It has been often stated (and endlessly repeated since 1959) that the New Wave of French film directors which stemmed from writing criticism in Cahiers du Cinéma in the late ’50 were members of the first generation of filmmakers who had a thorough knowledge of the History of Cinema (which so far was only slightly older than 60) and who had made the grade from writing about movies to writing & directing their own films. Which was obviously untrue, however well it might have sounded or looked in black on white print at the time: there are several instances almost anywhere, even in Spain, where many directors had been before cinéphiles and critics, and lots of them, since the ‘20s, in France.
And in Italy, of course, there was, apart from earlier cases, at least the almost too-recent-to-forget but certainly forerunning example of many (most, I’d almost say) members of the so-called “Neo-Realist school”, people which began directing during or just after the ending of the Second World War, but had been writing about the cinema since the late ‘20s or, depending on their age, the ‘30s, or the early ‘40s. One of those was Luigi Comencini (1916-2007), whose career as film reviewer spanned from 1938 to 1947, and who was, together with Alberto Lattuada, Mario Ferrari and his younger brother Gianni Comencini, one of the founders of the Milan Cineteca (which was the first Italian Film Archive) in 1947. He had already filmed two shorts before, in 1937 and 1946, although his first feature as director was made in 1948.
Not a very renowned filmmaker nor one of the most highly and widely regarded directors in the Italian cinema, I don't recall having ever read any long interview with him (although probably there were some published in Italy). Comencini was certainly not a high-brow pet, nor a very popular filmmaker abroad, although I would say he was among the ten or fifteen (or even twenty for some years) very good and usually quite reliable filmmakers which made the Italian Cinema great (one of the best national cinemas) during almost 30 years, let’s say from around 1945 to perhaps 1973.
And he was no mere craftsman, since, knowing not a thing about his life – except that he had four daughters, Paola, Cristina, Eleonora and Francesca, three of them directors and the other also working in films as production & costume designer - and earlier involvement with movies, I gathered, guessed or deduced from his films certain things that, when I tried to check, seem to be more or less as I had imagined. Which proves that his films were often much more personal than is usually expected from those directors which were never hailed and treated and analyzed as auteurs. But who were - like most film directors, really - intermittently or occasionally, and often rather indirectly, very personal: they certainly did have something to tell or comment, and a style of their own when telling those tales cinematically. It comes as no surprise, but as confirmation of something one had somehow instinctively sensed while watching the picture, when one reads Comencini’s confession that La ragazza di Bube (1963/4) told something parallel to Comencini’s own intimate story when courting his wife-to-be princess Giulia Grifeo di Partanna (to whom he dedicated Un ragazzo di Calabria, 1987).
That he was quite a cinéphile or film buff and shared the spirit that should be required of film archivists and curators is something that could be easily guessed from one of his early films I cherish more dearly, although no one seems to have paid it much attention, or to recall it nowadays, La valigia dei sogni (1953), a film that every film archive in the world should screen at least once a year, and which shows Comencini’s knowledge and love for the Italian silents, specially its melodramas, which he, of course, takes very seriously and encourages the audience not to laugh at.
But there is more: as I went through Comencini’s rather long and somewhat uneven filmography (certainly long for an European director, 56 titles in my count, including shorts, sketches and TV series), discovering some films I had never watched before or revisiting old friends, I suddenly realized that, despite his being unmistakably a very “Italian” (and therefore “European”) artist, who would never be accused of “aping” American films, and to mention only a few instances amongst the many available, not his early, apprentice works, but rather “mature” or even “late” Comencini films, like La Bugiarda (1965), Delitto d’amore (1973/4), Cercasi Gesù (1982) or Buon Natale Buon Anno (1989) were... not at all remakes, but rather some sort of Italian versions, imaginative follow-ups, extrapolations or extensions, or perhaps updated and relocated variations, of some great films made in Hollywood in the ‘20s,‘30s and ‘40s and directed, respectively, by no less than Ernst Lubitsch (Design for Living, 1933), Frank Borzage (7th Heaven, 1927, and A Farewell to Arms, 1932), Frank Capra (Meet John Doe, 1941, and It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946) or Leo McCarey (Make Way For Tomorrow, 1937).
Like those four filmmakers, and some others such as George Cukor, John M. Stahl, Gregory LaCava, Dorothy Arzner, Mitchell Leisen, Vincente Minnelli or Douglas Sirk, Comencini excelled in the apparently opposite genres/moods of comedy and melodrama, and quite often liked to mix both in some of his quite individual, more characteristic movies. Curiously, this mixture of the extremes of characters’ feelings and audience response, which works quite well in all the films already mentioned and many others by Comencini, such as Pane amore e gelosia (1954), which can be both poignant and quite funny, doesn’t result half as convincing when the tonal range becomes narrower, and the contrasting feelings less striking, as in A cavallo della tigre(1961) or Il Commissario(1962).
Although certainly less renowned (and much less critically respected) than the deservedly celebrated commedia all’italiana, a very strong penchant for melodrama has been quite a natural constant in Italian cinema from its earliest beginnings in the silent period, and more clearly still since the movies became talkies. After all, Italy is the fatherland (or is it motherland?) of melodramma, i.e. “drama with music”, and it should not be surprising that even the less “popular” or “commercial” and more “intellectual” filmmakers have quite often flirted with such disreputable genres as melodrama (even Antonioni, Visconti, Rossellini or Fellini).
And Titanus, which seemed pleased to harbour for years not only Raffaello Matarazzo – probably the greatest of Italian melodrama film directors, together with early Vittorio Cottafavi - but several other occasional melodramatists like Giuseppe De Santis, Valerio Zurlini, Guido Brignone, Camillo Mastrocinque, or Ubaldo Del Colle (in an incredible comeback since his last film in 1929), was certainly regarded as fertile ground and quite the adequate production company for filmmakers daring enough to thread into such dangerous depths of feelings and dramatic intensity, of naked or dubious or hidden emotions as the genre not only allowed or encouraged but almost required.
I may be wrong, but from a distance it seems to me the Italian film industry, although it was for a very long time one of the few in the world truly deserving from an economic standpoint to be considered as an industrial sector, seems not to have worked at all in the manner of Hollywood, where one can consider, inside a given filmmaker’s career, for instance his Warner Bros period as probably different from his (later or earlier) Fox period (take a look not only at Jean Negulesco, but also at Raoul Walsh, among many other possible subjects for research), or ponder on the different working conditions and pressures to be met or endured by directors working at Paramount, Columbia, RKO, Universal, Republic, Monogram, PRC, United Artists, Allied Artists or MGM.
It appears that in Italy it was not frequent for filmmakers to become “house directors” for Lux or Titanus or Rizzoli, nor was the rule for them to sign exclusive several-year contracts with a single production company. Instead, most Italian film directors seem to have acted rather as free-lancers who first had a project in mind (or even in the process of screenwriting) and then began searching for producers willing to finance it, while remaining wholly free to choose to work with another company on the next film if that suited him best.
Therefore, although there are several Comencini films connected in one way or another to Titanus (which acted either as production company, as distributor or merely as the owner of the studio where they were shot), there is hardly anything that could be called a “Titanus period” in Comencini’s filmography, although, in the course of his career, several of his films (even some of his best) can be linked to Lombardi’s enterprise, from Pane amore e fantasia (1953) and Pane amore e gelosia through La Bugiarda or Delitto d’amore and up to Buon Natale Buon Anno.
I find rather surprising how often Comencini has been linked to the creators of the commedia all’italiana, from Mario Monicelli to Dino Risi, from Mario Camerini to Mario Mattòli, from Giorgio Bianchi to Luigi Zampa, from Luigi Magni to Ettore Scola, while for me most of his films, and in particular the ones I find more distinctive of his style and vision, or that I like best, range rather outside of that genre, or only partly related to it. Apart from being, since the very beginning of his film career (already the short Bambini in città in 1946 and his first feature Proibito rubare in 1948) one of the greatest and most sensitive world specialists in films about children or the very young in general (Heidi in 1952; La finestra sul Luna Park in 1957; Incompreso in 1966/7; Infanzia, vocazione e prime esperienze di Giacomo Casanova, veneziano in 1969; the TV series I bambini e noi in 1970; Le avventure di Pinocchio in 1971/2; Voltati Eugenio in 1980; the series Cuore in 1984; Un ragazzo di Calabria in 1987; and his final work Marcellino Pane e Vino in 1991), I’m afraid the man who made La valigia dei sogni, Tutti a casa (1960), La ragazza di Bube, Lo scopone scientifico (1972) or La Bohème (1987/8) can hardly be pigeonholed or type-cast as a comedy director.
Since, as we have seen, Comencini was much of a cinéphile, and an informed one at that, with a clear historical sensitivity, one should take seriously the cinematic quotations in his films; to take only two, which I find most meaningful and revealing: in La ragazza di Bube, Mara (Claudia Cardinale) wants to go and see Mervyn LeRoy’s masterpiece of melodrama, Waterloo Bridge (1940); in Un ragazzo di Calabria, the family and their neighborhood watch on TV (and Comencini quotes) the very moving ending of one of Matarazzo’s greatest, Tormento (1950). This alone would be a clue, since it points to Comencini’s love for melodrama, which can be often found in his career, although usually in muted tones, without great climaxes, but rather as a certain fragility of happiness, or a certain melancholy or sadness that pervades even the films which look on the surface like comedies, such as La Bugiarda or Lo scopone scientifico.
On the other hand, Comencini’s melodramas are not typical at all, and bear almost no resemblance - as many other Titanus melodramas did, in particular some by Brignone, or Del Colle’s Menzogna (1952) - with most of the very successful melodramas Raffaello Matarazzo was making since the late ‘40s and through the ‘50s, because they do not share what sometimes is, from my point of view, the single drawback or limitation of several Matarazzo films: that a bit too often villains (or terribly puritanical and possessive mothers-in-law) become an evil, malignant, hateful but individual replacement of more mysterious, unpredictable and impersonal forces, such as fate, bad luck, illness, accidents or war. That this did not happen when Matarazzo was fully his own writer, like in Amore mio (1964), makes me wonder if that sort of guilt-oriented plot was rather something that came from his frequent screenwriters.
However, I think that Comencini was particularly apt at playing with conventions without either espousing them blindly and wholeheartedly or “exposing” them as foreseeable routine solutions (or ways of escape) imposed more by the traditions of the various film genres and the underlying dominant bourgeois morality (usually Catholic as well) than by the characters and their circumstances.
Also, one must never forget that Comencini, despite his generational and historic realistic roots, not only ceased quite early to be even partly or slightly neo-realistic, but has often wandered, somewhat as Jean Renoir since the late ‘30s, across the borders of fantasy, metaphor, parable and morality play. As such can be taken most of his films dealing with children and adolescents, such as Heidi, the very impressive and quietly moving Incompreso (Vita col figlio), his vision of Casanova’s youthful years, his adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic Pinocchio, Voltati Eugenio, his adaptation of De Amicis’ Cuore, Un ragazzo di Calabria and his lame remake of Ladislao Vajda’s Spanish movie of 1956 Marcelino Pan y Vino. As well as some of the films dealing with adults, including L’Imperatore di Capri (1949), La valigia dei sogni, Pane amore e fantasia, Pane amore e gelosia, Tutti a casa, Il Commisario, La Bugiarda, Il compagno Don Camillo (1965), Senza sapere niente di lei (1969), Lo scopone scientifico, Delitto d’amore, Il Gatto (1977), L’ingorgo (1978/9), Cercasi Gesù, La storia (1986) or Buon Natale Buon Anno.
Like most modest, unpretentious great filmmakers, Comencini was a magnificent director of actors. Not only had he a very good eye for fresh, unexpected casting, but the ability to discover new aspects and possibilities even in the most typecast players, and to uncover the chemistry that could spark, most surprisingly, between some of them. Besides a crowd of unknown children, he guided Gina Lollobrigida – astonishingly fresh and good in his two successive films with her -, Claudia Cardinale in one of her best roles, Stefania Sandrelli, Catherine Spaak, Paola Pitagora, Silvana Mangano, Maria Schneider, Virna Lisi wonderful in her sixties, Marisa Merlini, Yvonne Sanson, Silvana Pampanini, Sylva Koscina, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Alexandra Stewart, Jacqueline Bisset, Totò, Vittorio De Sica, Alberto Sordi, Marc Michel, Anthony Quayle, Philippe Leroy, Ugo Tognazzi, Nino Manfredi, Michel Serrault, Giuliano Gemma, Serge Reggiani, Fernando Rey, and others, in some of their best acting in the movies, even, surprisingly, when they were foreigners dubbed in Italian (a problematic issue in many Italian films, in view of how fond have always been almost all Italian filmmakers, from Rossellini, Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Pasolini, Cottafavi, Freda, De Santis, Bolognini, Castellani, Germi, Monicelli, Blasetti, Lattuada, Dino Risi, Emmer, De Sica, Gallone, Genina, Soldati, Pietrangeli to Zurlini, Ferreri, Sollima, Fulci, Bava, Argento, Rosi, Leone, Scola, Bertolucci, Bellocchio, Amelio, Moretti or whoever, of using non-Italians actors, in particular British, American and French, and casting them as Italian characters... for contrasting styles of playing, perhaps, allowing to compare the more extrovert Italian actors with the usually more restrained expression of Anglo-Saxons).
In any case, I think one can look now on Comencini’s body of work and find there, together with some minor films, several great films which deserve to be watched and remembered, for they are modestly original, unpretentiously generous and unaffectedly beautiful. Very simply, films such as Incompreso, Delitto d’amore, Buon Natale Buon Anno, Le avventure di Pinocchio, La Bohème, Tutti a casa, La ragazza di Bube, Pane amore e gelosia, La valigia dei sogni, Pane amore e fantasia, Lo scopone scientifico, La Bugiarda, Infanzia, vocazione e prime esperienze di Giacomo Casanova, veneziano, Senza sapere niente di lei, Cuore, La storia and some others deserve to be more widely known.
En “Titanus: family diary of italian cinema = cronaca familiare del cinema italiano”. Editado por Sabinae en ocasión del 67º Festival de Locarno, agosto de 2014.