A piece of cinema history in Messina: Federico Vitella presents “Maggiorate. Stardom and celebrity in the new Italy”


By John

It's 1952 and the director Alessandro Blasetti he is shooting the film in episodes “Other times”. On set there are, among others, Gina Lollobrigida and Vittorio De Sica. The actor plays the role of a public defender, a little brilliant and a little forgetful, demonstrating – he, already director of neorealist masterpieces – a great ability as a brilliant actor. The lawyer defends a Neapolitan commoner of great beauty (Lollo) and adequate cleavage, accused of having attempted to poison her husband and mother-in-law. And he concludes his speech thus: «Does the law prescribe that mentally handicapped people be acquitted? Well, why shouldn't a physical increase be acquitted, such as this formidable creature is?”. It was born like this, from an idea of ​​the screenwriter Alessandro Continenza who “translated” Edoardo Scarfoglio's novella “The Trial of Phryne” into film (in turn inspired by an ancient Greek story), the term “maggiorata” which soon fully entered the dictionaries and which characterizes the whole an era of Italian cinema, that of the 1950s.

“Make up. Stardom and celebrity in the new Italy” (Marsilio Editore, 336 pages, 32 euros) is precisely the title of the new book by Federico Vitella, full professor at the University of Messina, where he teaches “History of Cinema”. It is an essay of great scientific depth, the result of extensive and rigorous research, which develops between historical, social and customs themes, and describes the continuous contact, made by a mutual give-and-take, between cinema and the Italians who they were struggling to emerge from the post-war period and were heading towards the economic miracle. Precisely that idea of ​​growth, which allowed people to move away from lean times, ideally translated, seemed to find a perfect physical configuration in actresses who, between natural gifts and some helpful padding, exhibited an exuberant physique, even capable of overcome the boundaries of censorship based on restrictive Catholic morality, then fueled by the political dominance of the Christian Democrats. Vitella, born in Varese and resident in Florence, chooses four prototypes of great popular success to develop his speech: Silvana Pampanini, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Silvana Mangano (speaking of the latter, it must be said that those who, as children, saw her sensual dance in “Bitter Rice”, broadened their life horizons early). They are actresses, whose success still reverberates today, also because, despite the critics of the time treating them with disdain (as they did with Totò), the international careers of Lollo and Loren (the latter also received an Oscar) they demonstrated that that popularity also had an acting basis and not just linked to eye-catching beauty.

Through them, the author, thanks also to a very important and detailed research work, takes us into a world of cinema which, in its somehow still pre-industrial organisation, already had great vital capacities, made up of original ideas, then replicated in series; a good sense of communication, although still entrusted to individual initiatives, and therefore a constant relationship with the great magazines of the time; it responded to the needs of the divas through favorable and very specific contracts, which guaranteed privileges; it created a constant bridge between actresses and spectators-admirers, who were given apparently easy access to the golden life of the “major” girls; it organized international meetings with heads of state and illustrious personalities, making even diplomatic celebrities the same performers who just before had been forced to move with circumspection between the censorship nets which looked with suspicion on “the spectacularization of décolleté”. While always maintaining an evident and appreciable scientific rigor, with the help of well-documented notes, Vitella also manages to insert news that disseminates and makes reading enjoyable.

As he says in a note, he is inspired by the great sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin, who in his essay “The cultural industry” wrote: «We need to know the world without feeling like strangers to it; enjoy strolling along the great boulevards of mass culture.” So the author occasionally slows down his determined pace as a scholar, to take us on a tour of some curiosities. For example, we learn that Gina Lollobrigida insured her breasts for 30 million in 1953. Or even that the very Catholic mayor of Florence, Giorgio La Pira (who had lived his adolescence in Messina) did not hesitate to resort to Silvana Pampanini «to tame the hottest of the mobilizations of the metallurgical workers of the Pignone mechanical workshops at risk of dismissal». And again how Pampanini herself underlined with poorly concealed envy the economic and organizational advantage of Mangano and Loren, romantically linked to the producers De Laurentiis and Ponti. We can also remember how Andreotti, an always very pragmatic politician who left nothing to chance, had written the invective in 1952: «De Sica will have done his country a terrible service», referring to the international circulation of crude neorealist films that he disliked, thus indirectly – it seems to us – giving the green light to the “major” bodies, certainly considered a better way of representing Italy abroad. “Omnia munda mundis” (everything is pure for the pure), the Latins would have said with smiling irony.