Camilla Chams
Chams has a master degree in literature, with a focus on italian film and literature. She lives in Oslo.

Italian political cinema will be discussed at Cinemateket in Oslo this weekend

The social engagement of neo-realism takes a few steps forwards in Elio Petri’s revelations regarding the alienating games of power, with clear lines to Kafka’s The Trial.

On 15 and 16 April, Italian political cinema will be the theme at Cinemateket, including seminars and film screenings. One of the genre’s most central directors is Elio Petri. In his film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which draws lines of references to both social engagement of neo-realism and to Kafka’s The Trial, Petri shows how power alienates the individual, and how film can be a direct political tool to reveal this phenomenon.

When we talk about Italian cinema today, we often talk about the golden age of Italian cinema – neo-realism. Few people are familiar with the political cinema that arose following neo-realism, but which also has clear lines of references to neo-realism. Neo-realist cinema did not only renew Italian cinema, but international cinema after WWII. After films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), a number of films focused on current social topics, challenging dramaturgical and cinematic norms, and thereby closing in on the documentary style. Rather than constructing dramatic intrigues with professional actors, filmmakers should now instead take their cameras into the street and establish contact with social reality. This resulted in a politicization of the medium, a politicization that runs like a red thread through the history of Italian cinema, and which prospered greatly during the so-called Years of Lead in 1968-1980, when terror and violence characterised Italy: the bombings on Piazza Fontana in Milan in 1969, then in Brescia in 1974 and on the express train between Florence and Bologna the same year, before culminating with the kidnapping and murder of the former Prime Minister and Christian Democrat Aldo Moro on 6 March 1978 and the bombing at the train station in Bologna in 1980.

Increased inflation, lower production, market competitiveness and oil boycotts created political and social unrest during these years. Corruption and scandals strengthened the distrust among people to authorities, political parties and labour unions. Political cinema grew in Italy as a direct reaction to this crisis and to the authorities’ lack of ability to act on behalf of the people.

A direct political tool. Political cinema during these years remained faithful towards the social engagement of neo-realism. At the same time, it encouraged more action in the break-up of trust between the people and the state, and the loss of traditional values was a fact. In addition to those who are known internationally, Italian political cinema’s foremost filmmakers were Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, directors like Elio Petri, Francesco Rsoi, Marco Bellocchio, Guiliano Montaldo, Ermanno Olmi and the Taviani brothers. All these directors have strong connections to neo-realism, but focused on critical realism to a greater extent than their predecessors. The film should no longer just show reality as it appeared, but also free the individual from oppression. As such, cinema had become a direct political tool in the fight to free the individual from the alienation of capitalism. Particularly Francesco Rosi and Elio Petri are seen as the leading directors of Italian political cinema. But while Rosi’s films are often connected to a specific Italian reality, Elio Petri’s films are more philosophical and entertaining, and more accessible outside of Italy itself.

The master of political cinema. Elio Petri’s (1929-1982) formal education in cinema is limited. After having worked as a film critic and script consultant, he made his debut as a director in 1961 with L’assessino. But Petri was not only concerned with cinema.

Elio Petri

His youth had been spent as a militant in the Italian communist party. In spite of his life-long interest in social and political questions, he quit the communist party when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956. In the recently published book Elio Petri and Italian political cinema (Mimesis Edizioni, 2015), Petri responds to the question of whether he was still a communist in 1979. «To be completely honest, I can’t say that. Not because the communists themselves don’t consider me a communist, but because being a communist, with my earlier experiences as a militant, would be to accept the decisions of the party – and thereby undermining any subjective opinion of your own, for the sake of the party. That means to live, minute by minute, for the party and on the party’s conditions.»

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