Italo Calvino, cinema spectator

Emily Jacir, Memorial to the 418 Palestinian villages that were destroyed, depopulated and occupied by Israel in 1948, 2001.


Reflections on the centenary of the Italian writer’s birth

In Brazilian cultural circles, Italo Calvino is remembered primarily as an essayist, despite the wide dissemination of his fictional work.[1] The writer also stood out as a journalist and, in the exercise of this activity, especially in the second post-war period, cinema also served to illustrate some of the themes covered (religion, psychology of fascism, sex and feelings of love) in the chronicles for the Piedmontese edition in Unity.[2]

From 1953 onwards, he collaborated with several newspapers and periodicals, among which Il Contemporaneo, The bridge, The day, Cahiers du Cinema, Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica[3] and mainly, Cinema New,[4] of which he participated in polls, debates and as a correspondent at the Venice Festival, whose jury he presided over in 1981, when the Golden Lion was awarded to Die Zeit bleierne (the years of lead) raised controversy due to the topic and the way it was approached.

Italo Calvino would have preferred if the award had also gone to Nanni Moretti's film, Sweet dreams (Sweet Dreams), awarded the Silver Lion for best direction, to show the public that “intelligent humor is another 'serious' way (equally serious, I say) to reach the truth and one's own liberation”, as Natalia Aspesi noted.

Despite this, also on behalf of the other jurors, he came out in defense of Margarethe von Trotta's work against those who saw in it an exaltation of armed struggle: “No one among us has ever uttered the word terrorism, no one thought of discussing its contents in a forced way. We were all in agreement to see it as a film of feelings, which digs into the conscience; in judging it from a human point of view and not from a formal or political point of view”.

“In my opinion, the film contains very clear elements of refusal of terrorism. It contains the exponential growth of fanaticism and cruelty that terrorism entails in society, at all levels. I believe that these elements are stronger than another very strong one, which goes in the opposite direction: that is, the progressive identification of the non-terrorist sister with the terrorist sister, after her death. […] a drama of conscience can only be faced with this seriousness and this respect”.[5]

As editor, Italo Calvino tried to convince, by letter, Cesare Zavattini to publish his scripts by Einaudi in 1952[6], but he did not accept, and faced difficulties in producing the volume Sei film (Le amiche. Il grido. L'avventura. La notte. L'eclisse. Deserto rosso) (1964), proposed by Michelangelo Antonioni, in October 1962.

Interestingly, almost two decades later, in an interview with Lietta Tornabuoni, the writer stated that he hated published scripts, which, for him, “would only be interesting if they offered all the various phases a script goes through, all the successive rewritings of a scene or of a dialogue, all the cuts, the leftovers, the renunciations, the words that were not transformed into images, what was never filmed”.

Despite these incursions, Italo Calvino, however, did not have a relationship with cinema as intense as the one established with literature, which, however, did not cease to be remarkable, as he – whose “learning as a spectator was slow and contrasted” by his family during his childhood – he fell in love with the seventh art in his adolescence (“between 1936 and the war”, therefore between “thirteen and eighteen years old”), going to the cinema almost daily, if not twice a day,[7] and starting to review films for the Giornale di Genova, in mid-1941, as St. John took off (1940), by Amleto Palermi, played by Totò, according to “Chronology”.

As already mentioned, Italo Calvino dedicated several writings to cinematographic art – among which the “open letter” to Michelangelo Antonioni, upon the release of Le amiche (The friends, 1955); the preface of Quattro film (1974), by Federico Fellini; the controversy with Alberto Moravia about Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Saló or the 120 days of Sodom, 1975), by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Published on Einaudi News (Nov.-Dec. 1955), under the title “Le amiche”, in the “open letter”, Calvino, also on behalf of Giulio Einaudi and other friends of Cesare Pavese, congratulated Antonioni for the cinematographic transposition of the novel Among single women (Lonely women, 1949).He praised the script, prepared by the director himself, by Suso Cecchi d'Amico and by the writer Alba de Céspedes, for having preserved a certain “Pavesian flavor”.

He appreciated the “sensitive look”, but not at all indulgent, that the director knew how to cast on the middle bourgeoisie of Turin, in a “stripped and acrid way, based on the relationship of landscapes that are always somewhat squalid and wintery with paused and almost casual speeches between characters, a cinematographic style that refers to the lesson of understatement of so many modern writers, including Pavese”. There were reservations about some female characters, as in the case of Clelia, the main one, even disapproving the interpretation of the actress who played her, considered the character of Nene to be the most Pavesian of all, practically created by the script and the representation of her interpreter.

Antonioni was one of Calvino's most appreciated directors. In a survey carried out by Cinema New, at the beginning of 1961, “Quattro domande sul cinema italiana”, relating to films Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco and his brothers, 1960), The adventure (The adventure, 1960) e Dolce vita (The sweet life, 1960), ended up preferring Antonioni's work to that of Fellini and Luchino Visconti, as a method, rejecting the label of “decadent avant-garde” – as recalled by Guido Fink –, which the film critic Guido Aristarco attributed to him (in the name of theories by György Lukács), as it is a novel of existentialist loneliness: “It is a pessimistic film, which does not seek to sweeten the pill, which does not want to moralize, to reform the habits of the bourgeoisie such as left-wing Catholics and radicals. You are in a quagmire and stay there: this is the only serious moral stance. Why decadent? It is a film of great severity, with an always vigilant morality, because it is based on human reality, because it is not gratuitous, not literary.”

Significantly titled “Autobiography of a Spettatore” (“Autobiography of a Spectator”), the preface to the volume that brought together four Fellini scripts – The vitelloni (The welcome, 1953), Dolce vita, 81/2 (Eight and a half, 1963) e Juliet of the spirits (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965) – later, he became part of The road to San Giovanni (The path of San Giovanni, nineteen ninety). This preface, together with the interview he gave to Lietta Tornabuoni for the daily The print, from Turin (23 Aug. 1981), constitutes the greatest source of Italo Calvino's comments on cinema.

Encouraged by Fellini himself to write his autobiography as a spectator, the writer dedicated only a quarter of the text to his filmic work. According to Italo Calvino, the filmmaker dedicated himself to uninterruptedly elaborating the story of his life, since The vitelloni, “but in him the biography also became cinema, it is the outside invading the screen, the darkness of the room pouring into the cone of light. […] the biography of the Fellinian hero – which the filmmaker returns to from the beginning each time – is more exemplary than mine because the young man leaves the province, goes to Rome and moves to the other side of the screen, makes cinema, becomes himself cinema. Fellini's film is cinema inside out, a projection machine that swallows the audience and a film machine that turns its back on the set, but the two poles are still interdependent, the province acquires a meaning when reminded of Rome, Rome acquires a sense when we arrived from the province, between the human monstrosities of one and the other a common mythology is established, which revolves around gigantic female deities such as Anita Ekberg of The sweet life. And bringing to light and classifying this convulsive mythology is the focus of Fellini's work, with the self-analysis of Eight and a half like a spiral of archetypes. […] it is necessary to remember that in Fellini's biography the inversion of roles from spectator to director was preceded by the inversion from reader of weekly humorous magazines to cartoonist and contributor to those same magazines. The continuity between the cartoonist-humorist Fellini and the filmmaker Fellini is given by the character of Giulietta Masina […]. And not by chance, the film-analysis of Masina's world, Juliet of the Spirits, has as its declared figurative and chromatic reference the colorful cartoons of Corriere dei piccoli: it is the graphic world of widespread printed paper that claims its special visual authority and its close kinship with cinema since its origins”.

In 1975 the Corriere della Sera published the articles “Sade è Dentro di noi (Pasolini, Salò)” (30 Nov.), “Health for Pasolini, health against society” (6 Dec.) and “Perché ho parlato di 'corruzione'” (10 Dec.), which was later renamed “Su Pasolini: a response to Moravia”. In the first text, in addition to asking himself whether the director had, in fact, been able to make the viewer penetrate the Sadian universe, Italo Calvino took his analysis to the personal side of Pasolini's life, seeing in the film his suffering for not being able to escape from the meshes of corruption that money engenders, by contaminating everything around it. The proposal to Salò would have been unclear, because its author would not have had the courage to face the “fundamental theme of his drama: the role that money had started to play in his life since he had become a successful filmmaker”.

The Roman writer was unhappy with the article, because, when he misinterpreted the words of the Ligurian author, he thought that he had called Pasolini corrupt, when that had not been his intention. Furthermore, he did not like the expression “successful filmmaker” at all, to which Italo Calvino responded with his rejoinder: “By saying that he had become a 'successful filmmaker', I am not saying, as Moravia wants me to say, that he was 'internally', that is, he made films with profits in mind, but he was 'for others', with everything that is implied by the fact that he became a character in the 'mass media' for someone who continues to think, react, provoke according to his exclusive vocation as an intellectual”.

It is worth remembering that Italo Calvino never hid that he did not like Pasolini's cinematographic works; he expressed his lack of appreciation when watching Beggar (Maladjustment social, 1961), in Turin, and in letters to Guido Aristarco, when writing The Gospel according to Matthew (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) as “something devoid of any meaning and amateurish”, and to the literary critic Gian Carlo Ferretti, when he stated that he did not read the Bolognese intellectual’s texts, nor watch his films, “which here, in Paris, provoke a delirium of enthusiasm” .

In a message addressed to Pasolini himself, on July 3, 1964, while praising the poetry “Vittoria”, he asked him: “When will you stop with cinema?” Even in the text written after the filmmaker’s death, “Last letter to Pier Paolo Pasolini"(Corriere della Sera, 4 Nov. 1975), avoided referring to his film production.[8]

Despite his cinematographic writings, Italo Calvino considered himself a spectator. An “average spectator”, who, as a teenager, was always on the lookout for new attractions and enjoyed both comedies and adventure films, which, years later, he would consider the popular genre par excellence: “I already knew in advance which film was passing through each theater, but my eye was looking for the posters, posted to one side, that announced the next film on the schedule, because there was the surprise, the promise, the expectation that would accompany me in the following days”.

“Adventure films and comedic films both correspond, I believe, to the same elementary inner need: to be surprised by an emotion, which can be the one that provokes laughter or the one that frees us from a tension of danger. I would like to advocate the creation of a good adventure narrative and a good adventure cinema. Italy never had one or the other. And the adventure narrative is the only popular narrative possible; and adventure cinema is the only popular cinema possible.”[9]

Cinema, therefore, as a surprise and also as an evasion, not in a negative sense, but as the means that, more quickly and easily, transported him away, which allowed “to satisfy a need for estrangement, to project my attention into a space different, a need that I believe corresponds to a primary function of our insertion in the world, an indispensable stage in all formation. […]

It responded to a need for distance, for dilation of the limits of reality, for seeing immeasurable dimensions opening up around me, abstract like geometric entities, but also concrete, absolutely full of faces and situations and environments that, with the world of direct experience , established their own (and abstract) network of relationships”.

His passion for the seventh art, however, did not translate into a constant contribution to cinema as an industry, nor did it lead him to want to change fields: “I felt […] that, in the name of my old love for cinema, I had to preserve my condition of mere spectator, and who would lose the privileges of this condition if he went over to the side of those who make the films”.

Despite this statement, the writer produced some cinematographic and television texts, not all of which were filmed: a script of eleven typed pages, without a title, divided into seven parts – “Una fabbrica che prohibitesce il matrimonio”, “Il matrimonio segreto”, “Una luna di miele in piedi”, “Un capufficio intraprendente”, “L'autocolonna degli amanti”, “Gli orari che non combinano” –, written in the post-war period and which will give rise to the short story “The adventure of due sposi” (“The adventure of two grooms”, 1958), the lyrics of Song sad (1958), with music by Sergio Liberovici, and the script for the first episode of Boccaccio '70 (Boccaccio 70, 1961), “Renzo e Luciana”, written in partnership with Giovanni Arpino, Suso Cecchi d'Amico and Mario Monicelli;

Proposals for television series Comiche TV, I fidanzati impossibili e Large Guignol; an argument set during the time of the Resistance, Travel in truck, published in Cinema New (April 25, 1955); Marco Polo (1960), a very long script written at the request of Mario Monicelli, Suso Cecchi d'Amico and producer Franco Cristaldi for a documentary never made, but an initial step in Invisible Cities; the argument Tikò and fish (c. 1958-1960), freely inspired by the novel Ti-Koyo et son requin, by Clement Richter, published in ABC (September 9, 1962) and taken to the screen, under the title of Ti-Koyo and his fish, by Folco Quilici (1962), who, together with the writer, Augusto Frassinetti and Ottavio Alessi, also wrote the script;

Two texts for unmade films by Michelangelo Antonioni – from the first (probably from the mid-1960s), to be starred by Soraya, second wife of the Shah of Persia, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the script remains, lasting about twelve pages, divided into six sequels – “Risveglio e telefono”, “Il bagno”, “Dal parrucchiere”, “Il tucano fuggito”, “La madre del carcerato” and “La ragazza difficile” –, while from the second only the contract with producer Carlo remained Ponti, for which the writer committed to scripting the director's script, Technically sweet (Technically sweet) [10] –, with whom he should have also collaborated on the script blow-up (Blow-up – after that kiss, 1966), but the moment was not propitious, as he explained to the director in a letter; six theatrical fables, based on sketches by painter and set designer Toti Scialoja, for I opened the theater, a children's program broadcast on TV in 1978, according to information collected in “Chronology”.

According to Giovanni Bogani, there were also few works by him brought to the screen, extracted from collections of brief narratives Difficult loves, Marcovaldo ovvero his stagioni in town, You with zero (You with zero, 1967, which later joined Tutte le cosmicomiche) to Last comes the crow, or that of chronicles An optimist in America, 1959-1960 (published posthumously in 2014), and the novel The Nonexistent Knight. They are: the aforementioned episode “Renzo and Luciana”; A soldier's adventure (1962), by Nino Manfredi, transposition of the short story of the same name (“The adventure of a soldier”), Abenteur eines Lesers (1973), by Carlo di Carlo, a German TV film, inspired by “The adventure of a letter” (“A Reader’s Adventure”) and Adventure of a photographer (1983), by Francesco Maselli, a TV film, taken from the short story of the same title (“The adventure of a photographer”); Marcovaldo (1970), by Giuseppe Bennati, a television series in five chapters; Die Verfolgung (1972), by Carlo di Carlo, a German TV film, based on the short story “L'inseguimento” (“The chase”); For firefighters (1995), by Alan Taylor, freely inspired by “Ultimo viene il corvo” (“Last comes the crow”); America paese di Dio (1967), by Luigi Vanzi; The Nonexistent Knight (1969-1970), by Pino Zac, a mix of fiction and animation, respectively. From another tale of You with zero, “Il guidatore notturno” (“The Night Driver”), both Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Paul Torok thought about making a film. Furthermore, Calvino always resisted authorizing the cinematographic transposition of his first novel, I felt the same way, as in the case of debutant director Giorgio Viscardi.

As he confided to Lietta Tornabuoni, what Italo Calvino wanted, however, was to be plagiarized, as that seemed more flattering to him, although not at all profitable. This is what would have happened with the soap opera, Theft in pasticceria, which Alessandro Blasetti was unable to film, but which would have inspired the sequel to I soliti ignoti (The eternal unknowns, 1958), in which the thieves eat in the kitchen of the apartment they went to rob, according to Furio Scarpelli, one of the screenwriters of Mario Monicelli's film.

Furthermore, Bogani raises the hypothesis that “L'inseguimento” inspired L'ingorgo (The big traffic jam, 1979), by Luigi Comencini, while The Nonexistent Knight would be at the base of the empty armor that appears in I paladin (1983), by Giacomo Battiato. This is also what happened with the first chapter of the novel. Fear of flying (Fear of flying, 1975), in which “A soldier's adventure”, was once again translated into words after having given rise to a film made entirely of images, according to a letter from Calvino to Erika Jong.

Despite his collaboration with the film industry, however, the focus of this text is the spectator Italo Calvino, a privileged spectator, whose attitude towards cinema changed throughout his life, as he himself declared: “After the war, many things they had changed: I was changed, and cinema had become something else, another thing in itself and another thing in relation to me. My biography as a spectator resumes its course, but it is that of another spectator, who is no longer just a spectator.”

“With so many other things on my mind, if I revisited the Hollywood cinema of my adolescence, I thought it was poor […]. Even my memories of life in those years had changed, and so many things that I had considered to be insignificant everyday life were now colored with the meaning of tension, of premonition. Ultimately, when I reconsidered my past, the world on the screen revealed itself to me to be paler, more predictable, less exciting than the world outside.”

“The tastes of adolescence have been swept away, when talking about them it’s as if they belonged to someone else’s life. […] When I started to be part of the world of printed paper, cinema made by people I knew no longer impressed me much. There was no longer the feeling of distance, of mythical mystery, of expanding the limits of reality: to find it again, I had to watch Japanese films, which belonged to a completely distant world. The emotion of wonder has been lost, that of the enchanted spectator, mouth open like a child, characteristic of a time when the range of images was limited, the experience of contemplating images was unusual and rare, and not customary and daily as it is today” .[11]

When reality, and no longer its representation, entered young Italo's existence, he became an “actor”, as Goffredo Fofi recalled: “it is supporter, activist, employee, journalist, writer, intellectual. He throws himself into life, participates in it firsthand, assumes social responsibilities in an extremely intense way, with a precise political stance. Then comes 1956, the end of the Cold War, the tree, the Italy of well-being. And Italo Calvino is once again a spectator.”

A more disenchanted spectator, however, still in search of the “exceptional encounter” between himself and a film, by chance or thanks to art: “In Italian cinema one can expect a lot from the personal genius of the directors, but very little from chance. This must be one of the reasons why I have sometimes admired, often appreciated, but never loved Italian cinema. I feel that from my pleasure in going to the cinema, he took more than he gave. Because this pleasure must be evaluated not only based on 'author films', with which I establish a critical relationship of a 'literary' type, but also based on what may appear new in medium and smaller production, with which I seek reestablish a relationship of mere spectator. […] to recreate the pleasure of cinema, I have to leave the Italian context and rediscover myself as a mere spectator”.

The cinematographic repertoire of his adolescence – which he enriched in the summer, by recovering films from previous years – had expanded in film clubs, the French Cinematheque and the cinemas of the Quartier Latin (where he rescued tapes from the 1920s and 1930s, or watched the latest Polish and Brazilian[12]) and in London, although not with readings of theoretical works or the history of cinema. The new spectator who emerged in adulthood, if, on the one hand, continued linked to a “well-made” cinema, which went beyond the merely artisanal, like North American or Italian-style banger-bangs, on the other, had passed to become interested in more cerebral films, but without letting himself be trapped by psychologism or by an “exclusively technological spectacle” or by “intellectual sophistications”, as Lietta Tornabuoni declared, which led him to refuse Breathless (harassed, 1960), by Jean-Luc Godard, who, in a poll of Cinema New (1961), considered “Literary and free […], and therefore immoral, and therefore – once we have got this far – decadent”, or the game of fittings of Last year in Marienbad (Last year in Marienbad, 1961), by Alain Resnais. Furthermore, as stated in a letter to Guido Aristarco and in an interview with Lietta Tornabuoni:

“They didn’t even convince me Deserto rosso [the red desert, 1964, by Antonioni], nem Silence [thirteen days/The silence, 1963, by Ingmar Bergman] […]”.

“The most interesting film I saw in 1964 is The sideboard [O criad, 1963], by [Joseph] Losey. In fact, it seems to me to be a unique example, in the history of cinema, of a philosophical film, in addition to having a rigorous cinematographic narration. 2001: A Space Odyssey, [2001: a space odyssey, 1968], by [Stanley] Kubrick is a beautiful, immense film, Apocalypse Now [Apocalypse Now, 1979], by [Francis Ford] Coppola, seems beautiful to me, except for Marlon Brando: but I don't want to start theorizing, making speeches about cinematic taste or poetics. […]”

“I was among the defenders of popular and artisanal cinema until it became a banner for many intellectuals who theorized it, transforming it into another nonsense. Without any prevention, I try to be available for whatever it’s worth: as a rule, however, and not just in cinema, I prefer professionalism to the levity that is considered inspired.”

For Italo Calvino, cinema had been “another dimension of the world” or “a dimension, a world, a space of the mind”. He opposed the organicity of the cinematic universe to a formless reality, whose call fascinated him and transported him to other dimensions: “Another world than the one that surrounded me, but for me only what I saw on the screen had the properties of a world, the plenitude, necessity, coherence, while outside the screen, heterogeneous elements piled up, as if thrown together at random, the materials of my life, which seemed to me devoid of any and all form. […]”

“When […] I entered the cinema at four or five, when I left I was struck by the feeling of the passage of time, the contrast between two different temporal dimensions, inside and outside the film. He had entered in broad daylight and outside he found darkness, the illuminated streets prolonging the black and white of the screen. The darkness somewhat cushioned the discontinuity between the two worlds and accentuated it somewhat, as it marked the passage of those two hours that I had not lived, absorbed in a suspension of time, or in the duration of an imaginary life, or in the leap back through the centuries. […] When it rained in the film, I listened to see if it had also started to rain outside, if a storm surprised me because I had run away from home without an umbrella: it was the only moment when, even though I remained immersed in that other world, it reminded me of the outside world; and it was a harrowing effect. The rain in films still awakens that reflex in me, a feeling of anguish”.

“[…] the interval between the first and second parts of the film (another strange, exclusively Italian custom, which inexplicably continues to this day) was enough to remind me that I was still in that city, on that day, at that time: and, depending on the mood of the moment, the satisfaction of knowing that, in an instant, I would once again be projected back into the seas of China or the earthquake in San Francisco increased; or else the warning oppressed me so that I wouldn’t forget that I was still here, so that I wouldn’t get lost, far away.”

The “cinema of distance” of his youth, however, disappeared to give way to the “cinema of proximity”: “From the post-war period onwards, cinema was seen, discussed, made, in a totally different way. I don't know how much post-war Italian cinema changed the way we see the world, but it certainly changed the way we see cinema (any cinema, even American cinema). There is no world inside the illuminated screen in the dark room and outside another heterogeneous world separated by a clear discontinuity, ocean or abyss. The dark room disappears, the screen is a magnifying glass placed on the everyday exterior, and forces us to look at what the naked eye tends to glide through without stopping. This function has – can have – its usefulness, small, or medium, or in some cases enormous. But that anthropological, social need for distance is not satisfied.”

To these films “capable of captivating by force”,[13] the writer launched a challenge, to win over the general public; Therefore, while critics praised filmmakers considered neorealists,[14] he was more interested in directors like Pietro Germi (“although Germi always knows very well what he wants”), the duo Steno-Monicelli – creators of Guards and thieves (Guards and thieves, 1951) – and Luigi Zampa from The Honorable Angelina (Angelina, the deputy, 1947) and, mainly, of The Roman (The Roman, 1954)[15], which he ended up appreciating, despite thinking, as reported by Michele Canosa, that the film had been harmed by the schematic and measured script by writers Giorgio Bassani and Alberto Moravia – the latter, author of the novel of the same name (1947) –, from which it originated, complementing : “The art film is something very beautiful, but it will always be an exceptional work, it is a film that we make for ourselves and then we watch with a wink and a click of our tongue. But the interesting problem of the new cinema was to see if the language of the Visconti, the De Sica, Rossellini, Castellani, could proliferate, if, with its poetic style, it could become common language, and give life to a good series of popular and of popular farces of medium production. Then we would have had proof that it was not just a cultural movement, but dialectically linked to a movement of public demands and tastes”.

“Zampa is a director who always interests us, due to his ability to offer tangible images to the moods, to the pessimistic moralism of the average Italian, to his judgment on recent times, and to create contemporary comedic or dramatic masks.”[16]

The names of Zampa, Monicelli, Steno and Germi bring to mind the Italian comedy, with which the writer maintained a conflictual relationship, despite paying his tribute, directly, in Renzo and Luciana, by Mario Monicelli, for being one of the screenwriters of what was considered the weakest part of Boccaccio '70 (Boccaccio '70, 1961),[17] and, indirectly, in A soldier's adventure, by Nino Manfredi, episode of the collective film L'amore difficile (1962), based solely on gestures and silences, which, according to Roberto Poppi, critics consecrated as the best brief narrative not only of the film it was part of, but of all Italian cinema made in that period.

This feeling of attraction/refusal, which concerned the representation of the way of life of his compatriots, was the same that, deep down, aroused in him some of Fellini's works: “I should then talk about the satirical comedy of manners that throughout the decade of 1960 constituted Italy's typical average production. In most cases I find it detestable, because the more the caricature of our social behavior wants to be merciless, the more it reveals itself to be complacent and indulgent; in other cases I find her friendly and good-natured, with an optimism that remains miraculously genuine, but then I feel that she doesn't compel me to take a single step forward in knowing ourselves. Anyway, looking each other directly in the eye is difficult. It's fair that Italian vitality enchants foreigners, but leaves me indifferent.”

“[…] Fellini can go far ahead on the path of visual repulsion, but on the path of moral repulsion he stops, recovers the monstrous for the human, for indulgent carnal complicity. Want the province vitellona Both the filmmakers' Rome are circles of hell, but at the same time they are Lands of Abundance that can be enjoyed. That's why Fellini manages to disturb until the end – because he forces us [to] admit that what we would most like to move away from is intrinsically close to us.”

“As in the analysis of neurosis, past and present mix their perspectives; as in the triggering of the hysterical crisis, they externalize themselves in spectacle. Fellini makes cinema the symptomatology of Italian hysterism, that specific family hysterism which, before him, was represented as a mainly southern phenomenon and which he, from that place of geographical mediation that is his Romagna, redefines in Amarcord as the true unifying element of Italian behavior”.

The author, when recalling his training as a spectator, avoided relying on reference or specialized texts, although, at the time, he followed with interest the criticisms of Filippo Sacchi and Pietro Bianchi: “Mine are memories of someone who is discovering cinema that moment […].

These memories are part of a mental and personal storehouse in which not written documents matter, but only the casual deposit of images over the days and years, a storehouse of private sensations that I never wanted to mix with the stores of collective memory.”

The Calvinist repertoire of moving images was fed by American cinema, first, and, over the years, by French, Italian and Japanese. This, who admired the works of Koji Shima and Akira Kurosawa, was what most led him to rebel against the habit, in force in his country, of not showing films in the original language: “it is a cultural mutilation to see dubbed in Italian even Japanese films, in which the phonic occurrence, the tones, the panting, the rhythm of the dialogue are essential”.[18]

With French cinema, he encountered another type of strangeness: the smells he was filled with; the carnal presence of the actresses, who installed themselves “in memory as living women and, at the same time, as erotic ghosts”, and not as idealized beings; realism, which allowed him to connect what he saw on the screen with his experience; the “most disturbing and vaguely forbidden things” he proposed, as in Port of Shadows (Shadow Pier, 1938), by Marcel Carné, in which Jean Gabin “was not an ex-combatant wanting to dedicate himself to cultivating a plantation in the colonies, as the Italian dubbing tried to make us believe, but a deserter fleeing the front, a topic that fascist censorship would never have allowed.” Unlike the French cinema of the 1930s, for him, “American cinema at that time had nothing to do with literature”, it was “something apart, almost without a before or after” in the story of his life.

What fascinated him about Hollywood cinema was the range of male and female faces it offered. Among the actors, Calvino listed William Powell, Leslie Howard, Fred Astaire, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, James Stewart, who, alongside the supporting actors, constituted a constellation of types, generally predictable, such as the from the comedy of art. He opposed them to the face of Jean Gabin, “made of another material, physiological and psychological”, rising from the plate, stained with soup and full of humiliation, in the initial sequence of The flag (The flag, 1935), by Julien Duvivier.

Among the actresses, he highlighted those who represented the autonomy of American women, from Jean Arthur to Carole Lombard, including Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, as well as Marlene Dietrich and, later, Marilyn Monroe, who introduced new behaviors in a provincial society like the Italian one of that period: “from Myrna Loy I had made my prototype of the ideal feminine, that of a wife, or perhaps a sister, or, whatever it may be, of the identification of taste, of style, a prototype that coexisted with the ghosts of carnal aggressiveness (Jean Harlow, Viviane Romance) and exhausting and languid passion (Greta Garbo, Michèle Morgan), for which the attraction he felt was tinged with a sense of fear; or with that image of physical happiness and vital joy that was Ginger Rogers, for whom I had an unhappy love from the beginning, even in my reverie – because I didn’t know how to dance.”

“We can ask ourselves whether building an Olympus of ideal and until now unattainable women was good or bad for a young man. It certainly had a positive aspect, as it encouraged people not to be satisfied with the little or much that they found, and to project their desires further, into the future or elsewhere or in the difficult: the negative aspect was that it did not teach how to look real women with an eye ready to discover unprecedented beauties, not conforming to the canons, to invent new characters with what chance or search makes us find on our horizon”.

Given these statements, there is no need to remember that, between 1955 and 1959, Italo Calvino had a relationship with an actress, the fascinating Countess Elsa de' Giorgi, married and nine years older than him. The two met in Florence, during a reading session of “Il midollo del leone”, one of the essays that the writer had just released. Among other films, the actress acted in “La ricotta” (“The ricotta”, an episode of RoGoPaG, 1963) and played one of the narrators of Salò, both by Pasolini. In 1955, the author managed to I coetanei, the actress's memoiristic work, was published, entering into an epistolary contrast with another Einaudi editor, the writer Elio Vittorini, for his reading of the book.

As recorded by Paolo Di Stefano, in 1992, Elsa de' Giorgi published I saw your train leaving, in which she narrated her romance with the writer, extracting the title from one of the countless love letters he had sent her. According to Domenico Scarpa, in the epistolary, “passion manifested itself without psychological defenses and without stylistic precautions”.

In the cinema advocated by Italo Calvino, which for him was made less of directors than of actors and actresses, these did not fully exist, as he did not know their voices, replaced by those of Italian dubbing actors, voices that sounded absurd, “metalically deformed by the media technicians of the time, and even more absurd due to the affectation of the Italian dubbing, which had no relation to any spoken language of the past or future. And yet, the falseness of those voices had to have a communicative force in itself, like the song of sirens, and […] I heard the call of that other world that was the world.”

“[…] there was only half of every actor or actress, that is, only the figure and not the voice, replaced by the abstraction of dubbing, by a conventional and strange and bland diction, no less anonymous than the words printed on the screen that in other countries (or at least in those where spectators are considered more mentally agile) they inform what their mouths communicate with all the sensitive load of a personal pronunciation, of a phonetic acronym made of lips, teeth, saliva, made above all of the diverse geographic origins of the American melting pot, in a language that, for those who understand it, reveals expressive nuances and, for those who don't understand it, has an extra hint of musical potential (like what we hear today in Japanese or even Swedish films). Therefore, the conventionality of American cinema came to me doubly dubbed (pardon the play on words) by the conventionality of the dubbing itself, which, however, reached our ears as part of the film's charm, inseparable from the images. A sign that the strength of cinema was born mute, and the word – at least for Italian spectators – has always been felt as an overlay, a caption in print. (In fact, Italian films at the time, if they weren’t dubbed, were as if they were. […])”.

The public was another source of interest for the writer, for whom cinema was constituted not only by the film itself, but also by the presence of spectators: “cinema is and has the most immediate reality and the most excessive idealization, a freedom of expression as large as the visible world and an extremely codified convention, the most lofty and impudent fame, the atmosphere of omnipotent wealth and, at the same time, the feeling of working for a world of poor people, for the anonymous crowds that will jostle in the dark rooms .”

“Cinema means sitting in the middle of an audience that snorts, pants, mocks, sucks candy, bothers you, enters, leaves, even reads the subtitles out loud, like in the silent era; Cinema is these people, plus the story that happens on screen. […] This public has a dialectical relationship with cinematographic creation: it allows itself to be filled with cinema, but, in turn, imposes itself on cinema”.[19]

Italo Calvino was a spectator among other spectators, it is true, but a privileged spectator since, as some critics have pointed out, including Lietta Tornabuoni and Antonio Costa,[20] it would be possible to establish a relationship between the seventh art and his essayistic and fictional work, in which it would be interesting to highlight how cinema and other audiovisual media were important in the constitution of his visual imaginary and his worldview.

As Pasolini stated, in Calvino there was always a tension between the world as it is and the world as he would like it to be. In this way, the Ligurian author would be a kind of hybrid being: a boy still driven by curiosity and an old man clinging to his own past, who, by conceiving culture as a set of fossils, is unable to project himself into the future. In other, less blunt words, there was a rational side to the writer and a pessimistic side, a pessimism aggravated by the end of a culture (and an ideology) within which he had been formed and in which cinema played a preponderant role.

*Mariarosaria Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Modern Letters at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Italian cinematographic neo-realism: a reading (edusp).

Expanded version of the homonymous text published in Proceedings of full texts of the XVIII SOCINE Meeting, São Paulo, Socine, 2015.


BARENGHI, Mario; FALCETTO, Bruno. "Chronology"; “Note and report sui testi. In: CALVINO, Italo. Romanzi and racconti. 3 v. Milano: Mondadori, 1995-2004.

BOGANI, Giovanni. “Obiettivi smisurati”. In: PELLIZZARI, Lorenzo (org.). L'avventura di uno spettatore: Italo Calvino and cinema. Bergamo: Lubrina, 1990.

CALVINO, Italo. “Autobiography of a spectator”. In: The path of San Giovanni. Trans. Roberta Barni. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000.

________. Letter 1940-1985. Milano: Mondadori, 2000 [“To Cesare Zavattini – Roma” (11 December 1951); “Michelangelo Antonioni – Rome” (Nov.-Dec 1955); “Michelangelo Antonioni – Rome” (October 3, 1962); “Michelangelo Antonioni – Rome” (October 12, 1962); “To Guido Aristarco – Milano” (February 22, 1965); “Michelangelo Antonioni – Rome” (September 29, 1965); “To Gian Carlo Ferretti – Milano” (February 3, 1969); “To Giorgio Viscardi – Rome” (April 8, 1974); “Erika Jong – New York” (10 April 1975)].

________. “Sade is inside di noi (Pasolini, Salò)”; “Su Pasolini: a response to Moravia”. In: Saggi 1945-1985. 2 t. Milano: Mondadori, 1995.

________. “Southern cinema: contribution to a bibliography”. In: PELLIZZARI, on. cit. [from where data and excerpts from the articles “Tra i pioppi della risaia la 'cinecittà' delle mondine” were extracted; “La paura di sbagliare”; “Bureaucratic Gina”; “Quattro domande sul cinema italiana”; “Last letter to Pier Paolo Pasolini”; “A coscienza drama”; “Film di bambini (Austria and Brazil)”].

CANOSA, Michele. “La 'distanza'”. In: PELLIZZARI, on. cit.

CLERICI, Luca. “Tra letter and pellicola”. In: PELLIZZARI, on. cit.

COSTA, Antonio. “The sense of the view”. In: PELLIZZARI, on. cit.

FINK, Guido. “Quel fascio di raggi luminosi in Movimento”. In: PELLIZZARI, on. cit.

FOFI, Goffredo. “Presentation”. In: PELLIZZARI, on. cit.

“Italo Calvino” (September 16, 2023). Available in: .

MORAVIA, Alberto. “Sade per Pasolini, a health against society”. In: Italian cinema: recensioni and intervention 1933-1990. Milano: Bompiani, 2010.

PASOLINI, Pier Paolo. Description. Milano: Garzanti, 1975.

POPPI, Robert. Dictionary of Italian cinema: I recorded it from 1930 back then. Rome: Gremese, 1993.

SCARPA, Domenico. “Calvino, Italo.” Available in enciclopedia/italo-calvino_(Dizionario-Biographico)/>.

STEFANO, Paolo Di. “Elsa, Italo e il conte scomparso”. Courier of Sera, Milan, 4 Aug. 2014. Available at .

TORNABUONI, Lietta. “Calvino: the inesistent cinema”. In: PELLIZZARI, on. cit.


[1] Calvino's works so far translated into Portuguese by Companhia das Letras: A pietra blow. Discourses of literature and society (Closed subject – Speeches on literature and society, 1980), Collection of wisdom (Sand Collection, 1984), Lezioni americane – I know what you proposed for the next millennium (Six proposals for the next millennium – American lessons, 1988), Why read the classics (Why read the classics, 1991), Mondo scritto and mondo non scritto (Written world and unwritten world – Articles, conferences and interviews, 2002), Born sleep in America. Interviste 1951-1985 (I was born in America… a life in 101 conversations (1951-1985), 2022) – essays and interviews; The road to San Giovanni (The path of San Giovanni, 1990), Hermit to Parigi. Autobiography page (Hermit in Paris – Autobiographical pages, 1996), , An optimist in America, 1959-1960 (An Optimist in America 1959-1960, 2014) – autobiographical texts; Press and you say “Ready” (A general in the library, 1958) – aplogues and stories; I felt the same way (The Spider's Nest Trail, 1947), Il visconte dimezzato (The viscount split in half, 1952), The rampant baron (The baron in the trees, 1957), The Nonexistent Knight (The non-existent knight, 1959), the three gathered in I didn't wait for you (Our ancestors, 1960), The speculative building (Real estate speculation, 1963), The job of a scrutator (A scrutineer's day, 1963), The castle of crossed destinies (The castle of crossed destinies, 1973), If a traveler a winter night (If a traveler on a winter night, 1979), Palomar (Palomar, 1983) – novels; Last comes the crow (Last comes the crow, 1949), He enters the war (Entry into the war, 1954), Marcovaldo ovvero Le stagioni in citta (Marcovaldo or the stations in the city, 1963), Le cosmicomiche (The cosmicomics, 1965), Difficult loves (Difficult loves, 1970), Invisible Cities (the invisible cities, 1972), Sotto il sole giaguaro (Under the jaguar sun, 1986), Tutte le cosmicomiche (All cosmicomics, 1997), – short stories and novels; Fiabe Italian raccolte from the popular tradition during the last century and transcribed in language from various dialetti by Italo Calvino (Italian fables, 1956), La scommessa a chi primo s'arrabbia (Whoever gets angry first loses, 1956) – children’s literature; Racconti fantastici dell'Ottocento (Fantastic tales from the XNUMXth century chosen by Italo Calvino, 1983) – organizer.

[2] “Bing Crosby theologian” (June 30, 1946), “Valenti oleografico” (July 25, 1946), “Hollywood puritana” (November 10, 1946), “Tra i pioppi della risaia la 'cinecittà' delle mondine” (July 14, 1948) and “Film cecoslovacchi” (Jan. 6, 1950).

[3] “La televisione in risaia” (Apr. 3, 1954) and “Gina bureaucratica” (Nov. 20, 1954); “Inchiesta su censorship and spettacolo in Italy” (Nov. 1961); “Le donne si salvano?“ (29 April 1962); “Réponse à 'Questions aux romanciers'” (Dec. 1966); “Sade is inside di noi (Pasolini, Salò)” (Nov. 30, 1975), “Perché ho parlato di 'corruzione'” (Dec. 10, 1975) and “Quel gran cinico Groucho Marx” (Aug. 28, 1977); “Un dramma di coscienza” (September 12, 1981), “Diario di uno scrittore in giuria: un giudizio sicuro e subito il dubbio” (September 13-14, 1981), “L'anima e il gioco blasfemo” (July 31 . 1983) and “La parola alla Difesa” (Nov. 24, 1983), respectively.

[4] “Italian realism in cinema and narrative (1 May 1953); “Venezia primo tempo: l'inaugurazione” (1 September 1954); “La paura di sbagliare” and “Gli amori difficili dei romanzi coi film” (September 25, 1954); “Demone dell'oro” (October 25, 1954); “Viaggio in camion ('Proposte per film')” (25 April 1955); “La noia a Venezia” (25 Aug. 1955); “Father Brown and Don Camillo” (March 25, 1956); “Sciolti dal Oath” (15 Dec. 1957); “Malraux da hope to De Gaulle”(Jul.-Aug. 1958); “Due film and Stalin” (Jan.-Feb. 1959); “Impressioni di viaggio americane: alla sera non si esce, quindi al cinema non ci siva” ((Jul.- Aug. 1960); “Quattro domande sul cinema italiana” (Jan.-Feb. 1961); “Un Traven falsificato ” (May-Jun. 1962); “I migliori film dell'anno (1964)” (Mar.-Apr. 1965); “Film di bambini (Austria e Brasile)” (Nov.-Dec. 1985); “[ Dalla corrispondenza]” (May-Jun. 1986).

[5] Although gathered here in a single text, these are two statements by Calvin published by the Roman daily La Repubblica (September 12, 1981): the first, taken from the article “'Abbiamo Voto per la sua umanità'”, by Natalia Aspesi; the second, from “Un dramma di coscienza”, by the author himself, as recorded in “Sul cinema: contributo a una bibliografia”.

[6] Zavattini was one of the screenwriters and screenwriters of I will give a million (1935), by Mario Camerini, one of the Italian films that Calvino continued to appreciate, as stated by Lietta Tornabuoni.

[7] Since most of the quotes that make up this text were taken from “Autobiography of a Spectator”, they will no longer be highlighted.

[8] Comments on Beggar and about Pasolinian cinema were extracted from Fofi and Calvino's volume of letters, respectively. The composition “Vittoria” is part of the Pasolinian volume Poetry in the form of rose (1964)

[9] Quotes from Calvin and statements taken from Tornabuoni and Canosa, respectively, were brought together in a single text.

[10] The script Technically sweet ended up being written by Antonioni, in the mid-1960s, while working on the blow-up. Published in 1976 by Einaudi, in it the director anticipated situations and characters from Professione: reporter (The passenger, 1975). The reading of the script, carried out by actors, is an integral part of the Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective, presented as part of the 47th International Film Festival in São Paulo (2023).

[11] Quotes from Calvin and a statement taken from Tornabuoni were brought together in a single text.

[12] In a 1985 article, “Film di bambini (Austria e Brasile)”, however, the opinion on The saci, by Rodolfo Nanni, is negative.

[13] The expression was taken from a 1947 letter to a young writer, in which Calvino says that he read his story with his heart in his mouth, that is, with the same sensation experienced when watching Rome city open (rome open city, 1944-45), by Roberto Rossellini: “I wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s ugly or beautiful, neither the film nor the story, they are things that captivate us by force, but everyone is capable of captivating by force”.

[14] Calvino did not appreciate all the works created by filmmakers associated with Neorealism, but Visconti liked the aforementioned Rocco and His Brothers, Senso (Seduction da meat, 1954), engaging in the campaign in its defense, and Obsession (Obsession, 1942), as mentioned to Lietta Tornabuoni: “I remember seeing Obsession, by Visconti, still under Fascism; It impressed me a lot, and I understood that its poetics were the same as the American novels that were read at the time.” In addition, he followed the filming of Riso amaro (bitter rice, 1948), by Giuseppe De Santis, writing the article “Tra i pioppi della risaia la 'cinecittà' delle mondine”, published in Unity (Turin, 14 July 1948). Also highlighting the role played by the real mowers, the young journalist pointed out that the director “knows that he did not become attached to them as a decorative motif, he knows that only with these contacts between cinema and people can real cinema be made”.

[15] The Roman, dedicated a good part of the article “La paura di sbagliare”, in addition to an article about her interpreter, Gina Lollobrigida: “Gina bureaucratica”, both from 1954.

[16] Statements taken from Fink and Canosa, respectively, were brought together in a single text.

[17] To reduce the film's length, Renzo and Luciana was cut from the version that circulated outside Italy. Only the final sequence of the episode derives from the Calvinist tale. The script is a free and updated adaptation of the novel I promise sposi (The bride and groom, 1840-1842), by Alessandro Manzoni. In Milan in the early 1960s, the two bride and groom, transformed into workers, must face a boss and the logic of savage capitalism to get married.

[18] Data and citation extracted from Canosa and Tornabuoni, respectively.

[19] Quotes taken from Luca Clerici and Canosa, respectively.

[20] According to Costa, the novel Palomar, “is, among other things, a continuous questioning about the sense of sight understood while organ of vision, but also with the meaning of the act of seeing”. Furthermore, in two of the American lessons, “Esattezza” and, mainly, “Visibilità”, Calvino questioned himself about “how the imagination of a time in which literature is no longer referred to an authority or a tradition as its origin is formed. or as its objective, but aims at novelty, originality, invention?”

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