Festivals: Locarno’s Titanus Retrospective
In 1904 a 19-year-old law school dropout named Gustavo Lombardo founded a film company in Naples. Lombardo began by distributing films by Gaumont, Éclair, Vitagraph, and other foreign companies, but he soon decided to expand his business. He acquired cinemas and studios, started producing movies in 1916, and even published a monthly film magazine (Lux).
The storied name of this burgeoning Italian studio—Titanus—wasn’t adopted till 1928, but it would survive wars, a relocation from Naples to caput mundi Rome in the late Twenties, political upheavals, economic recessions, and numerous technological shifts in the industry. Under the direction of Gustavo Lombardo’s son Goffredo and later his grandson Guido, Titanus managed to remain in business to this very day. Not for nothing does the book celebrating the Titanus retrospective held this past August at the Locarno Film Festival bear the subtitle “Family Diary of Italian Cinema”!
Faced with the problem of chronicling the history of this one-of-a-kind, 110-year-old film company, programmers Roberto Turigliatto and Sergio M. Germani chose to focus on movies produced or distributed by Titanus between 1946 and 1965, and especially those made under Goffredo Lombardo’s direct supervision. The first film Goffredo worked on as studio head was Nobody’s Children (I figli di nessuno, 51), a hugely successful melodrama directed by Raffaello Matarazzo and starring Yvonne Sanson and Amedeo Nazzari, the same trio of talents that had already made Titanus rich with previous low-cost Naples-set melodramas Catene (49) and Tormento (50). As many scholars have noted, Goffredo’s debut production—dealing with the aftermath of a love story between a count and a working-class woman—is both a loving homage to his recently deceased father and a way to fight his inner demons.
Nobody’s Children is an adaptation of a novel by Ruggero Rindi, an author beloved by Gustavo for his peculiar blend of Catholic and socialist ideologies. As a matter of fact, Gustavo had already produced two movies based on Rindi’s popular novel: a three-episode 1921 serial directed by Ubaldo Maria Del Colle starring Goffredo’s mother Leda Gys, and Giulio Antamoro’s L’Angelo Bianco (43). To quote film scholar Simone Starace, Nobody’s Children is not only a “self-remake” showing how a family-run business such as Titanus is built upon periodically reviving and updating old box-office hits, but it’s also a family movie in more than one sense: Goffredo might have felt like “nobody’s child” himself, since his parents—producer Gustavo Lombardo and actress Leda Gys—were not married when he was born, just like the characters played by Sanson and Nazzari in Matarazzo’s movie.
I Knew Her Well
Even though these days Titanus’ logo is almost synonymous with Matarazzo’s tear-jerkers from the Fifties, the studio’s output was quite varied. The success of these melodramas and the comedy series Pane, Amore e Fantasia [Bread, Love, and Dreams] and Poveri ma belli [Poor but Beautiful] allowed the studio to diversify its production and finance both commercial experiments in “new” genres and first or second feature films by young, aspiring auteurs. Notable within the first group is Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (58), considered by many to be the very first Italian horror movie. Made on an extremely low budget but showcasing lavish black-and-white CinemaScope already mastered by DP Mario Bava, I Vampiri was completely ignored in Italy at the time of its release. But it became so popular in English-speaking countries that it triggered a five-year Italian Gothic Horror production frenzy that lasted until 1964.
Among the young filmmakers fostered by Titanus, the retrospective featured Antonio Pietrangeli’s astonishing debut Empty Eyes (53), about a naive country girl who moves to the Eternal City to escape rural poverty. This drama of big city dreams turning into nightmares anticipated what was later to become the central metaphor in the so-called cinema of the Italian “economic miracle”: the betrayal of true love in exchange for a cool gasoline-fueled vehicle, the symbol of economic wealth and social position. The Italian title, Il sole negli occhi, refers to sun blindness, and indeed heroine Celestina (Irene Galter) learns that life in postwar Italy is a rat race and love is just a mirage. Tangling with taboos such as premarital sex, abortion, and suicide, and paving the way for Pietrangeli’s late masterpiece I Knew Her Well (Io la conoscevo bene, 65), Empty Eyes was one of the highlights of Locarno’s retrospective.
Valerio Zurlini was another aspiring young auteur given the chance to direct a “personal film” in the Fifties. The result was Violent Summer (Estate violenta, 59), a chronicle of an impossible love story between a man in his early twenties and a thirty-something widow during the fall of the Italian Fascist regime in summer 1943. It’s one of the first Italian films to portray the utter confusion and civil unrest following Mussolini’s “resignation” and arrest on July 25, 1943, when unsettling questions loomed: with Il Duce gone, was the Fascist National Party still in power? Did Italians have to keep on fighting Mussolini’s war against the Allies? And why had they been fighting it in the first place? Alongside Roberto Rossellini’s Il generale Della Rovere (59) and Luigi Comencini’s Everybody Go Home (Tutti a casa, 60), Violent Summer deserves to be credited among the trailblazing films that helped shatter the cinematic silence surrounding the downfall of Italian fascism and the events just before and after the “traumatic armistice” of September 1943.
These events bring an abrupt end to the bittersweet idyll of Violent Summer’s two lovers in the Riccione summer resort, in a five-minute scene that’s worth describing in detail because of Zurlini’s masterful mise en scene. Carlo (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Roberta (Eleonora Rossi Drago) are on a desert beach at night; they kiss, and Carlo moves to take her to his private cabin. Suddenly, the military police arrive with guns and flashlights, and an officer asks the young man to show his military papers. Roberta tries to hide her face in the shadows, ashamed at being caught, as a widow of a war hero and mother of a six-year-old daughter; Carlo meanwhile has been dodging the draft by taking advantage of his father’s position as a Fascist party official and close friend of Mussolini’s. When he feigns ignorance to the officer about having to report to military command, citing the events of July 25, the officer replies that no armistice was signed, the war against the Allies is not over, and Carlo must submit to the draft. As the military police leave, their shadows pass on Roberta’s troubled face looking at her lover.
I giorni contati
Goffredo Lombardo’s taking Zurlini under his wing is the most obvious example of Titanus’s New Wave–style attempt to nurture new talent in Italian cinema. Their efforts made possible movies such as Francesco Rosi’s I magliari (59), Elio Petri’s The Assassin (61) and Numbered Days (I giorni contati, 62, in collaboration with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Ermanno Olmi’s Il posto (61) and I fidanzati (63), and Brunello Rondi’s Il Demonio (64). Among these, Rondi is probably the least known, ringing a bell only for connoisseurs of Seventies Eurotrash. A screenwriter for both Rossellini and Fellini, he started his directorial career in 1962 with an adaptation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s novel Una vita violenta, directed with Paolo Heusch. But with Il Demonio, Rondi left the Pasolinian borgate of Rome and moved to the outskirts of Matera in order to film a story inspired by an actual crime case and by Ernesto de Martino’s anthropological studies of ancient religious rituals deep in Southern Italy.
Rondi’s solo directorial debut follows the trials and tribulations of Purificazione (Daliah Lavi), a peasant girl who is said to be possessed by the devil and is therefore the victim of violence perpetrated by her family and fellow villagers. Through the cliché story of her tragic romance with a married shepherd (Frank Wolff), Rondi builds an accurate psychological study of the pressures individuals—and in particular an “outcast” like the emotionally and possibly mentally unstable, unmarried young woman Lavi plays—must face in a small, impoverished rural community. Do supernatural forces of evil really exist, or is it rather that the devil is a convenient excuse that allows people to ignore the actual causes of social, psychological, and physical malaise? At the Locarno retrospective, Il Demonio was screened alongside a few cut scenes, including a graphic depiction of rape… and a Bertolt Brecht quote.
Titanus also lent vital financial support to established maestri: Federico Fellini, Giuseppe De Santis, Alberto Lattuada, Luchino Visconti. (In fact, it was Visconti’s over-budget super-spectacle Il Gattopardo that was a major reason behind Titanus’s nearly going bankrupt in 1964 and suspending production until the mid-Seventies.) The must-see at Locarno was Alberto Lattuada’s Sweet Deceptions (Dolci inganni, 60), in the 90-minute version originally approved by the State Censorship Office in October 1960. Sweet Deceptions was the subject of a tussle between Titanus and the State Censorship Office, with its plot submitted for consideration as follows: “During the course of one day, 16-year-old Francesca decides to embrace her feelings and abandon herself to 35-year-old Enrico [i.e., they have sex]. After the first moments of happiness, however, the girl realizes Enrico is not the man for her and she decides to wait for her true love, without repenting of her experience.” Determined not to allow “the spread of lolitism” in Italy, the State Censorship Office demanded changes in dialogue (a nymphomaniac mother recommending sex to her daughter and to Francesca; schoolgirls discussing premarital sex and lesbianism; a gigolo’s matter-of-fact take on his business) and the shortening of a few scenes (a noblewoman having sex with said gigolo, Francesca and Enrico lying in bed) before approving it.1 Historical and sociological reasons aside, Sweet Deceptions is a remarkably profound character study, the melancholic-coming-of-age story of a lonely upper-class girl bound to become the kind of distressed young woman portrayed by Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni's movies.
In sum, the Titanus retrospective was a gold mine for cinephiles, full of films each deserving an in-depth look (and, in certain cases, rediscovery). My own personal favorite would be Mario Amendola and Ruggero Maccari’s Il tallone di Achille (52), a major example of the Italian talent for turning seemingly mindless slapstick comedy into a sharp critique of modern times. Its half-serious story, a contemporary adaptation of the myth of Greek hero Achilles and his heel, speaks for itself: at the height of the Cold War, the Italian government plans to use supposedly immortal rascal Achille Rosso as a human-sized weapon of mass destruction and as an outer space explorer—for which purpose he is granted 20 beauty queens in order to produce an army of immortal soldiers.
The Titanus retrospective took place in August at the 67th edition of the Locarno Film Festival. For FILM COMMENT's festival report on Locarno, see Chris Darke's article in the November/December issue.
1. When the movie was finally approved, in October 1960, admittance was denied to children under the age of 16, but some adult Milanese citizens still found the movie offensive and denounced it as obscene. Police seized all circulating prints. During the ensuing negotiation between Titanus, the Milanese courts, and the State Censorship Office, many minutes of footage were cut (including Francesca having an orgasm while sleeping), and the sexual morality of Italians over the age of 16 was finally saved.