Cronaca di un Amore (1950)

Today I learned of the death of the Italian actresslucia-bosé Lucia Bosè from complications of Coronavirus. She was 89 years old. The winner of the 1947 Miss Italia beauty pageant, she was discovered by the neorealist director Guiseppe De Santis and then became the “muse” of Michelangelo Antonioni, who directed her in Cronaca di un Amore [Story of a Love Affair] a remake of his friend Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione — an adaptation of James Cain’s Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice that came out several years before Tay Gannett’s bowdlerized American version. 

With regard to Lucia Bosè, I had to direct her almost with a sense of violence. Before every scene, I had to put her in a state of mind appropriate to that particular scene. If it was a sad scene, I had to make her cry; if it was a happy scene, I had to make her laugh. — From a 1962 interview with Antonioni in Film Culture

Cronaca di un Amore mercilessly exposes the moral rotScreen Shot 2020-03-26 at 7.55.09 AM that accompanied the economic miracle of Northern Italy’s rebirth in the postwar era. Massimo Girotti again plays a luckless drifter, Guido, although he is middle-class in this film. Seven years earlier, during the war, he’d had an affair with Paola (Lucia Bosè), the best friend of his fiancée, who died under mysterious circumstances. Now Paola is married and her husband, Enrico, a wealthy Milan industrialist, hires a private detective to uncover the truth about his wife’s past, bringing Guido back into Paola’s life. The two attempt to rekindle their romance, but the passion is gone, replaced by a soul-killing materialism. “Money is everything in love,” Paola tells Guido, who reluctantly agrees to murder Enrico, but it’s hard to see what difference getting him out of the way would make in their listless romance. Cain’s one-sentence characterization of The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly applies here: “A couple of jerks discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too, but then wake up to discover that once they’ve pulled the thing off, no two people can share this terrible secret.”

The alienation that would become the hallmark of Antonioni’s films in the sixties is already in evidence in Cronaca di un Amore. Antonioni plays with the conventions of Italian cinema, showing Paola in her boudoir, toying with the telephone, awaiting her lover’s call. The actress is ravishing, but she is cold. Empty. Her “interior landscape,” in the director’s words, as arid as the Po Valley, where Visconti shot Ossessione. Nothing remained of the intense, serious events that Italy had come through, he said in a lecture he delivered at the film school attached to Cinecittà in 1961, following a retrospective screening of his films. The hope of building a new and more just Italy that came through at the end of Rossellini’s Rome, Open City was gone. And yet we cannot turn away from this bleak portrait of bourgeois society. The vulnerability of the young Lucia Bosè in this film is what stays with me. May her memory be a blessing.

cropped bose

Ossessione (1943)

Lucino Visconti’s 1943 adaptation of James Cain’s Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is truer to the novelist’s vision than the 1946 Hollywood film of the same name. For one thing, the Frank character, Gino (Massimo Girotti), is more convincing as a drifter. undershirtWearing a threadbare undershirt beneath his tattered jacket, he is drawn by hunger to the kitchen of the roadside tavern, where Giovanna (Clara Calamai) sits on a table, dangling her legs while unselfconsciously singing and polishing her nails, oblivious to the newcomer who has come to stand in the doorway. Visconti places the camera behind Gino, obscuring our view of the woman. We observe them falling into sin, but from a safe distance.

Gino and Giovanna are victims weighed down by social and economic forces beyond their control, and it is these forces that corrupt and ultimately destroy them. Only one character in Ossessione appears to have any choice, a Spanish gypsy who takes Gino under his wing and tries to show him how to live as a free man, beholden to nobody. Generous, carefree, with soulful brown eyes, there is nobody remotely like the Spaniard in the book. Every scene in which he appears brims with life and hope, but when he shows up at the tavern after the murder of Giovanna’s husband and urges Gino to leave, to take to the open road, Gino drives him away. The next thing we know, the Spaniard is being questioned by the police, setting into motion the film’s tragic denouement.

with gypsy

Ossessione opened to popular acclaim but was quickly banned by the Mussolini regime, all copies ordered destroyed. The movie was considered subversive, not only on account of its immorality but because of the political statement it made, a statement at odds with fascist values. “The film is just imitating the French kind of realism that must not be imported to Italy,” complained a critic in the Bologna newspaper, Avenire d’Italia, who then proceeded to disparage it as “a concoction of repulsive passions, humiliation, and decay, [and] an offense to the Italian people.” In fact, Visconti and the circle of young filmmakers who assisted him in bringing Cain’s story to the screen sought to liberate the Italian people by showing them the truth, for once.

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Ossessione cast light on poverty and despair, exposing the lies of nationalism. In place of the regime’s insistence on family, church, and country, the film showed women turning to prostitution because they had no other means of supporting themselves. Men defeated by their inability to find dignified work. Dirty streets, abandoned children, domestic squalor. This was life as the majority of Italians experienced it under fascism, and as was the case in life, the story of Gino and Giovanna did not resolve cleanly. As screenwriter Cesare Zagattini wrote in “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” his famous essay on neorealism, “It is not the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough, and quite a lot, I should say, to make an audience feel the need, the urgency, for them.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Our first glimpse of Lana Turner’s character, Cora,postman-legs is a slow pan of her legs, starting from the tips of her white peep-toe heels and moving up beyond her knees. She is revealed to be wearing shorts and a midriff top, showing an awful lot of flesh for a woman who works in her husband’s diner, although Cora doesn’t seem to work much. She toys with Frank, the drifter played by John Garfield, rolling her tube of lipstick across the floor to get his attention, giving him a good view of her scantily-clad body, front and back, opening her compact and taking her sweet time applying the lipstick. Frank knows exactly what he’s in for, and so do we. Cora’s husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway) was cooking him a hamburger when he was momentarily called away. Frank is supposed to be keeping an eye on the grill but, unable to keep his eyes off Cora, his hamburger goes up in flames. Talk about foreshadowing!

James Cain summed up the story of Postman in one sentence: a couple of jerks discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too, but then wake up to discover that once they’ve pulled the thing off, no two people can share this terrible secret. The attraction between Frank and Cora is primitive in its intensity. The first time they kiss, Frank bites Cora’s lip hard enough to draw blood, a scene that occurs nine pages into the book. “I sunk my teeth into her lip so deep, I could feel blood spurt into my mouth.” Needless to say, sadomasochism does not figure in Tay Gannett’s adaptation; however, the sexual charge between Frank and Cora is quite powerful. Frank is no chump—Garfield’s character can hold his own against Turner’s, unlike Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity—but once aroused, he cannot resist Cora and chooses to hang around at the diner, doing odd jobs for Nick, awaiting his chance to get  her into bed.

Choose is the operative word here. The film emphasizes the couple’s willful slide into adultery and murder, and what’s brilliant about Garnett’s adaptation is how the director makes us complicit in their transgressions. That slow pan of Turner’s legs pulls us immediately into Frank’s point of view. MV5BNTUzODE2Mzg3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTE1MDkxMTE@._V1_UY1200_CR93,0,630,1200_AL_We too are burning with desire, and getting the husband out of the way seems like the logical next step, once he and Cora become lovers. Only when we learn (along with Frank) that Cora will be the recipient of Nick’s life insurance policy do we (along with Frank) begin to have qualms. Maybe he was a chump, but it’s too late now. Both book and film conclude on the eve of Frank’s execution for Cora’s death, which was an accident, but whereas Cain’s Frank is aggrieved, regarding his wrongful conviction as further evidence that the world is against him, the movie’s Frank is reconciled to his fate. Violins play in the background as he confesses his sins to a priest. “Father, you were right. It all works out. I guess God knows more about these things than we do.”

MGM struggled for years to come up with a script that would pass muster with the Hays office, and most critics feel that the sizzle between Turner and Garfield is adequate compensation for the bowdlerization of Cain’s work. It’s interesting that both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni directed versions of Postman. I’ll be reviewing those next.

Bitter Rice (1949)

Bitter Rice is a hopeful film, as rousing a myth of national unitybitter rice poster as Roberto Rossellini’s  Rome, Open City (1945). Its young director, Guiseppe De Santis, was a member of the Italian Communist Party who had fought with the Roman Resistance, putting him in a strong position at the liberation. His first feature film, The Tragic Hunt (1947), received funding from the National Association of Italian Partisans and won the award for Best Italian Film at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.

A story of crime and passion set in the rice fields west of Milan, Bitter Rice owes much to James Cain, as far as its story is concerned, and to Dorothea Lange’s images of sharecroppers in the American South for its cinematography. Indeed, De Santis was an assistant director on Obsession (1943), Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but as a doctrinaire Marxist, his ultimate objective was to glorify the working people of Italy while revealing the evils of capitalism.

In a famous sequence in Bitter Rice, the corrupting influence of American culture is juxtaposed against the class solidarity of the women rice workers: Silvana (Silvana Magnano), the bad girl who will betray her fellow laborers, is shown dancing the boogie-woogie, watched by a gum-chewing low-life, Frank (Vittorio Gassman), who abandons his lover Francesca (Doris Dowling) to join her.

Bitter Rice

Silvana is portrayed like a Hollywood pin-up girl, and no small part of Frank’s allure is his promise to take her to America, where “everything is electric.” The sexual attraction between these two is tangled up in a their shared passion for material things; where Francesca finds fulfillment in honest work, Silvana is a willing accessory to the crime, conceived by Frank, to flood the rice fields and steal the harvest, realizing only belatedly the error of her ways when she learns that the necklace he gave her is paste. Guilt-ridden, she kills her lover and jumps from a wooden tower to her death, but she is forgiven by the other workers, who file past her body at the end of the film, each scattering handful of rice over the fallen woman.

The message feels heavy-handed today, but Silvana Magnano’s mesmerizing performance and the brilliant camerawork make Bitter Rice well worth watching. American censors may have agreed with the Italian Marxist critic who complained, “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” but you can’t tell me that Kim Novak’s climb up the wooden steps of the bell tower in Vertigo (1958) wasn’t influenced by Silvana’s suicide.

Paisà (1946)

Paisà has stayed in my mind not because paisa florenceof the stories it tells, but because of the sheer power of its images: bombed cities, the familiar landmarks in ruins, as in this scene from the “Florence” segment of the film. In the stark afternoon light, the damage is laid bare. What does it matter, that an American nurse has fallen in love with a painter, now a partisan, Lupo, who is most likely dead? The destruction of the city with its precious art is the true subject. With every scene, I was peering past the actors, trying to catch another glimpse of the crumbling Duomo. Germans bombed the bridges and destroyed more than a third of Florence’s medieval monuments.

The Florence that we and successive generations of men since the days of the Medici knew and loved is no more,” wrote one of the American art historians sent to survey the damage. “Of all the world’s artistic losses in the war, this one is the saddest.

0009954-paisan-1946

The backgrounds stun, while the main action gets in the way. Caves in Naples where impoverished families lived among the rubble: Rossellini happened upon them and reworked the story to show the incredible squalor, after the Allied bombing and the booby-traps set by the retreating Germans. I’ve read accounts of these sites by soldiers of the liberating armies, but I couldn’t have imagined the reality until he showed it to me.

The haunting landscape of the Po Deltabody in boat in Italy’s north, where the final sequence of Paisà takes place, did not incorporate any documentary footage. A handful of American OSS operatives are working behind-the-lines with Italian partisans. The odds are against them, bleak weather complicating their efforts to get weapons and ammunition. Rossellini brought me there, paddling with them in long, flat boats through the reeds under overcast skies.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

What a sweet comedy.

Alec Guinness plays a self-effacing clerk, Henry Holland, who oversees the manufacturing of gold ingots for a London bank. Fastidious to a fault, unambitious, he seems destined to remain in his underpaid position. We see him coming home at night to the boardinghouse where he rents a room, reading crime stories to an elderly spinster in the drawing room while she knits. But then a new lodger arrives, a rather flamboyant character, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway): an artist who manufactures cheap souvenirs for the tourist trade.

Jot it down as a picture that you will find it best to see when your mood is mellow and your sense of righteousness is slightly askew. For here again is a frolic that, like “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” indulges a serene and casual tolerance for undisguised lawlessness in man.

Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review.

The chumminess between Holloway and Guinness as they plot to steal a truckload of gold from Holland’s employer and melt it down at Pendlebury’s foundry to produce miniature Eiffel Towers for export to Paris brought to mind the affectionate scheming of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. The humor is gentler here, but there’s a similar zaniness to the plot, and the caper ends in much the same way.

The Lavender Hill Mob was shot on location in postwar London, and you can still see the damage. Rationing was still in effect in 1951, and the smog hung heavy over the city. Escapist romps like this one were a specialty of Ealing Studios. The humor is not as black as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), but the charm is impossible to resist.

Two Women (1960)

Two Women is not quite as dark as the Alberto Moravia novel, La Ciociara (1957), on which Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini based this film. Part of the problem, I think, is Belmondo.loren and belmondo He’s miscast in the role of Michele, the coddled  intellectual with vaguely left-wing politics who mouths Communist slogans, rhapsodizes about “the peasants,” how the future belongs to them, and complains about privilege—this despite the fact that his family members are fascists who hoard food and consort with the German occupiers. Michele falls for Sophia Loren’s character, the widowed Cesira. She’s aware of his feelings, but she’s too full of life for him, too earthy.  A true woman of the people, although much more beautiful than most people.

“With my own memories to draw upon, you would think I would have had an easy time of it [making the film]. But it was very hard for me to relive my girlhood terror and at the same time to transform the reality of my feelings into the role I was acting. In memory, I still looked at my experiences with the eyes and emotions of a girl, but the role demanded that I see them with the eyes of a tortured woman.”    Sophia Loren

Morally speaking, nobody comes off well in this picture. But that’s what makes it so powerful.  Cesira’s human weakness is apparent from the very beginning. War destroys the vulnerable, while pointing up the hollowness of ideals such as Michele’s. Death is random and undeserved; violence and brutality triumph, and who has sympathy to spare for his neighbor? Only grief unites those who have survived atrocities, and even so, the comfort of shared suffering is fleeting.

Moravia set his story in the countryside220px-TwoWomenPoster around Rome in the last months of World War II. He and his wife had fled there after the Germans occupied Rome, arriving in an impoverished village filled with widows (all the men had been drafted and sent to Russia, where they died). For nine months they lived among the peasant women, scavenging for food, watching dogfights in the sky and trying to avoid being strafed, while they waited for the Allies to liberate their country. But liberation arrived in the form of the Moroccan Goumiers, irregular colonial troops who were fighting with the Free French. In the aftermath of the Allied victory at Monte Cassino, thousands of Italian women and girls in the region were raped by the Goumiers. This is Moravia’s story, the central crisis of the novel, and De Sica shows it in brutal detail.

“Isn’t there some safe place in the world?” Cesira asked Michele at one point. Apparently not.

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The Crime of Monsieur Lange

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935) was likeposter the holy grail, one of those films I’d heard about but never managed to see. Before its recent restoration, this Renoir gem was impossible to find. But I lucked out: they were screening it at Holyoke Community College for free as part of their annual French film series. There’s always one near-forgotten classic in the bunch, and this year it was Monsieur Lange. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be.

In the 1930s, before noir was noir (the term “film noir” was only coined—by the French—in 1946), Europeans were making gritty, downbeat films with adult subject matter, storylines involving adultery and crime that usually culminated in death. American gangster movies covered some of this territory, and there was a fair amount of cross-fertilization between this genre, the German Expressionism of the 1920s, and what the French were calling poetic realism. Renoir hung out with the poetic realist crowd and some of his early pictures were gritty, with the deep shadows we associate with the German Expressionist style, but even when they end in murder, Renoir’s films don’t leave you in despair. You come out of them smiling, your faith in humanity restored.

I don’t believe there are such things as absolute truth, but I do believe in absolute human qualities — generosity, for instance, which is one of the basic ones. 

– Jean Renoir

Renoir feels tenderly toward his characters, every last one of them.The villain of The Crime of Monsieur Lange is a rogue, no doubt about it. He impregnates one of his employees, cheats on his mistress, borrows money from the janitor, never intending to pay it back, exploits the film’s hero, bilks his creditors and then fakes his death when the police catch onto his schemes. When he reappears toward the end of the picture disguised as a priest, a twinkle in his eye, prepared to resume his malign activities, you can’t hate him.

As in his better known ensemble pictures, Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939), the printing company where Monsieur Lange is set is a world unto itself,Lange workers “where all types of humanity mingle and clash: bosses and workers, misers and dreamers, innocents and scoundrels, the impassioned and the foolish.” Renoir directs all of these characters with such a light touch that their interactions appear fresh and spontaneous. Work, in this world, as in the best Marxist fantasy, is a source of joy and fulfillment, once the workers own the means of production and the evil boss gets his due.

Renoir claimed that he was not a director, he was a storyteller. This one is something of a fairytale, but I’m not complaining.