Salute to Cinema Italiano

In the new musical extravaganza Nine, Rob Marshall fuses cabaret and Fellini, and makes us all want to “Be Italian”

On The Town | Justin McCauley | April 2010

Fashion is fleeting, but style is eternal, so the idiom goes. One of the timeless beacons of style is undoubtedly the Italy of the post-war years. The clothes, the Vespas, the Alfa Romeos, the sexy decadence and grandiose lifestyles – all set against the backdrop of the gritty, almost heartbreaking poverty of post-war Italy. Well before the Swinging London of the ‘60s, or even the French Nouvelle Vague of the late ‘50s, Italian Neorealismo defined the direction of the European art film.

Championed in the decade from 1946 to about 1954 by auteur filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, neorealism existed in a post-World War II context where European socialist ideals converged with Italian Catholic morality, producing a perpetuating commentary on the desperation and poverty which was the daily reality of many Italians.

Ironically, these artistic explorations in anguish – much like Bohemianism before and French New Wave after – resulted in a style that merged high and low society and made desolation chic. Like all great popular art movements, neorealism arrived at a time when forces were battling for Italy’s soul; and while the struggle may be over and its tenants anachronistic, its philosophy of style is still alive, a reminiscence that continues to be gleefully indulged in.

After the improvement of living conditions in the 1950s, neorealism per se ended, spawning vibrant and exciting offspring such as "pink neorealism" and la commedia erotica all’italiana, who transitioned from depicting the despair of Italian life to exploring the nuances of a reborn country. These genres, referred to by director Luigi Chiarini as the "wastes of neorealism," began to glorify Italy, not damn it, while still retaining the cinematic techniques and philosophy of the neorealist aurteurs. This was paralleled by the dramatic growth and internationalization of the Italian fashion industry, producing a definitive vogue characterized by Gucci suits, Ferragamo shoes, wayfarers, Gauloises, and Latin lovers. Italian stars and sex symbols such as Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren and Silvana Pampanini emerged and defined hedonistic cool for the modern era. The end result was the "iconization" of Italian culture; even something as uneventful as a suited man in black shades pulling over his motorino to enjoy a quick espresso became an iconic image.

Enter Nine, Rob Marshall’s newest musical masterpiece. Embodying the spirit of the comedia erotica, Nine is a cabaret-style celebration of Italy in this cultural golden era, wielding an apt, dynamic cast and shamelessly glorifying the depravity, drama and sexual voraciousness that made the rest of the world envious all those years ago. Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which was itself adapted from Federico Fellini’s venerated autobiographical masterpiece 8 ½, Nine tells the story of Guido Contini, a famed film director knee-deep in the production of his most recent movie, who is suffering from director’s block and struggling with both a mid-life crisis and his endemic woman-worshiping.

As we follow Guido along his path toward truth, we are exposed to his vivid, ostentatious daydreaming, which manifest as flamboyant cabaret numbers and operatic balladry. Ultimately, the women that surround him end up facilitating Guido’s introspective journey, and the audience is privileged enough to experience a theatrical exhibition of the edgy cool of neorealist Italy along the way. In short, what Marshall does is make you understand why the Italians are the most stylish people in the world – yes, even more than the French.

The sun around which the entire film revolves is Daniel Day-Lewis. Considered by some to be the finest actor of the modern era (There Will Be Blood, case in point), Day-Lewis delivers a cheeky and charismatic performance as Guido. With all of his recent high profile American roles, it is easy to forget that the Anglo-Irish Day-Lewis is in many ways the archetypal cultured, thoughtful European actor; his portrayal of Guido frequently invokes the despondence and detached cool of cinematic legend Mastroianni (perhaps the iconic leading man of Italian cinema), as well as the sleazy sophistication of Day-Lewis’ own performance as Tomáš in the 1986 film adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He encapsulates Italian charm so well, in fact, that all men can relate, and most women can empathize. Elegantly disheveled in cotton suit and loafers, Guido’s libido is an expression of his erratic and convoluted joie de vivre, which is frequently plagued by his own inner demons as well as the situational vexations he brings upon himself.

Otherwise, the ensemble cast is made up entirely of women, who are the blood that pumps through Guido’s veins. As Carla Albanese, Guido’s mistress, Penelope Cruz one again makes the case (as she did in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona) that she just might be the sexiest woman alive. Her opening scene, an erotic striptease fantasy Guido endures during a desperate phone call, presents a femme fatale wielding the ancient, mysterious and primal power of female sexuality – in the way only a Latin woman can. Deeply seductive and carnal, Cruz channels the voluptuousness and au naturel sensuality of Sophia Loren in her prime.

Another gem is Marion Cotillard as Luisa, Guido’s long-suffering wife. Cotillard, as we’ve come to expect after La Vie en Rose, delivers an understated but incendiary performance. She brings demure and virtuous qualities to the role that transform it from Anouk Aimée’s portrayal in 8 ½; whereas Aimée’s Luisa possesses a fiery and impulsive Italian temper, Cotillard, with her now-trademark serenity, makes Luisa more stoic and philosophical. She is the beacon of purity and morality at the center of a storm of lust, debauchery and glamour. When, in spite of her own feelings and at the expense of her own humiliation, Luisa arrives to support Guido, she determines – during a fateful screen test – that Guido must possess and devour everything, and that he does not know how to love. Guido’s counterpoint is simply that you cannot change a man. Cotillard and Day-Lewis’ dialogues are heart wrenching and painful, and, with a deep and subtle beauty, the pale and doe-eyed Cotillard gives the most emotive and tragic performance of the film.

The third womanly pillar in Guido’s world is Claudia Jenssen, the starlet who serves as his treasured muse, played by Nicole Kidman. The much-heralded Claudia arrives late in the film, meant to be the leading lady of Guido’s non-existent film. As expected, the movie star is accompanied by all manner of assistants, agents and press, however Guido and Claudia escape fast into the night – it becoming clear that they must be alone to be who they really are with each other. It is in this scene, a dark promenade through a cobblestone village, that the nature of their relationship is revealed. Departing from Claudia Cardinale’s bubbly, girlish portrayal in 8 ½, Kidman displays Claudia as a mature stoic and an emotional veteran, Guido’s closest confidant, whom he bestows endless respect upon and allots a measure of honesty that even Luisa is not privy to. As Guido divulges his dilemma to Claudia, we become aware that they have never had a romantic affair, although they were both attracted to each other, as a foggy ambiance of longing and regret engulf the scene. Standing poised in front of the village fountain, Kidman’s Claudia seems to pay subtle homage to Anita Ekberg’s prance through the Fontana di Trevi in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – but stops short of becoming a pastiche.

Most dubious in Nine is the inclusion of Kate Hudson. At first glance, the blond, vivacious, all-American Hudson seems decidedly out of place amidst the European cast, however Marshall makes it work. As Stephanie, a fashionista and Vogue journalist, she is typical of ‘50s Americans abroad and reminiscent of old Hollywood. Stephanie through her own declarations confirms our suspicions about the preeminence of Italian style, all the while seducing Guido (and reminding the audience that in post-war Europe, Americans were still exotic). As Lilli La Fleur, a costume designer and mother-like figure mostly beyond Guido’s charm, Judi Dench is still a bastion of British stiff upper lip attitude, even when portraying a Frenchwoman. Fergie delivers the signature song of the film, "Be Italian," in her role as the sultry and feral Saraghina, a gypsy prostitute from Guido’s childhood. And finally there is Sophia Loren, the high priestess of Italian cinema, understated and angelic as Guido’s departed mother, whom Guido nonetheless desperately begs guidance from.

What keeps the film from stumbling into lampoon or inanity is the superb screenplay produced by the late, great Anthony Minghella and veteran screenwriter Michael Tolkin. The film rarely takes the bait to indulge in cliché, only doing so when it’s tasteful and enjoyable for the audience. The fact that Nine is a musical is important to consider; it is further proof of the musical revival that has occurred in Hollywood, which came full circle in 2002 with Marshall’s Chicago. Nine’s musical transitions never feel forced. The dynamic Marshall creates – with all the numbers occurring as reveries in Guido’s head – mitigates the typically unavoidable storytelling defects of the musical and genuinely contributes to the artistic evolution of the genre.

Nine is, platitudes aside, the definitive musical of the new generation. It is also the definitive Italian retrospective of the 21st Century (so far). Saturated with the immortal style of Mastroianni and co., Nine is an enjoyable reminder that the Italy of the ‘50s and ‘60s remains the benchmark of style, an era that will continue to be referenced by all those who profess to be fashionable. The neorealist generation has come to be an intrinsic part, not only of Italian, but European identity. Cinematically speaking, Neorealismo was the starting point of modern European arthouse; but in a broader sense, it first defined the "new European" – creative, stylish, contemplative, humanistic and slightly cynical. Nine’s story and, more importantly, its characters, are impressionistic representations of this identity, of which the Italians were the vanguard. The vast artistic plains that are still explored by today’s European filmmakers were first charted by the neorealists and their heirs. Nine is a love letter – to music, to sex, to fashion and Fellini – but most of all to the immortality of Italian cool.

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