From American Film July-August 1979
Letter From Rome by Roland Flamini
La crisi, and what to do about it, is a major preoccupation among Italians these days. It isn't just the perpetual political crisis, for if anything, Italy's labyrinthine politics seem to concern fewer people every year, largely because of the widespread belief that nothing can be done about them. But la crisi seems to dominate every sphere of life. La crisi is the catchphrase of the seventies, just as la dolce vita was the catchphrase of the fifties and il boom characterized the early sixties. Of course, it often bears as much relation to reality as any other label, but no one ever seems to talk about anything else.
The spread of the women's movement is playing havoc with the rules of a very Italian game, thus giving rise to la crisi sessuale. Political dissent among both teachers and students has seriously undermined one of the finest public school systems in Europe; so education, too, is in crisis. In the Catholic church, a crisis of vocations has depleted the ranks of the once numerous clergy, with consequent shrinkage of its influence.
The Italian cinema has not been immune from crisis mania - and with more justification than in some other areas. In 1977 and 1978, 110 fewer films were produced than in the previous two-year period. Movie attendance has been dropping steadily since 1959, and box-office grosses dipped from around $438 million in 1977 to an estimated $384 million in 1978, despite an increase in the price of tickets to an average of $1.25. Last year, 140 movie houses were forced to close through lack of business.
Furthermore, American films accounted for a thirty-five percent slice of the box-office pizza. Predictably, two of the biggest draws were STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but the rereleased GONE WITH THE WIND over-took them both. And the same pattern is repeating itself this year, centering on THE DEER HUNTER and COMING HOME.
"Why the surprise?" says Federico Fellini, with characteristic perception. "The cinema in Italy has always been our self-portrait. It remains so in its absence. It's not the cinema that's in a shambles, it's everything else."
Fellini is right in at least one important respect. Italy's nightmare, terrorism, has been a serious deterrent to the U.S. and other non-Italian producers: twenty-one coproductions in 1977; sixteen in 1978. In March last year, following the Moro atrocity, at least four foreign productions due to start filming in Italy were quickly switched to other countries.
The movie community was hit directly in 1978 when a daughter of Giovanni Amati, one of the country's leading theater owners, was kidnapped. Amati was lucky enough to be showing STAR WARS at the time, and his share of the box office is said to have covered the $1 million in ransom money.
The Amati kidnapping sent shock waves through the Italian movie community. Several of its leading figures decamped to the relative safety of Switzerland and even New York. (It says something about their view of conditions in Italy that some would consider themselves safer in New York.) Others sent their children out of the country and took refuge themselves in villas bristling with more protective electronic equipment than the White House.
"These days no major Italian star will accept a movie part unless adequate protection on and off the set is assured in his contract," one Rome producer points out. "The movies have helped to make the security business the country's biggest growth industry."
Viewed from the secure vantage point of Beverly Hills, the Italian situation, with its terrorism, its political uncertainty, and its kidnappings (nineteen so far this year), tends to look even worse than it does in close-up. Hence, say Italian filmmakers, the conspicuous absence of the American majors. Hollywood on the Tiber survives mainly in the crumbling giant sets of CLEOPATRA at Cinecitta.
Hence, too, the understandable reluctance among American stars to work in Rome for fear of being kidnapped either by terrorists for funds (it is well known that terrorist groups finance their operations partly with ransom money) or by criminals for profit. A noted Hollywood star demanded a $1 million kidnap insurance policy to make a film in Italy. When his agent pointed out that this would make him even more attractive to kidnappers, he decided that the most prudent course would be to stay at home.
In the past six months, George Peppard and Jill Clayburgh were the only Americans of note to work in Italy. At the producers insistence, Peppard - in Rome to make a potboiler - was shadowed at all times by two or three bodyguards. Clayburgh was filming Bernardo Bertolucci's LA LUNA on location in Rome and Parma. With AN UNMARRIED WOMAN just released, she was hardly known in Italy. Still, she, too, was provided with a bodyguard.
The siege mentality is further heightened by the growing aggressiveness of the fiscal authorities in dealing with movie people suspected of illegally transferring money abroad. Stars and producers became special targets because the government apparently felt that such cases gave publicity to its strict restraints on the export of capital and served to discourage others.
So far, the biggest case has been the one brought against Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, her producer husband. In March 1978, the couple were charged with illegally transferring funds out of the country to France, where they now live. After lengthy court hearings in their absence, closely watched by the movie community because the government looked upon the Ponti-Loren action as a test case, Ponti was sentenced to two years in jail and an extremely heavy fine, but Sophia Loren was acquitted for lack of evidence of complicity.
Non-Italians were not spared either: Ava Gardner and Richard Harris both have actions pending against them in the Italian courts for allegedly receiving their earnings from THE CASSANDRA CROSSING - filmed in Italy - outside the country.
In the prevailing climate of tight money, the available back goes to projects with modest budgets and good box-office prospects: soft-core porn, unexportable domestic comedies, and remakes of thirties tearjerkers about little waifs in Naples. As for the spaghetti Westerns, they have given way to a subgenre of boisterously violent films starring an amiable Italian giant who calls himself Bud Spencer, and they look as if they had been made by Sam Peckinpah in a cheerful mood.
It should come as no surprise that among the hardest hit are many of Italy's most distinguished filmmakers. Michelangelo Antonioni is one director who admits to having a tough time raising money for his film projects. Why? "I don't give in to commerical considerations, and I don't make concessions to producers," was his explanation. The maker of L'AVVENTURA and THE RED DESERT, who hasn't directed a film since 1975 and whose much-postponed current project has been gathering dust for months while waiting for a backer, has just turned sixty-seven. He would like, he says, "to beat up Italian producers. They are only interested in idiotic, grotesque, banal stories which have the effect of turning off the public, and which never even manage to make it across the border into Switzerland."
Bernardo Bertolucci complains that "new ideas don't exist in Italy because no producer wants to take risks any more." But Bertolucci does not have Antonioni's problem. Thanks to an American contract, he was able to make his marathon period piece 1900, and go on to his current venture, LA LUNA.
Bertolucci belongs to the large and politically active left-wing group of Italian actors and filmmakers. (Other include Lina Wertmuller, who is a member of the Socialist party's cultural committee, director Francesco Rosi and actor Gian Maria Volonte, who are Communists, and Claudia Cardinale, who is a radical and a feminist activist.) At one time, Bertolucci made propaganda films for the Italian Communist party, of which heis a card-carrying member. Recently, he has become more reticent about his affiliation, party because he fears (or quite possibly his American backers fear) that it will adversely affect his films in the United States, and also because of disillusion with the party.
Three years ago, when the Communists were riding the crest of electoral gains, left-wing filmmakers enjoyed distinct advantages: bigger subsidies, co-operation from the unions, good critical notices in the left-wing papers, and a large lefist public, especially among young people. For a complicated series of political and social reasons, Enrico Berlinguer's Communist party lost a lot of this magic, and with it, says Bertolucci, went the advantages: "Now you have little freedom to make pictures, even if you go about with L'Unita [the Communist party paper] sticking out of your pocket."
Ironically, television, which, with its scores of private stations all over Italy, has been a contributing factor in the decline of movie audiences, is also responsible for some of the best moviemaking in Italy today. The powerful PADRE PADRONE was commissioned by the Italian national television network R.A.I. Elio Petri's two-part television version of Jean-Paul Sartre's DIRTY HANDS, starring Marcello Mastroianni, is being offered to distributors, and Francesco Rosi's CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI was also made with the same cross-fertilizaiton in mind - the small-screen version being double the length of the movie.
No film better illustrates the double-edged influence of television on the Italian cinema than Federico Fellini's PROVA D'ORCHESTRA, produced by RAI. Fellini's film is a cautionary political tale set in a disused church. An orchestra is rehearsing for a concert. (PROVA D'ORCHESTRA means "orchestra reheaersal".) The conductor, who speaks Italian with a faint German accent, is unable to control the musicians, and the rehearsal is reduced to a shambles. The destruction of the building around them by a mysterious wrecker's ball brings everyone to his senses. The conductor begins to issue orders in shrill, Hitler-like German. Italians immediately saw the film as a warning of the possible dangers of their own chaotic politics, and they were irritated by the director's simplistic approach. In fact, Fellini shows a brilliant grasp of the medium, allowing viewers in any country to superimpose their own political perceptions on the story. In other words, as a movie, it's great television.
RIA, which has limited resources, clearly cannot fill the gap left by the U.S. studios and overly cautious Italian producers. But Italian television has discovered the television movie and has given the formula a touch of Italian class.