Inexplicably, just as French cinema is taking a home-field drubbing at the hands of “l’affaire Leconte” (in which French filmmakers and critics have been publicly crossfiring since last autumn about the right of critics to club the apparently clubbable native product), Italian cinema—or at least its history—is enjoying something of a reputation makeover. MOMA chips in with this third packaging of eclectically selected postwar semiclassics, ranging from Luchino Visconti to Dario Argento, including several idiosyncratic landmarks notably unavailable on video. Primary among these is Roberto Rossellini’s The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966), a ghostly historical essay shot for French TV detailing the monarch’s political ascension to demigodhood. Rossellini shot the film and directed the timberlike cast as if Bresson were alive in the 17th century and making a documentary about the Sun King; the effect is chilling and crystal clear.
The series provides us with the perhaps unnecessary opportunity to view Nothing Left to Do but Cry (1984), a historical comedy written, directed, and starring Massimo Troisi and Roberto Benigni (unseen at press time and, probably, for some considerable time after that). The original Dino Risi version of Scent of a Woman (1974) is featured, while the cut segment from De Sica’s The Gold of Naples(1954) makes its first stateside appearance alongside the Fellini chunk of Boccaccio ’70 (1962). But among the video orphans, what’s not to be missed is Marco Bellocchio’s blistering Fists in the Pocket (1965); Argento’s wicked giallo, shot by Vittorio Storaro, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970); and Luigi Comencini’s overlooked The Infancy, Vocation and Early Experiences of Giacomo Casanova, Venetian (1969). Best of all, arguably, is Visconti’s Senso (1954), a mesmerizing romantic ordeal by mise-en-scène that, though common on tape, needs a screen as broad and high as Alida Valli’s cheekbones.