Italian Cinema has had its ups and downs, ranging from trashy, low budget films, local comedy, horror and sexually explicit films, to the other end of the scale, where we have the legacy of some world-wide masterpieces, hailed by international directors as a lasting inspiration.
The foundations for this important industry were laid before the second world war, when the Fascist Government set up a Board of Judgement for popular culture, and with Mussolini's approval, they created some important structures for Italian Cinema. In south-east Rome, a new town was built to provide studios and everything necessary for film- making, including a school for apprentices. It was called Cinecitta, and is still used by many international film companies today. At the same time, Vittorio Mussolini, the dictator's son, created a national production company and organised the work of the most gifted authors, directors and actors - some even political opponents - and so began a strong cultural interaction.
Notable directors who worked at Cinecitta at this time included Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni among others who later became legends in their own right and influenced world cinema to a very great extent.
During the war the Cinecitta studios were used for the production of propaganda films, as was the case in many other countries, but even so, in 1942, Alessandro Blasetti produced his famous Quattro Passi Fra Le Nuvola (Four Steps in he Clouds) the story of a humble employee, believed by many to be the first neo-realist work.
Neorealism exploded soon after the war with unforgettable films such as Rossellini's Rome Open City (1945) followed by Paisa (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948) films which attempted to describe the difficult economic and moral conditions in Italy at the time, together with changes in public mentality in everyday life. Also, because Cinecitta was occupied by refugees, films were shot outdoors on the devastated roads of a defeated country. These conditions imposed the use of natural light, and as professional actors were in short supply, the use of untrained, non-professional actors, who none-the-less helped to create the most moving, searing films ever made. Who could ever forget Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) the story of a young man whose bicycle is stolen, on which he depends for his humble job as a bill-poster. He tries to find it, but fails to do so, and in desperation steals someone else's bicycle, only to be caught and beaten by an angry mob. We last see him walking home, through bombed out streets, tears streaming down his face, holding the hand of his young son who is devastated to see his father cry. This is not acting, it is real life, cruel but poetic, as far from artificiality as you can possibly get.
De Sica followed this marvellous film with Miracle in Milan (1950) and Umberto D (1952) - the touching story of a poor old man with his little dog whom life forces to beg for alms against his dignity in the loneliness of the new society. Although not a commercial success (the film has been shown on Italian television only a few times) it is considered by many experts as a masterpiece and one of the most important works in Italian cinema.Up to this time, these great films had not been on general release in the UK, but could be seen in the art houses like Studios 1 and 2 in Oxford Street, or the Curzon Cinema in Curzon Street, London.
Umberto D marked the end of neo-realism, and perhaps because of improving conditions in the country, the following works turns towards lighter subjects. After a period of comic films, and a tendency to satirize the former neo-realism, Italian Cinema finally broke through into the American market with 'Sword and Sandal' films like Hercules (1958) and many others with mythological or Bible themes. These were cheap, costume adventure dramas, and had immediate success with European and American audiences. Most of these films were made in colour, whereas previously Italian films had been in black and white.
Then, after the 'Sword and Sandal' craze, another genre, the Spaghetti Western, began to achieve great success, not only in Italy, but throughout the world. Among these Spaghetti Westerns were the Dollars Trilogy, directed by Sergio Leone, namely - A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Another well known Italian film Once Upon a Time in The West also defined this genre.
An important milestone occurred in 1961, when Sophia Loren won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Two Women directed by Vittorio De Sica. This was the second Oscar for an Italian Leading Lady after Anna Magnani. It was not until the 1990's, however, that a new generation of Italian film directors began to build on this international success.
Giusseppe Tornatore won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1990 with his Nuova Cinema Paradiso and two years later Gabriele Salvatore's Mediterraneo won the same prize. To cap these successes, in 1998 Roberto Benigni won three Oscars for his Life is Beautiful - Best Actor, Best Foreign Film and Best Music.
But to return once more to the legendary directors of the past .... Roberto Rossillini, (who enticed Ingrid Bergman away from her husband and Hollywood to star in his Italian films) Stromboli (1949) and Germany Year Zero (1948) Michelangelo Antonioni, whose mysterious, atmospheric films gave us the most hauntingly beautiful imagery (including his surprising British film Blow Up (1966) starring Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings. : Vittorio De Sica, who created Bicycle Thieves (1948) Miracle in Milan (1950) and Umberto D (1952) as described above.: Luchino Visconti who gave us La Terra Trema (1948) and last but not least Federico Fellini, who lived from 1920 to 1993.
It is perhaps Fellini who is most acclaimed by important, international directors of today. Woody Allen, David Lynch, Stanley Kubric, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, Pedro Almodovar and Terry Gilliam have all acknowledged Fellini's great influence on their work. Fellini, who was also an artist, created his own original scripts, using a unique combination of memory, dreams, fantasy and desire ; his films are deeply personal visions of society, often portraying people at their most bizarre.
Federico Fellini won over 50 international awards for his films, including The Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.
This is not a comprehensive history of Italian Cinema, by any means, but it does perhaps pinpoint some of the greatest achievements by some of the most outstanding Italian directors. Such works will always be an inspiration, not only to contemporary international directors, but to movie-goers all over the world, who love and appreciate great films.