Friday, 5 August 2011
Under the Sun of Rome: Sotto il sole di Roma
Under the Sun of Rome - Sotto il sole di Roma (1948) dir. Renato Castellani
Starring: Oscar Blando, Liliana Mancini, Francesco Golisari, Maria Tozzi, Ferrucio Tozzi, Gisella Monaldi and Alberto Sordi
By Greg Klymkiw
At one point in Renato Castellani’s strange neorealist comedy-drama Under the Sun of Rome, the layabout teen hero Ciro (Oscar Blando) and his hard-working beat cop Dad (Ferrucio Tozzi) are sleeping not-so-soundly during the day for very different reasons.
Ciro busily toils day and night doing nothing – save for occasional forays into mischief with his equally lazy pals. Pops, on the other hand, is on perpetual night shift – patrolling the dark streets and punching in tediously at the requisite check-in points. The son is only at risk getting caught for petty thievery. Pops is at risk every night keeping the eternal city as safe as possible.
One works, the other doesn’t – but as the sun of Roma beams through the windows of their tiny walk-up – both men on this particular morning, are getting no sleep.
Roly-poly Mamma (Maria Tozzi) is multitasking like only a mother can and berating both of them – at the top of her considerable lungs.
In a brief moment of respite from her justifiable haranguing (she works harder than the two of them together – multiplied, no doubt, to infinity), bleary Ciro calls out to his equally groggy Dad asking if ALL married women are like his mother.
Dad sighs with resignation and replies, “All.”
Ah, the eternal chasm ‘twixt man and woman.
Luckily, for the not-so-gentle sex, they have each other.
Under the Sun of Rome unfolds its episodic coming-of-age tale during World War II, but for a good portion of the picture, we’d never know it. Ciro and his buddies busy themselves with the fine rituals of doing nothing. Our hunky hero, adorned in a sporty new pair of white shoes and to-die-for shorts that outline the supple form of his delectable posterior and swarthy gams – Yes, GAMS! They’re that gorgeous – is supposed to be getting a presentable haircut for his new job.
Ciro has other plans. He rounds up his buddies for a day of slacking. Wandering through the crumbling Coliseum they come across Geppe (Francesco Golisari) a lad of the streets who makes his home there. Ciro and Geppe hit it off immediately and the new pal joins the layabouts for a dip in a secluded creek on railway property.
When rail company bulls show up to intimidate trespassers, Ciro loses his new shoes and the money Mamma gave him for a haircut. Nor has he bothered to go to work as promised. Terrified with the severe beating he’ll receive, Ciro does what any young lad would do – he doesn’t go home and instead, spends the night with Geppe in his magical little Coliseum hideaway.
This affords both young dreamboats the opportunity to gaze intently at each other’s fresh, lean man-boy perfection – replete with gentle digital gesticulations. Here Castellani directs veteran cinematographer Domenico (Ossessione) Scala’s camera in loving compositional directions to highlight the bountiful facial and physical attributes of both actors. (Larry Clark – eat your heart out.)
As time moves on, the picture recounts several entertaining incidents in the life of Ciro – stealing shoes from a shopkeeper (the great Alberto Sordi of The White Sheik and I Vitelloni fame), an on-again-off-again relationship with Iris (Liliana Mancini) the proverbial girl-next-door, dabbling in black marketeering once the German army enters Rome, dallying gigolo-like with the BBW-splendour of Tosca (Gisella Monaldi) a married-woman-cum-streetwalker and eventually crime that leads to the expected tragic ending.
Castellani’s storytelling technique and, in fact elements of the story itself, are delicately odd. I suspect his approach is intentional, though it is, at times slightly off-putting.
First of all, there is the first-person narration, which I think, IS exceptional. It’s literary AND literal. Often the voiceover will describe a physical action just before or during its execution as well as describing characters whom we see as described during said descriptions. Further to this, we will often hear narration to the effect of “So-and-so said…” and we’ll then hear the character recite the line of dialogue. The basic tenets of Screenwriting 101 suggest you should NEVER do any of the above. This, of course, is why the self-appointed scenarist gurus the world over are so often wrong. If it works, it works and IT does so splendidly here.
Secondly, I’m not so sure Castellani’s perspective on his female characters is as deep and sensitive as it could and should be. Even in I Vitelloni, the pinnacle of all male layabout films, Maestro Fellini is able to render strong female characters without turning them into borderline harridans as Castellani does with Mamma or worse, Iris – a harridan-to-be. (Not that the performances of the actresses are bad though – they’re as good as can be expected within the shallow dimensions they’re given to work with.)
Strangely, the female character that seems the most well rounded and lavished with the greatest degree of sensitivity is that of the plump, whorish Tosca. Even Scala’s cinematography of the women – save for the latter female character – is certainly competent, but lacking the loving detail and care so copiously drenched upon the young boys. One could argue this is intentional, but to that I say – argue away. Larry Clark rests MY case on this one – boys AND gals need equal cinematographic love. (In fairness though, there is ONE boner-inducing close-up of Liliana Mancini slowly opening the door.)
Finally, the strange element I find most appealing and flawed is the manner in which Ciro is portrayed – not in Blando’s performance, which is excellent within the parameters provided by Castellani, but the odd turns the character takes. When he is at his rakishly appealing, Ciro is a character we’re completely rooting for, but often he does and says things so abominable (for example, the way he continually professes love to Iris, kisses her passionately then hurls some invective that clearly hurts her feelings) that we turn on him so violently that it occasionally threatens to wrench us out of the drama. That said, what may feel like a storytelling flaw might well be completely intentional. In retrospect, Ciro’s eventual coming-of-age, his redemption if you will, has even greater force. The problem for me is that it’s in retrospect and not within the drama as it unfolds. Perhaps this is the film’s literary quality working, as it should and if so, I applaud Castellani’s brave choice in making such a bold series of moves.
What I love most about this picture is the craft employed in the forward thrust of its episodic narrative. The movie never feels like it’s overstaying its welcome at any point and yet, very often, it has a rhythm not unlike that of a lazy day and as such, is easily in the same sphere attained by Fellini in I Vitelloni. In fact, the slicing and dicing of editor Giuliano Betti is not only exceptional, but at times it is utterly breathtaking. Among many spectacular cuts, the one that stays with me is a gorgeous cut to a foot-level shot on the stairs in the walk-up when Ciro and Iris go into the hallway from his flat. Not only is this a cut of exquisite beauty, but also it leads us into a shot that is equally stunning (followed by a move that’s richly evocative and romantic.
Wow! This is rare cutting indeed.
Many of the cuts are suitably "silent", but only when they need to be. On occasion they knock you completely on your ass and force you to almost re-focus your gaze IN to the action on screen.
I have to sadly admit to having seen only one Castellani picture before (a weird English-dubbed public domain VHS tape of Hell in the City during the mid-80s - issued I think, to capitalize on Chained Heat and other babe-in-prison flicks starring Linda Blair and rented pour moi to satisfy my babe-in-prison fetish). Because of my Castellani-deprived state, I couldn't begin to claim that these cuts are a DIRECTORIAL trademark style of his and can only assume they were made in collaboration with a brilliant editor.
The credited editor is one Giuliano Betti. I have scoured the Internet quite extensively - including Italian sites, and found virtually no information about him. In fact, this appears to be his only editing credit (along with a bunch of assistant directing and continuity credits). Go figure. Whoever was responsible is a genius.
Under the Sun of Rome is a tremendously entertaining picture and even if it occasionally feels like a Diet Chinotto precursor to Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (made six years before the Maestro’s masterpiece), it’s a worthy entry in the Italian neorealist sweepstakes.
The movie is playing Saturday August 6 on 35mm in the Toronto International Film Festival’s home at TIFF Bell Lightbox (as part of the delicious series “Days of Glory: Masterworks of Italian Neoralism”). Under the Sun of Rome will be a rare treat for those who make the effort to see it on a big screen as the picture still does not appear to be available on DVD other than as a non-subtitled Italian import. I Vitelloni will, by the way, screen in the same venue on Monday August 8 on a cool double-bill with Barry Levinson’s Diner. If you’re interested in reading several thousand words on the TIFF Bell Lightbox series and the Fellini-Levinson double bill, feel free to read my article at Electric Sheep Magazine.