A few weeks ago, this column trekked through world cinema's least-explored corners. Since then, I've received some scolding from regions that are rightly accustomed to film-buff fawning. I speak of two European siblings, France and Italy. Those countries staked their places in modern film history with dueling movements, the legacies of which are still trickling out onto DVD:
Italian Neorealism is the less sexy of the two for post-modern audiences, and you have to look high and low on New Release shelves to find an example. Pietro Germi's The Railroad Man (No Shame Films) features the director (who later made the black comedy Divorce Italian Style) himself in the title role, as a working-class man in a heap of trouble.
Even the New Wave's spiritual fathers are abundant in video stores, whether with films made before the movement's late-'50s birth (Boudou Saved From Drowning, Jean Renoir's 1932 satire, on Criterion) or movies shot in its wake (L'Argent, Robert Bresson's final film, also on New Yorker).
French cinema never went entirely out of fashion, and well-stocked video stores should have a handful of new titles from last year. Miramax offers the sentimental The Chorus while Warner released Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's follow-up, A Very Long Engagement. And Look At Me, the wildly acclaimed comedy that reunites the co-stars/co-writers of The Taste of Others, jumps straight over a wide theatrical release and into your living room, courtesy of Sony Pictures.
But getting back to Italia. The heavy hitters are out in force this month, with titles that are little-known here compared to their textbook work. Criterion offers two very different tales: Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City) tells a saint's story (with co-writer Federico Fellini) in The Flowers of St. Francis, while Marcello Mastroianni plays (what else?) a loverman in Le Notti Bianche, directed by Luchino Visconti (The Leopard) from a story by Dostoyevsky. Finally, No Shame offers a very early look at the director who would change Italian cinema with L'Avventura, Blow-Up, et al: The appropriately titled Story of a Love Affair was Michelangelo Antonioni's debut feature after he made a dozen shorts and documentaries. Martin Scorsese ranks Story among his favorites.
No Shame is all about Italy. At the moment, they are releasing five new grindhouse titles that are the kind of thing Quentin Tarantino is usually obsessed with. A trio of Eurosleaze flicks aim for the raincoat crowd: Devil in the Flesh, Secrets of a Call Girl, and Ursula Andress and Jack Palance in The Sensuous Nurse. More promising are the crime films: Gambling City is a light-hearted thriller about card sharks; Almost Human features fan-favorite Henry Silva as a cop on the trail of a killer who has kidnapped a billionaire's daughter.
If the highs and lows of homegrown European cinema give you subtitle fatigue, there's always the old Hollywood version: It Started in Naples (Paramount) pairs Sophia Loren and Clark Gable in a predictably sentimental 1960 Technicolor comedy. Tough-minded cinephiles will be pleased to see co-star Vittorio De Sica, who in his time behind the camera made a little movie called The Bicycle Thief, probably the most famous Italian Neorealist film ever. •
By John DeFore