Italian cinema: oscillating between magnificence, decline and damage control

By Piera Sciama | 10 June 2013

To quote this document: Piera Sciama, “Italian cinema: oscillating between magnificence, decline and damage control”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 10 June 2013,, displayed on 21 March 2018

The History of Italian cinema is a captivating one. It is a roller coaster of ups and downs, hope and despair, talent and trash. Intimately related to this History, is the Cine Città, enormous complex built in the centre of Rome and dedicated first to cinematographic production and nowadays also to TV series… This article, although not exhaustive, intends to review the evolution of the cinema in the country in order to raise the challenges it now faces and to cast hope for its future.

The rise and fall of Italian movie scene in a nutshell

The beginning of Cinecittà, one of the main features of Italian cinema, is ironically marked by Fascism. It was created in 1937 by Mussolini with the aim of founding in Europe a cinematographic infrastructure capable of competing with Hollywood. Its boom was stimulated by a law in 1939 allocating to it generous financing contributions. Between 1937 and 1943 over three hundred movies were produced. It later had the merit of gathering together directors such as Rossellini, Fellini and Antonioni mutually enriching each other’s art. Fellini, for example, worked with Rossellini but distinguished himself from him by adopting a more oniric style. When the neo realism school prescribed filming out of its walls in an ambient more connected to reality, Cinecittà lived its first crisis. The concerns about its financial and artistic situation did not stop increasing since then.

Let's turn now to a more generic account of Italian cinema. It evolved from neo realism illustrated by Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), a movie that describes the political, social and economic problems after fascism, to pink neorealism, also connected to a description of the Italian society but more focused on its success and on a certain "joie de vivre" valuing actresses like Silvana Mangano, Sophia Lauren, Claudia Cardinale. It also produced the comedia alla italiana, style mixing social concerns and humour illustrated by the famous character Toto or the movie Amici Miei (1975). What is fascinating about the Italian cinema is its variety and profoundly sensitive and human character and  also its artistic potential, combining a profound sense of music (i.e. Morricone), architecture and fashion in its production.

All these qualities could not prevent its crisis in the late seventies when “trash films” (or sexy comedies) gained its share of popularity supported by their diffusion on television, rapidly developing at that time. If most movies used to confront Italian social and sexual taboos, they also did it in a vulgar and sometimes superficial way. Comedy also gained its more trashy side with the comic Fantozzini incarnated by Paolo Villagio. It was a time of great frustration.  Although some acclaimed movies were also produced in the nineties such as Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Benini’s La vita é bella, the situation wasn’t less worrying. Fellini himself was a victim of this change of mood as he took almost two years to release one of his movies, E la Nave va. Yes, you heard it well, even Fellini was affected by the backlash of art. At the occasion, he denounced the Berloscunization of Italy and the harmful effects of television. The later affected strongly Cinecittà. Although some parts of the complex were still dedicated to cinema, a great part of its set was hosting shootings for TV series (including international ones). The strikes organized by workers in recent years should remind us of the potential this place has and the desire of some of its employees of maintaining some of the old management style. Nowadays it is heading too much into commercial path shooting commercial programs and opening their doors like a park theme.

Damage control: International recognition, economic crisis and  creative potential nowadays

Faced to these mixed developments, we may wonder how the Italian movie scene would proceed to some sort of damage control in order to value its creativity more than its vulgarity.

The first element is international recognition. The connection with the international movie scene was always valued with the rise of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western movies, the enthusiasm around Fellini in Hollywood and the constant trips of the director through Europe or Tokyo that allowed him to meet with Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel and Akira Kurosawa or painters such as Picasso and Miro.

Nowadays, it proved to be one of the salvations of Italian cinema. It gave it a boost by promoting it and rewarding it in its festivals. Ironically, the economic, political and social decline of the country served as a great source of inspiration. In 2008, Sorrentino’s Il Divo won the jury prize in Cannes for its creative plot. Instead of criticizing directly Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, it focused on the story of a decadent producer charged of directing a movie on a decadent politician. In the same year and still in Cannes, Garrone’s Gomorrah, a depiction of the mafia's harmful actions in Naples, was rewarded the grand prix. This jackpot was described by the critic Natalia Apesi as “The Italian redemption”. Those movies also represented an amazing investment, Il Divo covered its costs of 6.7 million dollars in six weeks. Ironically, then, political and economic crisis can serve at worst as inspiration material and at best as fostering economic gain.

Moreover, facing growing financing shortage, some directors found enough means to get around the situation, showing great adaptation capabilities. Nani Moretti, is a “total movie maker”: director, actor, and also producer, he finances his own movies. Rich from a career of at least thirty years, his movies always contained some autobiographic and narcissistic look mixed with profound political criticism and a touch of humour. Moretti is also surprising. When everybody thought he would violently criticize the Catholic Church in his Habemus Papam, he offered a more human and humoristic look on the Pope.

The other fertile ground for developing the Italian cinema’s come back can be the numerous alternative festivals. Unfortunately, for those who  have not achieved fame, financing is a great challenge but through these festivals, we can cast hope that they could acquire at least some visibility inside their countries that could benefit them. Indeed, international recognition should not be the only source for the Italian revival. Seeing the artistic (and economic) potential of cinema, independent directors should be given an even bigger boost.


Both elements for a successful and decadent movie industry are present in Italy. On the one hand: creativity, infrastructure, adaptation capabiliity and international recognition. On the other hand, vulgarity and lack of financing. As it keeps having visibility on the international scene, it should work on finding ways for promoting its talents on a wider scale and include the national and local arenas. This effort can be artistically and financially rewarding.

To go Further

On Nouvelle Europe

To read

  • Brunetta, Gianpiero The History of Italian Cinema . The Princeton University Press (2009)

On the Internet

Image Source: Commons Wikimedia.

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