'The Art of Italian Film Posters' By Mel Bagshaw , London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978 1 904 772318 213pp. (softback) £24.95

Scholars of film history are well versed in recounting the nations who were significant entities in the early days of cinematic production. Thus, ‘France’ trips off the tongue with alacrity, closely followed by ‘the U.S.A.’ and, be it with a questioning hesitation, ‘Great Britain?’ Rarely does ‘Italy’ get added into this illustrious company, but it should by rights be one of the first names- said firmly, instinctively and with spirit. If the genre of documentary ( actualities) can be indelibly linked with France and the Lumiere Brothers, so can the epic be forever associated with the Italian filmmakers who realised the grand potential for the new medium as early as 1905, although it was not until the period leading up to World War One that the truly memorable spectacle pieces were made. Apart from the epic, the Italian film industry has had rather mixed fortunes- the so-called ‘White Telephone films’ of the 1930s moved aside for the hugely influential Neorealist movement in the 1940s and 1950s before Art Cinema and the work of the film auteur dominated the 1960s with names like Visconti, Antonioni and Fellini reaching new heights of cinematic creativity. Now, the old masters are gone- and it is for the future to dictate the direction of Italy’s influence on world cinema. But, whatever time has in store for the country, Italy will always have its film heritage to look back on. It is this heritage, in all its richness and complexity, that is the focus of Mel Bagshaw’s book, which goes beyond its misleadingly simple title- The Art of Italian Film Posters- to become a gloriously evocative tapestry of one country’s cinema history.

Although the origins of Italian film actually go back as far as 1896, Bagshaw sensibly provides an introduction which sets the design of the posters he uses in some sort of context- in this case, the publicity for the great Italian operas. This background established, he moves onto the book’s raison d’etre- ‘the development of Italian film and the posters that announced them’ (p.11). It is this unpretentious opening that paves the way for what is an insightful look into Italian cinema culture, the book’s text complimented by superb high quality illustrations of a variety of poster sizes and types. One key strength of Bagshaw’s work is that it does not rely on familiar examples but instead charts films that are, even in the ever-growing world of DVD releases, sadly unavailable. Thus, wonderful posters for films like Daro un millione (1936) and Scipione L’Africano (1937) offer an enticing preview of films which are not widely accessible. Fortunately, the Neorealist films made in the 1940s enjoy a wider availability, largely a result- perhaps- of their world famous directors who would go on to inspire directors as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard and Billy Wilder.

Despite his willingness to focus on some lesser-known titles, Bagshaw’s remit makes a reference to the key works of the Italian Neorealist era practically a fait accompli. His book does not disappoint- Visconti rubs shoulders with Rossellini who in turn brushes against De Sica in resulting pages that both visualise the masterpieces of the Neorealist period and offer thoughtfully pertinent reflection upon both the films and their advertising- ‘many of the posters of the neorealist era feature wistful characters staring at the viewer, apparently in deep thought about their melancholic situations’ (p. 51). After a flirtation with Fellini’s early work, the book then moves on to plough relatively unknown fields and illustrate the films of Dino Risi (a striking poster for 1956’s Poveri ma belli is particularly worthy of note) before entering the 1960s with Antonioni, mid. period Fellini and later period Visconti. Pasolini too is not overlooked in this mix- crystallising what a melting-pot of extraordinary talent Italy was at that time. De Sica is also present (with Il Boom(1963), which is also the book’s superbly eye-catching cover poster). Given the growth in the academic study of film and the subsequent output of uber-intellectual writings, one could be forgiven for thinking that Italian cinema of the 1960s was all about the auteurs- those directors who managed to inject an aspect of their own personality into the films that they made, enabling the films to reflect their attitudes and values. Not so. The 1960s also marked the flourishing of the so-called ‘sword and sandal’ films which starred muscle-rippling he-men like Steve Reeves, Richard Harrison and Gordon Scott. Whatever the cinematic merits of these films it is unarguable that the posters produced to market them utilised, as Bagshaw argues, ‘bright colours, fantastic scenes and lurid compositions…offering vibrant, kitschy visual enticement’ (p.112). It was not only the posters for the ‘sword and scandal’ films that were more colourful- the films themselves employed bright technicolour which distanced them from the gritty monochrome associated particularly with Italian Neorealism but which had lingered on even into films made into the early 1960s. The vivid colour of the ‘sword and sandal’ productions was also present in the genre-influenced successor to these historical-based films: the spaghetti western.

If the Hollywood western can be argued to have morphed into the gangster film, so the ‘sword and sandal’ film can be viewed as giving way for the spaghetti western. With imagery that reflects its predecessor yet casts a darker shadow upon it, the new genre introduced new stars and directors (Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone being the most notable). This whole period of Italian film benefits greatly from the posters that accompany it- these show a continuity of style from the ‘sword and sandal’, replacing the rippling muscles with familiar western genre iconography and enigmatically inscrutable countenances. In this part of his book Bagshaw uses movie posters most effectively to balance the genres co-existing at the time whilst also giving an impression of gradual evolution and change. This change was the move toward a more graphic interpretation of sex and violence, which reached its peak in the Italian horror film, which, like the ‘sword and sandal’ films, again led directors to conceal their Italian nationality by adopting English pseudonyms. Compared to the earlier posters, I would argue that the subject-matter and desire to startle/shock/horrify overpowers the rich composition. As a result, the finished products designed to help market these films are therefore immediately less appealing and less inviting, suggesting a desire to push the boundaries of cinematic good taste to previously unimagined levels. Even Bagshaw, who acknowledges the strengths of some of the actual films, agrees when it comes to the posters. These are ‘very variable, from camp, misogynist, and peculiar compositions to simple abstraction’ (p. 185). Perhaps it is this very lack of immediate recognition that makes the posters at best ghoulish and at worst downright poor, or maybe it is the absence of the lurid colours mixed with skilful artwork that marked the posters for films that seemed to come from an entirely different time. Either way, the structured genre cycles that had existed in Italy after World War II fell away as the 1960s became the 1970s, and horror films exploiting the general desire for stronger subject-matter became more prevalent, although the old masters still made occasional forays into film production.

‘Much of the poster artwork of the 1970s reflects the decline of the film industry, with little in the way of outstanding work’ writes Bagshaw on page 207 of The Art of Italian Film Posters, his survey of Italian cinema nearing its end. After some closing comments- where he recognises quite rightly the iconic status of several Italian film poster images- Bagshaw includes a brief section about the poster designers themselves. It is fitting that these people be given the last word, for it is they who produced the images that first attracted the movie-going public to see these films and helped keep Italian cinema afloat. The whole aura of movie marketing in general has barely been explored, but Mel Bagshaw does his bit to redress the balance in what is a fine book- informative, interesting and, above all, relentlessly intriguing.

'The Art of Italian Film Posters' is published by Black Dog Publishing.

Black Dog Publishing website