Thursday, 25 February 2010
Soviet Cinema in Italy
A month in Italy left me with ample time firstly for a visit to a film festival in Trieste, secondly for watching some of my DVDs that I left there and thirdly to read some of my Italian collection of books on Soviet culture and cinema. I have always been curious as to the different approach and different reception that Soviet cinema and culture has had in Italy as compared to Britain. An obviously minor topic but a curious one nonetheless and one which would need an amount of research to draw anything but merely impressionistic conclusions. Yet there are some fascinating stories linking Italy with Russian and Soviet cinema. One of course was the story of Francesco Misiano who I blogged about a few months ago - someone who played a not insignificant part in the very history of Soviet cinema.
One of the people most associated with the discovery of Soviet cinema in Italy was Umberto Barbaro (pictured above) - one of the main figures in Italy's 'Experimental Centre of Cinematography' which existed during fascism but then was to create a whole generation of anti-fascist Neorealist filmmakers and be a refuge for staunch anti-fascists like Barbaro even during the fascist period. Barbaro was to translate the writings of Pudovkin and Eisenstein after the second world war and become the first great film scholar to bring Soviet cinema to the attention of the Italian cinema world. It is curious, though, that even during the 'ventennio' (the period of fascist rule) Soviet cinema entered fascist Italy -for example, at the Venice Film Festival in 1932 & 1934- Ekk's film 'A Voucher for Life' (Putyovka v Zhizn') enjoying particular success. Even specialised reviews devoted considerable space to Soviet cinema so it can't be said that there was a total absence of cinematic links.
It was, of course, only after the second world war that Soviet cinema could, however, be more openly available to a larger public. This was, perhaps, not the most propitious time for this to happen. Late Stalinist cinema was suffering its film famine and, alas, producing some of its least appealing "lacquered" films and those like The Vow (Kliatva) and The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina) in which Stalin appears as a demi god-like figure. Yet culture in immediate post-war Italy was a highly politicised sphere and the Cold War played a more significant role in Italy than elsewhere. There is, apparently, a review by Italo Calvino defending these films. The role of cinema clubs is another interesting story and again one in which politics played its part and the Cold War determined to a large degree how Soviet cinema was received. Another film scholar, Guido Aristarco, will appear on the horizon and will develop a Marxist approach to film criticism and will be as much a champion of Eisenstein as Barbaro was for Pudovkin (he was also referred to by Luchino Visconti as the "most Viscontian of critics").
The greatest interpreter of Russian & Soviet cinema in Italy was Giovanni Buttafava whose knowledge of Soviet cinema was phenomenal (the great Russian critic Naum Kleiman painted a wonderful portrait of Gianni Buttafava in his introduction to his interviews with Bernard Eisenschitz). Almost as fascinating were characters like Gastone Predieri who Enrico Ghezzi characterised as "the man with the projector". Predieri made sure that the Association Italy-USSR would have one of the largest stores of Soviet films in Western Europe. In fact even today searching on youtube, clips of rare Soviet films regularly appear with Italian subtitles. Enrico Ghezzi's role as conductor of Italy's mythical 'Fuori Orario' (a late night TV programme that runs from 2 am to 6am and which shows all the films that are nowhere to be seen or found elsewhere- among which hundreds of hidden Soviet classics have been shown on Italian television).
These are some of the names of Italian scholars and film professionals who have brought Soviet cinema to Italy. 'Film professionals', though, is a misleading characterisation of these characters- there is a passion mixed with 'fanaticism' in these characters that is rarely seen in the Anglo-Saxon world - or rather Italian history has shaped a less academic and more 'passionate' relationship between the world of Soviet cinema and Italian interpreters of this world. The reception of Italian cinema was both more politicised but also more possible outside a purely academic sphere because the greater amount of possible links during the Cold War through the Italian Communist Party. Yet discovering more in this realm is a subject for further research.