In our column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. In this instalment, Brad Mariano looks at the lesser-known 1954 Vittorio de Sica film, The Gold of Naples (L’Oro di Napoli).
Date Watched: 21th January, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 47
Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel in many ways solidified the fact that the quirky auteur was entering a rarefied air of success for contemporary directors – it was the first of his film to gross more than $100 million, garnered 9 Academy Award nominations and yet still managed to satisfy his large fanbase. He’s also one of the few directors who can launch a thousand blog pages and news sites just with passing remarks musing upon future projects; with any news or hints being devoured by his passionate fans and casual moviegoers alike. And as such, it was with some confusion back in November last year when it was widely reported that at the Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival, Anderson revealed that his next project may just take cues from a film he chose and presented to the festival audience – Vittorio de Sica’s The Gold of Naples, one that even most hardened cinephiles weren’t familiar with. An interesting choice for many reasons, not least because Anderson himself admitted that the film – rarely cited as one of De Sica’s most known films – was one he only watched for the first time a few weeks earlier.
The film is definitely underseen, and on its Letterboxd page, a substantial proportion of the reviews were from the screenings Anderson presented themselves. On a personal level, Anderson’s endorsement wasn’t the only reason that made me dig out the internet equivalent of a shovel and torch and go hunting for it – it’s also a film that is considerably more popular on De Sica’s home soil. Unlike a more Western-orientated view of the canon that (rightly) champions De Sica’s early neorealist films such as Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, De Sica’s later films were also popular and renowned in Italy, including his commedie with Sophia Loren/Marcello Mastroianni Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Marriage, Italian Style and more prestigious dramas Two Women and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and this peculiar project, The Gold of Naples (L’Oro di Napoli), all but unknown in the English-speaking world, but cited as one of the most significant films in the Italian national cinema.1 Combined with the other talent involved – written by the influential Italian screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who wrote most of De Sica’s successful films, as well as being instrumental as the steadying hand in the entire genre of Italian anthology films – as well as De Sica favourite Sophia Loren and Pasolini muse Silvana Mangano, my interest was piqued. 2
In fact, it is often cited as a hugely influential film in the history of Italian cinema, being the film to popularise the Italian “anthology” format – films made up of segments of unrelated characters and stories, with an overarching theme tying them all together. This approach had been used in the Italian cinema earlier to great effect by fellow Neorealist Roberto Rossellini in the war film Paisan and the Anna Magnani double-header L’Amore, but this marked the format entering the popular cinema, which would become a staple template for many films going forward, with films varying as wide as personal auteur projects (Pietro Germi’s The Birds, The Bees and the Italians, Pasolini’s The Trilogy of Life films and really, later Fellini tableaux efforts like Roma) as well as the explosion of multi-auteur films that would dominate the Italian film landscape over the 1950s and 60s such as Caprice, Italian Style, RoGoPaG, Le Streghe, Boccaccio ’70, Amore e Rabbia, Le Bambole and dozens more. It also sets the two rules just about every anthology film would follow – a story about cuckoldry was mandatory, as was the inescapable presence of Toto, the legendary comedic actor who appeared in over 100 films between 1937 and 1967, whose performances ranged from risible to genius depending on the quality of the material he had in front of him.
As the title suggests, the overarching element is Naples, the city De Sica had grown up in and held in deep admiration (it’s easy to see the attraction Anderson had to this material, with his recurring themes of belonging and home, and devotion to place in his films). The titular (and metaphorical) ‘gold’ is spelt out in the preamble – ‘the love for life, the patience and the never-ending lust for life of the people of Naples’ which we will see over the six stories. Already, the film has set itself up as one of the most satisfying of these anthology films. Many vary wildly in not just quality, but tone and feeling, weakening many of the films ostensibly exploring ‘themes’ (usually male directors looking at the perceived allure and mysteries of women); here that is precisely the point, in seeking to portray the tapestry of life that a city has, the fact that comedy and tragedy sit side by side in these feels perfectly appropriate. These stories are mostly by-the-numbers, but handsomely shot and well performed; but as hinted at earlier, tales of unfaithful wives hiding their affairs from their husbands, as well as small-town men under the thumb of local Mafiosi are well tread Italian stories (though humourous in how they play out), and there are joyful scenes such as a wealthy gambler (played by director De Sica himself – it’s often overlooked that in Italy De Sica is probably known even more as a legendary figure in front of the screen as behind it) losing continually to a lucky child, all with a distinct bittersweet tone underneath it.
The shortest and perhaps most affecting of all the tales is the centrepiece, where an unseen child has died and his/her coffin is taken on a procession through the streets of Naples. It’s genuinely very moving and establishes the sense of community, of collective loss and grief, the relationships of strangers – we don’t see them, but we have no doubt the characters from the other stories are somewhere watching on – and like the other grim tale of Mangano marrying a rich suitor, the unseen presence of the townspeople at large is crucial to any of these stories. The notions of sympathy for, resentment towards, friendships with, and performance for the community at large is at the forefront of these stories, of individuals inextricable from the wider city. The city of Naples itself, photographed at night and day, in alleys and streets, in mansions and hovels and on land and from sea, emerges as not just a backdrop but a character itself as the common thread through all these tales. And a beautiful one it is – my only visit to Naples was unfortunately marred by being in the middle of a particularly bad flare-up of the ongoing garbage disputes that has plagued the region in recent years, so having never seen the Naples people talk about, this film made me finally give the legendary city the benefit of the doubt. It’s a really nice little film, testament to De Sica’s versatility and the wealth of strong films made in Italy in these decades.
How will this effect the next Wes Anderson film? Probably superficially only; he cited the anthology format as an interesting format to experiment with (he also said he may revert to animation, like his earlier film Fantastic Mr Fox), and considering the wealth of acting talent he routinely attracts for his films such a movie could be successful, perhaps centred around a city of choice. More interesting for me is the cine-literacy and adventurousness of these directors – alongside cinephiles like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, their contribution to cinema isn’t contained to their own films, but also the forgotten corners of film history that they help dust the cobwebs off of, continually inspiring others to uncover the vast hidden treasure – or dare I say it, ‘Gold’ – underneath.