Sex sensation of 1949: Silvana Mangano makes "Bitter Rice" a little sweeter.

10 Reasons to See "Cinema Piemonte"

Staff February 29, 2008

This weekend the Associazone Piemontesi of Northern California, in association with the Italian Cultural Institute and Regione Piemonte, is presenting “Cinema Piemonte,” a brief survey of movies made in that beautiful area of the mother country. The four films run the gamut, from comedy to melodrama to spectacle to agitprop. They also span a whoppin’ nine decades of cinematic history. Admission is free to all programs. Beyond that obvious lure, here are further reasons to attend:

1. Know (and Taste) Your Italian Regions

There are 20. You think we’re divided by Red/Blue, North/South, East Coast/West Coast, city/country et al.? We’ve got nuthin’ on Italy, where competitive regional pride is an even bigger national pastime than soccer.

Save tiny Aosta Valley, Piemonte is the country’s northwesternmost region. It’s a prime agricultural area heavy on wine and grain production. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s at least a little vino e pane (wine and bread) to sample at the reception that follows each screening.

What most-relevant wisdom can 3,000 years of Italian culture offer us today? How to eat and drink really well without getting fat come un Americano tipico. (You figure it out.) Seek out attending natives for on-the-spot tips!

2. Arrivederci Roma

Before Rome (and Hollywood) stole its thunder, Piemonte capital Turin was the Italian film industry’s center—perhaps even the world’s. Until around 1914, the year in which…..

3. Birth of a Nation—feh!

Closing the weekend in a restored print, with composer Stefano Maccagno accompanying live on the piano, are all three hours of Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria. This mammoth ancient-Rome spectacle set climaxed a series of Turin-shot historical epics that from 1908 onward grew ever-larger in scale and length. It cost over a million dollars (imagine that in 1914 lira terms), taking nearly two years to film; famous poet Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote the florid intertitles. Technically innovative (particularly in terms of dolly shots), Cabiria and its predecessors made a huge impression on D.W. Griffith (Birth came out a year later), Cecil B. DeMille and others whose subsequent spectaculars got a whole lot more credit in the long run.

4. Hercules Unleashed

The original movie muscleman was Bartholomeo Pagano, a powerfully built 6-foot longshoreman chosen to play Cabiria’s Maciste, loyal slave to a Roman nobleman. The character was such a hit that he fast got a vehicle all his own—the first of thirty Pagano made over the next decade-plus.

When “sword & sandal” movies enjoyed a 1950s revival, their hero was often called Maciste in Italy, Hercules elsewhere. Thus you could say Cabiria started a tradition that encompassed everyone from ex-Mr. Universe Steve Reeves and ex-Tarzan Gordon Scott to Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno and The Governator, all of whom played later incarnations of the role.

5. Meet the Sex Sensation of 1949!

Though she was third-billed under Vittorio Gassman and Doris Dowling (a Detroit-born actress whose career briefly detoured to Italy), Silvana Mangano made Bitter Rice an international sensation. Or rather, it was those amply bared thighs…that tightly cinched sweater…that brazen come-on ‘tude The Oscar-nominated script’s racy mix of neorealist and noir melodrama elements didn’t hurt either, nor director Giuseppe De Santis’ vividly atmospheric, impressively scaled production.

Just 19 years old at the time yet projecting bold sexual magnetism, Mangano was the first of many post-war Italian bombshells, soon superseded by Sophia Loren and Gina Lollabridgida. Not that she seemed to care, by then having wed Bitter Rice producer Dino de Laurentiis. a marriage that lasted until her 1989 death.

In later years the former beauty queen and reluctant sex symbol took a loftier career turn, appearing in movies by Pasolini, Visconti, Nikita Mikhalkov, even David Lynch (Dune). She finally retired…to weave tapestries. But for men of a certain age she will always be the smokin’-hot bad (but not all bad) girl ankle-deep in paddies full o’ trouble.

No doubt a fair amount of female viewers also felt their hearts throb over swarthy co-star Raf Vallone, whose very first screen turn as a virtuous Army man attracted to both Dowling and Mangano can still raise a hearty “Woof!”

6. Marcello Mastroianni

What more reason do you need? The late thespian was simply one of the finest screen presences—as both movie actor and “star”—ever, in any country. Released the same year (1963) as his signature roles in Fellini’s 8 1/2 and DeSica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow was “Cinema Piemonte” revival I Compagni (The Organizer). Low-key by comparison but intense, Mario Monicelli’s film cast him as a professor agitating for improved textile-worker conditions in turn-of-the-century Torino.

It too (like Bitter Rice) was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar, yet has become a bit forgotten in recent years. The cinematographer was frequent Fellini collaborator Giuseppe Rotunno, who also worked with everyone from Visconti, John Huston and Bob Fosse to Terry Gilliam and Dario Argento.

7. Murderer & Murderee…Together Again!

In Visconti’s 1960 masterpiece Rocco and His Brother, Renato Salvatore played the emotionally and otherwise hamfisted sibling who fell for good-time-girl Annie Girardot. When he couldn’t have her anymore (because she’d fallen for his sensitive brother, Alain Delon’s Rocco), he killed her in one of the most horrifically brutal scenes shot before the late-60s collapse of sex/violence censorship. In real life, however, the burly Italian actor (who died in 1988) and still-working French actress had a lengthy marriage. “Rocco* was the first, I Compagni the fourth of six films in which they appeared together.

8. Shameless acts are always appreciated

The weekend’s opening feature, but its last chronologically speaking, is 2003’s Dopo Mezzanotte. It is described as an eccentric romantic comedy involving a thief, a fugitive, and a night watchman. The latter works at the Mole Antonelliana—a purportedly gorgeous 19th-century Turin building that houses the National Museum of Cinema. Thus director David Ferrario’s calling the film itself “a shameless act of love for cinema.” Word on this one is that it’s like Cinema Paradisio minus the excess sentimentality. Which sounds like catnip, if you know what I mean.

9. If the movie’s boring, watch the audience.

A recent trip to Italy by your intrepid reporter revealed that not only does the genetically-lucky race remain inordinately attractive (at least those under 40), they have started going to the gym. Which is akin to putting chocolate flakes on the cherry on the whipped cream atop the gelato cone. Like Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice, many Italians are now just too sexy. Ease up there, popolo! You’re making the rest of us look bad!

10. Ticket price

Niente. Zero. Ixnay. All free. You might want to show up early, though. Fort Mason’s Cowell is a big theatre, but capacity isn’t infinite.