Wilhelm Snyman, UCT, Senior Lecturer at the School of Languages & Literature

For a number of years now the University of Cape Town has been offering a course entitled Italian History through Cinema.

Having taught this course and designed it and selected the material for it, it has been very reassuring to see how successive generations of students have found value in being exposed to a cinema tradition that while obviously different in its origins, has so much to say to a new generation of South African filmmakers.

As Italy emerged from 22 years of Fascist rule and after World War II in 1945, South Africa too has had to redefine itslef, for itself, and cinema in both cases is one of the primary vehicles for this to take place. Significantly, the great trio of Italian Neorealist filmmakers, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini and Vittoria de Sica turned their gaze to the deep divisions and  societal impasse that Italy faced after totalitarianism. Less dramatically, South Africa has made significant strides in trying to reshape what it means to be South African, much like the Neorealists did in trying to restore a reconstruct a renewed faith in the self while addressing from 1943 to 1952, and beyond.  While cinema d’autore which defines Neorealism does not have a South African equivalent, but various South African directors have of course risen to the challenge of trying to find a cohesive image of the South African reality post-apartheid.

One advantage the Italian directors had  back in the 1940s and 1950s was that the continuity of filmmaking had not been disrupted totally by the war; many directors and actors, including De Sica, worked during the Fascist era and could continue doing so afterwards. The tradition of technical expertise was also left relatively intact. The efforts in Germany , for example, at psychological reconstruction were much more fraught, as directors and actors who had worked under the Nazis could not simply carry on working after the war: continuity was interrupted and skills left dormant.

This poses the question, to what extent have South African filmmakers succeeded in maintaining, transforming and sharing expertise post 1994?

Have they been able to build upon the legacy of thepast, albeit it rooted in an discredited narrative, in such a way so as to use it to the benefit of present and future filmmakers and viewers?  What should the role of the state be and how can South Africa with its rich harvest of stories, transfer more of those stories onto the screen? In this sense much can be learned from the Italian  experience.  

Flims such as Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) was made during  a fratricidal war, it set a precedent along with the works of other great directors; much more is told than merely that which is shown on screen. De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano (1951) has an immediate resonance because it deals with the Italian equivalent of squatter camps and how the individual attempts to escape in to a world of fantasy  to alleviate a desperate situation, where government inefficiency and corruption work against the individual trying to his or her life together again. Similarly Rocco e I suoi fratelli (Rocco and his Brothers) (1960), tells of a Southern Italian women who moves to Milan with her five sons, trying to integrate them in a new reality which is alien to  them and their rural values. Italy’s complicity in atrocities during World War II is dealt with very powerfully in Florestano Vancini’s 1960 film based on the short story by Giorgio Bassani, and entitled La lunga notte del ’43. The corrosive effect of cowardice, betrayal and compromise during Fascism are searingly explored; works such as Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La strada make cinematic poetry out of abject poverty while at the same time being a ruthless indictment of the collapse of  post-Fascist idealism that had been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.  

The example of Italian film, albeit of another era continues to be an inspiration, undiluted by the passage of time and differences in narrative style. What the Italian tradition illustrates so aptly is that filimg a story rooted in the world for what it is, can transcend  its moment of creation and perhaps even bring us closer to the kind of world we can live in. Examples abound. De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) and the famous Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) 1948 are but a further two films which demand from the viewer an engagement with the world, in a time in which we are all too easily prone to indifference and facile solutions.