Friday, November 14, 2008

Favorite Foreign Films: Italy

Between movie reviews, and when time permits, I'll occasionally post lists of favorite films in different categories. There will be favorites by genres as well as favorites by nationality, the latter series beginning here with ten of my favorites from Italy, that most fertile ground for genres and sub-genres. They're listed in alphabetical order of their English-language titles.

The Best of Youth (La Meglio Gioventu) 2005. I'm a sucker for the sprawling historico-political epics, and this one picks up almost where 1900 (see below) leaves off. It's long enough to instill a sense of history in its running time while keeping the main characters' connections and conflicts in focus. This is a rich story that rewards patient viewing, and it made me wish for a while that I had lived through that time in Italy.

Blood & Black Lace (Sei Donne per L'Assesino), 1964. Mario Bava's exemplary giallo combines fashion, murder and the mighty Cameron Mitchell in feverish color to define an epoch in international genre cinema. Lovely to look at, disturbing to see.

Cannibal Holocaust, 1980. Ruggiero Deodato's masterpiece was recommended to me simply as some shocking trash, but I was stunned by how good it actually was. It follows the pattern of the cannibal/zombie genre, including the obligatory start-off in New York City, masterfully delays the worst as our present-day explorers actually fare well in their encounter with natives, only to finally hold the mirror of our own guilty pleasures in our faces until we flinch. Not the best horror movie, but one of the most honestly horrific ever made.

Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all'italiana), 1962. Pietro Germi's gem is the funniest intentional comedy I've seen from Italy, with a brilliant star turn by Marcello Mastroianni. It works for me on that extra level of showing me a genuinely foreign society populated by universally recognizable human beings.

Fellini's Roma, 1972. I haven't seen so much of Fellini's work that I'd have been jaded by the time I came across the visionary, episodic essay film. I was simply blown away by everything from the primal shadow of the wolf stalking the streets to the tragedy of the unearthed murals to the motorcycle gang storming the city at the end. It stands almost halfway between Mondo Cane and F for Fake, and that's good company as far as I'm concerned.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo), 1966. For a while I preferred Once Upon A Time in the West, but I've decided that the earlier film is Sergio Leone's best. I could do without the latest restored scenes with Eastwood and Wallach's elderly dubbing, but they don't really hurt the show, which remains one of the all-time best action-adventure flicks. Eli Wallach as Tuco puts this film over the top on my Leone list.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (Addio Zio Tom), 1971. Gualtieri Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's magnum opus would be my personal pick for the single most underrated great film on earth. It's an epic indictment of slavery and slaveholding on a staggering scale. I've seen the film called racist, but the filmmakers themselves acknowledge the moral risk of their project and portray themselves, time-travelers arriving by balloon to film their documentary, succumbing to racism amidst the mass degradation of a race. Composer Riz Ortolani comes through her as he would with Cannibal Holocaust with one of those uncanny Italian soundtracks that shouldn't fit the film, yet does.

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), 1963. I was fortunate enough to see this on the big screen at the Brattle theater in Cambridge, and I was so blown away by Luchino Visconti's direction that I didn't much mind the fact that they got a couple of reels mixed up. I can see the thing in proper order on my Criterion disc, but the bigger the screen the better for this movie. Burt Lancaster's presence transcends the dubbing of his voice into Italian, and to be honest, it's preferable watching this in the original than in the cut U.S. version with Lancaster's own voice. You really feel like you're present at the end of an era in an epic based less on battles than on detailed observation of a dying society.

1900 (Novocento), 1976. Bernardo Bertolucci's over-the-top chronicle of class conflict and the rise and fall of Fascism features a young Robert de Niro, a young and fit Gerard Depardieu, an iconic Burt Lancaster seemingly borrowed from The Leopard, and an insane performance by Donald Sutherland as a villain who kills cats by ramming them with his head, among other atrocities. As it happens, there are also Italians in the cast. It just took my breath away to see a movie on such a scale take a Marxist stance and yet stand up as one man's vision of history. It's not a propaganda film, unless you take any talk of class to be such, and if you share my taste for the epic in length as well as the epic and scope, you'll find a lot to like here.

Umberto D., 1952. I can dig Italian neo-realism (as I do the modern Iranian version) simply because it's foreign. It's not just ordinary life, but life in another country and culture. This effort from Vittorio de Sica tends toward tearjerking, but the tale of an old man getting downsized in the postwar wreckage of Italy is inescapably poignant. This is one of the bleakest films you'll ever see, even if the dog doesn't die.


hobbyfan said...

I'm only familiar with "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly" and "Blood & Black Lace", having seen both on TV back in the day. Yea, "Blood" is disturbing if but for the various and at the time unique ways the victims are offed. "Good" is one of those films that thankfully Hollywood hasn't bothered trying to remake, simply because it's nigh impossible to try. Some modern day splatter fan will try to do "Blood" again, I'm sure, though I'd think someone would've already thought of it by now.

Jeremy Richey said...

Terrific list...several of my favorites on here as well.

Samuel Wilson said...

Glad you liked it, Jeremy. It was a tough list to make since I limited myself to one film per director. I regret not having any Antonioni on the list, but I consider my favorite of his, THE PASSENGER, to be an American film.