by Allan Fish
(Italy 1934 75m) DVD2 (Italy only)
Aka. 1860 – I Mille di Garibaldi; Gesuzza the Garibaldian Wife
Waiting for Giuseppe
p Emilio Cecchi d Alessandro Blasetti w Gino Mazzucchi, Emilio Cecchi, Alessandro Blasetti novel Gino Mazzucchi ph Giulio de Luca, Anchise Brizzi ed Ignazio Ferronetti, Giocinto Salito m Nino Medin art Vittorio Cafiero, Angelo Cannavale
Giuseppe Belino (Carmelo Trau), Aida Bellia (Rosuzza Trau), Gianfranco Giachetti (Father Costanzo), Maria Denis (Clelia), Mario Ferrari (Colonel Carini),
It’s one of the most famous paintings in the world. Goya’s ‘The Third of May 1808’. The title may not be familiar, but the painting will be. Is there a more potent depiction of the oppression of the working class than Goya’s masterpiece? It depicts the brave but failed resistance of Spanish rebels to Napoleon during the peninsular war. A group of peasants are placed against a wall while a firing squad prepares to give out improvised ‘justice’. Among the huddled few awaiting their fatal bullets, a man in a white shirt pleads with arms outstretched. It’s become an icon of resistance to tyranny everywhere. It’s also the painting that comes to mind whenever I think of Alessandro Blasetti’s 1860.
That it does so leads us to an unavoidable bitter irony and to correcting a slight. Ask anyone in the English speaking world to give an overview of Italian cinema, they’ll skip from the great silent epics to neo-realism. The period of fascist control is seen as a cultural desert, and yet while it may not have reached the heights it would in the decade after the war, there were some important, even some artistic, Italian films made during this period. We now may accept Ophuls’ La Signora di Tutti, but that was just one film made on Ophuls’ travels in the 1930s. But outside of that there were others and perhaps the best director to emerge during this period was Alessandro Blasetti.
If Blasetti is known at all in the English speaking world it is generally for his later historical pieces, climaxing in Fabiola. Yet he first came to prominence during the early talkie era and, from 1930-1934 steadily rose artistically from the comedy of ancient Rome Nerone through the hymn to the famous Siena horse race Palio to the pioneering story of peasants and landlords Terra Madre. All have their merits, but it was with 1860 – the film contemporary critic Carlo Lizzani called “the highest peak in fascist Italian film” that he reached his early Everest. It’s set, as the title suggests, in 1860, in Sicily, then under the control of the mercenary forces of the Bourbon Emperor of France, Napoleon III. Local villagers and partisans, along with a local priest, try to wait in the hills while one of their number tries to make it to their rebel leader Giuseppe Garibaldi.
These things don’t end happily, and indeed the film originally ended with a postscript praising Mussolini’s blackshirts as embodying the revolutionary spirit. Little wonder it was jettisoned after 1945, but it still leaves that bitter taste. In 1934 1860 was an approved film under Mussolini, equating his fascists to liberators. There’s more irony still in the fact that so many of the mercenaries doing the oppressing in Blasetti’s film are German-speaking. It’s an irony that doesn’t go away, but the revolutionary theme does transcend the individual events – it recalls that Goya painting which depicted events half a century earlier. (It also cannot help but look ahead to Visconti’s The Leopard, which dealt with much the same struggles.) Cinematically it’s seen as a precursor to neo-realism in its use of non-professional actors and focusing on the ordinary people, but it’s equally related to the Mexican revolutionary films about Villa and Zapata and also looks forward to the later Brazilian cinema novo movement. More than anything, however, 1860 is to be cherished for its imagery, its Rembrandtian use of shadows and light contrasts. The term ‘painterly’ is too often used for cinematography, but this is a film not merely shot but composed. All of which brings us back to Goya, and a reminder that only three years later similar oppression would take place during the Spanish Civil War. There, too, German mercenaries would take it out on an ordinary peasant town, Guernica. Another artist would be inspired to pick up his brush…