Today post-1945 Italy is often presented as an age of anti-fascist hegemony. But Cold War Italy was no paradise for the Left — and neorealist filmmakers and writers had to resist Church censorship and right-wing hegemony over the country’s culture.

Film director Federico Fellini with actor Marcello Mastroianni in Rome, Italy, 1962. (Archivio Cicconi / Getty Images)

William Weaver, a former ambulance driver in southern Italy for the US Army, moved to Rome in 1945 at age twenty-five. As an aspiring writer, and supporter of the partisans, Weaver soon became a famous friend and colleague to numerous Italian filmmakers and writers.

He had impeccable timing. Weaver began his life’s work just as neorealism was being invented and showcased in Italy and abroad. Rome, Open City, director Roberto Rossellini’s first important neorealist film became an instant cult hit at a small Times Square movie house in New York. It was soon followed by Rossellini’s Paisan, Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, and Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice.

Together they became recognized hits in Italy, Europe, and a few cities in the United States. But despite the huge accolades for this breakthrough style of filmmaking, only 11 percent of Italian films made between 1945 and 1953 were neorealist — and of these, many were box office failures.

Rome, Open City “so completely reflected the moral and psychological atmosphere of the moment it was created,” writes Peter Bondanella, author of A History of Italian Cinema. It was released in 1945,

the minute the war ended, when the reconstruction of Italy had not yet begun. . . . It stands as a kind of symbol for the period itself . . . with a daring combination of styles and moods ranging from use of documentary footage to the most blatant melodrama . . . but Rossellini captured forever the tension and tragedy of Italian experiences during the German occupation of Rome and the . . . partisan struggle against the Nazi occupiers.

As the novelist Italo Calvino recalled, those fighting with the partisans had “a sensation that life was something that could begin again from zero.” “And after the war,” adds historian Christopher Duggan, “many commentators remarked on the almost febrile air of excitement in Italy, an atmosphere of hope and energy that contrasted sharply with the country’s material destitution.”

Years of Hope, and Restraint

It was this optimism that so struck famous anti-fascist historian Gaetano Salvemini when he returned from twenty-two years in exile in 1947. He had barely escaped with his life in 1922 when a group of fascists grotesquely taunted him in his own classroom. Once abroad, with a carefully hidden collection of legal documents, Salvemini single-handedly proved Benito Mussolini’s part in the death of reformist socialist Giacomo Matteotti.

Just a year after Salvemini’s return, Italy’s Socialists and Communists were deeply depressed by the Christian Democrats’ (DC) election victory on April 18, 1948. The heavy-handed “help” of the newly founded CIA spurred widespread despair. For Weaver, and his growing circle of artists, the DC was the “party of film censorship, of reaction, of former fascists slightly whitewashed over. . .”

They were not overreacting. Famously, there was no Italian version of the Nuremberg trials — a series of military tribunals in Germany after the war ended, concentrating on those Nazi leaders most implicated in the horror of World War II. Veteran New Left Review editor, documentary filmmaker, and biographer Tariq Ali, has commented that in his view, about 80 percent of Mussolini’s fascist cultural infrastructure was left in place. This was particularly true of the Italian judiciary.

For Weaver, Christian Democracy was the ‘party of film censorship, of reaction, of former fascists slightly whitewashed over. . .’

By July 14, 1948, an assassination attempt on the life of Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti — and the strikes and protests in response — underscored the deep tensions. The following year, the Vatican excommunicated communist sympathizers, and films deemed indecent or dangerous would be censored. Financing for neorealist films also became increasingly difficult. Giulio Andreotti, future prime minister and DC undersecretary of public entertainment, urged directors not to publicize the nation’s many social problems. He attacked De Sica’s Umberto D., a work about a struggling pensioner, as an example of “washing Italy’s dirty linen in public.” By this time, Italian filmmakers and journalists could easily be convicted by a military court for “defaming the armed forces.”

In those immediate postwar years, Italy was an impoverished country with vast financial and redevelopment needs, thus making it extremely reliant on the United States, eager to destroy Togliatti’s power. “The power in Italy in the 1950s belongs to the Right, while the culture is all in the hands of the Left,” writes playwright and Federico Fellini biographer Tullio Kezich. Resistance hero and short-term prime minister Ferruccio Parri had tried to purge the fascists in 1945 but his government quickly fell. “With an intact judiciary even the most serious political crimes . . . went unpunished,” writes Duggan.

In 1949, the Vatican excommunicated communist sympathizers, while films deemed indecent or dangerous were censored.

Yet the growing ranks of notable Italian novelists, directors, and memoirists produced a brilliant collection of award-winning works, with numerous books also turned into plays and movies. One was Ignazio Silone’s best-selling novel, Fontamara, about the centuries of poverty in his hometown, Pescina (George Orwell produced it as a play for the BBC). Very often when a book or film was being targeted by a fascist-inspired judge, an international award or accolade would, at least for a time, remove the intended threat. The sheer talent among the film and literary world in Italy during these years went a long way to protecting their work against a fascist onslaught.

Rossellini himself had notably directed propaganda films for the Mussolini regime. Yet he was also known to have spearheaded an underground partisan film group which served as an incubator for himself and other directors. When Fellini was only twenty-five years old, Rossellini, fourteen years his senior, hired him as a junior screenwriter for Rome, Open City, and as a senior screenwriter for Paisan. Fellini, in turn, would mentor controversial playwright, poet, and director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Over the first postwar decade between 1946 and 1956, Italian films won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film seven times. They were popular throughout Europe, the United States, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and India.

The 21st-Century Relevance of Elsa Morante

Meanwhile, in the Italian literary world, at Einaudi — a Turin-based publishing house led by an eccentric group of left-wing intellectuals — a formidable group of writers was built: Elsa Morante, Italo Calvino, Carlo Levi, Cesare Pavese, social historian Fernand Braudel, and, importantly, novelist and memoirist Natalia Ginzburg, also a key member of the Einaudi staff.

Weaver wrote in the introduction to his famous anthology, Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome, that “[a]mong the most disturbing books that appeared then was a collection of letters whose title described the content: Letters of those Sentenced to Death in the Resistance, written by Leone Ginzburg, Natalia’s husband, who died of torture in a Rome prison cell in early 1944.“ “I had already come to know [Rome] through Rossellini’s Open City film,” writes Weaver, “but Ginzburg’s letters imposed reality on me.” It was this very history that would be massaged and rewritten in the 2020s by Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Fratelli d’Italia and its government allies.

Today’s global-selling Italian novelist, Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym), has credited postwar novelist Morante with fueling her own ambition as a writer. (Like Morante, Ferrante’s key characters are often working-class Italian women.) Reading Morante’s Lies and Sorcery at age sixteen, Ferrante explains, “I discovered that an entirely female story — women’s desires and ideas and feelings — could be compelling, and at the same time have great literary value.” Recently, Lies and Sorcery was published in a well-regarded English version by veteran translator Jenny McPhee. “Morante challenges the form of the novel by reinventing it” she writes. “She mimics, melds and transforms the styles of popular fiction . . . so that her narrative becomes a steamy concoction of new ways of storytelling.”

Originally, in 1948, Lies and Sorcery did not sell well in Italy. A few years later, in 1951, Morante was hired to be a presenter for RAI radio on a show focused on book reviews. When Morante failed to produce a glowing review by a RAI “friend,” she was promptly fired.

In immediate postwar years, Italy was an impoverished country with vast financial and redevelopment needs.

Mostly, Morante’s work did not sit well with conservative critics who wanted a more wholesome view of the postwar Italian family. Perversely, Morante used the nineteenth-century novel form — rather than the highly stylized, often terse narrative preferred by Ginzburg, another huge fan and editor of Morante. “Dear Reader,” Morante confided in Lies and Sorcery, where a working-class heroine writes about someone she might marry: “He was hunched and gnarled like wood. His face was wrinkled, his eyes cloudy blue, his unruly beard unkempt, and his large, toothless mouth rarely smiled.”

“Though not obviously a social polemic,” writes Calvino, “the narrative desperately and successfully penetrates to the bone, exposing the painful condition of humanity to its class structure, never forgetting for an instant our present-day situation.”

Morante’s female characters were often victims, and as a result, blindingly direct, and sometimes relentlessly cruel, in getting what they wanted. In her most famous novel, History, she writes about her native Rome:

The populace of Rome had fallen silent. The daily news of roundups, torture and slaughter circulated through the neighborhoods like death-rattle echoes without any possible response. . . . But finally, inside the isolated city, sacked and besieged, the true master was hunger.

Morante had married Alberto Moravia, scion of a wealthy Roman architect. But the Fascists had confiscated the Moravia money. The well-known novelist, on a “wanted” list, fled to a village in Latina province Sant Agata, where the pair hid out successfully in a one-room hut, while German soldiers murdered villagers not far away. In 1957, Moravia would publish Two Women, about a mother and daughter raped by soldiers. In 1960, the book was turned into what would become an internationally famous movie, directed by Vittorio De Sica. Sophia Loren would win an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Nevertheless, Moravia was repeatedly attacked by the Catholic Church for his emphasis on sexuality in his novels. By April 1952, his books were placed on a prohibited list by the Vatican, which charged him with obscenity.

The Right-Wing Witch Hunt Against Pasolini

Moravia, Morante, and Fellini were all, for quite a time, close friends of Pier Paolo Pasolini, poet, playwright, and filmmaker. Famously homosexual, Pasolini was, by far, the most hated director of the 1950s among conservative critics. In the end, he would die an extremely controversial, violent death, with no lack of unproven theories about who was behind it. In a new English translation by novelist Tim Parks, Pasolini’s Boys Alive, like Morante’s Lies and Sorcery, has emerged as a riveting retelling of a group of working-class boys living in far-flung suburbs on the outskirts of Rome. Originally published in 1955, it was declared a masterpiece by some Italian critics. The plot follows a group of boys from the chaos and hopes of the first days of the Liberation in 1944 through to the reaction of 1950–1955.

Pasolini was, by far, the most hated director of the 1950s among conservative critics.

In the 1950s, this book, in Italian called Ragazzi di Vita, provoked a huge scandal, while Pasolini was put on trial for obscenity. Eventually, Pasolini was absolved after many celebrated intellectuals testified on his behalf, but for a long time, he was the target of a concentrated hate campaign before he ultimately lost his life.

In 2014, the Vatican, which had aggressively pursued Pasolini for years, mainly to get a criminal conviction for blasphemy, stated that Pasolini’s masterpiece, The Gospel According to St Matthew “was the best film ever made about Jesus Christ.” In it, Pasolini portrays Jesus as a radical, “armed messiah.” Before he died, in a series of articles in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Pasolini had denounced the Christian Democrats as totally corrupted by mafia influences. Inquiries into his death produced numerous leads, but no final conclusions.

Fellini on His Own Frequency

“We were oppressed by the fear that the country was sliding to the right, back toward the old order, and we were looking to cinema to take a political position, launch real accusations and aggressively choose sides,” writes Kezich. “We were disillusioned by the political inwardness that followed liberation, but I realized right away that such concerns held little sway in Fellini’s circle . . . Federico operated on his own frequency and he was in it for the long haul.”

He had a normal childhood, unlike many of his writer and director friends. His brother —who was often in trouble — argued that Federico borrowed from his rebel-like tendencies, that Federico himself rarely was in trouble and was a good student with many friends. By the time he was a teenager, Federico was already an accomplished cartoonist, selling them to a growing list of interested newspapers. Unlike Pasolini, whose father was a swaggering Fascist army officer, Fellini lucked out with a rather easygoing father who made a modest living around Rimini, Fellini’s hometown, as a friendly coffee and cheese wholesaler.

Moving to Rome at age nineteen, and meeting his lifelong wife, Giulietta Masina, at age twenty-one, Fellini worked hard and earned an early reputation as a writer. He would begin writing and directing his own films by his early thirties.

Fellini shared some real experiences with Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, also an experienced newspaperman. Both men became immersed in the lives of their grandparents, in their rural lifestyles, in places still connected to the customs and mannerisms of the nineteenth century.

“This was a world apart,” writes Kezich, “lush nature, colors and mystery, where antique dialects blended into often incomprehensible phonetic patterns where people practiced old-fashioned crafts, where vagabonds and gypsies wandered — a world that simmered in Federico’s citified imagination.” Fellini’s “magical realism” Italian-style had many similarities to its Colombian master. When Italian critics did eventually strike out into this foreign terrain, “many were surprised to find that the La Strada director had already cut the path through fables and magical realism,” writes Kezich.

In the early 1950s, Fellini began work on La Strada. For some time, it simply perplexed many Italian film critics. Some Marxist critics would pronounce the film highly Catholic and reactionary. The brutish relationship between Zampano (Anthony Quinn) and Gelsomina (played by Masina) was sometimes taken as Fellini’s endorsement of an antiquated form of Italian marriage. Some left-wing critics saw Fellini as a traitor to neorealism. Instead, they championed Communist filmmaker Luchino Visconti (of noble stock).

Yet in France, several important critics raved about La Strada. Neorealism had been thoroughly embraced some years earlier. “I could see the new vistas he [Fellini] was beginning to unfurl,” writes Kezich, “impoverished Italy; the cold muddy fields that the subproletariat travelling entertainers trod upon . . . the peasant world at the margins of reconstruction; lost languages; magic; childhood; ancestral memories.”

Fellini . . . was rebelling against the mainstream culture and its attempts at a revisionist justification of fascism.

It would take the release of La Dolce Vita in 1961 for Fellini to be fully embraced by numerous Socialist and Communist publications. But this time around, his new film was vigorously attacked not only by the Catholic Church, but by the Genealogical Board of Italian Nobility. Jesuits were instructed to stop attending screenings of La Dolce Vita, and Fellini was shocked to read a church door sign reading, “We pray for the soul of the public sinner Federico Fellini.”

A crowd of two thousand in Rome seeking to understand the film via a seminar was heavily policed, while moderator Pasolini described it as “a Catholic film . . . that celebrates . . . beauty, at times shocking, sometimes monstrous, often angelic.” “In truth,” adds Kezich, it is “a tragic allegory of the desolation lurking behind the facade of a perpetual carnival . . . La dolce vita is the nocturnal diary of a man living out the tension of attraction to and disgust with the world he lives in.”

But Fellini was not the only director to be targeted, as Italy experienced another period of deep censorship in 1960. The attorney general of Milan called for Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers to be canceled because of sex and violence. Fellini was spat on and his star, Marcello Mastroianni, was attacked for being a Communist and a coward. A sharp campaign was waged against the pair by some conservative newspapers. Yet again, however, accolades and awards given abroad for La Dolce Vita helped Fellini withstand the attacks.

When 8 1/2 was released on February 14, 1963, Fellini was praised by critics as “a magician” and “a genius” — and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Film. A decade later, in 1973, Fellini released Amarcord — a word he had made up, meaning “memories.” Based very loosely in Fellini’s adolescent years — or that of his best friend, Titti — it is a wonderful mix of group vignettes, incredible magic, and comedy. There is an eccentric cast of Fascist educators from that period, for the most part blissfully unaware of their students’ strident attacks.

Amarcord is remarkable in its portrayal,” sums up Kezich,

of a rather backward community living in the shadow of flags. . . . One certainly couldn’t claim that the director was magnanimous toward the society that just kept living under fascism’s thumb. . . . Fellini, once again, is rebelling against the mainstream culture and its attempts at a revisionist justification of fascism; the director will never attempt to hide the moral and cultural misery of the years of consent [for fascism].

Today, the party that descends from the Salò-era fascists, Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, runs the country. It conjures up some of the same fears on the Left that developed during Fellini’s prime working years. NATO is again on the rise, and Meloni’s role as a major supporter of a militarized Europe has given her major international visibility. Her recent reorganization of public broadcaster RAI, dark rants against immigrants, and attacks on LGBTQ people also stir up bad memories that have not yet forgotten. In Mussolini’s Grandchildren, David Broder vividly demonstrates how Meloni’s acolytes rewrite fascist history, massaging it in large and small ways. One can only imagine how Fellini would recreate Meloni’s Italy, with Amarcord as the historical backdrop to his twenty-first-century fantasy.

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