In 1895 an Italian, Filoteo Alberini, patented the Kinetograph, a device for making, printing, and projecting films; and the country’s earliest public exhibition of moving images, via the Lumière Cinématographe, took place on 13 March 1896 in Rome. Italy’s earliest fiction film is thought to be a 1905 historical drama called La presa di Roma, 20 settembre 1870/The Capture of Rome, 20 September 1870. Film production flourished in the silent era, with numerous, mostly small, companies scattered around the country: one of these—Cines, founded in 1906—remained in operation in various guises until 1957. Between 1911 and 1914, with stars such as Hesperia, Maria Jacobini, and Emilio Ghioni, Italian films proved extremely successful in gaining entry to international markets. From the earliest years, historical spectacle, especially films set in ancient Rome and Greece, was a staple genre: examples include La caduta di Troia/The Fall of Troy (Giovanni Pastrone, 1911) and the big-budget international hit Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914) (see epic film; history film). After 1922, the film industry was brought under the control of the Fascist government and centralized in Rome, and the Istituto Nazionale LUCE was established with the remit of harnessing cinema for propagandist purposes. Censorship was widely applied, there were restrictions on film imports, and dialogue in foreign-language films was dubbed (see dubbing); but the government appears to have supported the development of the national industry, and filmmakers such as Rossellini began their careers during the Fascist period. In the mid 1930s the Direzione Generale per la Cinematografia was founded as part of the Ministry of Culture and a film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, opened. Rome’s renowned studio, Cinecittà, boasting Europe’s most advanced production facilities, opened in 1937 and remained the main locus of Italian film production through to the 1970s. Cinecittà played a part in the creation of a distinctively Italian genre of the 1930s—telefoni bianchi, or white telephone films: glossy comedies and dramas with glamorous metropolitan settings. Outside the capital, government-sponsored mobile cinemas took films to rural areas.
Following the fall of Fascism in 1943 there emerged a socially and politically aware cinema epitomized most famously by the Neorealist films made between the end of World War II and the early 1950s. Characterized by real-life plots and characters and authentic settings, as in Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948) and Roma città aperta/Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945), Italian Neorealism became hugely influential, inspiring numerous ‘new’ cinemas around the world and launching or consolidating the careers of significant auteurs such as Federico Fellini, Rossellini, and de Sica. Neorealism also paved the way for the careers of prominent art cinema directors like Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Liliana Cavani. The decline of Neorealism overlapped with gli anni facili, Italian commercial cinema’s ‘easy years’ of the 1950s and early 1960s, when locally-made films were enjoying peak popularity with domestic audiences, and producing international stars like sex goddesses Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren. This was the period of ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’, when Cinecittà hosted a number of US co-productions, most prominently spectacular biblical/historical epics like Ben-hur (William Wyler, 1959) and peplum films such as Le fatiche di Ercole/Hercules (Pietro Francisci, 1958). In the 1960s and 1970s, with the spaghetti western, Italy made a distinctive contribution to an established Hollywood genre; but after the 1970s, film production in Italy became increasingly decentralized, and the industry suffered a decline in both production output and cinema admissions. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, with the domestic and international successes of confessional films like Nanni Moretti’s Caro diario/Dear Diary (1994), and nostalgia films like Nuovo Cinema Paradiso/Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) and La vita è bella/Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997), Italy began to find market niches, and its auteur films continue to attract international attention: La grande belleza/The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film; Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, Italy/US/Brazil/France, 2017) secured four Oscar nominations and one win; and Dogman (Matteo Garrone, 2018) was a Palme d’Or nominee and winner of Best Actor at Cannes. See also Europe, film in; exploitation film; Futurism; horror film; pornography; science fiction.
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