Keeping It Real

An overlooked oeuvre harks back to Italian cinema's postwar heyday

The influence of neorealism went far beyond the demise of the movement. It was carried forward in the work of a succeeding generation—directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ermanno Olmi, Francesco Rosi, and Vittorio De Seta. While the careers of the first three had international impact, the able and dedicated De Seta, whose remarkable first feature, Bandits of Orgosolo (1961), was hailed as a masterpiece on its release, has been largely forgotten.

Born into an aristocratic Calabrian family, De Seta dropped his architectural studies when bitten by the movie bug and entered films with a series of excellent short docs made in Sicily, Calabria, and Sardinia. Bandits has much in common with La Terra Trema (1948), Visconti's masterful study of Sicilian fishermen—both use nonprofessionals to enact a story set in a timeless society where honest men are forced to take desperate measures to survive hard times. Orgosolo is a town in Sardinia that had been a center of gangsterism, kept alive by centuries of poverty, a place where Italians from the mainland are considered foreigners and the carabinieri are perceived as an occupation force sent by a distant colonial government. The film is the elemental, poignant story of a shepherd (Michele Cossu), unjustly implicated in a theft and murder, who flees to the mountains in what becomes a grim, doomed journey. Cossu's craggy face remains one of the most indelible images in European cinema of the period, and De Seta, handling his own camera, proves himself an exceptional cinematographer. The picture's only compromise is the dubbing of standard Italian in place of Sardinian dialect.

De Seta's next feature, Half a Man (1966), marks a surprising shift of direction. In this introspective drama, Jacques Perrin portrays a failed writer searching for the roots of a developing psychosis. After escaping from an asylum, where he's been subjected to electroshock treatment, he returns in desperation to the family home, where he relives scenes from his adolescence during World War II, when he was psychologically crushed by a castratory mother and first became aware of his sexual inadequacy. A brooding, slow-paced mood piece, it's carried by the often dazzling oneiric imagery and a pulsating score by Ennio Morricone.

Details

Vittorio De Seta: A Retrospective
June 24 through 30, MOMA

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In later years, De Seta became one of Italy's most noteworthy directors of television films. He will be on hand at MOMA to present his work at the June 24, 25, and 26 screenings.

 
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