"Signore e signore": Caccia alla donna By Gerhard Midding

in 59th Locarno International Film Festival

by Gerhard Midding

Locarno’s spirit of discovery has traditionally not just been applied to the present, but to all of film history. Many of its retrospectives have become legendary, especially in the Eighties, when Locarno was instrumental in the rediscovery (and rehabilitation) of major filmmakers like Boris Barnet, Mikio Naruse and Michael Powell. The books published in conjunction with these retrospectives have become collector’s items, cherished for their groundbreaking scholarly findings, firm grasp on their subjects, and the accuracy of the filmographies.

If 2007 is any indication, the future may not look too bright for Locarno as a Mecca for film historians. The festivals 60th anniversary is the first in a long, long time without any retrospective book. Let’s hope the departure last year of curator Giorgio Gosetti hasn’t written finis to this epoch.

Judging from the “Retour à Locarno” retrospective, a serious stock-taking of the festival’s own history was not a major concern. The selection was dictated primarily by red-carpet politics: Only films by living directors were chosen. This has certain advantages for the festival and the public alike — one memorable moment was István Szabó’s introduction to his 1965 “Voile d’argent” winner Age of Illusions (Álmodozások Kora), during which he professed his own astonishment at the spiritual freedom with which he made it just a few years after the suppression of the 1956 uprising — but it also means that films equally important to the history and identity of the festival were left out.

The second retrospective — “Signore e Signore”, a celebration of the divas of post-war Italy from Alida Valli to Asia Argento — was apparently an eleventh-hour decision. Rumor has it a Coen Brothers homage had been planned at first, an idea that seems even less original and necessary when you recall that last year’s retro was dedicated to another very active young filmmaker, Aki Kaurismäki. Locarno jumped at the chance to show the series of recently restored prints organized by the Cinecittà Holding. This kind of outsourcing seems a rather questionable practice for a festival to me. However, with Piera Detassis as curator, the extremely difficult task of selecting key films was in good hands. Some of the choices were inevitable (Sophia Loren in her image-turning role in Two Women (La Ciociara), others debatable (The Bishop’s Bedroom [La Stanza del Vescovo] is really an Ugo Tognazzi vehicle that leaves Ornella Muti with little to do than look sexy and mysterious). And the omission of Virna Lisi is incomprehensible, all the more since one of her films inspired the series’ title.

Still, the twenty films provided a most interesting perspective on the currents of the Italian cinema after the WWII. And it was much appreciated by the Locarno audience, largely comprised of senior holiday-makers eager to refresh the cinema-going memories of their youth. They flocked not only to see classics by de Sica, Fellini and Visconti but also cherished the opportunity to discover underestimated masterpieces like Valerio Zurlini’s Girl with a Suitcase (La Ragazza Con la Valigia), a wonderful showcase for Claudia Cardinale’s early maturity and versatility. Even lesser-known films like Ettore Scola’s Jealousy, Italian Style (Dramma Della Gelosia) were sold out.

The postwar period was in fact the second flowering of charismatic female roles after the famous dive films of the silent era. At a time when Italian women were still struggling for their right to vote, stars like Francesca Bertini and Lydia Borelli reigned over the screens with great authority. This cinema of broken hearts and solid sofas fell out of fashion with the rise of fascism.

Whereas the forte of the silent divas was melodrama, the heroines of the postwar period mastered a greater variety of genres. They were proletarian rather than bourgeois or aristocratic and had to cope with the aftermath of suppression and defeat. Anna Magnani embodied a new truthfulness. She famously wore no make-up and did her own hair but still went on to become one of the highest-paid actresses in the world. The appearance of shapely Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro) is frequently regarded as a corruption of the neorealist movement’s values (mainly by those critics and historians who vilified the rise of the Commedia all’italiana as a betrayal rather than a continuation of Neorealism) as from then on, physical measurements seemed to become all-important. Italian actresses were the most sought-after imports in Hollywood, largely outnumbering their French and German counterparts. One should add, however, that the studios not only chased after fiery, curvaceous bombshells like Loren or Gina Lollobrigida but also after more delicate screen presences such as Pier Angeli (who was missing from the series, by the way).

Detassis set out to represent a great variety of female roles in her selection: Mangano’s melancholy nobility, Cardinale’s sincerity, Argento’s rage etc. She seems especially fond of two comediennes, Tina Pica (best known for her role as the cantankerous servant of the Pane, Amore series) and Franca Valeri. To represent Pica’s long career, Detassis chose her role as a strong-willed grandmother in the rustic farce Oh! Sabella (La Nonna Sabella), directed by Dino Risi; for Valeri, she picked another Risi film, Il Vedovo.

The Commedia all’italiana of the Fifties and Sixties relied heavily on a star system that favored male actors (and mirrors what has, according to Detassis, become the reason for the demise of great female roles in recent years: the dominance of male comedians and self-centered auteur films). But Pica and Valeri hardly played second fiddle to egotistical, inept male characters. In Il Vedovo, Valeri effortlessly holds her own against the great Alberto Sordi playing her philandering husband (who’d rather be her widower and spend her fortune to live in style and cover his dubious business schemes). She reads him like a book. Valeri invests her role with a droll aloofness. Her independence is not only financial but emotional (she has a lover of her own); she shows no visible scars, just disdain. Il Vedovo may not be not quite on a par with The Easy Life (Il Sorpasso) and A Difficult Life (Una Vita Difficile) but still reveals Risi as the great scathing chronicler of the Italian post war boom.

The greatest revelations for me were two films by Antonio Pietrangeli. I already knew about his reputation as a women’s director and was glad to find it well-deserved. The Visitor (La Visita) and I Knew Her Well (Io la conoscevo bene), though greatly different in scope and style, both explore the loneliness of attractive women in an unresponsive world. I Knew Her Well stars Stefania Sandrelli as a lusty Mediterranean Holly Golightly who despairs over a series of affairs without consequence. As Ettore Scola’s script navigates with deceptive lightness through the sexual morés of the early Sixties, the tone gradually darkens with each new encounter. While its structure is episodic and sprawling, The Visitor adheres to the classic unities of time, place and theme. The film (again co-scripted by Scola) describes the first meeting of two vastly different people who met through an ad in the personal columns. Pina, an employee in an agricultural cooperative (played by buxom Sandra Milo) eagerly awaits her pen pal Adolfo (the ever-reliable François Périer), a librarian from Rome. She has invited him to spend a Sunday in her Lombardy village.

This could easily have become a predictable, complacent confrontation between the cultured man from the big city and the unsophisticated country lass. But the film has something else in store — a wonderful reflection on the volatile nature of intimacy, and a touching exploration of the question of maintaining one’s romantic integrity in the face of disappointment and the duplicity of emotions. In the course of this day, Pina discovers that Adolfo is far from being the decent, sympathetic man his letters had promised: There is something arrogant and downright mean about the way he takes her hospitality for granted and revels in her presumed emotional and erotic availability. Each new sequence reveals yet another obnoxious trait of his — he makes racist remarks, gradually loses his manners, makes a pass at the underage girl next door and embarrasses Pina in front of her neighbors by drinking way too much Lambrusco. When she sensitively confronts him with his foibles at the end of the day, a deeper level of understanding suddenly seems possible. He almost feels relieved by her shrewd assessment of his faults. A delicate moment of catharsis: It is as if she, by struggling to maintain her own dignity, restores some of his as well.