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Why is American cinema so obsessed with Italy?

As Lady Gaga announced her interest in acquiring the rights to Paola Cortellesi’s C’è Ancora Domani we look back at the US fascination for our cinema.

Paola Cortellesi and Emanuela Fanelli in C'è Ancora Domani (2023).

When in 1963 Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece The Leopard came out in US theatres the audience was faced by a rather misleading poster: the face and name of homeboy Burt Lancaster dominated the design, leaving little to no clue on the actual storyline.

Advertised in the style of some sort of epic cowboy movie, which the Americans would better associate with the figure of Lancaster, rather than with a profound historical drama the film flopped.


Listen to the original CAM Sugar soundtrack of The Leopard by Nino Rota, 1963.

However, it would be unfair to say that Americans never enjoyed or bought into Italian cinema. As a matter of fact, in his recent essay Il Maestro for Harper’s Magazine Martin Scorsese recalled the joy of experiencing European and Italian cinema in New York theatres as a young fella: “The choices made by distributors such as Amos Vogel at Grove Press back in the Sixties were not just acts of generosity but, quite often, of bravery. Dan Talbot, who was an exhibitor and a programmer, started New Yorker Films in order to distribute a film he loved, Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution – not exactly a safe bet. The pictures that came to these shores thanks to the efforts of these and other distributors and curators and exhibitors made for an extraordinary moment. [...] That’s why I go back to those years so often. I feel lucky to have been young and alive and open to all of it as it was happening.”

 A safe bet surely wasn’t Italian actress and comedian Paola Cortellesi’s debut as a director with her C’è Ancora Domani (There’s Still Tomorrow). An ambitious film treating the condition of the woman and the theme of rape amidst World War II which holds resemblances with Ettore Scola’s 1977 classic Una Giornata Particolare (A Special Day). The drama has recently risen to a mind blowing case study, as it turned into an unexpected success, with cinemas still programming it two and counting months after its release. Something rather unusual, everyone could agree, in times of rapid decline for theatres and, especially, if taking into account the unusual artistic choice of shooting it in black and white.

 Lady Gaga already had a go with Italian characters in House of Gucci, 2021.

Lady Gaga already had a go with Italian characters in House of Gucci, 2021.

Making things even more unbelievable for Cortellesi and the whole of Italian cinema is the news that Lady Gaga has voiced her interest in acquiring the rights to the film. The rumour, which is still awaiting confirmation, suggests Germanotta’s will to work on a remake of the film, perhaps following the success of A Star Is Born. The film – another reboot – was just one of the roles Lady Gaga took on in the recent past, the other being Patrizia Reggiani’s in Ridley Scott's House of Gucci (2021), showing her growing appeal for acting as well as Italian stories. 

The story reminds us of another time in which an American diva faced an Italian cinema masterpiece. Guy Ritchie’s 2002 Swept Away in fact saw the participation of her then wife Madonna in the all-time classic role that once belonged to Mariangela Melato in Travolti Da Un Insolito Destino Nell’Azzurro Mare d’Agosto (1974). The film by director and intellectual Lina Wertmüller stood, in a strange twist of fate, as another critical opus on the female condition in Italy albeit sprinkled with abrasive comedy nuances.

Listen to Piero Piccioni's CAM Sugar score for Travolti Da Un Insolito Destino nell'Azzurro Mare d'Agosto (1974).

Despite Ritchie’s remake being far from a commercial success, it framed a momentum for Italian cinematic culture and its global appeal. On the same year Roman Coppola released CQ, a tribute to Italian sci-fi cinema, starring a mix of American icons such as Sofia Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Jeremy Davies and old-school European legends, including Gérard Depardieu and Giancarlo Giannini, the other seminal character in the original Swept Away.

Italian futuristic films like Elio Petri’s 1965 marvel La Decima Vittima (The Tenth Victim), starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, sometimes hit bigger abroad than home, as testified by the fact its ‘Jazz 2000 A.D.’ soundtrack by Piero Piccioni was originally released on LP in the States, but never in Italy.

Around the same time, the Ocean’s 11 franchise – itself a reboot of the original 1960 movie starring the Rat Pack – flirted with Italian culture, especially in its music with syncs by the likes of Piero Umiliani, Ornella Vanoni and even a trippy remix of Le Orme’s obscure psychedelic cut ‘Ad Gloriam’ courtesy of David Holmes.

Impossible to forget is, of course, Quentin Tarantino’s role in keeping alive the Italian cinematic flame in the USA and beyond. Countless are the references and tributes the director paid to the old legends of Cinecittà, whether auteur or B-rated ones. 

The famous Pulp Fiction dance was inspired by the one of Vittorio De Sica and Gina Lollobrigida in Federico Fellini's 8 1/2.

The famous Pulp Fiction dance scene was inspired by the one of Vittorio De Sica and Gina Lollobrigida in Federico Fellini's 8 1/2.

From the cult Pulp Fiction diner dance scene inspired by Vittorio De Sica’s in Fellini’s 8 ½ to the celebration of the whole Italian B-movie film industry in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, via the subtle screening of a sequence of La Belva col Mitra (Mad Dog Killer) in the Jackie Brown flat where Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) and Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) hang, and many more niche homages. 

After all, the mutual fascination between the Italian and American film industries is no news. The recent documentary Django and Django (2021) by Luca Rea further highlights this bond, comparing the many lives of Western cinema on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, from Sergio Corbucci to Quentin Tarantino and back. 

Two examples of the mutual attraction between Italian and American cinema in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1950s and 1960s Italian and American cinema nurtured a mutual attraction.

Going back in history, the origins of Cinecittà’s grandeur are indeed rooted in the American ‘invasion’ of Rome, no doubt aided by the hefty involvement – political, cultural and financial – of the United States government in the Belpaese following the end of the second world conflict. All-time classics such as Vacanze Romane (1953) and La Dolce Vita (1962) are flawless examples of that decade in which, as Time magazine gloriously defined it, the Americans gave birth to their own Hollywood on the Tiberis.

Hence, this all-American obsession no doubt is down to the charme Italy exuded in its glory days of La Dolce Vita, not only in matters of lifestyle but as well for its mastership in the seventh art. Nonetheless, we could observe that said fascination was indeed mutual. As Clint Eastwood brought a slice of sunny California to Rome when he was captured riding a longboard through the traffic of the Eternal City, Alberto Sordi took the piss of all those post-war Italian teenagers obsessed with American youth culture in the cult spaghetti scene of 1954 Un Americano a Roma (An American in Rome).

As we await confirmation of Lady Gaga’s intentions, we raise a toast to the fortunate moment of Italian cinema in the world just as news broke of the nomination of Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano as Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

Opening image: Paola Cortellesi and Emanuela Fanelli on the set of C'è Ancora Domani, 2023.

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