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How Italy’s Oldest Film Company Helped Redefine Women’s Roles

How Italy's Oldest Film Company Helped Redefine Women's Roles

This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

The announcement of the Locarno Film Festival’s 2014 line-up also brought the exciting news that the festival’s annual retrospective programming would feature a collection of films culled from the catalogue of Titanus, the oldest (and still working) production house in Italy. The 50-plus movies selected for the retrospective covered Titanus’ pinnacle between 1945 and 1965, and included a wide range of films, be they minor masterpieces by well-known personalities in Italian cinema, popular genre classics, and rarely-seen long-lost melodramas. The retrospective has been programmed in conjunction with the publication of “Titanus: Family Diary of Italian Cinema,” an English/Italian compendium of essays and written artifacts chronicling the history of the production giant. 

Focusing on a production company is a fascinating curation strategy for a retrospective of this size. The festival’s program note claims to reject notions of “genre” and “auteur” in its selection process, but to attribute a collective style or thematic concern to the films of a production company is not completely unheard of. It has become common film history shorthand to think about the original “big five” Hollywood studios in terms of their output: 20th Century Fox, known for biopics and modest musicals; RKO Pictures, purveyor of Orson Welles and independent fare; Paramount Pictures, Euro-inspired continental dramas; Warner Bros., crime and gangster films); Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, big budget melodramas and musicals. The restricted time period of the Titanus selection begs a similar approach.

With such a large swath of films to wade through, viewing selection also becomes a sort of curational exercise for the prospective filmgoer. Over the course of the festival, I was able to see five Titanus features spanning its 20-year golden age: Wladimir Strichewsky’s “La carne e l’anima/The Flesh and the Soul,” a 1945 family drama once thought lost; 1950’s “Tormento,” by melodrama master Raffaello Matarazzo; Luigi Comencini’s 1953 small-town satire “Pane amore e fantasia/Bread, Love and Dreams,” starring Vittorio De Sica; Valerio Zurlini’s 1959 post-war classic “Estate violenta/Violent Summer”; and a raucous 1963 war comedy by Serio Corbucci, “Il giorno più corto/The Shortest Day.”

At first blush a running theme, in style and in content, surfaces through allusions to Italian history, both cinematic and political. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Eleonora Rossi Drago deal with the fall-out of Mussolini’s ousting in “Violent Summer,” Italy’s role in World War I is parodied in “The Shortest Day” by popular comedy duo Ciccio Ingrassia and Franco Franchi and featuring cameos by 88 famous faces of Italian cinema, and in the best joke in “Bread, Love and Dreams,” De Sica’s Carabinieri marshall remarks upon the crumbling stone structures of the small town to which he has been assigned (a common war-torn backdrop for Italian neorealism, in which De Sica found success as a director). “Bombs?” the Marshall asks, to which a citizen replies, “No, earthquakes.”

Upon further reflection, a far stronger thematic thread runs between these films: the subtle subversion of women’s status in Italian society. Each film features a central female character (either as the protagonist, or in a prominent supporting role), whom society deems unacceptable for not fitting into a preconceived notion of “respectability.” A former dancing girl (Isa Miranda) has to hide her unseemly past from her newfound father in “The Flesh and the Soul.” In “Tormento,” the pious wife of a wrongfully accused convict (Yvonne Sanson) is made to bear the brunt of her husband’s sins in a home for ruined women. “Bread, Love and Dreams’” rough-and-tumble La Bersagliera (an excellent Gina Lollobrigida) is wrongfully viewed as promiscuous due to the attention her beauty inspires in men. Eleanora Rossi Drago’s war widow is shamed for her affair with a younger man in “Violent Summer,” and, in a more progressive vein, “The Shortest Day’s” Naja (Virna Lisi) is a patriotic-to-a-fault aspiring double agent. Each woman has been boxed in by her circumstances, and dramatic tension is mined from each women’s refusal to conform to the role that has been assigned to her. 

I don’t mean to suggest that this female-oriented theme was predetermined or planned in any way by the Titanus higher-ups. But it is an interesting throughway that was readily apparent from a first time viewing of randomly chosen films. If two is a coincidence, and three is a trend, then surely I’m on to something with five.

The travelling retrospective is slated to hit Rome, New York, and Los Angeles in coming months.

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