“Michelangelo, too, painted the Sistine Chapel within the space he was provided with.” That statement by Antonioni, the other “Michelangelo”, the one of the movies, embraces the consideration that artistic expression cannot be confined by space limits: just like the painter, who could express himself the same both on a one-meter-to-one canvas and on a magnificent dome, a director can unfold his genius on 300 meters of film, too. The one-square-meter canvases the seven art “painters”, presented here upon a selection of the Istituto Luce documentaries, carry the signatures of some well-known names of Italian cinematography. Those films have been made within the limits described above by directors that would later write the history of cinematography: dwarf masterpieces that have been produced by giants. One is awed at the poetry that Michelangelo Antonioni unfolds within those ten minutes of N.U. Nettezza Urbana. It is 1948 and the master is years before his following masterpieces; however, there is among those awakening street-sweepers some of his mastery that would be later expressed in L’avventura, L’eclisse, Zabriskie Point, Blow Up and in others, in that Rome that would be later revisited in 1990 in another documentary produced by Luce. “Before the release of Antonioni’s documentary we had no eyes to look at Rome. All other documentary directors that followed owe those eyes to him,” Valerio Zurlini, another master would say. Valerio Zurlini is an unknown director for the general audiences, but a study case for cinematography schools; he, too, is present in this collection, with his La Stazione.
While Antonioni expressed his linguistic novelties through his short documentaries, Rossellini had just finished his trilogy with Roma città aperta (1945), Paisà (1946) and Germania anno zero (1947), thus inaugurating the neo-realism period in the cinematography. The father of neo-realism himself had started his career with documentaries. Fantasia Sottomarina (1937), which is presented here, is one of the first documentaries that were shot by him: a story of fish in a fish tank. This film document, which today could produce some smile for its naivety, is indeed a rare pearl of cinematography, not only for its cinematographic language but also for being a proof of a master’s insistence and humbleness, a master who experiments with the camera even when the actors are only fish. And Rossellini had a long time at hand to exercise with fish, insects or snakes in his first documentaries, which were almost all involved in exploring nature and its creatures. “I thought he was crazy,” says Federico Fellini in his memoirs. “He was shooting something at a corner, and when I went over to him I saw he was trying to coax a frog to jump...”.
Insistence, experimenting, new narrative expressions, the search for a new cinematographic language typify other titles of this collection: from the almost futuristic dynamic of Ritmi di stazione (1933) by Corrado D’Errico, which is based quite revolutionarily on a soundtrack in which noise is balanced with Gershwin’s rhythmic-symphonic music, to the meta-cinematography of Buio in Sala (1950) by Il Sorpasso author, Dino Risi, who in ten minutes shows a film within the film, turning his camera to the audience, turning them into characters.
To the eye of the contemporary audience, who are used to frenetic shots of modern cinematography, some of these works may look out-of-date. However, they should remember that contemporary cinema could not be what it is without the names of Rossellini, Antonioni, Risi, etc., who first unleashed their genius in ten-minute films.
Fantasia sottomarina (Fantasy under the sea) 1940
Buio in sala (Lights down in the cinema) 1950
Notturno (Nocturnal) 1950
La stazione (The railway station) 1952
Fioriae (Flower maids) 1952
Confidenze di un gatto (Confidencies of a cat) 1953
Appuntamento a Piazza di Spagna (Rendezvous at the Spanish Steps) 1954
Bambini soli (Children alone) 1958
Istituto Luce, a company of Cinecittà Holding, is one of Italy’s most important film companies known worldwide especially for its film archives dating from the beginnings of cinematography to the day. Since its foundation in 1924 to the present day Istituto Luce has played a key role in the history of Italian and international cinema. Its primary goal was to spread culture and knowledge but the fascist regime soon understood the power of cinema for propagandistic means and that led, one year after the foundation, to the acquisition of Luce by the State making it the first State-owned film production company in the world. The Giornale Luce was used by the Italian government to broadcast news and propaganda in the scheduling of all Italian movie theatres. Soon Luce introduced the first sound films in Europe and took down to producing the greatest films of the period paving the way to the opening of Cinecittà that would later be known worldwide as the “Hollywood on the Tiber”.
Thousands of hours of film archives produced or acquired in the course of the years have made Luce’s archives one the most important in Europe and in the world. An anticipatory consideration of the new technologies made Luce be the first film company in the world to offer most of its archives on the internet for free research and viewing.
Apart from its archives, Istituto Luce has represented through the years one of the most important film producers and distributors in Italy. Today Luce distributes some 40 Italian or international films a year in theatres or Home Video.
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