November 2, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
The Films of Alessandro Blasetti

1860 (I Mille di Garibaldi). 1933. Italy. Directed by Alessandro Blasetti

1860 (I Mille di Garibaldi). 1933. Italy. Directed by Alessandro Blasetti

These notes accompany the Alessandro Blasetti program on November 3, 5, and 5 in Theater 3.

Alessandro Blasetti (1900–1987), a law school graduate and failed movie extra, started out as a film critic and participant in what might be viewed as a forerunner of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) of the 1950s and 1960s: the Augustus cooperative. Blasetti and his circle were rebelling against an Italian cinema dominated by costume epics and melodramas, the kinds of films that had made Rome one of the premiere movie capitals of the world before World War I. Although his Sole (1929) (produced by Augustus) is experimental, it was, ironically, not long before Blasetti was making his own epic rendering of recent Italian history, 1860 (1934). He would argue, of course, that Garibaldi’s campaign to unite Italy, as viewed by a pair of peasants, had a social relevance that Biblical and Imperial epics did not possess. However, several of his early works seemed to betray his critical crusade of a few years before. One critic has labeled him “the Don Quixote of the Italian cinema.”

1860, like other Blasetti films of the period, is often cited as a forerunner of Italian Neorealism, the post–World War II movement let by Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio DeSica, and others. Their films, like 1860, were shot mostly on location and used many nonprofessional actors, offering a visual starkness in keeping with their socially conscious message. Blasetti was also influenced by the graphic imagery of Sergei Eisenstein and other Soviet directors who brought their own brand of “realism” to their films.

Part of the problem in dealing with Blasetti is that, whatever his deeply felt sentiments may have been, he is forever linked with Benito Mussolini and the Fascist regime. He never even came close to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (much of which we will screen next month) in it’s glorification of Hitler and the Nazis, but many of his views on Italian society seemed to coincide with those of Il Duce. Yet it can be argued that between the lines (frames) of several of his 1930s films there are veiled criticisms of the regime. Vecchio guardia (The Old Guard) (1934) recounts Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome, which led to his ascension to power. However, the film was criticized by the Fascists for being insufficiently enthusiastic.

In 1951, Blasetti appeared as a cynical movie director named Blasetti in Visconti’s Bellisima, portraying himself as a purveyor in the “amusement of idiots.” His half-century-long career was too influential and successful for either Blasetti or Visconti to really believe that, but there remains an enigmatic quality to someone who essentially thrived and became a dominant figure in the cinema under a totalitarian regime. Blasetti was perhaps “the canniest Don Quixote of them all,” appearing in photos like the genially obese proprietor of a spaghetti joint, but exercising his intelligence and talent where and when he could. Ted Perry, former Director of the Department of Film here at MoMA, has made the point that Blasetti’s contributions went well beyond his own films. He was an influential theorist and founder of the school that was to become the Centro Sperimentale, Rome’s noted film archive. So, we owe him not just for the gift of his own films, but also for the preservation of so much earlier Italian cinema, even the films he so vehemently attacked as a young critic.

The continuing To Save and Project series is extremely rich, and a few highlights include a second chance to see the early Disney program (November 4), a program of rare Edison films (November 4 and 6), and another chance to see Alexandre Volkoff’s The White Devil (November 7).