WHEN THE review copy of this exhaustive — and rather exhausting survey of the last two decades of Italian cinema arrived I asked colleagues whether it had reached them. "I don't know that I like new Italian cinema" was one lukewarm response. I wasn't sure that I did either and don't feel much more enthusiastic after reading this profoundly informed account.
I count myself a friend of the Italian cinema. One of the most gratifying professional compliments I ever received was a cheque presented at the Venice Festival for what they kindly called "the best writing in English on the Italian cinema".
That was in the early 1950's, in the heyday of Italian "neorealism; of De Sica, Rossellini, Blasetti, Zampa and others who revealed a new humanity and simplicity in post-war Italian cinema. They were followed by Antonioni, admittedly my own favourite Italian director by whose master-cinematography I am spellbound, often I'm afraid beyond criticism.
The period covered by Mr Witcombe's survey begins with Antonioni and goes forward to the great Visconti. For the directors between he has chosen a curious method of presentation. Odd couplings of directors are presented under gimmicky and alliterative chapter-heads whose relevance is not always apparent; for instance: "Distance and Didacties" Bellochio and Cavani; "Form as Fatherscape" Bolognini and Bertolucci; "Debate and Denunciation" Rosi and Petrie; "Fable and Phenomena" Pasolini (to whom the book is partly dedicated) and Fellini; to the strangest coupling of all 'Visconti and Wertmuller" under the apt enough heading "Ter minus and Tantrum".
Many are protagonists of the permissive age, with all the Italian flair for melodrama, making the most of the openings for sexual "explicitness", revolutionary fervour and nude illustrations. This has another defect, Mr Witcombe makes long, thorough,. painstaking and very informed synopses of the filMs he discusses often without making his own judgments very clear or the scale of values he applies, and inevitably without often being able to provide the leaps of movie magic which bring the detailed word for word account of the horrors of Pasolini's Salo or Pigsty can be even more horrid than the original, while reducing the movie to a stagnant still life.
I was just reaching the conclusion that this conscientious and well-researched work was only one more confirmation that it is as impossible to render the essence of a movie in pedestrian prose as for a music critic to evoke a symphony in plodding words, when I reached the sixth chapter: "Peasant Perspectives" Ermanno Olmi and the Taviani Brothers. Here, almost for the first time, Mr Witcombe really gets off the ground in his appreciation of Olmi. He quotes Olmi on "the privilege of pause this pause, this 'grace' is basic for me" and adds: "The neorealist simplicity of Olmi's work, so evident in this comment, echoes quite directly Roberto Rossellini's observation that for him the key to artistic authenticity lay in the waiting, the patience, the avoidance of frenzy."
The book is undoubtedly a mine for students. It is the more regrettable that so much valuable information is not tabulated in any way to be more accessible for reference. There should surely be a filmography for each director and dates.
Freda Bruce Lockhart