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Friday, February 03, 2006

Italian B-Movies: Tarantino's Inspiration

Really interesting article from the Independent about Tarantino's influences and love for Italian B-Movies and in particular Fernando di Leo.

Italian B-movies: Tarantino's inspiration
Cheap, lurid, ultra-violent, garish and exploitative, the Italian B-movies that inspired 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Kill Bill' are now soaring out of critical obscurity.

By Geoffrey Macnab

Blame Quentin Tarantino. In the 1980s, when the future director of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill was still a humble assistant in a Santa Monica video store, he stumbled on some films by the Italian B director, Fernando Di Leo.

By then, Di Leo was one of the forgotten figures of Italian cinema. His thrillers of the early 1970s had slipped into obscurity and his career had ground to an untimely halt. It was sheer chance that Tarantino discovered his work, but it inspired him to try to become a filmmaker himself.
"One of the first films I watched was pivotal to my choice of profession. It was I Padroni della Città (Mister Scarface). I had never even heard the name Fernando Di Leo before. I just remember that after watching that film I was totally hooked," Tarantino recently recalled. "I became obsessed and started systematically watching other films directed by Di Leo. I owe so much to Fernando in terms of passion and filmmaking".

Di Leo's films are B movies par excellence: garish, intricately plotted, ultra-violent stories about pimps and petty gangsters, told with plenty of attitude. There is an intensity and formal ingenuity here that you rarely find in more prestigious (and expensive) pictures.
Take the beginning of Di Leo's Milan Calibre 9 (1972), in which we see a bag containing $300,000 belonging to local Mr Big "the Americano" whisked across Milan. Somehow, as couriers dart in and out of subways and across busy streets, the bag is switched and the money stolen.

This bravura sequence is shot almost entirely without dialogue. Nor do we need any lengthy speeches to explain what is happening as the Americano's vengeful henchmen track down the couriers, truss them together and blow them up with a few sticks of dynamite.
Di Leo's La Mala Ordina (Manhunt), also made in 1972, offers some early models for the wisecracking, laconic hitmen played by John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. US actors Woody Strode and Henry Silva are the New York killers dispatched to Italy to dispose small-time pimp Luca Canali (Mario Adorf.) Like Travolta and Jackson, they're assassins with style and deadpan humour.

The Di Leo movies form the centrepiece of "The Secret History of Italian Cinema," a season of films being shown throughout January and early February at Tate Modern. The retrospective comes to London from the Venice Film Festival, where it provoked huge controversy last autumn. "I was accused by a lot of Italian critics of having lost any sense of the institutions by opening the gates of the festival to trash cinema," says Venice Festival director Marco Muller.
Until recently, Muller points out, the work of filmmakers such as Di Leo was regarded with disdain in Italy. Their films were far more readily available in the UK and US than in Italy.
"Italian audiences think these are bad movies, cheap movies," acknowledges Germano Celant, artistic director of the Prada Foundation (which backed the restoration of films at the Tate.)

It didn't help that Di Leo had slipped out of public consciousness by his death in 2003. But the disappearance shouldn't have taken anyone by surprise. Every film culture has its hidden gems that only outsiders seem to value. In Britain, Hammer horror movies by Terence Fisher and John Gilling are dismissed by local critics as exploitation fodder, but championed as masterpieces by Martin Scorsese. As Scorsese has pointed out, one of the paradoxes about B-movies is that they "are freer and more conducive to experimenting and innovating" than A-pictures.

Muller argues that Di Leo's gangster films offer a far more accurate picture of Italy than documentaries or big-budget feature films of the period. "If you really want to understand the Italy of the 1970s, with political extremism on both left and right as a response to the corruption and the Mafia infiltration in all the centres of political and financial power, look to Di Leo."
Di Leo's films may have been conceived as exploitation pics, but they deal with social and political issues. "I wanted to demonstrate the reality of the degrading of the working class on the outskirts of a major city, where organised criminality was starting to spread its first tentacles, and where the youth had not yet entered this vicious circle," the director commented on his debut feature Naked Violence (1969).

This is lurid and distasteful fare. It opens in horrendous fashion with the sexual assault and murder of a night-school teacher, but Di Leo's shock tactics are deceptive. It becomes apparent that the director's real purpose is to explore the world of the misfit kids accused of the murder.
In their battle to rehabilitate Di Leo and his colleagues, Muller and Celant had one key ally: Tarantino. The director came to Venice to introduce the movies.
"I needed Quentin. I knew he would be very loud as a spokesman for Italian B movies," Muller recalls. At the festival, Tarantino's crusading zeal and sheer force of personality helped win round older critics to the idea that the low-budget films made in their backyard in the Seventies were worth reviving. Meanwhile, younger audiences turned up in their droves, curious to see films that had had such a direct influence on Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction.
For the organisers of the Tate retrospective, which reclaims the films as Pop Art, this is simply a case of art historians and critics belatedly waking up to work that has been overlooked for too long.

As Germano Celant points out, Tate Modern is also currently hosting an exhibition of the work of the French painter (and former customs officer), Henri Rousseau.
"Look at Rousseau. He was a B artist at the beginning, copying from postcards and newspaper reproductions. Nobody liked him at the beginning, but now you read him in a completely different way."

Fondazione Prada presents 'Italian Kings of the B's: Secret History of Italian Cinema 1949-81', Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888, to 10 February

Source: The Independent

I urge you all to check out Milano Calibro 9, a fantastic film and a great introduction into the world of Fernando di Leo.

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