This article appeared in The Herald
Of all the reasons to like Italian films from the early 1960s, good as any, I think, is that they are so very cool. Dapper-looking chaps are all-too-often framed through a lens of suspicion in Anglo-Saxon films of the post-war era, but the characters portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni and Alain Delon (okay, he’s French, but he was in Michelangelo Antonioni’s l’Eclisse in 1962) seem almost the pitch-perfect existential response to our own era of media saturation, civic disillusionment and cultural tedium: bored, detached, intellectual, they occasionally act disgracefully, but at least they know how to wear a suit.
Before you dismiss my analysis as entirely superficial, however, let me tell you about the women. Claudio Cardinale, Monica Vitti, Jeanne Moreau (French, again): all are visions of classical Italianate beauty. But their foibles are those of modern, bourgeois women. And this leads me to my point – Antonioni and Federico Fellini broke with the conservatism of both right and left in Italy by daring to depict female sexuality per se. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was branded immoral and the Vatican tried to have it banned, while both men were hammered by leftist critics, who thought films ought only to show women being doughty.
These filmmakers deal with the lives of an affluent middle class, whose Italy, born of the post-war economic boom, is consumerist and glamour-obsessed. If capitalism is the enemy in, say, La Notte (Antonioni, 1961), the malaise is not material but spiritual. Individuals drift, unfulfilled, in and out of the action, aimless voyeurs.
Mastroianni, in La Notte, plays a writer who attends a party thrown by a tycoon and almost cheats on his wife with the host’s daughter. In 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963), he is a filmmaker with “director’s block”. Along the way there is all manner of ennui and moral ambiguity to contend with. But man’s alienation in the modern world was never so appealing.