Between 1911 and 1919, Italy was home to the first avant-garde movement in cinema, inspired by the country’s Futurism movement. The 1916 Manifesto of Futuristic Cinematography was signed by Filippo Marinetti, Armando Ginna, Bruno Corra, Giacomo Balla and others. To the Futurists, cinema was an ideal art form, being a fresh medium and able to be manipulated by speed, special effects and editing.
Thaïs, by Anton Giulio Bragaglia was one of the most influential films of the Futurism genre and served as the major inspiration for Expressionist cinema that proliferated in northern Europe during the following decade. Released in 1917, it is the only surviving Italian futurist film. The plot consisted of a fairly conventional tragic drama – a beautiful countess bent on seducing married men, would drive them to the brink of ruin. Eventually her evil ways resulted in the death of her best friend and in a fit of guilt, the countless kills herself. What set the film apart was its set designs and cinematography. Designer Enrico Prampolini employed a strong black and white contrast, using geometric shapes within the form of spirals, diamond and checks with symbolic figures, including cats, masks and lots of spewing smoke. The film’s characters interacted with the painted scenery to create a world of illusion, making it difficult for the viewer to distinguish reality from fantasy. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more abstract to reflect the countess’ increasing confusion.
Two of the most successful films of the period were released in 1913 – Mario Caserini’s The Last Days of Pompeii and Enrico Guazzone’s Quo Vadis. Pompeii is regarded as the first disaster movie and utilized thousands of extras as well as lavish set designs. Quo Vadis was revolutionary in its innovative visual effects.
The following year, Nino Martoglio released Lost in Darkness. The film documented life in the slums of Naples. It is considered to be the precursor to the Neorealist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. As acclaimed and influential as these films were, the real money makers in the industry were the “society dramas.” With their melodramatic themes and passionate emotional acting, these silent films marked the birth of the Italian femme fatale and made stars of the actresses who played them. The genre gave rise to the popularity of the lingering close-up shot, which was emulated throughout Europe. The most famous Italian diva of the time was Eleonora Duse, who in 1923, became the first woman and the first Italian to be featured on the cover of the newly-created Time magazine.
The Italian film industry struggled against rising foreign competition in the years following World War I. Several major studios, among them Cines and Ambrosio, formed the Unione Cinematografica Italiana to create a more effective method to produce and distribute films. It didn’t work. There was an enormous disconnect between the production of the movies and actually getting the features into theaters. In some cases, films were not released until several years after they had been produced. Among the notable Italian movies of the late silent era were Mario Camerini’s Rotaio and Alessandro Blasetti’s Sun, both in 1929.
After this period of decline, the Italian film industry was revitalized in the 1930s with the arrival of sound. A popular Italian genre during this period, the Telefoni Bianchi were comedies in the style of Hollywood productions, using against lavish Art Deco sets and almost always featuring white phones – a status symbol of the time and generally unavailable to the movie-going public. Important examples of Telefoni Bianchi include Guido Brignone’s Paradiso (1932), Carlo Bragaglia’s O la borsa o la vita (1933) and Righelli’s Together in the Dark (1935).
The Telefoni Bianchi films tended to be socially conservative, promoting family values and respect for authority. This was perfectly in line with the Fascist government ideals. The government provided financial support for the film industry, most notably the construction of the Cinecittà studios, but it also engaged in censorship and many Italian films produced of the late 1930s were propaganda films.
Cinecittà studios were founded in 1937 by Benito Mussolini, his son Vittorio and his head of cinema Luigi Freddi, under the slogan Il cinema è l’arma più forte (Cinema is the most powerful weapon). The purpose was not solely for propaganda, it was intended to support the recovery and expansion of the Italian feature film industry. In retrospect, it is clear that the industry’s low point was reached in 1931, but the films of the Telefoni Bianchi held great promise thereafter.
The Cinecittà studios were Europe’s most advanced production facilities and greatly boosted the technical quality of Italian films. Mussolini inaugurated the studios on April 21, 1937. Sets and post-production units were constructed and extensively used. Early films such as Scipio Africanus (1937) and The Iron Crown (1941) showcased their technological advancements. Seven thousand people were involved in the filming of the battle scene from Scipio Africanus, with live elephants brought in as a part of the re-enactment of the Battle of Zama.
Cinecittà provided everything necessary for filmmaking: theaters, technical services and even a cinematography school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, for younger apprentices. It became a breeding ground for many of Italy’s most acclaimed film directors. Today it is the largest studio in Europe, encompassing over four million square feet.
The Roman studios were bombed by the Western Allies in World War II. Following the war, between 1945 and 1947, the studios of Cinecittà were used as a displaced persons’ camp for two years. After rebuilding in the postwar years, the studios were used once again for their post-production facilities. In the 1950s, Cinecittà was given the nickname “Hollywood on the Tiber” and was the filming location for several large American film productions, including Roman Holiday (1953), Beat the Devil (1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954) and Ben-Hur (1959).
This continued into the next decade with international productions of Francis of Assisi (1961), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968).
World-renowned filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson have all worked at Cinecittà. More than 3,000 movies have been filmed there, of which 90 received an Academy Award nomination and 47 of these won the coveted award.