattone was Pasolini’s first directing role. In his treatment of Vittorio the pimp (Franco Citti), known to his peers as Accattone, Pasolini emphasizes the difficulties of a pimp living a day-to-day existence in extreme poverty. Accattone discovers his prostitute Maddalena has gotten in an accident and broken her leg but forces her to go back to the streets that night. When he tells a rival group of Neapolitan pimps about the incident they rape and beat her in an empty field and leave her for dead. Later she goes to the police and accuses a different group of young men of the crime on purpose, and when her lie is found out she goes to jail. Accattone, without a source of income, resorts to l’arte di arrangiarsi in order to scrounge a living from anyone who will give him money. At one point he goes to his estranged wife to ask for money, but when she refuses he steals a necklace from his infant son to make ends meet. He discovers Stella and entices her to prostitute for him in Maddalena’s place, but when she is unable to please her first client she leaves Accattone hungry and powerless once more. Accattone tries to perform manual labor for a day, but unable to do the job he goes to a thief to find some money. When he gets caught stealing on his first try, he attempts to run away from the police but wrecks a getaway motorcycle and dies. His failure to legitimately execute his desires suggests that he has no reason to live, which sets up the tragic ending.
In Accattone the central focus is on the pimp, whereas in Mamma Roma the plot centers on the prostitute Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani), a boisterous and respected street figure who tries to straighten out her life when her pimp, Carmine (again played by Franco Citti), marries a country woman and leaves her to fend for herself as a market vendor. Mamma Roma brings her adolescent son Ettore back to Rome from the countryside, where he was raised, so that he can enter a life of respectability. She moves to a petit bourgeois neighbourhood in one of the new Roman housing developments, or what Rhodes calls “Pasolini’s oedipal (housing) complex,” and attempts to find Ettore a decent job. Ettore, however, is not used to the city life and resorts to hanging around a group of rascals who rob and lounge around the city, much like the ragazzi di vita in Pasolini’s aforementioned novels. Ettore begins to fall for Bruna, an “upper subproletariat” girl from the neighbourhood who doesn’t care for him in particular. When Mamma Roma discovers that her son is falling for a low-class girl she orchestrates a plan to find Ettore a job and gets a fellow prostitute to have sex with him in order to distract him from Bruna. While the plan works in the short-term, ultimately Ettore quits his job and goes back to Bruna. Meanwhile, Mamma Roma discovers that Carmine has left his wife and since moved back to Rome to find money. He threatens Mamma Roma to work for him or else he will tell Ettore about his mother’s past. Eventually he tells Ettore, and this drives him to reject his mother and join the neighbourhood rascals for a job robbing hospital patients. When Ettore is caught stealing from a sleeping patient, he goes to prison where he dies from an escalation of a previous chronic illness, much like Tommaso in Una Vita Violenta. Upon discovery of her son’s death in confinement, Mamma Roma runs frantically from her market stall to the apartment trailed by the other vendors and attempts to jump out the window. When the others restrain her she is left staring with gigantic eyes out the window that faces the church.
In both films the relationship between pimp and prostitute revolves around the inability for the pimp to find a respectable living due to his prostitute’s unwillingness or inability to work for him. Franco Citti’s appearance in both films creates such narrative continuity that Mamma Roma could just as well be titled Accattone, Part II if Citti hadn’t died in Accattone. The temporal similarities of both narratives are set within the backdrop of rapidly changing Italian urban conditions, which serve to place the films in a particular historic moment that highlights Pasolini’s critique of the effects of modernization on the subproletariat. Pasolini argues that this focus on the peasant class has roots in a pre-bourgeois idealization of humanity which belonged to his “Gramscian, national-popular phase...[which] seemed to suggest the possibility of social-political change.” To elaborate on this idea, I turn to Gramsci’s idea of the national-popular in order to relate this to Pasolini’s depiction of the pimp and prostitute figures in Accattone and Mamma Roma.
Pasolini states in interviews that Gramscian philosophy played a “fundamental role in [his] formation” and that he had been aware of his ideas since 1948. Pasolini even dedicated a poem to Gramsci called Le Cenere di Gramsci / Gramsci’s Ashes, which sought to give “some intrinsic value to popular cultures” and cement his “unorthodox marxism.” While he was a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), Pasolini did not entirely subscribe to its political beliefs and organization. Sam Rohdie mentions that one of Pasolini’s problems with Italian communism, like fascism, was that it “was ideologically populist even though it pursued policies not in the popular interest.” As evidenced in the Fascist Party’s enforcement of one national language and the PCI’s anti-bourgeoisie attitude, Pasolini’s pro-dialect, pre-bourgeois writing did not fit too comfortably with either party’s ideology. The reason why Gramscian marxism is relevant in this discussion is because of its relation to an idea of the people (il popolo), in all their cultural and class differences, as constituting a fundamentally peasant-originating Italian population. It was this common root between the Italian people that appealed to Pasolini, which manifested itself in his early poetry in Friulian dialect and the later appeal of the Roman borgate as a source for his writing and first two films. Not only was the use of regional culture and dialect a political anti-fascist statement, but it was a way to recall an archaic social world that had its own norms and mores similar to the borgate culture and the pimp-prostitute relationship.
It is telling that Gramsci, like Pasolini, had an interest in linguistics, as this signals the importance of communication and space in Italian marxist and communist discourse as a correlative of hegemony. To unpack this statement, it is important to highlight why space and communication are vital components of Italian identity. Within the stark regionalism of Italian culture, the imposition of the nation-state after the Risorgimento and during the fascist period had widespread implications on communication and space. Restivo states that within “this diverse collection of spaces is a conceptual construction – the ‘nation’ – which works in many ways to orchestrate these spaces into ‘coherences’ or structures of meaning,” and it is within film’s realm of narrative space that one can connect the local to the national. Standard Italian in post-war Italy would prove to be an important communicational factor in constructions of space as flocks of Southerners migrated to urban areas. Those who could speak ‘proper’ Italian were in some ways an exclusive, educated ruling class which reinforced inequalities among the population and also the perceived superiority of northern over southern Italy. In Nella Città l'Inferno and Mamma Roma, and indeed in many other Italian films, the north-south and urban-rural differences in dialect serve to ostracize characters even though they may not be of different social classes. Lina (Giulietta Massina) in Nella Città l'Inferno plays the young Venetian maid thrown into jail with a group of rambunctious Roman prostitutes and thieves, and her initial difference is embodied in her northern accent, which the other women immediately make fun of. Similarly in Mamma Roma, Ettore’s ‘hick’ accent is noted by Mamma Roma when he arrives in Rome and serves to differentiate Ettore from the city-folk, even though the borgate dialect is ostensibly low-class as well. Also in Le Notti di Cabiria, the Roman dialect of the pimps and prostitutes (which Pasolini was hired to write) is contrasted with the proper-speaking, fascist-era star Amedeo Nazzari, and is also spatially distinguished in Cabiria’s literal shadowed distance in his modern villa (fig. 1) and ultimate entrapment in the bathroom, only able to watch the upper-class from the other side of a locked door.
fig. 1. The subproletariat as a mere shadow in the presence of the rich.
Because of the lack of any significant means by which to unite the Italian people, Gramsci emphasized the importance of folklore and opera as tools to appeal to Italians of all classes and regions, from the illiterate peasants to the educated industrialists. One inherent problem in this conception of the national-popular, as Steve Jones notes, is that Gramsci’s idea of the national can be seen as ethnically exclusive and linguistically untenable. Citing David Forgacs, Jones mentions the problem of mechanics, in which the very call for a national-popular seems lost in the realm of philosophy without any practical method for implementation.
From here, I will examine how Pasolini’s absorption of Gramsci’s national-popular works in Accattone and Mamma Roma and how this illustrates the difficulty of portraying a popular ideal within a rapidly changing country. Rohdie asserts that these films were evidence of Pasolini’s attempts to reclaim a form of the Gramscian-popular that recalled peasant societies. Pasolini achieves this by depicting the proletariat as mindless slaves when Accattone rejects a day of manual labor (he is the only one to question the need to constantly lift large metal coils), or by highlighting bourgeois complacence through Mamma Roma’s successful plot to frame the restaurant owner. His borgate characters, namely the pimps, prostitutes, loungers, scroungers, and thieves, do not add any productive value to society, and therefore operate on a different set of rules from the contemporary world (which is also symbolically situated between city and country). Within their own social universe, the pimp and prostitute function on their own terms. They also function as an inseparable pair, and when this balance is upset there are grave consequences. For example, Accattone’s self-loathing and his inability to commit to Maddalena and Stella ultimately leads to his death, while Carmine’s return to Mamma Roma rules out her ability to be a mother as he blackmails her to return to the streets.
Furthermore, peripheral locations in Accattone and Mamma Roma serve as a resistance to dominant Italian representations, similar to neorealist films. It is Pasolini’s way of highlighting that which will inevitably be erased in the name of modernization, much like the high-rise flats that seem to feed on the fields of ancient ruins in the backgrounds of many of his shots (fig. 2). Pasolini rarely shoots the city in any recognizable way, and he even edits shots in ways that juxtapose long distances and architectural styles, going against the grain of classical continuity editing. Instead, he locates Rome in a geographically controversial zone. Rhodes writes that this way of shooting and editing “suggests disdain for the typical fantasies inspired by Rome’s cultural and architectural patrimony,” and this works provocatively in both films by weaving the lives of pimps and prostitutes into the industrialization of Italy’s famed urban centers.
fig. 2. Modern Rome encroaches.
As a means by which to highlight a lost world, Pasolini’s portrayal of the plight of the subproletariat seeks to reclaim legitimacy for their survival. His focus on the people of the Roman borgate does not make a value judgement on the subproletariat insomuch as he carves a cultural space for their continued existence. By underlining the peasant culture of a specific region, Pasolini’s films strive for a recognition of the diversity of the Italian people. The Italian government and the Church’s attempts to streamline society along Christian Democrat Party lines during this time represent a vague threat to the subproletariat in these films, and Pasolini’s insistent portrayal of amoral and pre-industrial characters acts as a means of contradiction to these changes. In Mamma Roma, the church plays the key role of organizing the community. Mamma Roma sees her new church as a venue for social networking, and she even asks the priest to help Ettore find a job, but her inability to follow the priest’s advice proves the difficulty of imposing modern times onto subproletariat culture. Both films demonstrate the incongruities between modern Italy and the Gramscian national-popular, but Pasolini also resorted to another aspect of the popular which contrasts with his idealization of Italian society.

Popular genre and the pimp-prostitute relationship
The other aspect that surfaces in these films is the use of melodrama and comedy to reflect on social disorders embodied in the pimp-prostitute relationship. It is worth noting that during a span of roughly six years, at least five other films that explicitly treated the subject of prostitution (mentioned in the introduction) were released in Italy. The use of sad and directionless lower classes in each of these films suggests that the Italian subproletariat, represented in the lives of pimps and prostitutes, could be used to portray larger ethical and aesthetic themes. For this reason, I will contrast the aforementioned Gramscian-popular focus of Pasolini’s films with the other half of this cultural dialectic in order to illustrate another dimension of the popular.
Pasolini’s initial focus on prostitution and the Roman subclasses were first outlined in Bertolucci’s La Commare Secca, whose story he wrote and later abandoned to direct Accattone. In La Commare Secca cultural criticism is aligned with social disorder, which figures into the fragmented and questionable inquest into the murder of a prostitute and the low-class witnesses who fumble for the truth; in Accattone, this disorder arises in the Accattone’s inability to support himself or restore his honor among his peers. Christine Gledhill’s “Melodrama and Cultural Disorder” provides useful insights into the application of film form to social disorders as she investigates society and melodrama within the genre system. She states that “historically melodrama emerges in the context of rising urban populations from the coalescence between two different cultural arenas,” the first being traditions excluded from “official culture” and the second as a middle-class culture which favors “sentimental drama and comedy, axed around a bourgeois domestic life.” The open nature of melodrama is one way of appealing to different social groups through various representations of the popular as it functions less as a genre and more of a modality.
Accattone and Mamma Roma function well as melodrama; their aesthetic and ethical orientation could speak to a broad “official” audience while their focus on a particular (lower) social group communicated ideas of the people. The drama involved in both stories also serves to highlight the pathos of both protagonists over action, which figures into the physique and personality of Accattone and Mamma Roma, as well as the musical accompaniment in the films. Franco Citti’s emaciated body in both films, particularly his pronounced cheek bones and the way in which he drags his feet when he walks, portrays a character that lives on next to nothing. His skinny features reflect the emptiness of his life and his dependency on others for fulfilment; as his nickname suggests, he struggles to make ends meet. When he weeps to the Neapolitan pimps in the bar they support him but do not seem remotely concerned (fig. 3). The increasing build-up of Accattone’s despair is finally released at the end of the film, which suggests that his lack of action, of care, eventually leads to his death. Similarly, Mamma Roma’s large torso, wide hips, and bushy hair highlight her maternal physique, which reflects her motherly nature toward her son and community. Her rambling nocturnal monologues and explosions of laughter at the wedding reception display the boundless energy that attribute to her reputation as a woman of the people. One of the final shots in Mamma Roma supports her status as a community figure, in which the entire market runs after her and crowds into her apartment to keep her from committing suicide (fig. 4).
fig. 3. Accattone's performance reflects his despair.
fig. 4. Mamma Roma as a woman of the people.
Colleen Ryan-Scheutz is right to point out that Pasolini’s characters are quite asexual, even plain, in her book on women in Pasolini’s films. In fact, we never glimpse his pimps and prostitutes actually working. The most convincing evidence we have that they are indeed pimps and prostitutes is when Stella gets into a car with a client, but even then the prostitutes are always shown clothed. And even the prostitutes who wait around for clients under the bridge in Accattone seem to never leave their spots because few cars pass by that intersection. Even Mamma Roma is shown walking around at night but never takes a client home. Ryan-Scheutz writes that “these choices convey that, for Pasolini, the prostitute’s actual sex act was of secondary importance. He was interested in the ways in which she exemplified a crude vitality lingering from ages past.” From Mamma Roma’s baggy eyes to Stella’s slow intellect, Pasolini does not attempt to glamorize the profession of prostitutes and pimps, but rather exhibits them as people who must struggle to balance very human needs like raising a family, finding a place to live, or buying food and clothing. Whether intentional or not, this ability to identify with certain characters may have also served as an appeal to larger audiences.
The use of Bach and Vivaldi in both film scores connects the pimps and prostitutes to the Gramscian-popular notion of opera and folklore, but it also functions on an emotional level. The flute and string theme that Pasolini employs when Carmine comes back to Mamma Roma has a childlike sadness that foreshadows Mamma Roma’s continued support and pity for her former pimp. What at first seems like a juxtaposition of sound and image with the use of Bach in Accattone eventually becomes the means by which the audience understands the dramatic conditions of Accattone’s miserable life. In Mamma Roma, Pasolini notes that the use of Vivaldi was “less shocking” than the music in Accattone, as it portrayed the more ‘typically’ Italian use of Vivaldi in petit bourgeois households, which situated itself, or at least aspired to be, within the middle-class. In addition, the gypsy girl song in Mamma Roma serves a stylistic as well as narrative function; when Ettore sells his mother’s record for cash he also symbolically sacrifices her care, which allows him to go out and make friends. However, in the final scene when Ettore’s fellow prisoners sing the song again it creates a heartbreaking sense of loss, and he has an emotional breakdown which becomes the reason for putting him in solitary confinement, where he dies.
One of the benefits of using melodrama as a modality rather than a genre in this analysis is that Pasolini’s two films reside in a generic grey-area. Stylistically, there are obvious connections to Rossellini and neorealism, which Pasolini distances himself from, but Spinazzola argues that Pasolini used neorealism in order to recover romantic populism. Also there is the comedic motif of l’arte di arrangiarsi, although in both films this technique is used subversively for tragic narrative affect similar to Charlie Chaplin’s films, which Pasolini admired. Mamma Roma’s playful demeanor is another extension of the commedia all’italiana, seen in her fiore di merda (flower of shit) song at the wedding reception or the way her poignant monologues turn into self-parody, but the underlying sense of sadness is not alleviated by laughter, it is just suppressed only to explode at the end of the film. Anna Magnani’s character Egle in Nella Città l'Inferno is another example of this type of tragicomic prostitute as she plays the eternal inmate who tries to make the best of her situation, only to realize she is slowly going insane. Egle does her best to help out her fellow cellmates but in the end none of the favors are returned and she has an emotional breakdown.
Melodrama also exposes certain psychological complexities of the pimp-prostitute relationship. Russell Campbell writes in his book, Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema, that the relationship between pimp and prostitute in film revolves around a symbiotic “perception of need,” in which the pimp provides protection to the prostitute in exchange for a cut of the prostitute’s earnings. Citing Erich Fromm, Campbell says that this relationship is sadomasochistic in nature and not centered so much on physical pain, but rather on an emotional bond in which the “sadist person is as dependent on the submissive person as the latter is on the former; neither can live without the other.” In Rocco e i Suoi Fratelli the sadomasochistic relationship between Nadia and Simone is a destructive force that ends with the couple writhing along the water’s edge in a mixture of pleasure and agony. In Mamma Roma this relationship is subverted and Mamma Roma is made to feel guilty for not supporting Carmine. In her attempt to stab him they wrestle in the kitchen as Carmine relishes putting his prostitute in place (fig. 5). In the end, Mamma Roma realizes that she needs to please Carmine in order to save her son’s honor. In Accattone, a bar fight erupts when the pimps make fun of Accattone after his failed attempt at manual labor, picking up on his ability to degrade himself and resort to starvation without his usual source of income. Campbell argues that Accattone also subverts this sadomasochistic relationship to a degree, placing Accattone in a masochistic position as he blames his prostitutes for making him weak and causing him misfortune. When his prostitutes reject him, Accattone dreams of his death as an inevitable result of the loss of his sense of self-worth.
fig. 5. Carmine puts Mamma Roma in her place, with pleasure.
While Pasolini’s representations of the pimp and prostitute belong to a certain idea of the popular embodied in the subproletariat, the melodramatic portrayal of this relationship allows for a broader appeal through the use of ethical and aesthetic functions. His use of character types, bodies, and music all situated within a narrative of ethical problems serve to exhibit the trans-generic qualities of these two films. Furthermore, the sadomasochistic overtones of the pimp-prostitute relationship situate these films within a melodramatic modality, providing the narrative antagonisms which drive the story along heightened dramatic lines.
Angelo Restivo notes that the issue of marginality in Pasolini’s films implies a spatial context, which sets up a system of comparisons; it is Pasolini’s “contamination of the high with the low, of the center with the periphery, of the text with the margin,” that “allows us entry into history.” Along these lines, I return to Stuart Hall’s assertion of the popular as a cultural dialectic, at once part of particular classes of society but also intrinsically tied to dominant hegemonic systems. Pasolini’s portrayal of the Roman subproletariat in Accattone and Mamma Roma situates itself within Gramsci’s theory of the national-popular as an appeal to the regional and cultural diversity of Italians that all share in common. It is within this common diversity that Pasolini calls for a rethinking of the ‘miraculous’ changes of the postwar years. His focus on the peasant roots of Italian society seems backwards to the notion of a commercial popular, but his reliance on melodrama, comedy, and neorealism do suggest an awareness of dominant, and commercially successful, film techniques. In addition, his screenwriting experience in the heart of the Italian film industry at Cinecittà bleeds into his books, poems, and films.
Pasolini states that Accattone “is what it is...for external cultural reasons,” that in his self-professed preference for metonymic imagery we can find a greater poetic meaning in his films tied to culture. This ambiguous reference typifies what lends these films to a range of interpretations, however rooted they may be in the current social, political, and economic changes of Italian society. The richness of these films comes from the ability to interpret their images, dialogue, and narratives in so many ways. That Pasolini was first and foremost a poet helps to explain the multifaceted nature of his films. Certainly Pasolini had a vested interest in the meaning of his work, but the way in which he packs them with ambiguity, charged emotions, poverty, and tension reinforces the complexity of these films, while we are left to appreciate the value of the popular in relation to his ideas.

Campbell, Russell. Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

Dyer, Richard and Ginette Vincendeau, eds. “Introduction.” In Popular European Cinema. London: Routledge, 1992. In King’s College London Popular European Cinema Course Reader, Spring Term 2012.

Eleftheriotis, Dimtris. “The Popular and European Film Studies.” In Popular Cinemas of Europe: Studies of Texts, Contexts and Frameworks. London: Continuum, 2001. In King’s College London Popular European Cinema Course Reader, Spring Term 2012.

Gledhill, Christine. “Melodrama and Cultural Disorder.” In Jostein Gripsrud, ed. The Aesthetics of Popular Art. Kristiansand: Høyskole Forlaget, 2001. 63-76. In King’s College London Popular European Cinema Course Reader, Spring Term 2012.

Hall, Stuart. “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’.” In Guins, Raiford and Cruz, Omayra Zaragoza, eds. Popular Culture. London: Sage, 2005. In King’s College London Popular European Cinema Course Reader, Spring Term 2012.

Jones, Steve. Antonio Gramsci. London: Routledge, 2006.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “Pasolini’s Originality.” In Paul Willemen, ed. Pier Paolo Pasolini. London: British Film Institute, 1977.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. A Violent Life. Translated by William Weaver. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 1985.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Ragazzi di Vita. Barcelona: Bibliotex, S.L., 2002.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Le Cenere di Gramsci. Milan: Garzanti, 1976.

Restivo, Angelo. The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Art Film. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Rhodes, John David. Stupendous Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2007.

Rohdie, Sam. The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; London: British Film Institute, 1995.

Ryan-Scheutz, Colleen. Sex, the Self, and the Sacred: Women in the Cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Spinazzola, Vittorio. Cinema e Pubblico: Lo Spettacolo Filmico in Italia 1945-1965. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 1985.

Stack, Oswald. Pasolini on Pasolini. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Viano, Maurizio. “The Left According to the Ashes of Gramsci.” Social Text 18 (1987-1988): 51-60. Duke University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/488690.

ACCATTONE (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961)
LA COMMARE SECCA (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962)
LE NOTTI DI CABIRIA (Federico Fellini, 1957)
MAMMA ROMA (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962)
NELLA CITTÀ L'INFERNO (Renato Castellani, 1958)
ROCCO E I SUOI FRATELLI (Luchino Visconti, 1960)

21 November 2011

MELISSA P. (2005)

Melissa P. is a fresh glimpse into the role of women in contemporary Italian cinema. Had this film not been in Italian, it would indeed be difficult to decipher if it were made in the Mediterranean or in Southern California. Perhaps this alone says much about the authority of Italian cinema in the 21st century, perhaps not. Despite its obvious debt to classical Hollywood cinema techniques (a la Bordwell), Larry Clark, and Beverly Hills, 90210, director Luca Guadagnino nevertheless thrusts this film into a dual space of classical and subversive.

In modern day Sicily, Melissa struggles to come to terms with her identity and sexuality in a community where no one seems to understand her besides her nonna (grandmother), played fantastically by Geraldine Chaplin. During the film we witness the fight for Melissa's love in the battle between the mother and nonna. Melissa's mother even goes so far as to eject nonna from the house, instead placing her in a nursery for supposed health reasons (nonna is a chain smoker with a heart condition). However, her mother seems too caught up in domestic pursuits to even notice that her daughter is not quite content with her life; she fails to notice the self-inflicted razor cut on Melissa's face and instead focuses on cooking Christmas dinner. Finally, while Melissa is balancing school and sex, one pursuit goes too far and we see the restoration of the family unit and Melissa's final acceptance of her individuality and strength.

Melissa is often shown gazing at men, placing us directly in her mind.
 An openly gay director, Guadagnino provides a penetrating glance into Melissa's mental development by using the youthful male body as its playground. She keeps an explicitly sexual diary, and frequent voice over narration places us into Melissa's position as driver of narrative. In this way, the spectator is not able to identify with the hungry male characters who stare at her and belittle her - Sei una bambina fantastica (You're a fantastic little girl) - say's one boy. Her response: I'll show you what a little girl is. In this active resistance to male subjectivization of the feminine/female, Melissa represents the struggle for a woman's voice in film. In Italy this has particular resonance, as female characters are classically portrayed as dependent upon the male (think La Dolce Vita). In fact, Melissa is shown in a similar way with her reliance on Daniele, but with respect to Fellini's canonic film Melissa breaks free from the male-centric narrative. It is a film told by Sylvia instead of Marcello. We witness how Melissa overcomes the penis-addiction and in turn we are rewarded with her freedom to choose in the end. Melissa's decision to jump off a cliff and swim rather than sink is a testament to her immersion into a new and unknown realm, a new identity. In this way, Melissa P. overcomes certain stereotypes of Italian (and Hollywood) cinema. 

However traditional this narrative may be in terms of form and style, it certainly tranverses a narrative threshold in that spectators are immersed within the feminine psyche (many would recommend Jane Campion's films if you like this type of narrative). It is certainly contestable that with a male director, the film loses some of its credibility in its attempt to authentically portray women as subjects rather than objects, but I am willing give it the benefit of the doubt in this particular case. Kudos to Guadagnini et al for also finding a cast brave enough to pull this story off effectively. Given its large international distribution deal, Melissa P. must have done something right to appeal to audiences.

Halterman, Jim. "Tilda Swinton:: Making it up as she goes along". www.edgechicago.com. Friday Jun 25, 2010. http://www.edgechicago.com/index.php?ch=entertainment&sc=movies&sc3=&id=107324&pf=1

LA DOLCE VITA (1960. Dir. Federico Fellini. Riama Film, Gray-Film, Pathé Consortium Cinéma, 1960. Film. 174 min.

MELISSA P. Dir. Luca Guadagnino. Bess movie, Pentagrama Films,  2005. Film. 100 min.