When it comes to consular promotion of Bay Area film culture, few do better than San Francisco's Italian Cultural Institute. Participating with local community organizations, cinematheques and movie theatres, the Institute helps put on a series of programs that bring the best of Italian cinema to Bay Area audiences.
Currently running through August 29 at the Pacific Film Archive is Ecco l'uomo, a celebration of Italian actors in a series curated by Susan Oxtoby. As PFA boasts: "Behind every great Italian auteur stands a great Italian actor—or several. Where would Federico Fellini be without Marcello Mastroianni, or Mario Monicelli without Alberto Sordi or Totò? This series celebrates classic Italian cinema through its leading men."
I've caught two so far in the series—The Organizer (1963) and The Desert of the Tartars (1976)—and anticipate Elio Petri, Ettore Scola, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Sergio Leone in the weeks to come.
The Organizer (I compagni, 1963)—Mario Monicelli's depiction of the beginnings of the trade union movement in northern Italy at the end of the 19th century—features Marcello Mastroianni as Sinigaglia, a stubbornly idealistic schoolteacher sent by the Socialists to organize a much-needed strike in the textile-mill factories of Turin to improve the rights and lives of the workers. Judy Bloch writes that "Mastroianni's down-at-heels pedant turned agitator is played with shaggy restraint."
When the film opened at New York's Coronet in 1964, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther praised the drama as "engrossingly human, compassionate and humorous" largely due to Mastroianni's "delightful blend of ardor, ingenuousness and whimsicality." Crowther likewise extolled Giuseppe Rotunno's "superior" cinematography: "It has that wonderful lean quality, that strong, hard definition in subtly shaded black-and-white that you see in the classic still photographs of Jacob Riis, who did so much to depict the American urban scene at the turn of the century."
At Ferdy on Films, etc., Marilyn Ferdinand provides a thorough plot summary and notes: "Monicelli, best known worldwide for his comic caper Big Deal on Madonna Street, has a deft hand for both the fine details and broad strokes of comedy and uses them to flesh out a story that in other hands has been told with tragic seriousness." She adds: "The community of workers is large, and Monicelli finds room to tell more than a few stories. While he highlights some families, the sense of shared fates is strong…." Ferdinand argues that The Organizer reveals many familiar patterns of labor films by utilizing Brechtian distanciation, allowing audiences to "project themselves into the masses of workers, deliberately emphasizing … a movement over individuality. It is the problem of a few individuals who want to keep the good life for themselves that creates the misery of the many, and labor films seek to put these facts in high relief."
"In addition to the many wonderful comic/tragic performances of which Mastrioanni's is only one," Ferdinand concludes, "composer Carlo Rustichelli lends his considerable gifts to this film, punctuating the score with the types of comic moments for which he is known, particularly in his work with Pietro Germi. His tempos and Monicelli's lively mise-en-scène keep this somewhat complex film humming with energy. His Marcia della cinghia is superb—I'd be surprised if it weren't sung at labor rallies now as a legitimate populist march of solidarity."
Valerio Zurlini's The Desert of the Tartars (Il deserto dei Tartari, 1976) sports a virile international ensemble—Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Max Von Sydow, Fernando Rey, Helmut Griem, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francisco Rabal, Mohammad-Ali Keshavarz—with Vittorio Gassman and Giuliano Gemma doing the honors for Italy. As an allegory of how lives are subsumed in compulsive anticipation of and preparation for war, The Desert of the Tartars seems antecedent to Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker in its critique of the mindset that enforces military absurdity and the lives—primarily young men—lost to protocol and rank and file. But it's a minor association; the enemy in Iraq being all too real. The Desert of the Tartars emerges enduring for being compellingly surreal. "This allegory about the need for illusion," Judy Bloch writes, "takes on Kafkaesque qualities as the garrison becomes entrenched in its ritualized preparations for the enemy-that-never-comes. The enemy that triumphs will be the combined forces of illness and ennui."
Based on Dinno Buzzati's 1940 novel The Tartar Steppe, The Desert of the Tartars is, as Bloch describes, "a discomfiting story about man's basic fear of the unknown. In the film this fear is symbolized by its location, a dreadful desert on the edge of some unknown country." Filmed at Arg-é Bam ("the Bam Citadel") in southeastern Iran, the film has accrued value for using this location as a character; a location since devastated by earthquake. At The Village Voice, Michael Atkinson finds Zurlini's film "fascinating both as a modernist flourish set in a primeval reality, and as a historical record" and explains it is "actually about the absence of event and consequence. It may be the grandest and most lavish existentialist parable ever made."
PFA continues its focus on Italian cinema with Life's Work: The Cinema of Ermanno Olmi, also curated by Susan Oxtoby and presented in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute, running September 25 through October 30, 2009. Though PFA has not yet released the full calendar on this series, the Italian Cultural Institute's website announces: "Work—its rhythms, movements, pleasures, and pains—is at the heart of the cinema of Italian director Ermanno Olmi, who is best known for sly critiques of workplace drudgery like Il posto, and for later combinations of epic majesty and neorealist minutiae like the Palme d'Or–winning Tree of Wooden Clogs. In later years Olmi's deep love of the nature of work metamorphosed into a similar love for the work of nature; such films as Cammina Cammina, Secret of the Old Woods, and the new Slow Food documentary Terra Madre which will make its Bay Area premiere at the PFA."
Overlapping in October will be the 33rd edition of Lido Cantarutti's Marin Italian Film Festival venued at the Marin Center Showcase Theater, San Rafael, CA, again in collaboration with the Institute. This year's program presents six new comedies and dramas from Italy over the course of six Saturday evenings from October 3 to November 14: Italians by Gianni Veronesi, The Right Distance by Carlo Mazzacurati, SMS/She Me She by Vincenzo Salemme, Lessons in Chocolate by Claudio Cupellini, Black Sea by Federico Bondi, and Giovanna's Father by Pupi Avati. The Marin Italian Film Festival affords Bay Area audiences a second chance to see Black Sea and Lessons in Chocolate, which premiered at last year's New Italian Cinema, put on by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS). As for this year's edition of New Italian Cinema, SFFS hasn't announced the line-up yet, but, save your calendars for mid-November.
Cross-published on Twitch.