Italy Cinematography in the 1950’s

Genres and authors

Comedy, after the great Camerinian season of the Thirties and some scattered neorealistic examples, made a strong comeback at the beginning of the Fifties with Luciano Emmer, formerly the author of important films on the history of art, who with Una Domenica d’agosto (1950) drew the lively portrait of a variegated group of Romans on a trip to Ostia, on the subject of Rossellini’s usual collaborator, Sergio Amidei. A work that outlines a certain taste of the sketch, not necessarily to be understood in a negative sense, albeit not of great breadth, a taste that Emmer also revealed in The girls of the Piazza di Spagna (1952), in which the narrating voice of Giorgio Bassani – who plays the role of a professor – marks the events, imbued with delicate melancholy, of three young tailor workers. This was the period of pink neorealism, even if right at the beginning of the decade De Sica signed another masterpiece in his style, a tense and bare, at times cruel film, Umberto D. (1952). Meanwhile, in 1951 Visconti had shot Bellissima, one of the leaders of Italian cinema, which marked an important change; in the cast appears Anna Magnani, its screenwriter C. Zavattini and Visconti sets the story in the same world of cinema and traces with great acumen and cruelty the relationship between this world and the popular (‘neorealistic’) one, through the initial and ironic counterpoint of the Elixir of Love by G. Donizetti. In those years Antonioni e Federico Fellini, who, neorealists or not, introduced entirely new elements into the Italian panorama. Initially not very fortunate, even with works that remain among their best (Cronaca di un amore, 1950, and The lady without camellias, 1953, for Antonioni; Luci del variety, 1950, and Lo sceicco bianco, 1952, for Fellini, but the first co-directed by Lattuada), analogous both in the diversity of the approach to the cinematographic medium and in the vision of the world. On the one hand, Antonioni’s bare spaces and perhaps elegant but diacci interiors, where the characters are followed, in their discomfort, with long and geometric frames and images that recall part of the great contemporary painting (from G. Morandi to P. Mondrian, from J. Pollock to M. Rothko); on the other, the great baroque theater of the Fellini world, full of circus figures and figurines or cartoons in constant agitation, continuously immersed in a space suspended between reality and dream. Both, however, come from the province (Ferrara and Rimini), break the mere dichotomy between the city and the countryside that, except for Ossessione, Neorealism had borrowed from the cinema of fascism, and offer, in particular Fellini, an unprecedented look at the relationship between the province and the great city ​​(the masterful sequences of Ferrara and those of Milan in Cronaca di un amore, Vibo Valentia from which the newlyweds of Lo sheikh white come and the Rimini-Rome dialectic in Fellini, from I vitelloni, 1953, onwards).

Alongside the two main beginnings of the decade, it was therefore the comedy that regained a certain enamel and proposed the greatest mask of Italian cinema, Totò. His imprint has left an indelible mark in all the films he has interpreted, in the combination, sometimes, of comic and dramatic register, from Napoli milionaria (1950) by Eduardo De Filippo, to Guardie e ladri (1951) by Steno and Mario Monicelli, from Where is freedom…? (1954) by Rossellini and I soliti ignoti (1958) by Monicelli. Aristocrat and plebeian, heir to Atellana and the Commedia dell’arte, modern and ancient Pulcinella, Totò shines even more in his greatness in more or less organized canvases like the irresistible Totò in color (1952) by Steno and Monicelli or in comedies of artisans, with well-calibrated and surreal mechanisms, such as Totò, Peppino and… la malafemmina (1956) by Camillo Mastrocinque, where he is joined by another extraordinary comedian such as Peppino De Filippo. It is the tip of an iceberg, or of a park of actors that found more and more space in comedy or drama, from Alberto Sordi to Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, to the beauties that emerged from the miss Italia contests, first Lucia Bosè and Silvana Mangano, but also Marisa Allasio, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Gianna Maria Canale, Anna Maria Ferrero, Yvonne Sanson, Gina Lollobrigida, Sofia Loren, and other national glories still in happy and more or less constant activity (Alida Valli, Isa Miranda, Clara Calamai and, of course, Anna Magnani).

It was above all in the 1950s that Italy on the one hand saw the launch of new actors and on the other the proposal of a popular cinema, marked in the comedy by titles such as Poveri, ma belli (1957) by Dino Risi and that in another genre, the melodrama, he saw the works, sometimes a little involved and not immune from tear-jerking effects, and yet endowed with a robust narrative structure and a link with the good literature of appendix, by Raffaello Matarazzo, formerly the author in the Thirties of a beautiful film such as Popular Train (1933), followed, among others, by Chains (1949), Tormento (1950), The sons of no one (1951), Vortice (1953), Woe to the vanquished! (1954) and Angelo bianco (1955). Pietro Francisci (Le fatiche di Ercole, 1958) and Riccardo Freda moved within the logic of genres, making his debut in the 1940s with valuable works such as Don Cesare di Bazan (1942) and I miserabili (1948), and who remained faithful in the 1950s to a highly spectacular cinema, full of an excellent sense of rhythm and figurative skills (Teodora, 1954; Beatrice Cenci, 1956; The vampires, 1957). Qualities that are also found in some of Soldati’s films (La Provinciale, 1953; The hand of the foreigner, 1954), which are however very suggestive in their narrative and visual density. And even more so in the films directed by Vittorio Cottafavi, also at ease in the variety and treatment of genres: from Traviata ’53 (1953), the introduction of the melodramatic tradition into a story and a clear and almost alienated visual style, to A free woman (1954), a beautiful portrait of a restless young woman and another example of ‘cold’ melodrama.

According to, the show spreads in Freda’s films, but also in Fellini’s poetic and melancholic ones (La strada, 1954; Le notte di Cabiria, 1957), and in the first color film directed by Visconti, Senso (1954), where the theater and opera, painting and history intertwine in sequences of extraordinary beauty. A stranger to these suggestions appears Rossellini, however, at the same time the author of some of his most beautiful films (Stromboli, 1950; Francesco giullare di Dio, 1950; Europa ’51, 1952; Viaggio in Italia, 1954), of a rigor and a dry drama that perhaps only Carl Theodor Dreyer and a few others in the history of cinema have been capable of. Works that imprison, a bit like in Antonioni, the characters in space (the prison, the island or the asylum), even if later, with Viaggio in Italia, culmination of the recurring presence of Ingrid Bergman, in vain the protagonists will be able to leave out of the picture a Mediterranean reality of songs, misery, pregnant women and, above all, of death and museification: the ‘spectacle’ of the journey in Italy takes revenge on the film that contains it. Among comedies, melodramas and works of authorship, the cinema of those years also offered a significant cross-section of the Belpaese, often rendered with great acumen in the form of the documentary, to which many directors resorted, from Florestano Vancini (Po Delta, 1951) to D. Risi, from Vittorio De Seta (Islands of fire, 1955) to Luigi Di Gianni, from Gianfranco Mingozzi to Michele Gandin, from Francesco Pasinetti to many others, including the most famous directors of those years and subsequent years.

And if the decade in question had also opened with a careful reconstruction of an episode of the Resistance, Achtung! Bandits! (1951) by Carlo Lizzani, later moved to the intimate painting of Chronicles of poor lovers (1954), it started to conclude with the shock of the suicide of the worker in Il grido (1957) directed by Antonioni, one of the highest achievements of Italian cinema, where space is even more barren and distressing than usual, and without borders. To arrive, in the final phase at the turn of the decade, to a beautiful drama suspended between intimate news and historical context (1943), such as Summer violent (1959) by Valerio Zurlini, and an intense and desolate look on village life such as La notte brava (1959) by Mauro Bolognini, inspired by a novel (Ragazzi di vita) by an already important writer and poet, who wrote it, Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Italy Cinematography in the 1950's