VENICE 2001: Italian Directors Past Cast Shadow over Fest
by Patricia Thomson
(indieWIRE/ 09.06.01) — In 1943, when the whole of northern Italy was under Fascist control and Nazis occupied the south, Venice was decreed Italy’s new film capitol. It was this year that the Venice International Film Festival was founded. And it was during this period that top directors and actors were pressured to leave Rome and move north to help create a new Italian Fascist cinema.
The story of how Vittorio De Sica managed to duck relocation orders from Goebbels himself and save his skin, as well as that of a hundred other film workers, is told in “Vivere” by Franco Bernini, an out-of-competition presentation. This 40-minute documentary relates a little-known but formative chapter in the director’s career. It also makes a perfect introduction to De Sica’s “La Ciociara” (“Two Women”). Newly restored, this 1960 classic looks back at the year 1943 as it tells the story of a mother and daughter who flee the bombings in Rome for the countryside, only to be battered by the winds of war there.
De Sica isn’t the only giant from Italian cinema’s past who casts a large shadow at this year’s festival. Documentaries about Antonioni and Pasolini are also on view, reminding us how far Italian cinema has slipped. On a good year, only 100 or so films are produced in Italy. (Compare this with the 1,000 submissions Sundance receives each year.) Of the 20-odd features in this year’s festival, none comes close to the breath, depth, or intensive of emotion conjured up in “La Ciociara.”
“Vivere” helps explain how De Sica got to this place as a director. When the war broke out, he was known as an actor in light comedies and had just started to direct his own frothy pictures. Life was good, with a wife, two kids, and a beautiful actress as his mistress. But the war soon caught up with him and the entire film industry. Allied bombs hit a freight yard where Rossellini was shooting. War refugees flooded into Cinecitta, Rome’s film studio. Transfers, deportations, and executions were increasing daily. Fellini barely managed to escape a roundup by jumping from the deportation truck when it broke down and running over to embrace a passing German officer, feigning delight: “Fritz! So good to see you!”
By the time De Sica’s summons came, he was prepared to use every stratagem to resist. His plan was simple, but risky: He would direct “Gates of Heaven,” a film for the Church about the pilgrimage of afflicted to Loreto, and stretch production out until the arrival of the Allies, who were slowly inching their way towards Rome from the south. “Vivere” charts how De Sica managed to continue when the railroads (the primary set) stopped running, when they ran out of film stock, and when they had to confine production to a church under Vatican control, thus escaping German searches and seizures. Ultimately De Sica’s gamble worked; he managed to hold out until the Allies reached Rome, then finished his heretofore endless film in a week. Soon thereafter, he would be creating works like “Bicycle Thief” and “Umberto D.” that would become cornerstones of Italian Neorealism.
Twenty years later, De Sica took a different kind of gamble when he cast the young Sophia Loren in his wartime drama “La Ciociara,” based on an Alberto Moravia novel. Like De Sica before the war, Loren was considered a lightweight actress, best fit for romantic comedies. “Here’s another poor girl who set her hopes too high,” journalist Orio Vergani recalls in his memoirs, remembering Loren in the 1950 Miss Italia pagaent, in which he was a jury member. Ironically, the producer initially wanted Loren for the part of the innocent daughter who is gang-raped by a Moroccan brigade, and Anna Magnani was to play her mother. Magnani refused, reputedly saying Loren could never be mistaken for a virgin. “Why don’t you make her the mother?” she snapped. At this point, the original director, George Cukor, bowed out and De Sica stepped in. He followed Magnani’s flip suggestion and rewrote the movie to lessen the ages of the female protagonists. He chose a nonactor, 13-year-old Eleonora Brown, to take the part of Loren’s daughter. And under his direction, Loren proved herself be to a compelling tragic actress, capable of a deep and unmannered performance. “La Ciociara” made her a star, and it’s easy to see why. Like De Sica’s film, Loren’s performance is one of the high points of this year’s festival.