Titan of the Silver Screen

The retrospective of eclectic works by Italy's veteran Titanus production company may well have been the highlight of this summer's Locarno Film Festival.

Collection Cinematheque Suisse

The 67th Locarno Film Festival, the second under the artistic direction of the young Carlo Chatrian, ended earlier this month after the prestigious Golden Leopard prize was awarded to Filipino director Lav Diaz for “From What Is Before.” This is an impressive fresco lasting nearly six hours, a dive into the political history of the Philippines, a movie that raises some logical questions regarding its commercial potential and how it will be distributed in the future.

But the event that sparked the most excitement among cinephiles was without any doubt the festival’s vast retrospective (54 films) devoted to the Italian production company Titanus, following several retrospectives in recent years focusing on major Hollywood filmmakers (Ernst Lubitsch, Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor).

Titanus is a unique example in the history of Italian cinema of a dynasty of producers from the same family (father-son-grandson), an adventure that began in the early 20th century and continues until today. In 1904, in Naples, Gustavo Lombardo founded a small movie-distribution company that offered residents in the southern part of the country a new and popular form of entertainment, mainly burlesque comedies. But Lombardo, a very cultivated man, also distributed some more ambitious works, like Giovanni Pastrone’s masterpiece “Cabiria” (1914), one of the finest examples of Italian-made silent movies.

During World War I, Lombardo’s firm (which was named Titanus only in 1928) began to produce films in addition to its distribution activities. These were mainly popular comedies and melodramas that took place in Naples and its surroundings, and which introduced a number of stars identified with that region, among them the great Italian comic Totò. Moreover, as the curators of the Locarno retrospective, Sergio M. Germani and Roberto Turigliatto, agree, affection for the city of Naples remained a kind of a trademark of Titanus even after the company moved to Rome during the 1930s. (Together with Simone Starace, the two men are also the editors of the bilingual, English-Italian book “Titanus: Family Diary of Italian Cinema,” published by Editioni Sabinae, which accompanied the retrospective.)

Indeed, for Titanus, Naples has always been the embodiment of “Italian-ness,” reflecting popular national identity – as if the essence of the entire country can be found in carefree life under the southern Italian sun. Titanus’ attachment to Naples continued during the ‘50s, the glorious decade of Italian comedy, with two popular hits directed by Luigi Comencini, “Bread, Love and Dreams” (1953) and “Bread, Love and Jealousy” (1954), featuring two of the biggest stars of that era, Gina Lollobrigida and Vittorio De Sica.

At that time, Titanus was already being managed by Lombardo’s son, Goffredo, who expanded the company’s horizons by producing, alongside popular comedies and melodramas, a number of very ambitious works using the talent of the most important directors of modern Italian cinema – Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Le Amiche” (“The Girlfriends,” 1955), Federico Fellini’s “Il Bidone” (“The Swindle”, 1955), Ermanno Olmi’s “The Fiances” (1963), and De Sica’s “Two Women” (1961) – allowed Titanus to achieve a form of “respectability,” without denying its popular origins in any way.

But it was with Luchino Visconti that the company entered the pantheon of world cinema and finally realized the aspiration of Goffredo Lombardo to produce what he called an “auteur super spectacle.” “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960) and especially “The Leopard” (1963) – a masterpiece that embraces the history of the Italian nation, and was honored with a special outdoor screening at Locarno at the Piazza Grande, in the presence of Guido Lombardo, the current director of Titanus – can indeed be considered pinnacles of the company’s history.

As production of auteur films seemed more and more risky in commercial terms during the 1950s period of crisis in Italian cinema, caused mainly by the advent of television, Goffredo Lombardo decided to diversify the range of movies his company produced. He began to invest in such genres as musical comedy and horror films.

Titanus thus went on to produce “Rita the Mosquito” (1966), a musical comedy directed by the relatively young Lina Wertmüller (under the pseudonym George Brown), as well as several works by Mario Bava, a filmmaker characterized by his flamboyant and baroque style, considered to be the master of Italian horror films. One of the latter, “The Whip and the Body” (1963), which includes some very explicit sadomasochistic scenes (as the title suggests), introduced in Italy a young Israeli actress of mysterious beauty, Daliah Lavi, who quickly became one of Titanus’ erotic icons.

Melancholy lyricism

The eclectic orientation of the company at the time, and its investment in works associated with many different genres, justifiably raises the question of whether one can define a “Titanus style.” More than the idea of an “auteur grand spectacle” and the connection to southern Italy, it seems that the company defined its artistic identity in producing the great melodramas of two filmmakers, Valerio Zurlini and Raffaello Matarazzo, who are still insufficiently known outside Italy. The excessive and eccentric melodramas of Matarazzo (such as “My Love,” 1964), and the melancholic lyricism of Zurlini’s “Violent Summer” (1959), indeed reflected the ability of Italian cinema to create an elegant synthesis between popular and auteur cinema. Positioned at the heart of the Locarno festival retrospective, these two filmmakers perfectly represent the aspiration of Titanus to reach a wide and diverse audience without ever giving up the exigency of quality.

The history of Titanus inevitably intersects that of Italian cinema in general. At the end of the ‘90s, the decision by Guido Lombardo to stop investing in movies, and henceforth to focus only on television production, symbolized to some extent the decline of Italian cinema. The popular audiences that had ensured the success of the company for almost a century, began to abandon local movie theaters, largely preferring the pleasures of television and later of the Internet. Although Titanus deals mostly with production of TV series today, the classic era of its cinematic efforts continues to be showcased by Rai (the national public broadcasting company) and other channels, offering a distant echo of the great moments of national Italian cinema.

Ariel Schweitzer is a film historian and a critic for the French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma.

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