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Past Article

The Realist: A Talk with Gianni Amelio
By David D'Arcy
November 29, 2005 - 4:45 AM PST

"Neo-realism was an elite phenomenon."

Gianni Amelio's lifetime, so far, corresponds almost year for year to the resurgence of modern Italian cinema. Amelio was born in 1945, so if you're one of those who believes that life begins at conception, the statement is even more exact. After all, Roberto Rossellini's groundbreaking Open City was made in 1944.

Amelio's films tend to rally the critics and win the prizes when they're released. Yet the retrospective organized by Jytte Jensen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Poetry and Rigor: The Films of Gianni Amelio, is the first comprehensive survey of his work for film and television that I have encountered.

Naturally, MoMA is including Amelio's greatest hits. Best-known among these is probably Stolen Children, the 1992 road movie that begins with police removing a young boy and his 11-year-old sister, forced into prostitution, from a grim Milan housing project. (The girl isn't removed fast enough to keep the tabloids from stigmatizing her with a black X barely concealing her young face on their covers.) Once separated from home, mother and family - three mythic institutions that seem dying if not stone-dead in Amelio's Italy - they begin a journey south that ends on a sidewalk in Sicily. En route, the fearful furtive children, betrayed by their own mother, warm to the carabinieri agent (played by Enrico Lo Verso, Amelio's perennial Everyman) who is taking them to a home for children. He's all they have in a landscape violated by modern constructed ugliness and ruled by a literal-minded bureaucracy that's more cruel than indifferent. For a few days, the children are saved by the agent who personalizes his job - another dying Italian virtue; their lives end up stolen by forces far greater than one policeman.

In most of Amelio's features (he's made docs for television that are also at MoMA), you're never sure where the story is headed, and at moments, the camera and the action stand still for you to take it all in. Ask Amelio, and he'll readily acknowledge his debt to Antonioni. In Stolen Children, you watch youth abandoned in a mute, blighted Italy that has turned its back on beauty as much as it has rejected compassion. They're beautiful in close-ups, even framed by the concrete modern Italy around them. You know that the hard concrete will outlive their innocence.

In Lamerica, the camera watches individuals walk aimlessly in all directions along roads or in vast generic squares in Albania's capital, Tirana, spaces that could have been designed by either Mussolini or Stalin. This isn't noisy passionate neo-realism. It's hypnotic, taking cues from Giorgio De Chirico's empty spaces, or from Rene Magritte, and from, in case you haven't guessed, Antonioni. The people who have called this film "magic realism" miss the point. It's the real disconnectedness that seems hallucinatory. Nightmare is more the word.

Again, Lamerica (1994) is a road movie that follows a corrupt Italian businessman (Lo Verso, one more time) who scorns the desperate Albanians as he sets up a scam corporation fueled by humanitarian funds. After falling victim to a few crimes of opportunity (that could just as easily have happened in Naples in 1944, or yesterday), he loses his swagger on a truck crossing the country to the sea, so crammed with sweaty young men seeking to leave the country for anything abroad that they can't even sit down. It's globalism's Lifeboat, one of the great passages in the movies of the 1990s.

Italians (including his father) were on the same journey from 1870 to 1970, Amelio is reminding us. How quickly they forget. Amelio was chillingly prophetic here - he hit on an inescapable underpinning of globalization, the flight from poor, often corrupt countries to rich ones. Usually it's not so much a dream fulfilled but the labor of Sisyphus. Armies of non-professional actors drive the point home.

In Open Doors, set in Palermo during the fascist period, 1937 to be exact, a civil servant, named, if you can believe it, Scalia, committed to fascism, is driven to extremes after he is the only member of a corrupt bureaucracy to lose his job for stealing. As the film opens, he stabs the arrogant former boss who fired him, then stabs an accountant behind closed doors, then shoots his wife after raping her.

At the trial, the caged defendant glares as judges (among them, the principled aristocrat Gian Maria Volonté) debate whether the death penalty should be imposed. The quiet judge and the ardent fascist both find themselves on opposite margins of the vast corrupt middle. As officials weigh that sentence, and  Volonte opposes putting him to death, the killer's path to violence reveals murky circumstances, implicating just about everyone. Fascism can't hold a candle to business as usual.

Amelio has tried to do moral cinema, a difficult task anywhere. He's done it for four decades with actors like Lo Verso and Volonté (and plenty of non-professionals) who always have a way of showing, not just what they're doing, but what's being done to them. Isn't this the way that most of life is lived?

Amelio has the eye of an aesthete, but he's is not seduced by the bella figura of language or formal official behavior. Buildings that look elegant are shown to be out of scale. Beauty can easily be a veil for cunning. It can also be shattered by pain.  Petty crimes can be conceived and committed in august universities or sacred chapels.

You find yourself thinking of the political theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1937, another forgotten Italian) as you watch characters struggling to believe morally, and losing the battle that they were destined to lose. Confronted with the pessimism of the intellect, Amelio, like Gramsci, consistently chooses the optimism of the will. Let's hope some of it rubbed off on the audiences who crowded into the MoMA screenings.

At the opening of the MoMA series, Amelio spoke to the full auditorium about the children he had directed in Stolen Children, both of them amateurs, both of them very young then. He noted, with some satisfaction, that Valentina Scalici, who played the daughter, is now finishing her studies, and will become a teacher. Giuseppe Ieracitano, who played her brother, is now working as a mechanic. Both are leading real lives, leaving no doubt to his implication that there's more to life than cinema, even realistic cinema.

I spoke to Gianni Amelio at MoMA about cinema history, realism, and morality.

Why is it important for Americans or anyone else to see the ensemble of your work in a retrospective like this one at MoMA?

What they are going to see in the other films is part of the films that they have already seen. Many directors, including myself, are not able to break away from an obsession. So, even when I try to tell a different story, I always end up telling the same story. What is the theme, what is the subject of all my works? It is the relationship between two generations. It is a relationship that sometimes is metaphorical, sometimes is not metaphorical. It is a son who is looking for a father. It is a father who needs a son.

You were born in 1945 - in this country, it's not indiscreet to talk about a man's age. Your life corresponds to the resurgence of modern Italian cinema.  Open City, the beginning of that resurgence, was made in 1944.

The first thing you have to understand is that "post-war Italian cinema" is not something that we saw in Italy, especially not in the town where I was born and where I grew up. When we talk about films like The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D or Paisan, you have to realize that these films did not find an audience, they did not reach the audience.

The opening shot of The Bicycle Thief is emblematic. There you have workers putting posters on the streets, and the poster that they're putting up is for Gilda [Charles Vidor's 1946 love triangle, with a fiery Rita Hayworth]. Gilda is the film that I saw. It's the American movies that I saw then that formed my education, my dreams and my expectations as a person and as a filmmaker. And I'm not alone. The truth is that neo-realism was an elite phenomenon in Italy.

Thinking about Open City, perhaps the only thing that the public wanted to see was two actors who came from the world of varieta [The rough American equivalent for "varieta" is "vaudeville"] - I'm talking about Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizzi - because the audience went to the film in the hope that the actors would make them laugh. In the despairing Italy of the post-war years, people went to the movies because they wanted to dream, they didn't want reality.

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"Neo-realism was an elite phenomenon."
"We have to understand what we mean by realism."

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David D'Arcy
Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.

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