Widely recognised as the foremost historian of Italian cinema, to whom "all historians of Italian films owe an outstanding debt", Gian Piero Brunetta has finally and somewhat belatedly seen his single volume The History of Italian Cinema appear in English. Published in Italy in 2003 as Guida alla Storia del Cinema Italiano, 1905-2003, the book is a synthesis of his four-volume Storia del Cinema Italiano (History of Italian Cinema, 1993).
The term guida in the original Italian title is crucial in revealing the text's intentions and its relationship to the study it compresses, something that is lost in translation. Covering the past 100 years or so of Italian cinema history, the book is a social, political, cultural, economic and literally geographic mapping of Italy's cinematic terrain and, as one would expect of a guide, it indicates the places to visit while providing the briefest account of what one may find on arrival.
The storia totale, as Brunetta refers to it, risks the production of a monolithic and ultimately reductive historical narrative; however, he works hard to represent the complexity of Italian cinema by charting both its successes and failures and he also devotes an attention to films and film-makers that is admirable, if exhausting, in its inclusiveness. As a map, a guide, this text is invaluable; however, it needs the accompanying work of others, something that Brunetta points to repeatedly, to enrich and deepen its scope.
In terms of structure, each chapter begins with an overview of the period covered - "From Sound to Salo", for example - and then delves into a little more detail, often examining individual directors and their careers. This accounts for a sense of repetition and also breaks the chronology of the book (and each chapter) because we cover each period in summary and then cover it again through the lens of associated directors or through the prism of a movement, for example Neo-Realism.
As one might expect, Neo-Realism continues to cast a long shadow over Italian cinema history, with Brunetta repeatedly making comparisons between contemporary Italian film and this defining moment in its history. Despite his clear passion for all things cinematic and his interest in contemporary Italian cinema, there is nonetheless a clear sense of nostalgia in his writing - it is the work of the iconic film-makers of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that resonate most powerfully here: Rossellini, Visconti, Fellini, Pasolini and all of the other rightly familiar figures. For Brunetta, Neo-Realism continues to exercise a powerful influence; referencing Nanni Moretti's Il Caimano (The Caiman, 2006) and Daniele Luchetti's Mio Fratello e Figlio Unico (My Brother is an Only Child, 2007) against the backdrop of an impoverished Italian film industry, he suggests that "these films do not bring to mind an umbilical cord that continues to resist being severed from postwar Italian cinema but rather transplanted stem cells that guarantee a sick body the possibility of returning to full vitality".
Brunetta's passion for Italian film and his appetite for cinema more broadly is evident throughout this book; however, occasional proofing errors grate, alongside sometimes rather odd expressions, which at times are evidently the fault of infelicitous overly literal translation (one sentence early on in the book begins "at first glance of the whole") but might also be down to the idiosyncratic style of Brunetta, which has a tendency to become somewhat overblown.
Ultimately, reading this 300-page tome in one sitting is an experience that recalls a traditional festive Italian meal, much like the one I experienced this Easter: a large number of courses, ranging from the introductory antipasti to the final, incendiary grappa - hugely enjoyable but possibly too much of a good thing!
The History of Italian Cinema: A Guide to Italian Film from its Origins to the Twenty-First Century
By Gian Piero Brunetta
Princeton University Press
Published 25 May 2009