The Italian Film Industry

Italian film has its beginnings in the late 1890s, several years after the invention of moving pictures in the 1880s. The credit for this invention has been disputed for many years as a number of people have laid claim to its development, including Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, Ottomar Anschütz, Thomas Edison, Louis Le Prince, Kazimierz Prószyñski, and Max and Emil Skladanowsky. But it was the Lumière brothers who patented the process of cinématographe in 1895.

The first known Italian film was produced in 1896 and records the visit of the Italian King and Queen in Florence. But the commercial Italian film industry began in Rome in 1905 with the release of Florentine Filoteo Alberini's historical film, La Presa di Roma, 20 Settembre 1870 (The Capture of Rome, September 20, 1870). Other film companies soon sprang up in Turin, Milan and Naples, and quickly established a national and international market for their products. Prior to the First World War in 1914, Italy was at the forefront of screenwriting and movie production. These silent films were originally historical, mythological or documentary in nature, but by 1910 the Italians began producing art films and comedies.

Italian Innovations

Turin-based Giovanni Pastrone produced a film in 1910 called The Fall of Troy, which was a great commercial success. His next film was a two-and-a-half hour epic named Cabiria, which featured dramatic settings derived from the tradition of grand opera. Instead of a fixed single camera, Pastrone used numerous cameras to film the same scene from different angles, which then became the standard for film production worldwide. In addition, Pastrone utilized a dolly or moving camera for the first time.

Later, Italian filmmakers pioneered the use of the close up shot to highlight the beauty of their female (and male) stars.

Italian Film Genres

By 1911, Italian cinema had given birth to the avant-garde movement. Very few films survive from that period, but their influence was felt across Europe. Mario Caserini's 1913 film, The Last Days of Pompeii, was a blockbuster featuring great visual effects for the time, and is regarded as the first disaster movie.

In 1914 society drama became popular with its melodramatic themes and passionate emotions. These films marked the birth of the Italian femme fatale, and made stars of the actresses who played them. The genre gave rise to the popularity of the lingering close-up shot, which was emulated throughout Europe. The most famous Italian diva of the time was Eleonora Duse, who, in 1923, became the first woman (and the first Italian) to be featured on the cover of the newly created Time magazine.

By the 1930s, the film studio complex, Cinecittà, was established in Rome, and became a breeding ground for many of Italy's most acclaimed film directors.

World War II saw the production of a series of propaganda films, followed by a new politically inspired film genre called Neorealism, which explored the demoralizing economic conditions in Italy after the war. Some of the country's most enduring films emerged during this period, including Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943), Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945),Paisà (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948), and Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Miracle in Milan (1951).

As well as Visconti, Rosellini and De Sica, the post World War II era saw the rise of some of Italy's most celebrated directors, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Sergio Leone, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani and Franco Zeffirelli. Each offered something new to Italian cinema:

  • In Le Amiche (1955), Michelangelo Antonioni broke with the conventions of traditional film narrative and told the story in a series of disconnected events. His next feature,L'avventura (1960), became his first international success.

  • Sergio Leone wrote screenplays for the emerging sword and sandal epics, graduating to assistant director on large-scale international productions like Quo Vadis (1951) andBen-Hur (1959), but his most original work was in the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s.

  • Franco Zeffirelli worked with Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini after the war, but turned his attention toward theatre until he made his mark with adaptions of Shakespeare's plays in 1960s. The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was followed by his breakthrough work, Romeo and Juliet, in 1968.

The End of Neorealism

By the mid-1950s Neorealism had morphed into a lighter form of film and actresses like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Silvana Mangano became international stars. Loren proved she was more than just another European sex symbol when she won the 1961 Academy Award for the De Sica's film, Two Women. She was one of two Italian women to win the award, the other being Anna Magnani in 1955.

The late 1950s also saw the emergence of the 'sword and sandals' epics, beginning with American bodybuilder Steve Reeves's film Hercules. Because of its popularity, Italian film finally made inroads into the lucrative American market.

Commedia all'Italiana

By the 1960s, Commedia all'Italiana, a genre that addressed social issues through humor and had its roots in Commedia dell' Arte, was firmly established in Italy. These films made stars of actors like Claudia Cardinale, Elsa Martinelli, Monica Vitti, Vittorio Gassman, Nino Manfredi, Marcello Mastroianni, Alberto Sordi and Ugo Tognazzi. Few of them ventured into English-speaking films, with the exception of Claudia Cardinale and Monica Vitti. Mario Monicelli was one of top directors of Commedia all'Italiana films, with over 60 comedies to his name, as well as writing over 80 screenplays.

Spaghetti Westerns

The Spaghetti Western is a sub-genre of Western films that emerged in Italy in the mid-1960s. The most memorable of these were two film series: Sergio Leone's Clint Eastwood trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly(1966) – and the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer western spoofs, They Call Me Trinity (1970), (1971),My Name is Nobody (1973) and a dozen more. Both of these series were either shot with English dialogue or dubbed, which paved the way for their huge international success. When it was first released, Trinity Is Still My Name was the top-grossing Italian film of all time. A Fistful of Dollars was also one of the largest grossing Italian films of all time.

Italian Horror

During 1960s and 70s, Italians filmmakers developed a number of horror films collectively known as giallo. These soon became classics in the genre and their influence spread to other filmmaking countries. Popular Italian horror films and thrillers from this era include Black Sunday, Danza Macabra, L'Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo, Profondo Rosso, Reazione a Catena and Suspiria. By the late 1970s, Italian cinema had established an international reputation as a creator of violent horror films.

Italian Film Part 2: The New Directors