Friday, 31 March 2017

A film, a song and a clash of cultures, Italy in the '50s

Rome, an alley off  the Trevi Fountain, 2011

Black and white movies, Italy in the 50s, and a Neapolitan song

Yesterday evening we sat and watched an old black and white Italian movie from the 1950s.

Perhaps it has a lot to do with getting old. When I was young I avoided films that were in black and white. They were drab and boring and came from a time when technology had not mastered the art of colour. They were simply, the films of my parents and grandparents.

With age comes an appreciation of the subtle way the film maker can play with light and shadow. When you first come across Harry Lime in The Third Man it is half way through the film and we catch just a glimpse of him, half hidden in the shadows.

A man who is not what he seems to be and who evokes different responses from different people. Friend, lover, and criminal suspect Harry Lime plays all these parts, with a playful smile and cavalier manner but also deals in deceit and poisoned medicine. It is a dark film and the shots of post war Vienna are best seen in black and white. Here is a grim city where people are on the margin making do in rubble strewn streets.

But there is another reason why I am drawn more and more to black and white films and it is because many were made during the years I was growing up and take me back to my childhood. Those I remember best were often the B movies like the one shot near Tower Bridge looking out on a busy River Thames which is the drab workaday river I remember full of cranes, barges and tramp steamers

Naples, 1961
And that I think was the attraction of the Italian movie. It was set in the same post war world that I grew up in. Here were funny old cars, big odd looking radios and shops which were not giant supermarkets.

The film like so many of our own also had a charming innocence. The plot was implausible, a lot of the acting slightly dodgy, and there was a happy ending. Even so here was a vivid slice of a way of life as dead as Dixon of Dock Green or the trolley bus.

I watch fascinated as the storyline unfolds against a backdrop of Rome in the 1950s. I excitedly point to the floating bar and dance floor moored on the Tiber, and wonder if this is the same floating dance floor where Gregory Peck kissed Audrey Hepburn.

 For a while I forget the silly story line involving two best friends competing for the beautiful girl who in the end dumped them both for someone else, and try matching this Rome of fifty years ago with the one I know and love. It becomes part geography lesson and part history lesson and like Roman Holiday I lose myself in memories of Roman streets I have walked down and bars which bear have an uncanny resemblance to the ones we have been in.

Films of this period also bring alive that tension between the old and new Italy as well as the growing influence of the U.S. Smart little Italian cars and vespers compete for road space with horse and carts, and for every young man in his stylish suit there is a little old lady dressed in black. Our two young heroes dance with girls in bikinis and the music on the floating bar is a mix of traditional Neapolitan love songs and American swing.

Rome, 2011
And by one of those coincidences, Simone had been playing the classic 50s Tu vuò fà l'americano in the car as we headed back from Tuscany. It is a song written in Neapolitan, and translated runs so you want to be American. It pokes gentle fun at those Italians who act like Yankees by drinking whisky and soda, dancing to Rock ‘n Roll and smoking Camel cigarettes. But the sting is that the pretend Yankee depends on his Italian parents to give him the money, and with much fun Tina and Simone almost shout the lines

You want to dance rock and roll;
you play baseball
but the money for the camels,
who give it to you??
Mamma’s handbag!

And behind the fun is that very simple truth that someone else’s culture can be the ruin of your own for

How can those who love you understand you,
If you speak half in American?
When one talks of love under the moon,
how can you say "I love you"?


Pictures;  from the collection of Andrew Simpson

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