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Lost in Translation

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On Film

Why has Italian cinema lost its appeal abroad?

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A still from La grande bellezza, 2013.

It must be the Ponentino—the wind from the sea—blowing through the baroque gardens, or the scent of the Roman pines rising from ruins, but each time I return to Italy, I realize how much I miss its decadence. Yes, it’s this breeze, fresh yet melancholic, that makes me think of the persistent sense of fallacy in the eternal city. And while I can’t escape being mesmerized by Rome’s beauty, I question why contemporary Italian culture doesn’t travel or translate. It is as if Italy is appreciated only for what it was and not for what it has become.

While I appreciate the current popularity of Scandinavian literature, or the enthusiasm, periodically revived, for Latin American writers, I have to wonder why, or, indeed, if, Italian authors are less interesting to the Anglo-Saxon public than those spare, gritty Northerners and quixotic Latinos. Italy has produced a few celebrated authors, but there has never been a real fascination for our literature.

Cinema is a different story, perhaps because of its more immediate seductive power of images. La Dolce Vita was unique in making Romans feel that we lived, at least vicariously, in the caput mundi—the capital of the world. The film is the portrait of an Inferno costumed as a Paradise. Its glamorous description of Roman decadence generated a fashion, and people all over the world dreamed of enjoying those orgies, dressing in those stylish suits, driving those convertibles, listening to that music, and bathing in the Fountain of Trevi. As one character says, “to live within the harmony of perfect beauty.” Who wouldn’t subscribe to that fantasy? I would be the first, if I could ignore the fact that the intellectual who delivers the line commits suicide after killing his own children.

Federico Fellini has captured the city’s paradoxes—its wisdom and disenchantment, provinciality and universalism, morbid religiosity and virulent secularism—better than any artist before or since. And he did it again with Roma, Toby Dammit, and Satyricon, a science-fiction film set in a desperate, godless past. Since the heyday of neorealism, some of our best films have dealt with the same phenomena of glorious corruption and placid surrender to dissolution. It happened last year with La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, a homage to Fellini, and la grande eccezione—the great exception in an otherwise fairly desolate artistic landscape.

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After the seventies, Italy’s international artistic presence became marginalized, if not irrelevant. On my visits to Rome, I’m fascinated by the large number of posters advertising films that could never succeed abroad. Most of these pictures, and their directors, even seem indifferent to such an opportunity: they are self-referential, preaching to the choir. (Insularity has always been an Italian vice.) Other films suffer from the opposite form of provincialism: they are made with the international market in mind, sometimes with foreign actors and locations, yet without understanding how to penetrate it. The only director who’s been able to do it is Bernardo Bertolucci, but there’s a clear difference between the art-house success of the Italian The Conformist and the international, multiple-Oscar-winning The Last Emperor. You might think of Sergio Leone as well, but his hyperrealist, ironic celebration of American mythology was a case of its own.

Historically, the few Italian films that traveled well have been those deeply rooted in our culture while touching upon universal themes. In addition to La dolce vita and many other Fellini pictures, think of Divorce Italian Style, the Wertmüller films of the seventies and, more recently, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and Il postino.

Except for Life Is Beautiful, a special case for its controversial treatment of the Holocaust, you might see a pattern: the films that speak to a world audience deliver a poetic or extreme image of Italy, or of an “Italy,” that gibes with the image foreigners already have of it.

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Is exaggeration also the secret of La grande bellezza? In Paolo Sorrentino’s film, the description of contemporary debauchery is even more Roman—ancient Roman—than in La dolce vita. But the luminous beauty is still there, and, starting from the title, to the closing credits filmed along the Tiber, the movie expresses a continuous, hungry, even insatiable longing for its redemptive powers.

Both films show the pivotal presence of the Catholic Church: empires have fallen, art has evolved, and politics continue to disappoint, but it seems that the Church, despite its continuous mistakes, is the only institution that keeps dealing with the possibility of eternity. And both pictures embody that terrifying description of the city, which Marcello Rubini—Mastroianni plays a character with his own name—relays in La dolce vita: “a sweet swamp in which it is beautiful to drown.

Fellini’s and Sorrentino’s films generated great controversy in Italy, where each met a critical coldness that was later annihilated by their international triumph. Italians don’t like to look at themselves in the mirror—especially, perhaps, the Italians who belong to the haute bourgeoise intellectual milieu the films depict.

But if you compare these films with other Italian hits, you’ll see it’s clearly not only beauty that wins the hearts of foreign audiences. The public abroad likes, on one hand, flamboyant Italian characters (such as those in the comedies of Germi and Wertmüller, or in dramas like La strada), and, on the other, melancholic and retro fables about children or poets (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, Il postino).

When I speak about the failure of Italian films to translate, I’m not only referring to the work of auteurs beloved by a fairly esoteric circle of scholars and cinephiles. An excellent picture like Gomorra, for example—based on an international best seller and the winner of the Special Jury Prize in Cannes—did poorly at the U.S. box office: it shows the worse of Italy with neither a clear plot nor the possibility of redemption. The protagonists imitate Scarface and the mobsters from Goodfellas, but we hardly understand their names or their motivations, and we witness only the violent squalor of their lives. The Godfather, to mention a huge hit in gangster genre, had  a completely different approach: The ultimate Italian-American film was a celebration of a criminal family, where family, deeply rooted in the Italian archetype, prevails over criminality. The Corleones perform horrible acts while delivering unforgettable lines, and the audience is forced to realize that in the saga no one is morally superior to them.

Moral ambiguity, or worse, seems to be another winning card: for the foreign audience, it confirms preexisting impressions or prejudices. But it needs memorable characters and a strong narrative arc. Within the moral territory, nothing appeals more than l’arte di arrangiarsi, the art of making do, the quintessential Italian way of solving problems in creative, smart, often anarchic, and not necessarily ethical ways. This seems to have disappeared: Where is the Baron Cefalù of Divorce Italian Style, the man who falls in love with an adolescent cousin and creates the most byzantine way to possess her after killing his wife? Has a more creative way ever existed of explaining the expression getting away with murder? Did you ever meet anyone in the audience who wouldn’t root for him? Sure, it’s almost impossible to dislike Marcello Mastroianni, and in the film the cousin is much younger, lighter, thinner, and sexier than the wife—but Germi’s genius manipulation makes us minimize, if not ignore, the monstrous moral of the story. This triumph of amorality in the country of the Catholic Church is another Italian paradox, which ends up being hugely attractive for its cunning fooling of legal and religious institutions.

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A still from Divorce Italian Style, 1961.

In most of today’s cinema, we are very far from this kind of ruthless freedom: what we see is a universe of bitter, conformist, pompous self-consciousness, designed, it seems, as a vehicle for some lugubrious message.

Art always reflects the circumstances under which it is created, and in the last twenty-five years, the majority of Italian filmmakers have been focused on representing an economical, social, and political crisis that seems still distant from being solved. Or, worse, complaining about it, without the creative leap that would seduce an international audience. It’s not simply a matter of talent, but of culture, courage, vision. If the international audience tends to enjoy clichés about Italy, we seem to have lost the truth behind those stereotypes without being able to replace them with anything exciting, nonideological and noninsular.

Our neorealist masters narrated a much greater crisis through powerful pictures that were never contaminated by a “message.” The solidarity and hope we found among the postwar ruins have been replaced today by depression and indignation.

Honestly, I don’t see why an international audience should enjoy this, why it should embrace seriousness versus freedom and beauty. Maybe the public abroad resists our proposals because they love us too much, they don’t want us to betray our spirit—to become a joyless, moralistic people.

So the Ponentino continues to blow against the posters for films with no international future. I feel that this crisis might be solved only through the arte di arrangiarsi. The foreign audience misses and loves our decadence as much as I do. I recall a line from Ennio Flaiano, who wrote La Dolce Vita with Fellini: “In Italy the situation is always tragic, but never serious.”

Antonio Monda is the author of nine books, including, most recently, La casa sulla roccia. His work has been translated into eleven languages. A regular contributor to the cultural page of La Repubblica, and a columnist for RAI Italian Television and Vogue Italy, Monda has directed several documentaries as well as the feature film Dicembre. He lives in New York, where he teaches in the Film and Television Department at New York University.