Obituary: Giuseppe De Santis

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Director of one of Italy's most successful films Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice), which was nominated for an Academy Award, banned by the US Legion of Decency and packed cinemas all over the world, and co-writer of Luchino Visconti's Ossessione, the first film to be labelled "neo-realistic", Giuseppe De Santis has an important part in the history of Italian cinema.

In radical articles he wrote for the Italian magazine Cinema in the early Forties he advocated a new realistic approach to film-making, and in the wake of Bitter Rice he was for five years Italy's most commercially successful director. While pioneering neo-realism and promoting his strong Marxist principals, he also maintained popular appeal.

The image of Silvana Mangano (who had been Miss Rome of 1946) clad in shorts and wading in the rice fields, stockings rolled down her thighs, became an icon of Italian sexuality, and his transformation of the actress into an overnight star by celebrating her eroticism created the climate in which Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida (and in France Brigitte Bardot) would become famous internationally.

A vehement anti-Fascist, De Santis incorporated into his films a plea for improved social conditions. Gilles Jacob, director of the Cannes Film Festival, described him as "a great poet of working men and farmers."

Born in Fondi, Italy, in 1917, De Santis grew up in the orange groves and marshes between Rome and Naples. "My friends were barbers, butchers, blacksmiths, masons and cobblers," he said later. "A kind of mistrust had always kept me away from rich kids." He studied philosophy at Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, which had opened in 1935 and, though theoretically subject to Fascist control, taught Marxist theories and showed the works of the great Soviet film-makers. De Santis' fellow pupils included Michelangelo Antonioni and Dino De Laurentiis.

In the magazine Cinema, edited by Benito Mussolini's son Vittorio and thus allowed more freedom than most journals, De Santis joined other anti- Fascist intellectuals in condemning traditional Italian cinema and on one occasion brutally exposed himself: "A bastard, that's what I am," he wrote, "small, swarthy, hawk-nosed, touchy, suspicious, with a pride and insolence that constantly tear my guts trying to mask the mysterious inferiority complex that assails all bastards when they are honest with themselves".

In 1940, on a crossing from Naples to Capri, he met Visconti, who was equally hostile to Fascism and the existing film industry. They decided to film James Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (which had been passed by the censors because it depicted "America's decadence"), adapting it to "the true reality of our country", and giving it the title Ossessione.

Because of his earlier studies, De Santis knew more about the technicalities of film-making than his director, but was amazed at Visconti's intuitive grasp of film-making, combined with an obsession for realism. The editor Mario Serandrei, after watching the first rushes, said "I don't know how to define this kind of cinema other than as `neo-realistic' . . . "

After more writing contributions and work as an assistant director (including on Roberto Rossellini's Scala Merci, 1943), De Santis made his debut as a director with an episode of Giorni de Gloria (1945), a documentary montage celebrating the Italian partisans' struggle in lyrical Eisenstein-like images.

His first full feature as director was Caccia Tragica ("The Tragic Hunt", 1947), which was highly praised for the director's compositional skill and was a key film of the neo-realist movement with its portrait of the chaos and confusion of post-war Italy. This was followed by his sensual study of passions in the rice fields of the Po Valley and the exploitation of women workers there, Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949), which established him as one of Italy's best-known directors.

These early films, plus his next two, Non C'e Pace tra gli Ulivi ("Under the Olive Tree", 1950) and Roma Ora 11 ("Rome 11 o'clock", 1952) were praised for their efforts to promote social reform but criticised for their concessions to commercialism. Roma Ora 11, about a crowd of girls seeking employment who are killed when a staircase collapses under their weight, typically combined scathing social comment with sensationalism.

Turning to more intimate dramas later in his career, De Santis saw his reputation diminish, though La Strada Lunga un Anno (1958), filmed in Yugoslavia and celebrating the solidarity of unpaid workers, was an impressive example of socialist cinema and won a Golden Globe in the United States along with an Oscar nomination.

In 1964 he directed the first Italian-Soviet co-production Italiani Brava Gente, a spectacular war movie which demonstrated that differences between people are now based more on class and occupation than on nationality. De Santis was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1995. "Italian cinema owes him much," said the director Carlo Lizzani, "for his great films which marked the beginning and evolution of neo-realism as well as for the coherence and integrity that characterised his professional life."

Tom Vallance

Giuseppe De Santis, film critic and director: born Fondi, Italy 11 February 1917; married 1943 Giovanna Valeri; died Rome 16 May 1997.