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The Cinema of Lead: Carlo Lizzani’s Leftist Genre Cinema

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The late 1960s were a tumultuous time. Worldwide protests were ignited in the wake of the May of ’68 protests; students and workers were calling for an end to capitalism and an end to tyranny. In the US, these protests are best represented in the image of counter-culturalism, or the so-called hippie movement (yet, any effective impact since has largely been whitewashed in favor of the more media acceptable image of the free love, drug-addled drop out). In Europe and across Latin America, however, the revolution took a far more violent turn. The Years of Lead – named after the amount of bullets fired – saw the emergence of a form of civil unrest that had been largely unseen in Western Europe. Right wing and left wing terrorism emerged and ran rampant but perhaps no country in Europe felt its effect stronger than Italy.

It is during this time that Italy’s film system participated in some of its more daring feats. While the French New Wave filmmakers accepted genre cinema as a basis to build their esoteric films from, Italy fully embraced genre as its dominant mode (a result of having to ‘disguise’ political statements from their conservative censors). These genres changed, but a sort of historical trajectory will see the Western (lovingly donned the Spaghetti Western) succumb to the poliziochetti (often referred to as Eurocrime) give way to the horror film (predominantly but not limited to the giallo) — although there did exist a great deal of overlap.

Born in a time of desperation and despair, the Spaghetti Western has often been a place where left-wing filmmakers were able to develop their highly politicized ideas in a manner that was not always explicit. For most, the Spaghetti Western is best-known vis-à-vis Sergio Leone’s stunning ‘the Man with No Name’ (or ‘Dollars’) trilogy. However, while Leone’s films did have their layer of politics, there were far more daring directors and writers working beneath Leone. One such filmmaker was Carlo Lizzani.

Carlo-Lizzani

Born in Rome in 1922, Lizzani first found his way into cinema like many of his fellow Italian directors, through criticism. However, Lizzani abandoned his gig as an observer in order to take a more active role in creation, and soon found himself working on the story for Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero. Lizzani would later find great success for his scripting on Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice (1950), for which he received a Oscar nomination. Alongside his writing duties, Lizzani had begun directing films mostly in the documentary genre, but would soon turn to fiction, a mode that would dominate the majority of his work until his death.  

Though Lizzani has often been described as a communist, his affiliation with the party was uneven (joining in 1942, leaving the party in the 1950s, and then re-joining in 1972). Lizzani is, then, better described as a dedicated leftist. Lizzani, though fiercely political, differed from many of his neo-realist contemporaries in that he never found his working to be completely indebted to their political underpinnings. He said that his films would “help me live my own life, to get to know my country and the world.” His career saw him working in populist cinema and going from genre to genre; yet, you don’t need to look very hard to see the political machinations of his cinema working just below the surface, even in some of his most commercial films.

While early efforts like Achtung! Banditi! (1951) and Il Gobbo (1960) offer fruitful grounds for analyzing Lizzani’s clear political leanings, two films – both recently subjected to Blu-ray restoration by Arrow Video – give contemporary audiences a snapshot in the turmoil of Italy in the 1960s: his early poliziotteschi Wake Up and Kill and the director’s Spaghetti Western Requiescant. Made in succession – bookending the Henry Silva-starring Western that Lizzani would direct under the pseudonym Lee W. Beaver – Lizzani’s films are not only thematically linked, they are remarkable examples of their respective genres at critical times in their trajectory.

The End of an Era: Wake Up and Kill and the Death of the ‘Gentleman Thief’

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Released in 1966, Wake Up and Kill is sort of a precursor to the Eurocrime movement, appearing a few years before the genre would really be kicked off (largely thanks to another Lizzani title, Bandits in Milan aka The Violent Four). Lizzanni opens the film on a bleak visual metaphor for the country’s state. A street light suddenly turns off amidst the dirty, shattered cityscape of Milan; the light can be seen as a metaphor for hope no longer shining over these streets. As Lizzani’s camera continues to pan across the rundown city, a fight suddenly breaks out in the streets and erupts into gunfire and explosions. Wake Up and Kill’s main character, Luciano Lutring (Robert Hoffmann) is introduced amidst this conflict, as he watches the violence from the safety of his father’s shop and a sense of bewilderment and excitement fills his eyes. Is this his first taste at the life of crime? We don’t know, but, in a sense, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we already know that there is something about the disorder that attracts him, and this — among other things — is ultimately his undoing.  

Wake Up and Kill is based on the true-to-life criminal Luciano Lutring, aka the machine-gun soloist. The famed thief was noted for carrying his gun around in a violin case (hence the name) and became sort of a mythic figure over the course of his life. Other than his fast, excessive lifestyle, it’s easy to see what a communist-leaning director may see in Lutring as a figure. Over the course of his lengthy criminal career, Lutring never used violence but rather was said to be likeable and charismatic. Lutring was eventually arrested and, during his lengthy stay in prison, he turned to writing and painting. Lutring was eventually set free in the late 1970s, and continued to pursue his artistic endeavors until he died at the age of 75 in 2013. It is said that he remained proud of his legacy and moniker ‘the gentlemen thief’ until his death, a distinction he believed set him aside from modern criminals.

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Lutring was the end of an era of criminals and, because of this, the character that portrays him is the final chapter before the burgeoning subgenre of Eurocrime would erupt into over a decade of selfish, and valueless crime. What really sets Wake Up and Kill apart from much of the latter Eurocrime titles is this intimate portrayal of the criminals. Where later era films would largely take their cues from the success of American films like Death Wish and Dirty Harry, featuring either law enforcement or vigilante justice operating outside of the law and order, Wake Up and Kill is mostly concerned with the economic factors that push a character like Luciano Lutring into a life of a crime. The guiding factor of the film lies in Lutring’s likeability, a character that Lizzani writes in a sympathetic light, and in the strong romantic connection between Lutring and his lover, Yvonne (Lisa Gastoni).

Wake Up and Kill predates Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde by a year and it wouldn’t be surprising if it were a guiding factor in the latter’s formation. While we don’t get a typical Bonnie and Clyde narrative here (Yvonne is never an active, complicit partner in crime), there is certainly a similar feeling between the couple, and it is ultimately their passion that continually drives Lutring into further exploits. Unable to provide for Yvonne, crime is a means to end and, because of this, the film completely lacks any sense of romanticizing of the criminal angle. In fact, the criminal aspects are shot in a gritty, realistic, and almost entirely unflattering angle. Lizzani never judges Lutring, he is but another man pushed into debauchery from an unjust system. It’s a quintessentially Italian product, but one that certainly resonates in our current political climate.

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Lizzani’s film also works against much of the romantic aspects of the real-life Lutring, cherry-picking the aspects that best appealed to his personal politics and ditching those that the filmmaker most likely disagreed with. Writing of Lutring’s exploits in their obituary, The Telegraph stated that Lutring was, “known for his glitzy lifestyle and taste for fast cars, smart hotels and beautiful women.” In the film, however, the glamorous angle quickly sours, and the back half of the film largely sees Lutring drawn to crime as either some form of addiction or survival (often feeling like a combination of the two). Eventually, however, Lutring is left without a choice: if he wants to eat, if he wants to provide shelter for his wife, he must steal.

Wake Up and Kill tackles this moral dilemma brilliantly. You may not agree with his actions but they are presented in a manner that is understandable. The cast certainly helps, with Hoffman and Lisa Gastoni providing solid, believable turns as the romantic leads. Further, veteran (and highly political) Italian actor Gian Maria Volontè is cast as the principal investigator and really steals the show, thanks to the excellent sketching provided by Lizzani. Whereas later era Eurocrime had a tendency to paint police officials in broad strokes — excepting our vigilante heroes —, Volontè’s Inspector Moroni is a complex figure that helps to set up the equally complex divide between right and wrong the film tussles with.

Where Wake Up and Kill is hurt the most is in its editing and length. The film flies through a massive timeline in such a hurried manner that it becomes a bit difficult to find footing as an audience member. Further, the editing is a bit stodgy and can be critiqued for being a tad too liberal in what should or shouldn’t have been cut. At two hours (the English version much shorter), Wake Up and Kill does start to show its length by the final act but, still, never feels tired or dull. (Although, the Morricone score certainly helps make sure of that!)

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Kill and Pray: Lizzani takes his Anti-Capitalist Narrative to American’s Old West

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By Requiescant’s release in 1967, the Spaghetti Western boom in Italy had been underway for three years and had already seen the release of many of its most iconic works — although some of the most political, inspired films were still to come. Requiescant was the second of only two times that Lizzani would approach the western genre, just following the release of The Hills Run Red (which he directed under the pseudonym Lee W. Beaver). As Lizzani hints at in his archival interview (included on the Blu-ray), genre cinema was a way for political filmmakers to push their agenda under the conservative party leading the country at the time. Though it’s clear that Lizzani would rather have worked on films closer in style of the Neorealist in which he cuts his teeth on, the director takes to the genre with a terrific style and clearly does not hold himself above genre cinema. The greatest shame of Requiescant is that it remains so little seen because it is one of the greatest examples of what the genre could and often did offer viewers.

In the first scene of Requiescant, a violent massacre breaks out as a Southern infantry — lead by George Bellow Ferguson (Mark Damon) — opens fire on a large, unarmed group of Mexican citizens in order to rob them of their land. During the scuffle, a young Mexican boy is shot and left for dead. The boy winds up surviving and is adopted by a traveling group of Christians who raise him as their own. From here the film cuts to some years later, the boy has grown into a deeply religious young man nicknamed Requiescant (Lou Castel) and action is set into motion when his sister runs off with a dancing troupe and Requiescant is sent off to retrieve her. Along the way, Requiescant is entwined in a robbery, where he discovers a natural penchants for sharpshooting — Lizzani’s play on the mythical gunfighter figure. Eventually, Requiescant finds his sister working as a prostitute in a Saloon owned by Ferguson. When the memories of his past are triggered, Requiescent joins up with a pacifist revolutionary named Don Jaun (played by Pier Paolo Pasolini) who are geared up to stage a coup against Ferguson and his men.

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What remains shocking is that for the amount of Westerns (Italian and American, among others) that exist, so few focus on the issue of slavery despite being set during or directly following the Civil War. Issues of race and human bondage were often cast aside for gritty revenge narratives. Even many of the leftist filmmakers working in Italy tended to favor the anti-capitalist narrative that the lawless West and the dichotomy between the US and Mexico (a clear analogy between the North and South of Italy) could provide. In Requiescant’s standout scene, southern aristocrat George Bellow Ferguson sits among a group of fellow wealthy Southerners and bemoans the good old days. What sets the scene apart from what one might expect from the typical Antebellum blowhard, however, is that Ferguson’s critique of the North is firmly rooted in an economic as opposed to racial dispute. Without supporting Ferguson’s desire for slavery — Lizzani makes it clear that Ferguson is far from a sympathetic or reasonable man — he becomes a talking point for Lizzani’s distrust of capitalism, as Ferguson rails against the wage slavery the North has and will continue to enforce on their ‘so-called free’ citizens. It’s a harrowing scene that opens up an important, although far too little seen discussion; there are very little scenes like it in genre history.

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The other fascinating aspect of Requiescant lies in the notion of violence’s connection to revolution. Lizzani effortlessly depicts the violent gunfire of the film but it does not come without a cost. The dichotomy between Requiescant and Don Juan serves to discuss this matter. Don Juan is a pacifist that acknowledges the need for violence despite his natural inclination against it. Meanwhile, Requiescant has been conditioned to believe that murder is wrong — he reads a prayer after striking his enemies down — but seems naturally drawn towards being a highly efficient killer. Lizanni seems to stand in Juan’s court — and the casting of Pasolini, a noted and political Italian filmmaker, seems to solidify that —, showing that violence is necessary for revolution but ultimately damning for man, but this dialogue is carried out until the very final moments of the film.

Requiescant — like another recent Arrow release Cemetery Without Crosses — represents a much-needed alternative to the iconic Spaghetti Westerns and helps to explore the genre in greater depth. While the film fits nicely among the genre’s best works — The Great Silence, The Big Gundown, Django, and of course Leone’s best —Lizzani’s uncompromising political eye offers a critique of society that is not only a captivating look at the turbulent climate of late 60s Italy but also remains remarkably relevant in today’s political climate. If you are a fan of Italian Westerns and you haven’t yet seen Requiescant, remedy that immediately — you will not regret it.

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While neither of these discs from Arrow represent their most impressive work in the supplementary features department — Wake Up and Kill being bare bones —, these are still among the best releases of the year for anyone interested in Italian genre cinema. What the discs lack in extra content — it should be mentioned that Requiescant does feature two great interviews, including a new interview with Castel — they make up for in the stellar transfers, as per usual for the company as of late. Maybe Bandits in Milan will be next…we can only hope?

Lizzani continued to make films well into his 80s, maintaining his focus on political and social issues. In 1979 he became the director of the prestigious Venice Film Festival, a role he maintained for four years. Sadly, Lizzani committed suicide in 2013 but in departing from this world he left us with an impressive body of work that is continually relevant. While his work is certainly known, his name remains more obscure compared to many of his contemporaries. This, however, is changing and, in the last year alone, we have been lucky to have seen a few of his pieces given new life: Arrow’s work, here, on two of Lizzani’s best genre films, in addition to the recent Blu-ray of Bitter Rice commissioned by Criterion Collection. Lizzani may be gone but his work will not be forgotten.

 

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About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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