For a long time a major force and a powerful influence in international cinema, Italian film currently languishes in a general state of mediocrity, occasionally enlivened by some works of genuine excellence.
The decline of film in Italy is part of a general condition in the once great industries of Europe. Aside from the complexities of global economics and internal politics, the chief cause derives from the triumphant spread of American culture, especially popular culture, all over the world. Whatever their quality, American movies, produced in greater numbers than those of any other European nation, simply overwhelm the native product and dominate the markets.
At present, American movies outnumber Italian by about three or four to one. A number of our recent hits were opening during my recent sojourn in Italy. Most of them were heavily advertised in the newspapers and on television, and most were reviewed by just the same sort of talking heads we can see any night in this country. Among the familiar foreign titles were Tutto Può Succedere (Something's Gotta Give), Ritorno a Cold Mountain, Scary Movie 3 (oddly, not translated into Italian, and one of the rare relatively older flicks --- it's already on cable), In America (no translation necessary), and Terra di Confine (Open Range).
Perhaps the most thoroughly publicized film was La Ragazza Con L'Orecchino Di Perla, otherwise known as The Girl With the Pearl Earring, actually a largely British production. In this country, significantly, the movie played mostly in the art houses, while in Italy it constitutes a mainstream product. (Colin Firth, who plays Vermeer in the movie, appeared on an interview show, by the way, speaking a clear and fluent Italian than I could only envy).
As for Italian film itself, the situation at present remains precarious. Though knowledgeable people informed me that several younger directors, not yet known in the United States, had achieved something of a European reputation with some strong pictures, only a few Italian movies were advertised. The ones that opened hardly seemed likely to attain international success --- like it or not, a foreign film must be seen in America to qualify as a work of any importance.
Among the Italian films that reached these shores in recent years, only Il Postino and, above all, Roberto Benigni's La Vita e Bella attracted both critical and commercial success. Sadly, Benigni's next picture, Pinocchio, failed miserably, which probably means that American distributors, following their usual practice, will resist whatever else he does. (Since La Vita e Bella was shot in and around Arezzo, Tuscany, where I stayed, Benigni remains a living presence, with a café named after the movie and a Vita Bella tour of all its locations.)
One other director who has attained the international (and Hollywood) fame and money that most of his colleagues can only dream of, Bernardo Bertolucci, manages to get his movies shown around the world. But his latest work, The Dreamers, has not pleased either critics or audiences.
The two movies I saw in Italy will probably never make the journey to America. One, Agata e la Tempesta (Agatha and the Storm), is one of those glossy but quite unfunny sex comedies that many Europeans appear to find irresistible. It deals with the life of a very attractive, mature woman and the several men and women who surround her in work and play. A couple of the men are in love with her, a problem she and fate solve by getting the right men and women to end up with each other, but by that time nobody really cares.
A better film, which may deserve but probably won't get a shot at American theaters, is a suspense thriller entitled Sotto Falso Nome (Under a False Name), which stars a couple of familiar actors, Daniel Auteuil, who appears in just about every other French movie, and the Italian-English star Greta Scacchi. In a most complicated plot, Auteuil plays a novelist who writes under a pseudonym (one of the false names of the title), but who may have stolen the manuscript of his first book.
He conducts a torrid affair with his own son's wife, who also uses a false name and plans a special revenge against the writer for his purported theft. More important, the story also involves the search for the true name of a Holocaust victim who may have written the plagiarized manuscript
A tense and highly relevant version of the thriller of identity, Sotto Falso Nome shines with a superior polish and, unlike most films of its kind, displays a convincing eroticism. Though much less graphic and clinical than, say, The Dreamers, the movie generates considerable sensuality, infusing its careful and attractive detail with a kind of dreamy voluptuousness.
On the other hand, whatever the current state of Italian film, Italy itself is a movie, most of it directed by Federico Fellini. Fellini's work, a visitor realizes, constitutes less an exuberant fantasy than a pure and faithful documentary. The people in any Italian city, but especially Rome, look very like those in Fellini's films, speaking, laughing, gesturing like any of his characters, with the same distinctive faces --- fierce and beautiful, handsome and grotesque, right out of La Dolce Vita or Amarcord.
The vivacity and attractiveness of the Italians, their visual sense, their amazing history of art and film, the cinema of their life, should guarantee that Italian film will one of these days undergo a revival of its former greatness. After all, the nation of Rossellini, Visconti, Fellini, and Antonioni, not to speak of Raphael, Leonardo, Botticelli, and Michelangelo, must surely continue its great tradition of enchanting the world with its beautiful pictures.