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Friday, 18 March 2011

Lattuada's Overcoat and Visconti's White Nights and Italian-Russian Cinematographic ( & Cultural) Influences

A recent viewing of Alberto Lattuada's 'Il Cappotto' (The Overcoat) and Luchino Visconti's 'Le notti bianche' (White Nights)- two films owing their plots to Gogol's and Dostoyevsky's well-known short stories have convinced me of a number of things: that the 'adaptation' of Russian classics is not a hopeless enterprise (the failures of Lean's 'Doctor Zhivago', Fiennes's Onegin or the Taviani brothers 'Resurrection' which, nonetheless, was to win the 2002 Moscow Film Festivals main prize to the utter astonishment of many, nothwithstanding). However, the strength of Lattuada's and Visconti's films have, perhaps, a lot to do with the fact that they do not attempt to be adaptations and transpose the action not to an imagined Russia but to a phantasmagoric Italy (Visconti keeps the female character as slavic but not Russian). The fact that they do not attempt to be faithful to the originals and both sprung from stylistic developments inherent to Italian cinema at the time make these films successful fusions of two cultures (the same one may say of Kurosawa's frequent tranpsoitions of Russian and Western literary classics or Kozintsev's superlative trio of Shakespeare- King Lear and Hamlet- and Cervantes' Don Quijote.

Lattuada's film was certainly significant in its attempt to break free from the grasp that a narrow conception of neorealism was holding Italian cinema at the time- a neorealism that wanted simply to record everyday reality in its most minimal details, to trail or shadow (pedinare) human reality as Cesare Zavattini put it. The transformation of Akaky Akakievich into Carmine de Carmine and nineteenth century Saint Petersburg into 1930s Pavia brought something new to Post-War Italian cinema instilling a certain fantastic, quasi-surreal tone to the film which was to be one of a bunch of great films from 1951-2 (including Antonioni's 'Cronaca di un amore', De Sica's 'Umberto D', Fellini's ''Lo sceicco bianco', Lizzani's 'Achtung Banditi' and Rossellini's 'Europa '51' to name but a few).

Visconti's adaptation of the Dostoyevsky tale five years later already having left neorealism far behind is fascinating in its search for a kind of theatricalised cinema (and was a tale that Robert Bresson would try to transpose to cinema years later).

Lattuada was to return to Russian literature in later films - to Pushkin in 'La Tempesta' (a reworking of Pushkin's 'The captain's Daughter'), to Chekhov in 'La Steppa' and to Bulgakov in 'La cuore d'un cane' (The Heart of a Dog). None of these films obtained the critical acclaim of his 'Cappotto' however.

The cinematographic trace of Russia in Italian cinema (as well as of Russian literature and art thoughout Italian culture) and vice versa is one of those subjects that require years of investigation. What would appear a reasonable supposition - that this mutual influence was to be partially closed in the 1920s and 1930s - is certainly fales. The success of Soviet films in the Italian ventennio, especially, for example (but not only) Ekk's 'Putyovka k zhizhn' (Road to Life) at the first Venice Film Festival is one of the many interactions that occurred during this period. The post-war years are so full of contacts and mutual influences that hopefully at one point this area will be fully explored in a monograph.

The influence of Soviet montage cinema on Italy's interwar director Alessandro Blasetti, the quasi-subversive expounding of Soviet montage theory in Italy's 'Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia' by the Marxist critic Umberto Barbaro, the critical and theoretical work of Guido Aristrarco, Glauco Viazzi, Giovanni Buttafava (three oustanding Italian critics of Soviet cinema), the influence of Italian neorealims in turn on a whole generation of Soviet directors of the Thaw, fascinating individual stories of exiles - whether Italian exiles in Soviet Russia like that of Francesco Misiano or the story of Shaliapin's daughter (Marina) and her role in Italian cinema under fascism, the filming of Russian-themed films such as La Principessa Tarakanova directed by the Russian exile Fyodor Otsep and Mario Soldati and the numerous Soviet films with Italian themes (and vice versa), the Italian-Soviet co-productions from the light-hearted Ryazanov comedy to the Tarkovsky 'Nostalghia' and the many festivals of Italian cinema in the Soviet Union and Soviet cinema in Itay during the Cold War period point to numerous links.

Lattuada and Visconti (Tarkovsky and Ryazanov) are only two pointers to contact between Italian and Russian cultural worlds and sensitivities - one can add bernardo Bertolucci's 'Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man', Bellocchio's Il Gabbiano (The Seagull), Mikhalkov's (Oci Chyornie) as less convincing but, nonetheless, curious transpositions. In the world of animation the trio of Federico Fellini, Tonino Guerra and Andrei Khrzhanovsky have produced a fascinating film based on Fellini's erotic drawings 'Il lungo viaggio' (The Long Voyage) and deserving of a whole article of its own. The link between Russian and Italian culture in general is, of course, not limited to film- the reception of Russian literature has been mediated by figures who made a significant contribution to culture in their own right - such as the poet Slavist Angelo Maria Ripellino or one of the greatest twentieth century Italian writers Tommaso Landolfi who translated Pushkin and Lermontov. What would Russian art be without the image and presence of Italy (it would be almost as easy to list the Russian artists who hadn't been to Italy than those who had). The heroic attempt of the recently departed Boris Tishchenko to create symphonies based on Dante's Divine Comedy makes it clear that in Russian music, too, is a sphere in which Italian themes abound. The subject is clearly infinite.