Revolution, Italian style

by Christopher Yocum

Perhaps the best definition for Arte Povera comes not from some textbook, but from Pietro, a character in the 1968 Pier Paolo Pasolini film, Theorem. As he paints on a large piece of Plexiglas, Pietro soliloquizes, “We must try to invent new techniques unrecognizable, which are unlike any previous method…make a world in which comparisons are impossible for which no previous standards of judgement exist.” Pietro’s musings mirror the revolutionary ideals of many of the Arte Povera artists.

While there are certain characteristics which link together the visual artists represented in the current Walker Art Center exhibition Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972, the definition of what exactly constitutes Arte Povera is rather nebulous. Never an official artistic movement, or even a unified group of like-minded artists, Arte Povera is simply a critical term coined by Germano Celant in 1967, referring to much of the eclectic, iconoclastic art which emerged out of the cultural ferment of 1960’s Italy.

However, much as film noir was once merely a critical French term used to describe several dark American films in the mid 1940’s, Arte Povera, while still not perfectly defined, is somewhat recognizable as a distinct visual art. With its characteristic use of mundane artistic objects (wax, newspaper, vegetation), and its postmodern flavor, you know it when you see it.

However, while Pietro sheds some sort of light on the visual art aspect of Arte Povera, it does little to explain the filmmaking in Italy that was contemporary with this “movement.” Therefore, one is at somewhat of a loss when trying to figure out what exactly binds together Theorem with the other twelve films that comprise the programming of the Walker film series Before and After the Revolution: Italia Anni 1962-1972, which is showing in conjunction with the Arte Povera exhibition.

Upon first glance, it would appear that the only thing linking these thirteen stylistically unrelated films is the year of their respective releases. The Walker’s press release claims that the films, “focus unflinchingly on Italy’s brutal sociopolitical passage from an agricultural to an industrialized society and the changes wrought on economic, sexual, and familial values”. If that doesn’t sound like a good time, I don’t know what does.

From the films that I have seen thus far, the program doesn’t do exactly that, which is probably a good thing. I am yet to come across any overly cerebral theories as to the social effects produced when a group stops growing grapes and starts flinging Fiat’s. What I have come across is several thoroughly enjoyable and stylistically innovative films that, while maybe not belonging to the same genre, do mark a definite departure from neo-realism, the genre that theretofore dominated Italian cinema.

Granted, the films in the program do retain some of the elements that characterized the neo-realistic film, with their uses of location shooting and non-professional actors. However, what marks the departure from neo-realism is the subject matter. Where neo-realism focused on the workaday lives of the average person, these Arte Povera filmmakers seem to focus more on the sordid nightlives of their subjects.

Two of the films in particular, the aforementioned Theorem and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Night, are especially centered on the libidinous lives of their characters, and may to some extent fulfill the Walker’s claims by dramatizing “the changes wrought on…sexual and familial values.”

Theorem-which tells the story of a bourgeois Italian family that is torn apart after each member in turn has sex with their mysterious houseguest-is most likely the prototype that this film program was based around. The film can be read as a metaphor for revolution, and more specifically, for what happens when a group of people gets a taste of revolution and then has it snatched away from them.

Terrance Stamp, playing the sexually ubiquitous houseguest, represents revolution itself, and the family succumbs to his force in the manner one would expect. First the lower-working class (gardener), then the iconoclastic youth (son and daughter), and finally the ruling patriarchy (the parents). However, it isn’t the capitulation to the revolution that tears the family apart, it is the cessation of it. When Stamp’s nameless character leaves town each family member disintegrates in their own idiosyncratic way.

All, that is, except for the son. Pietro, representing the Arte Povera artist’s surrogate with his non-traditional approach to art and his egalitarianism towards all artistic matter, is the only one to come through the revolution unscathed. Art is the only thing that endures.

While I’m not wholly convinced that the thirteen films in this program can and should be lumped together into a single genre or movement, I am convinced that if even half of the films speak to the Arte Povera
exhibition as well as Theorem, the program will be well worthwhile.