Rome's once-fabled Cinecitta studio seems as redundant as the Colosseum now; its emperor, Federico Fellini, dead some 15 years. Italian cinema was an enduring wonder for 30 years, from the epochal neo-realism of Bicycle Thieves (1948), through to the great mid-century maestros – Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini and Visconti. The images of a statue of Christ being helicoptered over Rome and Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi fountain in Fellini's La Dolce Vita are as globally recognisable as anything from Hollywood, from where disciples from Coppola to Woody Allen looked to Italy to learn.
But while France – with 10 times the state subsidies of its neighbour – marches on, Italian cinema today seems bankrupt, its finances and self-confidence in ruins. Its biggest hit of recent years, Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988), was an elegy for its past. No one knows this better than the new Italian directors struggling to find a voice. For them, that past is a crushing weight.
"They destroyed our cinema," Saverio Costanzo, director of In Memory of Me, says of the maestros. "They consumed Italy, by portraying it in such an absolute, timeless way. With all these phantoms from the past, it's very hard to understand our way. Because if you see La Dolce Vita or [Antonioni's] L'Avventura today, Italy hasn't changed so much. And I sometimes have the feeling that nobody cares what Italy is now.
"As young directors, we are working to get out of this enormous responsibility. It's really oppressive. Why should I see Saverio Costanzo's movie, if I have an Antonioni?"
Gianni Zanasi, another promising young director, sees living after Italy's golden age of cinema more simply. "It doesn't depress me. It's more like a curse. It's like finding yourself in the right place at the wrong time. A stroke of bad luck."
The protagonists of upcoming Italian films and those released in the last year often seem equally displaced and alienated. Andrea Adriatico's Andres and Me is about a political speech-writer who feels disconnected from his own words, and vanishes. Zanasi's Don't Think About It follows an ageing punk-rocker's re-engagement with his family, while Turkish-born Fernan Ozpetek's Saturno Contro, Silvio Soldini's Days and Clouds and Kim Rossi Stuart's Anche Libero Va Bene also concern themselves with the internal crises of family and friends. In Memory of Me takes this to the extreme, as its hero shuns freedom in favour of the limbo of a monastery. Venice's beauty, and the existence of a wider Italy, is glimpsed through shut windows.
"I cannot imagine In Memory of Me being made in the Seventies," Costanzo says. "Then, there were strong Marxist ideologies. Everybody could follow, everybody could believe. And now we are totally lost. When Americans see the new Italian cinema they're shocked, because they're used to the old masterpieces. And now we are trying to be different from them. So we are getting inside the kitchen and the living room, telling the story of a family and a relationship, and we are scared of showing the beauty of Italy, or an open story. The maestros were too open, too happy to work in cinema. They used the country up."
Costanzo sees a further change at work, beyond his own country. "When Fellini was making movies, it was very interesting for people to know how Italian society worked. Nowadays, with globalisation, we don't have such a particular society. So local cinema is really dying. I felt very comfortable telling a story about Palestine and Israel [in his 2004 debut, Private], because it also affects my life. Realism doesn't work for me any more. You have to go somewhere else."
The Italian greats who were more confident in their country didn't work in isolation, of course. The neo-realists reinvented cinema for a nation itself being reforged after fascism, culminating in the social upheaval of the Sixties' economic "big boom", as the maestros entered their pomp. The 1965 Corona law subsidised "quality" films, while art-house hits such as La Dolce Vita (1960), and radical commercial cinema from Leone's spaghetti westerns to the gallows horrors of Dario Argento filled international screens.
"The big, traditional Italian movie was very important in describing its time," says Andrea Adriatico, "right up until the Seventies, when comedies described big problems like divorce and abortion and women's rights. In different moments, it used very different styles to tell the same truth, the story of the Italian people. At a certain point, Italy has lost this magic touch."
The growth of commercial television from 1976, and the halving of the number of Italian cinemas between 1980 and 1985 – the year Hollywood, after its studios bought up distribution chains, first dominated the Italian box-office – were landmarks. But the true catastrophe was Berlusconi's 1994 election. His aptly named Medusa company's private TV stations, and its state rival, Rai, were the only remaining domestic financiers of cinema. Even after his electoral defeat, his appointees rule Rai.
"It's very hard for us to portray what's happening in Italy," says Costanzo. "Because Italian reality is stronger than our imagination. Berlusconi is already a movie. Berlusconi is for me how Italy became: cynical and superficial."
Silvio Soldini, though one of Italy's most popular directors, still had to make Days and Clouds with Warner when the former prime minister's people said no. "The problem with Berlusconi is that with his TV stations, he's succeeded in changing the people themselves. He's taken everything down to the lowest common denominator. We've all become children. There is no respect for culture in Italy any more – it's not just films."
"In recent years," Zanasi says, "something quite important has been missing: freedom. We've gone through a period with a mini-Mussolini. That's really restricted the creative room to manoeuvre. Certain subject-matters were completely off-limits. Instead, there was a revival of the 'white telephone' genre from the fascist period, about these wonderful interiors and elegant women and floating cigarette-smoke. Now even with Berlusconi gone, it's difficult for anybody who is less than 50, who's not someone's sister, brother or lover, to be put in a situation, with even a very limited budget, to say what one really thinks.
"The people who make films today give a lot of weight to subject-matter, often political things like workers' rights, but they completely overlook the style of telling. The music is always three chords. It's generational, and it has to change." Adriatico agrees: "Ninety per cent of production in Italy is in the same, TV style. The same actors used by the same producers, and always the same story."
Alina Marazzi, maker of a playful documentary on Italian representations of women since the Sixties, We Want Roses Too, which has been highly praised by Mike Leigh, sees faults a little closer to home. "It isn't only the responsibility of the people in power. It's the film-makers', too. Their inner censorship is often stronger than the imposed kind. There's a lack of purpose among young film-makers. There's more a need to express their own egos. It's a reflection of the times, and not only in Italy. The urges and intellectual debate aren't so strong as in the past."
And yet, today, something is stirring in Italian cinema. There have been structural changes. The system whereby state funding of films required repayment upon distribution, despite most films never getting that far, thus bankrupting independent producers at the first hurdle, has been eased by regional film commissions, releasing funds for films they hope will attract tourists.
"There is a new strength coming from independent production," Adriatico believes. "This is what happens when you try to suffocate a plant. The roots spread in different directions. There is a shift, and Italian movies are actually going head-to-head with big American movies again. There are film-makers who are telling the story of the Italian people again, in a new way – and we are going back to watch. Our films are going abroad again, too."
Soldini hesitantly agrees. "There's been a period, which is behind us, where things were even worse than ashes. In the last five or six years, there is the sensation of a renaissance of young film-makers, here and there. Things are happening."
The fact remains that Italy now makes only 30 films a year, compared to 130 a decade ago; the same as Denmark. Meanwhile, new forces such as post-Ceausescu Romania have national stories to tell that are as urgent as Italy's in 1945.
The days when Fellini and Co ruled cinema are not coming back. Though many of today's directors feel oppressed by the great narrative of Italy's national cinema, none feels tied to it. Costanzo had his moment of cinematic revelation in New York's Lincoln Center, watching Frederick Wiseman's vast American documentaries. Emanuele Crialese, maker of the international hit Respiro (2002), a beautifully sad dissection of rural Italian sexism, was trained in France. Zanasi learnt to love cinema watching Scorsese and Spielberg on TV. "In the Eighties," Soldini confirms, "all my points of reference were outside Italy. I was in New York during its New Wave. And when I came back I didn't want to go to Rome and be an apprentice. I made guerrilla films on the street, like [Jim] Jarmusch. I feel part of Italian cinema, but my main influence was Antonioni, the least Italian of all Italian directors. So my cinema is not so Italian. It's more European."
Fellini's gaudy demonstrations of Italian character are not for these young directors. Only the twisted old men of Paolo Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love (2004) and The Family Friend (2006) nod to that past. But these directors' personal concerns are starting to strike a deeper nerve. Soldini's Days and Clouds, about a middle-class Genoese couple dragged into unemployment, builds a wider picture of Italy's economic problems on a heartbreakingly humane performance from Margherita Buy, which is translatable anywhere. Even Nanni Moretti, whose Dear Diary (1994) seemed to define a self-absorbed generation, grappled with the Berlusconi effect in The Caiman (2006).
Libero, meanwhile, the directorial debut of actor Kim Rossi Stuart, gets deep into the heart of another strained family, through the hurt, watching eyes of 11-year-old Alessandro Morace. It hardly seems to matter that it's set in Italy. But an urge to human realism runs through it, right back to Bicycle Thieves. No one has yet had the nerve to restart the great national cinematic narrative: unless these atomised, economically harried family tales are now it. But a core of worthy directors and actors is building.
Zanasi's Don't Think About It is especially encouraging. Valerio Mastandrea's inimitably Italian hangdog performance anchors a hip, funny, rock-fluent, easily watchable yet emotionally truthful, modern commercial film. "Those old directors wouldn't communicate the way they did in the Sixties now," Zanasi notes. "I want to tell an Italian story, which can have universal resonance. So I try to use rock's truthfulness, in synthesis with the visual – something I've learnt from American films. But all that I've learnt about people is very Italian. I was aware I was shooting in Rimini, not Milwaukee."
Might Italian cinema's three-decade hangover be coming to an end? "Absolutely, yes!" says Zanasi. "There's constantly this idea of 'let's help the Italian cinema', and it's really very boring. Let's look at cinema like music, let's not consider it in a nationalistic way. 'What's the situation in Hungarian music?' Who asks that question? Music and films are beyond that. To talk about Italian cinema is just a local thing now. We are, after all, in Europe."
You can almost hear the ghost of Fellini being put to rest. Italian cinema may finally have a future, not just a past.
'Libero' opens on 25 January
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