Following yesterday’s post, I'm going to focus today on Italian cinema from the 60s and in particular on director Elio Petri (whose name often appeared in a few previous posts on this blog), hoping that the next time somebody tries to do a fashion photo shoot based on Italian movies from the 60s, they will at least check out some stylish and intelligent films from those times.
Taking the main patterns from neo-realism, Italian films from the ‘60s explored social problems in a broader and deeper way.
Elements of the neo-realist trend emerged not only in the stories, but also in the use of contemporary true-to-life subjects, in the moral commitment of the films, the style and shooting techniques.
Examples of films belonging to this period are Bandits of Orgosolo (Banditi a Orgosolo, 1961) by Vittorio De Seta; Red Lips (Il Rossetto, 1960) by Damiano Damiani; The Assassin (L’assassino, 1961) and The Days Are Numbered (I giorni contati, 1962) by Elio Petri.
Petri researched for him the background for Rome Eleven O’Clock (Roma ore 11, 1952), inspired by an accident occurred in Via Savoia, when a building collapsed killing and wounding hundreds of women waiting for a job interview.
As screenwriter and director assistant, Petri showed his admiration for the great maestri of Italian cinema and, through his collaborations with them and his work as journalist, he devised a sort of very personal and original style that allowed him to write about political hegemony, the corrupting influence of power and unfair justice with precision, coherence and consistency.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni as an antique dealer accused of murder, this psychological thriller – subjected to censorship for its portrayal of the police force – focused on the relation between power/authority and victim, themes that would come back again in Petri’s later films.
The censors called for 90 modifications at the time and the director accepted them in order to be able to release the film.
Petri was even obliged to cut the scene in which a caretaker rebuked a policeman because he had left dirty traces on a staircase with his muddy shoes as this scene was considered offensive towards the police.
L'assassino was definitely one of the most stylish Italian films from the early 60s and I would urge people into menswear, fashion, design and style to check it out.
Mastroianni wore in this film a double face tweed paletot (short coat) by Italian tailor Bruno Piattelli who, in the years that followed, worked a lot for the cinema and the theatre and created various costumes for Marcello Mastroianni throughout his career.
Piattelli's paletot was particularly beautiful and Mastroianni launched a new trend by wearing its waterproof side on the inside (see third picture in this post).
Soon after the film came out, the garment became a must in the wardrobe of many Italian men and Piattelli's tailoring house started receiving quite a few orders from men requesting to have an identical coat made to measure.
The Days Are Numbered (1962), considered by Petri himself as his first artistic success, explored instead the life of Cesare, a plumber who decides to quit his job and enjoy life after seeing a man dying, but luck is not on his side and he’s diagnosed with a heart condition that leaves him only a few months to live.
The film captured through the protagonist’s eyes, the landscape of an industrially ugly Italy: the scene in which Cesare looks out of the windows of the tram with an empty gaze, not really focusing on anything, fascinated and repulsed at the same time by the modern scenery made of concrete buildings and of a urban and alienating environment, is extremely emblematic.
In 1963, Petri shot a political movie, The Teacher from Vigevano (Il Maestro di Vigevano) about a humble teacher who falls prey to his wife’s exaggerated ambitions in the background of post-war Italy, while the following year he concentrated on comedy with the episode ‘Sin in the Afternoon’ (humorous tale of matrimonial betrayal) for the film High Infidelity (Alta Infedeltà, 1964; divided in four episodes directed by Mario Monicelli, Petri, Franco Rossi and Luciano Salce) and a sort of ‘Mondo Movie’, Naked to Live (Nudi per vivere, 1964; directed by Elio Montesti, anagram of the names Elio Petri, Giuliano Montaldo and Giulio Questi).
With The Tenth Victim (La Decima Vittima, 1965), Petri moved onto unchartered territory, science fiction.
Taken from a tale by Robert Sheckley, adapted for the screen by Ennio Flaiano and Tonino Guerra, this colourful, imaginative and tongue-in-cheek futuristic satire, was defined by its director as a “pop art film”.
The story is set in a futuristic Rome where murder is legalised to avoid birth control and war. Life has become a game in which the participants are licensed to kill and the tenth victim entitles the murderer to a fabulous prize.
The story follows the vicissitudes of a hunter (Ursula Andress) and her victim (Marcello Mastroianni) who falls in love with her.
One of the first Italian films on the Mafia, it explores the fate of a leftist professor (Gian Maria Volontè) who discovers the instigators of two murders and finds himself trapped in a web of corrupt politicians and Mafiosi.
After a break with the ‘horror’, A Quiet Place in the Country (Un tranquillo posto di campagna, 1969), an allegory on the artist’s role in modern society, Petri concentrated on the cinema d’impegno with Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, 1970) and Lulu The Tool (La classe operaia va in Paradiso, 1971).
During these years Italian films mainly focused on realism and paid more attention to the political and economical situation in the country: lifestyles were changing, inflation was increasing and a climate of violence, created by terrorist groups, was spreading.
Investigation is a Kafkaesque thriller about a police inspector who kills his mistress and paradoxically plants clues that lead to him, because he knows he can get away with it, being ‘above suspicion’.
The movie - winner of an Oscar for best foreign film - sparked many protests when it was released in Italy since it explored the nation's fascist legacy and dealt with the repressions put into practice by the police force.
Though the film was mainly conceived as a movie focusing on specific socio-psychological behaviours, showing a policeman as a murderer meant breaking a taboo.
“We had just finished shooting it when the massacre of Piazza Fontana took place,” screenwriter Ugo Pirro remembers about it, “A great repression against all the left wing groups and organisations started and we feared the film was going to be censored, if not confiscated by the police forces. When the film came out in Milan, the cinema theatre was full of senior police officers. The moment it finished they stormed out of the cinema and rushed to report it to the deputy public prosecutor. When the film was screened in Rome the roads in front of the cinema were blocked. The film was screened twice in the same day, at 1.15 pm and at midnight to allow as many people to see it. Elio was a very emotional man and couldn't stand such moments of tension. What happened about Investigation wore him out.”
Lulu The Tool - a satire about workers’ alienation and the conditions of their lives - anticipated instead with its social analysis Ken Loach’s works, exploring the factory environment with its boring rhythms.
Its protagonist, Lulù Massa, a lathe-operator, is a servant of capitalism, but an accident and a visit to a friend in an institution, turn him into a passionate unionist.
Petri’s political phase continued with ‘Hypothesis on Giuseppe Pinelli’, an episode from the film Documents on Pinelli (1970, by Petri and Nelo Risi), that restaged the dynamics of the mysterious death of anarchist Pinelli, and with Property is No Longer Theft (La proprietà non è più un furto, 1973), “on the birth of desperation in the left-wing,” in Petri’s words, starring Ugo Tognazzi as a capitalist butcher.
The film marked the beginning of a pessimist and apocalyptic phase for Petri that characterised the works that followed, Todo Modo (1976) and Good News (Buone Notizie, 1979).
The former is a deeply disillusioned work that concentrates on the self-destruction of the political ruling class: with a protagonist inspired by Christian Democrat Party leader Aldo Moro, the film explored a fictitious annual gathering in which members of the party met to discuss their future strategy.
In Good News, the director analysed the power of modern media, through the story of a disaffected media executive who spends his days watching programmes on the six television screens installed in his office.
Elio Petri’s new project, Chi illumina la grande notte, was never filmed since he died prematurely in 1982.
Petri was a passionate film director, very sensitive to social issues.
His films – often accompanied by beautiful soundtracks by esteemed composers such as Piero Piccioni, Luis Bacalov and Ennio Morricone – portrayed the lives of alienated but intriguing characters and can be considered as socio-anthropological analyses about power abuses and their consequences.
Petri’s works - always accessible and informed by his political beliefs, his social conscience and his humour, used to criticise contemporary society - are anti-institutional attacks, explorations of the neuroses caused by power and dehumanising jobs, that merge Marxist ideology, Freudian interpretations and film theory, combining in this way the director’s need to express himself with his hope that, with his films, he was somehow influencing the collective conscience of his country.
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