Really Italian

Some wags might suggest that Italian photography is mostly characterized by shots of executed mafiosos face down in a plate of linguine and clams. In truth the country's shutterbugs experienced a burst of creative energy in the post-World War II era. After all, Rome was a center of international culture, wealthy jet-setters and Sophia Loren sightings.

Dozens of photos from the period are collected in the Museum of Fine Arts' "Postwar Italian Photography." Culled from and celebrating the Borlenghi Collection of Italian Photographs, the exhibit features images of candid street life, posed shots and even photos taken by the weapon of choice of those guys with the nice, appropriately Italian name: the paparazzi.

"The period has such a liveliness and variety, I was immediately attracted to it," says MFA curator of photography Anne Tucker. "Photographers of the era saw themselves as actual artists." Passionate arguments often erupted over the merits of staged, artistic shots versus informal and natural subject matter. And though photographers organized, held exhibitions and published magazines of their work, many still felt slighted by those who viewed them as disposable documentarians.

The photos show plenty of variety: Catholic priests playing in the snow, a street dog performing for a treat, expertly arranged candles, actors living la dolce vita and earnest newsboys hawking their sheets to the neon glow of Milan's nightlife.

"A gusto really comes through, and a degree of expression that's not typical of American photography of the time," Tucker says. One of her favorites is a photo of an elderly couple in which the woman is gently kissing her lifelong mate. "There's a tenderness there that's...that's just heartbreaking."

In addition to the photography exhibit, the MFA also will host "Three Decades of Postwar Italian Film." The retrospective will screen a number of films, from classics (The Bicycle Thief, Two Women) to more experimental fare (Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, Miracle in Milan), as well as the rarely seen The Wide Blue Road.

"Characteristics of Italian cinema of the period included natural light, nonprofessional actors and location shooting," explains Tracy Stephenson of the museum's film department. "And they all achieved a visual authenticity that contrasted sharply with the artificial aura imposed by Italy's fascist regime."

Many of the featured films were directed by Vittorio De Sica. One of the forefathers of the neorealism movement, he worked as an actor to help finance his more experimental films. Four of them won Oscars for Best Foreign Film, while Sophia Loren took home Best Actress in 1961 for her turn in his Two Women.

Though current American pop culture might view the Sopranos dining in an Olive Garden restaurant with Andrea Bocelli piped over the sound system as the apex of Italian influence, these two efforts provide a more accurate -- and equally compelling -- picture. Capisce?

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero