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Palimpsest versus pastiche: revisiting neo-realism in the 1990s.

In Italian cinema of the past three decades, there has been no dearth of references to neo-realism. Nicola's life is ruined when he gives the wrong answer to a question about Bicycle Thief on the quiz show sequence of Scola's We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974). American GI's offer a Hershey bar and an inflated condom to two little Italian girls in a sly allusion to Paisan midway through the Tavianis' Night of the Shooting Stars (1982). Footage from the introduction to La terra trema, complete with written intertitles whose meaning escapes its illiterate Sicilian audiences, is featured in Tornatore's Cinema paradiso (1988). Amidst this catalogue of fragmentary and fleeting citations, however, two films stand out for their sustained and total reliance on neo-realist sources. I refer here to Maurizio Nichetti's Icicle Thief, whose very title announces its parodic relationship to Vittorio De Sica's 1948 classic, and Carlo Lizzani's Celluloide, which tells the story behind the filming of Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945). (1) Though these two revisitations could not be more different in terms of genre, setting, and technique, they share a common yearning for the neo-real in this derivative age of posts: post-structuralist, post-colonial, post-communist, post-masculine, the newly coined post-cultural, and most importantly for us, postmodern. The question that immediately arises is: why this persistence of filmographic memory? Why is neo-realism being re-proposed with such intensity and urgency in the 1990s? Is this merely another example of postmodern recycling of the past as style (in Frederic Jameson's terms), or is something more intrinsic to the history of Italian cinema playing itself out in this renewed engagement with the 1940s works of Rossellini, Visconti, and De Sica?

In an attempt to answer these questions, and to explore the tensions and contradictions that beset Italian filmmakers as the medium enters its second century of life, I will undertake a comparative study of the extremely diverse ways in which Lizzani and Nichetti go about recycling the neo-realist past. I will argue that Nichetti's re-visitation may be characterized as pastiche: a borrowing of prior texts or aesthetic conventions in a way that is heedless of their original cultural context and empties them of their historicity. Lizzani's film, on the other hand, may be labeled a palimpsest, "a parchment on which the first writing has been scratched out in order to inscribe on it another, but where this operation has not irretrievably erased the earlier text, so that one can read the predecessor under the new, as if by transparency." (2) Ultimately, though, I will claim that the palimpsest/pastiche dichotomy breaks down as Nichetti reasserts the cultural distance between filmic source and contemporary revisitation through the device of parody, "repetition with critical distance, which marks difference rather than similarity," in Linda Hutcheon's suggestive formulation (Hutcheon 6). And finally I will conclude that Italian cinematic culture--especially when confronted with the medium of TV--is so layered and historicized as to be inherently resistant to the extremes of postmodern practice.

Nichetti and Lizzani recycle the past differently for a number of reasons, the most important of which is generational. For Nichetti, born in 1948 (the year of Bicycle Thief's release!) neo-realism is no longer the father with whom Pasolini and Bertolucci were locked in Oedipal combat, but the benign grandfather to whom the younger director can turn without anxiety. Lizzani, on the other hand, is the grandfather. He lived through the neo-realist period with great intensity and engagement as one of the writers for the journal Cinema, (commonly considered the intellectual precursor of neo-realism), and as assistant to Giuseppe De Santis on such landmark works as Bitter Rice, before becoming a distinguished director in his own right and compiler of one of Italy's most celebrated volumes of film history. (3)

More important than the generational differences, however, are the geopolitical ones that divide Nichetti from Lizzani. While Celluloide remains firmly rooted in the soil of the eternal city, Icicle Thief is conspicuously relocated from the Roman streets of De Sica's original, to the high-tech airwaves over Milan. Nichetti announces this geographic shift by changing the protagonist's name from Antonio Ricci to the decidedly Milanese Antonio Piermattei. But the Lombardization of the story has more to it than glottal stops and verbal segmentation, just as Rome and Milan are far more than mere geographic indicators. They are cultural signs, synecdochal markers for the deep conflicts that divide the Italian map between the modernized, affluent, industrial, European North, and the traditional, poor, bureaucratic-agrarian, Mediterranean South. To relocate his story from Rome to Milan is thus to recodify all its cultural designators, to stretch to the straining point the distance between the neo-realist model and contemporary re-visitation, and to build failure into any hope for its adequate reception.

But by far the strongest argument for the palimpsest vs. pastiche approach to neo-realism emerges from a comparative study of the films themselves, and the relative degrees of depth or flatness that each director confers upon his borrowed images. Because of the difficulty in gaining access to the film (which has not yet been released in the U.S), a plot summary is in order.

It is 1945, Rome has recently been liberated, and Roberto Rossellini joins forces with a scriptwriter, Sergio Amidei, to make a film about the courage and suffering of Romans under the recent Nazi occupation. They face every imaginable obstacle to the realization of their project: a war-torn economy, reluctant producers, lack of raw materials (celluloid was especially scarce), and a film industry wedded to the aesthetics of escape. In one of the many serendipities that mark the birth of Open City, an American soldier named Rod Geiger discovers that Rossellini has tapped into the power supply used to illuminate the GI dance hall next door to his studio. When it dawns on Geiger that he has stumbled onto a film shoot, his anger gives way to delight and he gallantly offers to distribute the finished product in America. After a number of similar picaresque turns of events, Rossellini and Amidei succeed in completing their project. The film is a flop in Italy, but Geiger remains true to his word: Open City runs for twenty-one consecutive months in a New York theater to great critical and public acclaim, and the rest is cinema history.

Lizzani announces his palimpsest approach right from the very start of Celluloide. In its opening frames, actors primp in the make-up rooms of Cinecitta (Rome's vast film studio complex) as they study photographs of the characters whose identities they are to portray. Lizzani then cuts to 1990's reenactments of the American liberation of Cinecitta, shot in color, alternating with documentary footage of the historical event. To complicate and multiply layers, Lizzani's newsreel clips in black and white become colorized, so that they stand mid-way between the original documentary images and the contemporary recreation of the story that will comprise the rest of the film.

This embedding of discourses, this insistence on the thickness and "underneathness" of his film is mimetic. In layering his images, Lizzani is reflecting the palimpsest nature of Rome itself, with its piling up of civilizations--from the ancient, to the paleo-Christian, to the medieval, to the Baroque, to the Fascist--one on top of another, regardless of their incongruities. In so doing, Lizzani's film participates in a long and venerable tradition of artifacts which "have as many layers as the eternal city, and almost comprise a genre of their own" (Jewell 25). Imitating the palimpsest nature of his urban setting both as object of representation and as representational process, Lizzani's film creates a second-level archaeology--an archeology of the celluloid image, which leads us back to prior visualizations of the WWII history of Rome on film.

By insisting on an external referent to which his film invariably points, Lizzani is of course recapitulating Rossellini's own achievement in Open City. Again and again, Celluloide tells us that what made Open City such a ground-breaking and risky operation was its courage to refer, to record the very events that Romans had just experienced during the Nazi occupation. "You want to innovate," responds Peppino Amato when approached to finance the production. "A film of cold, hard facts, no optimistic sentimentality. If you want to risk, risk. But count me out." The romantic Countess Polito, more open to Rossellini's seductive sales pitch, nonetheless responds "we'll be frightened all over again" when informed of the recentness and rawness of the historical events that the film will chronicle. But it is just this documentary impulse which constitutes the "modernity" of Open City in the eyes of its makers, distinguishing it from the consolatory, escapist offerings of mainstream cinema. "I'm preparing a film about Rome under Nazi occupation," Rossellini explains to two potential supporters. "Amato wants to forget the past. He wants the usual, he flattens, he sweetens. He's not modern."

The modernity of Rossellini, then, is his opposition to the cinema's habitual forgetfulness, his resistance to its flattening and sweetening operations. In addressing the actor Aldo Fabrizi's hesitations about leaving the vaudeville stage and accepting the tragic role of Don Pietro, the scriptwriter Amidei reiterates the revolutionary aspect of a cinema of historical witness. "People have cried too much," Fabrizi had objected. "I don't see myself in a dramatic role." "Courage is trying new things," Amidei had replied. What the actor is invited to do on the level of individual performance reflects, in miniature, what the cinema itself is attempting to do in the broadest, generic terms: abandon the escapist comedies and sentimental melodramas of the Fascist period and testify to the convulsive history of the recent past. When Peppino Amato is lured back into financing Open City on the condition that its tears be alleviated by intermittent laughter and gags, it is the mathematics of death which definitively drives him away. The insistence that three of its main characters die is more tragedy than the producer can accept, and when he tries to bargain the authors down one death (sparing the priest), Amidei will not tolerate this assault on their film's "modernity."

Open City's documentary impulse is not limited to body counts and the general contours of Roman suffering under the Nazis. Personalities and anecdotes are drawn from the historical record: Don Pietro is a composite of two partisan priests, Don Pappagallo, who connived to save Jews and Communists from the Gestapo, and Don Morosini who was executed for his Resistance activities. Manfredi combines the attributes of Celeste Negarville and Giorgio Amendola, both anti-Fascist organizers who had frequented the household of Amidei. Pina's death is based on the tragedy of Teresa Gullace, a pregnant woman who was machine-gunned by the Nazis as she ran after her husband, captured during a partisan roundup. Manfredi's rooftop flight at the start of Open City re-enacts Amidei's real-life escape from a Gestapo sting operation against leaders of the Roman underground.

It is with the scriptwriter's own experience of Nazi persecution that Lizzani's film begins, creating a five-tiered structure of narration. As Amidei typewrites his text on the screen ("there was a full moon that night ..."), words fade away and images take their place in a black and white enactment of the episode. These visualized words, followed by their imagistic counterparts, comprise the first two levels of representation. A third layer is added in the film's narrative present when Amidei guides Rossellini through the incident on the very rooftop where it had occurred. At a fourth remove from the actual event, Rossellini "rewrites" the scene in conversation with Amidei, both tightening and purging it of cliches: no dark-cloaked Gestapo agents (too redolent of spy movies), no full moon, no pittosporum bush. Rossellini's revised version is then represented on screen in black-and-white, adding a fifth and final stratum to the palimpsest.

What authenticates this archaeology of the image, and what rescues Lizzani's film from any charges of postmodern simulation, is the strategy of editing into Celluloide brief clips from Open City itself. Lizzani does this seven times during the course of his film, but the flashes are so brief as to allow for no nostalgic lingering, no bitter reflection on the impossibility of ever recapturing the authenticity of the original. Instead, these flashes serve to verify the film's quest on the level of philology, to prove that there is indeed a referent to which Celluloide points. These clips from the original film serve as the gold standard that guarantees the linguistic coinage of Lizzani's work, the external referent that exempts the film from the infinite play of signifiers of postmodern citation. Walter Benjamin's lament for the loss of "aura" in the age of mechanical reproduction finds its counterargument in Celluloide, which exploits the mechanical reproduceability of film to recapture the Rossellinian source. Thanks to celluloid--the material basis of the medium that permits cutting, splicing, and all the operations of montage--Lizzani is physically able to incorporate Open City into his filmic reconstruction.

In post-structuralist terms what I am saying is entirely heretical, and I can already anticipate the reader's objections. There is the argument that Celluloide's referent is itself a text, a signifier meaningful only in relation to its place on the chain of other filmic signs. But I would refute this position on empirical grounds, on the basis of my "field work" in Rome during the summer of 1996 where I learned (from interviewing Lizzani and reading the "text" of the urban landscape) that Open City had come to transcend its status as a filmic representation of liberation history, and has come to be equated with that history itself. In a conversation with Lizzani, I was surprised to hear him condemn the contemporary practice of meta-cinema, of films about filmmaking, until I realized that Open City had become for the director a primary datum, an "extramural" fact on the order of a workers' strike, a military campaign, or a parliamentary election. As cultural icon, the film, by synecdoche, had come to stand for its historical moment: it functioned as the part for the whole, the detail whose mere invocation was enough to conjure up an entire era. To make a film about the making of Open City, therefore, was not to indulge in postmodern self-reference, but to engage in a philological reconstruction whose closest equivalent in literature would be the historical novel.

Another of my experiences "in the field" enabled me to generalize on what I learned from the interview with Lizzani. On the fifty-second anniversary of the Allied Liberation of Rome, the city was plastered with posters, sponsored by the Rifondazione Comunista--a spin-off of the now defunct Partito Comunista Italiano--publicizing the Festival of Liberation to be held that summer. The poster was entitled "Roma Citta Aperta," and taking advantage of the post-positioned adjective, it continued: "al lavoro, alla partecipazione, alla speranza," and it featured what I am convinced is a photo-portrait of Anna Magnani delivering a public address. The poster equates Rossellini's film with historical memory: it is the mediating term between the 1944 Liberation of Rome and the appeal for its contemporary renewal. By using Open City as a rallying cry and a call to arms in 1996, the poster testifies to the perceived equivalence of the historical event and its neo-realist representation. It is this convergence of film history and national chronicle that makes Open City the first-level writing of Lizzani's palimpsest, the stable object at the bottom of his archaeological dig.

Nichetti instead is working with the most unstable of objects--a "neorealoid" film vulnerable to the pastiche effects of TV. Icicle Thief, starring Nichetti himself as a latter-day neo-realist director, is organized on three levels: the inner film (also entitled Icicle Thief, and which I will henceforth simply call the "inner film") to be aired on TV; the television studio in which the broadcast is taking place; and the typical viewing family consisting of a father, mother, and 2.2 children, ensconced in their living-room for an evening's entertainment. The inner film, inspired by De Sica's 1948 saga of the unemployed Antonio Ricci whose bicycle is stolen on his first day at work, tells the tale of Antonio Piermattei, similarly unemployed, who "borrows" a chandelier at the end of his first day at a light-fixture factory. In the film's original form, Antonio was to be paralyzed when run over by a truck on his way home, forcing Maria his wife into prostitution to support the family, and the children to be consigned to an orphanage at the story's melodramatic conclusion. But this plot never even makes it to first base. As Antonio is bicycling home along a riverbank with the chandelier perched ludicrously on his handlebars, there occurs a commercial interruption in which a tall, blond, Nordic model named Heidi plunges into the very blue waters of a swimming pool. In mid-dive, an electrical failure blackens the broadcast studio for several minutes. When power is restored on set, the transmission of Icicle Thief resumes, but now the technicolor Heidi emerges from the black-and-white waters of the neo-realist river and is de-colorized when Antonio wipes her dry. (4) Heidi proceeds to change places with Maria, who joyfully enters the world of TV commercials, starting a process of contamination and seduction from which Nichetti's film will never recover.

Because Nichetti did not opt to include actual footage from De Sica's original, but chose instead to make his own version of the neo-realist work, his character's film exists as a mere potentiality--a virtual movie rendered unstable by its own indigenous defects as well as by its televisual mutilation. For one thing, the inner film is a pastiche of platitudes drawn not only from Bicycle Thief, but from Open City, Umberto D, Nights of Cabiria, and even the biographical record of Rossellini's affair with Ingrid Bergman, making Icicle Thief a neo-realist potpourri, a filmographic Trivia game, an exercise in "name that allusion." Obviously, the references to Bicycle Thief are the dominant ones, but they are without logic or system, revealing no profound critical engagement with the precursor text. In a totally gratuitous scene, for example, a bicycle is indeed stolen, but it is not Antonio's, and has no relation to the themes of economic necessity or to underclass self-victimization which distinguished De Sica's original. Antonio orders an omelet sandwich for his first day at work, but it is not replicated in the smaller omelet given to Bruno in the poignant father-son lunch-pocketing scene of Bicycle Thief. Bruno works at a gas pump, like his neo-realist counterpart, and he polishes the pedal of his father's bike, but not to point out the tiny dent which prefigures the far greater tragedy of the vehicle's disappearance in Bicycle Thief.

This undigested, pastiche quality is not the only explanation for Icicle Thief's instability, however. In its litany of disasters, in its failure to link its protagonists to a concrete social environment which would condition their fate, in its refusal to offer even the glimmer of hope for renewal that animates such films as Open City, Bicycle Thief, and La terra trema, Nichetti's film falls into the category of what French critics called "Roman miserablism" (Borde and Bouissey 18-33). By this term they meant films which appropriated the outer trappings of neo-realism--indigent characters, slummy settings, tragic plots--without acknowledging the deeply progressive vision which underlies its indictment of social ills. Taking "miserablism" as my point of departure, I would argue that Icicle Thief would not be a re-visitation of neo-realism at all, but a resurrection of one of its two degraded offshoots (the other being "rosy realism", which borrows the external apparatus of the neo-realists, with the addition of a guilt-alleviating happy ending: "Poor yes, but with a smile and a song").

From the very start of Icicle Thief, Nichetti leaves no doubt as to his "miserablist" take on neo-realism. Whereas Antonio Ricci learns that he has been offered a position as a poster hanger in the opening scene of Bicycle Thief, Antonio Piermattei at the beginning of Icicle Thief learned that no jobs remain to be assigned and that he had the dubious honor of being first on the rejection list. Condemned to the unremitting dreariness of their miserablist film, Nichetti's characters are naturally driven to rebel. Bruno refuses to go to the orphanage and Maria is ecstatic in consumer heaven, unwilling to return to her neo-realist tenement until the director coaxes her back with promises of unlimited access to material goods. As shopping-cart after shopping-cart of corn flakes, pastasciutta, champagne, and tennis rackets is crowded into the narrow confines of the Piermattei kitchen at the film's conclusion, Maria and Antonio exchange a passionate embrace of "consumer arousal," (5) much to the appreciative tears of the television-viewing wife, who obviously misses such attentions from her husband.

Nichetti's misunderstanding of neo-realist plot structure results in an equally flawed conception of character. Unlike the long-suffering, but relatively undeveloped wife of Bicycle Thief, Nichetti's Maria has aspirations that totally disqualify her from neo-realist narrative: she wants to sing and dance on stage and be a middle-class housewife. As out-of-place as she is in a neo-realist context, however, Maria makes the perfect heroine for rosy realism. Her petty-bourgeois ambitions are summed up in the image of the chandelier that she invokes in rapt anticipation of the paycheck that Antonio will finally bring home. "Now we can afford a chandelier, like the one I saw once at the movies. It was so beautiful. It had eight light bulbs, glass flowers and leaves, all shimmering. When they turned it on, it lit up the walls. I always dreamed of a chandelier. Even in bomb shelters, during the war, I thought when the war is over, I'd have a beautiful house with a big room and chandelier like one in the movies." This elaborately worked out image of a light-fixture, each facet of which acts like a mini-projector capable of bending and scattering beams to create a multi-colored illusion of plenitude, makes the chandelier a perfect metaphor for the cinema. Significantly, Maria links the light fixture with her own dreams for social improvement, dreams that undeniably redound to their source in Hollywood-inspired fantasies of glamour and wealth. Antonio's theft of the chandelier on his first day of work at the Lux factory indicates his desire instantly to fulfill Maria's consumer longings, to be her economic hero who alleviates her hardships with one magic gesture of appropriation. For the brief time during which he ecstatically carries the chandelier on his bicycle, it is as if he were in possession of pure cinema, share-holder in the "factory of dreams" that the Hollywood industry had come to signify. But Antonio's moment of grace is short-lived--once he sets down his bike to rescue the drowning Heidi, intruder from the world of commercial TV, the chandelier disappears, and with it the myth of pure cinema eludes his grasp. (6)

If Maria's fantasies of affluence and glamour are cinematically induced, it is appropriate that her son's be inspired by the consumerist incentives of the newer medium. As the family sits down to a meager dinner of boiled potatoes, it seems that Bruno has suffered some form of toxic exposure to the commercial that had aired just minutes before. Looking out of the TV monitor into the living room where the middle-class child of the 1980's family munches distractedly on his Big-Big candy bar, Bruno then turns to his 1948 subsistence family and sings the jingle of the candy-bar commercial that had just interrupted the transmission of their film. But Bruno's receptivity to the Big-Big message is only a minor intimation of what is to come: commercials will wreak havoc on the integrity of the inner film, changing not only its narrative structure, but its generic identity in momentous ways. When Heidi enters, causing a distraught Maria to "commit suicide" to the world of the inner film, Nichetti's script evolves from neo-realist melodrama to murder mystery. On the riverbank where Maria was last seen, hypotheses abound. Don Italo the parish priest speculates that Antonio was involved in the black market, and probably tried to push Maria into prostitution, murdering her because she refused to comply. Antonio's subsequent eagerness to get back to the tenement where the scantily clad Heidi awaits him moves the story-line in the direction of sexually explicit scenarios. By the time it reaches closure, this unstable and infinitely elastic plot has traversed a remarkable generic spectrum, from its miserablist beginnings to murder mystery and soft-core pornography, to its rosy realist conclusion.

These multiple metamorphoses are prefigured and encapsulated in Nichetti's very title, whose English translation, while wittily recalling Bicycle Thief, does not do justice to its generic journey. In the Italian title Ladri di saponette (literally Thieves of Soap Bars), Nichetti marks the terminal points of this itinerary, beginning with neo-realist homage and ending with the bourgeois wish-fulfillment fantasy of detergent commercials. But the synthetic leap of the title also says something about viewer reception of films broadcast on TV. "A person who watches TV for a few hours and goes to bed," Nichetti observes, "doesn't remember if a face is from a film, a commercial, or the news" (qtd. in Insdorf). To blend in his title elements from the inner Icicle Thief and from the soap commercials that punctuate it is to proclaim from the very start Nichetti's awareness that in viewers' minds, his televised film will be perceived as pastiche. Though the father confidently announces his knowledge of the distinction between the perceptual codes proper to film and to TV ads ("if it's in color it's a commercial, if it's in black and white it's a film"), Nichetti's work systematically undermines such cognitive certainties by showing that the boundaries between the two are much more porous than the viewing father's statement would suggest.

In subjecting the inner film to such wild and destabilizing interferences, Nichetti is taking to absurd extremes the anxieties that plague directors who show their films on television, "because a movie on TV becomes TV," he explains, "a different form of attention, with commercials interrupting." (7) The fear that the film's reception will be tainted by commercial interference is taken to hyperbolic lengths when its very plot is derailed by advertisements and its generic identity modified beyond recognition. To reinforce his point, Nichetti devises a sexual conceit for televisual assaults on his film's purity, taking his cue from his characters' own confusion of amorous and consumerist drives. When Maria supposes that her husband has been unfaithful to her, the betrayed wife constructs an allegory for what is happening across media: the inner film is having an affair with a commercial. Adultery on the level of story has become adulteration on the level of form. The resultant mixture of neorealist and advertising images is a wanton commingling of electronic signals, a transgressive crossing of boundaries, a miscegenation of frequencies and codes. And the scandal inscribed in the inner film, when Maria disappears to neo-realism and is presumed murdered, is really the formal scandal of hitherto separate media that consort in promiscuous union over the airwaves of Milan.

How does the family of middle class spectators react to the scandal? With great equanimity and calm. The father, a connoisseur of female nudity, is titillated but not unnerved to see Heidi in the neo-realist tenement. The pregnant mother, who is constantly distracted by household demands from without and fetal movements from within, is totally satisfied by the rosy realist turn of events. The son Francesco, who has been busily constructing Saint Basil's Cathedral out of Lego blocks as he consumes his ration of Big-Big, has fallen asleep. But the most up-to-date viewing habits are exhibited by the youngest family member, Anna, who channel-surfs. In her restless switching from program to program, she is the quintessential postmodern viewer, just as TV becomes the quintessential medium of pastiche. Channel-surfing is her show: with the power vested in Anna by the remote control, the child creates her own entertainment, editing the flow of images, determining their rhythm and shape. (8) Like her brother, who builds a giant structure out of tiny blocks, (9) Anna constructs her reality out of the little bits and pieces of programming that succeed each other on screen as her fingers race over the control buttons at her command. Unlike the mother, who wants to immerse herself in one sustained melodrama for the time between dinner and bed, Anna reads television transversally, cutting across all the offerings at a given moment. In her show, meaning inheres in this oceanic flux of images, in their kaleidoscopic change, in the horizontal relationships of random juxtaposition determined by the whim of broadcast frequencies. With her consciousness full of TV bites--paratactically ordered fragments of television programming--Anna is Italy's future, as is her unborn sibling, whose fetal movements are already attuned to his mother's viewing habits ("he always kicks when I sit down to watch a show"). (10)

But to consign Nichetti's outer film to the realm of postmodern pastiche is to perform the same flattening operation that television itself visits upon the inner Icicle Thief. To do so would be to deny that there are two Nichettis, just as there are two Icicle Thieves and that the second Nichetti is the implied author of all levels of the film, whose use of parody restores the depth and historicity that televisual pastiche had denied him. I am interpreting parody in the sense that Linda Hutcheon does--as "repetition with critical distance, which marks difference rather than similarity" (Hutcheon 6)--in clear opposition to pastiche, which works to de-historicize the source and erase our perception of contrast. But because Icicle Thief is organized on multiple levels, Nichetti is able to put pastiche to the service of parody, to use TV's flattening operation, its wholesale borrowing and mixing of elements heedless of their original context, to heighten our awareness of what is lost. By including a naive viewing audience and an inept director within the film, Nichetti creates more liberated critical positions for himself as implied author, and for us, his external public. Privy to the behind-the-scenes adulteration of the film and aware of the distance between its original conception and its final broadcast form, we experience Icicle Thief as parody, as a re-visitation that highlights the discrepancy between then and now. This differential awareness works both forwards and backwards, inviting us to judge at once the precursor film in its miserablist excesses and 1990s media culture as hopelessly decadent and false. It should be emphasized here that the evaluative force of the parody never strikes at neo-realism itself, which is shielded and protected by the Nichetti character's egregious distortion of it. While watching the neo-realoid film and listening to the plot summary of its multiple catastrophes, we can't help but think "no, he's got it all wrong" in a way which then heightens our indignation at the memory of the original. Despite all the ridicule to which Icicle Thief is subject, Bicycle Thief remains unscathed.

Now we are prepared to reconsider the initial question that motivated this study: why the reverential return to neo-realism in the 1990s? Why do Lizzani and Nichetti feel compelled to re-propose the 1940s cinematic model in an age of postmodern simulation? Nichetti's double-edged use of parody to measure the present against an era of greater authenticity and courage provides one possible answer. But because its parody willfully distorts and misunderstands its neo-realist source, Nichetti's film reveals far more about the present culture's inadequacies than about how it may be renewed by a critical engagement with the past. Lizzani's mono-directional film, which chooses not to represent the present but to fix exclusively on an earlier time, will tell us more about how that past could function today as a force for cultural renewal. In this regard, it is important that Celluloide not be a parody, that it avoid diagnosis or denunciation in favor of constructive historiography. Because its film of origin has achieved the status of primary historical event--one which coincides with the establishment of a new Italian national identity out of the ravages of war and occupation--I propose that Celluloide be considered an exercise in secondary myth-making, "a founding story by a civilization already founded and already sophisticated" in Frank McConnell's terminology (McConnell 75). Like Virgil's Aeneid which recounted the origins of the Roman Empire in a way that justified the political agenda of Augustus, Lizzani's film looks back to the birth of the postwar Italian state and its cinematic vehicle as a plea for their contemporary renewal. By re-proposing neo-realism for the 1990s, Lizzani (and ultimately, Nichetti) are not arguing for a return to the subsistence world of 1945, nor to a practice of primitive, documentary filmmaking, but to a time when cinema was the medium of national reference, when a film could be equated with a foundational historical event. "Forse ci tornera la paura" ("maybe our fear will return"), the countess had said upon hearing the subject matter that Rossellini had in mind for Open City. "E anche un poco di orgoglio" ("and also a modicum of pride") adds one of Rossellini's newly won supporters. That "poco d'orgoglio" made Open City the inaugural chapter in a cinema of national rebirth, creating a filmographic memory that will not go away, and that serves to keep contemporary Italian directors this side of postmodern simulation. In a film culture whose neo-realist past stands as the first-level writing on which all subsequent texts are layered, the palimpsest cannot help but prevail over the postmodern trend toward pastiche.
Appendix

Celluloide 1995

Director: Carlo Lizzani
Screenplay: Ugo Pirro, Furio Scarpelli, Carlo Lizzani
Sets & costumes: Luciano Sagoni
Photography: Giorgio Di Battista
Music: ManuelDe Sica
Film Editing: Alberto Gallitti
Cast: Massimo Ghini as Robert Rossellini
 Giancarlo Giannini as Sergio Amidei
 Lina Sastri asAnna Magnani
 Antonello Fassani as Aldo Fabrizi
 Anna Falchi as Maria Michi
Ladri di saponette (Icicle Thief) 1989
Director: Maurizio Nichetti
Screenplay: Mauro Monti, Maurizio Nichetti
Sets: Ada Legori
Costumes: Maria Pia Angelini
Photography: Mario Battistoni
Music: Manuel De Sica
Film Editing: Rita Rossi, Anna Missoni
Cast: Maurizio Nichetti as Nichetti and Antonio Piermattei
 Caterina Sylos Labini as Maria
 Federico Rizzo as Bruno
 Renato Scarpa as Don Italo
 Heidi Komarek as the model


University of Pennsylvania

Works Cited

Borde, Raymonde and Andre Bouissey. "Le Miserabilisme romain." Le Nouveau Cinema italien. Lyon: Serdoc, 1963. 18-33.

Genette, Gerard. Palimpsestes: La litterature au second degre. Paris: Seuil, 1982.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Insdorf, Annette. "In The Icicle Thief, Parody Turns into Tour de force." The New York Times (19 August 1990): 26H.

Jewell, Keala. The Poeisis of History. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.

Lizzani, Carlo. Il cinema italiano: dalle origini agli anni ottanta. Roma: Riuniti, 1992.

McConnell, Frank. Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images from Film and Literature. New York: Oxford, 1970.

Orto, Nuccio. Maurizio Nichetti: un comico, un autore. Chieti: Metis, 1990.

Seidenberg, Robert. "The Icicle Thief: Maurizio Nichetti Brings His Slapstick to America." American Film 15 (June 1990): 51.

Waller, Marguerite. "Decolonizing the Screen: From Ladri di biciclette to Ladri di saponette." Revisioning Italy: National Identity and Global Culture. Ed. Beverly Allen and Mary Russo. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 253-74.

(1) The credits for Celluloide and Icicle Thief can be found in the appendix to this article.

(2) This is my translation of the blurb on the back cover of Genette.

(3) His book on the Italian cinema, originally published in 1979, is now in its third and expanded edition. Lizzani is also the author of numerous other film critical studies.

(4) These twenty seconds of footage took three months to process. Nichetti had no money for electronic special effects, and had to work on the sequence by hand, frame-by-frame, the way cartoons are done. He printed the sequence first in color, then in black and white, with a hole where Heidi was, and then produced a third composite print with the technicolor woman in her new, black-and-white surroundings. For Nichetti's account of this process, see Orto 65-66.

(5) This is Marguerite Waller's wonderful phrase 268.

(6) I would like to thank my student Bruce Snider (1995) for this insight. As will become evident, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the members of my classes on Italian cinema at the University of Texas over the past several years. In the following annotations, I will try to acknowledge the individual students who made wonderfully astute comments on Icicle Thief and whose reactions became very important to my thinking about the film.

(7) Quoted in Insdorf. For further statements by Nichetti on the subject of commercial interruptions, see Seidenberg.

(8) Waller sees this mode of viewing as an example of "a kind of faux rhizome of discontinuous, narrative and non-narratively based" discourse, where rhizome, in the terminology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, metaphorically signifies a non-hierarchical and therefore non-authoritarian organization of space (264-65).

(9) I am grateful to Aaron Tucker (Italian Cinema class, Fall 1996 at the University of Texas) for this insight, and for the above-mentioned idea that Anna creates her own entertainment by means of channel-surfing.

(10) For this idea, thanks go to Kristin Organ (Italian Cinema class, Fall 1995 at the University of Texas).
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Author:Marcus, Millicent
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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