“I Mille Occhi” (The Thousand Eyes), Italy’s annual international festival of cinema, will be celebrated September 10 to 17 in Rome and Trieste. It’s a good time to recall that Italian film-makers, although long eclipsed by Hollywood directors, pioneered the new art form of movie-making a century ago.
The golden age of Italian cinema came early: 1909 to 1916, a period when Italian movies, mainly produced in Turin and Rome, captured and dominated the world market. Audiences flocked to see sprawling spectacles, colossal battle scenes, and astonishing special effects.
Early Italian movies both preceded and inspired Hollywood extravaganzas. Cabiria, a “sword and sandal” epic released in 1914 that greatly influenced American movie pioneer D.W. Griffith, created the model for spectacular scenes and larger-than-life movie heroes. Shot on location in the Alps, Sicily, and Tunisia, the multi-million-lira film amazed audiences with hand-tinted footage of Mount Etna erupting, the burning of the Roman fleet, and the march of Hannibal and his elephants.
In the labyrinthine plot, pirates kidnap Cabiria, a beautiful Roman maiden, and sell her as a slave to Carthage. Just as the pagan high priest is about to burn her alive in an evil sacrifice, a Roman nobleman and his muscular slave Maciste, played by Bartolomeo Pagano, a stevedore who became a major star, arrive to save the beauty and the day.
With the birth of the talkie -- cinema sonoro -- in 1930, diction schools, originally set up for radio announcers, began training professional doppiatori (dubbers) in perfectly enunciated italiano standard for both foreign and homegrown films, a practice that continued through most of the twentieth century.
In Italian theatres international film stars like Greta Garbo, Laurel and Hardy, Gary Cooper, and Mickey Mouse talked with “a Tuscan tongue in a Roman mouth”—classic Florentine pronounced with Rome’s more melodious accent. Even Pellerossa (American Indians—literally red skins) spoke refined Italian in deep, low voices.
Italian cinema reached its artistic zenith with the stark black-and-white “neorealistic” films produced between 1945 and 1952. With no money to hire professional actors, directors plucked men, women, and children from the thousands of destitute refugees camped in makeshift shacks after the war.
Revolutionary movies such as Roma, città aperta and Ladri di biciclette had no heroes, no happy endings, no Hollywood stardust, and often no professional actors. With unflinching, often-excruciating honesty, they recounted the stories Italians were telling each other about their bitter struggles for survival through dictatorship, occupation, war, and devastation.
“If you have any doubt about the power of movies to interact with life and restore the soul, study neorealistic films,” director Martin Scorsese says in My Trip to Italy, his cinematic tribute to Italian cinema. “They forced the rest of the world to look at Italians and see their humanity. To me, this was the most precious moment in movie history."
Words and Expressions (from American movies)
Mezzogiorno di fuoco (Midday of fire) -- High Noon
Via col vento -- Gone with the Wind
“Domani è un altro giorno” -- Rosella’s (Scarlett’s) famous line, “Tomorrow is another day.”
“Francamente me ne infischio” -- Rhett’s response. “Frankly, I could care less” (Censors wouldn’t allow the phrase “I don’t give a damn.”)
Viale del Tramonto -- Sunset Boulevard
Suonala ancora, Sam -- “Play it again, Sam,” from Casablanca
“Ma, dici a me?” -- “Are you talking to me?” from Taxi Driver
Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.