Collyrium – Claudio Caligari and the cinema of liberation

The name Claudio Caligari will surely say absolutely nothing to most people. Maybe sound familiar names of works like Amore tossico or Non essere cattivo. If not even these two titles suggest anything to you, then it means that it is better to go and tell, in a few lines, the personality of Claudio Caligari, one of the directors of our century who has been most concerned with recounting the degradation and the suburbs of Italy, in a completely unconventional and underground way.

Caligari’s cinema is not a difficult cinema, nor a particularly refined cinema, it is rather a real cinema, where the director’s highest prerogative is to give the most authentic social cross-section, often interweaving the scripted narrative to methodical documentary support. This is why Caligari began his career right from the documentary, to move only after more than a decade from his debut to the making of a feature film. 

But let’s proceed calmly. The artistic sense of the director is formed as soon as a child when he often went to the cinema with his parents and attended neorealist cinema that in those years was gradually changing into something different.

But in the following years, with the advent of the 1960s, the young Caligari became passionate about the Nouvelle Vague in which he saw an extraordinary breath of freedom. Not so much in the plots, as much as in the directorial support: the films were made as they wanted, often even with little budget and the productions were less binding than those of the decades to come. Between the 1960s and the 1970s, cinema was changing, but not just cinema. These are the years of great disputes, the years of subcultures, the years of liberalization. Precisely in this context of rebellion, Caligari arms himself with a video camera and begins to shoot his first documentaries. We can already see the themes that will be examined later also in his, unfortunately, few feature films. First of all a documentary entitled “Perché Droga” of 1976, where he does not intervene as a director but as a writer, the direction is in fact entrusted to Daniele Segre and Franco Barbero. This work, as the title itself suggests, tells the days of a group of drug addicts that orbit in the province of Turin, more precisely in the Miranofiori Sud district. Subsequently, other documentaries arrive, focusing on the realities of protest and the Italian underground. The director himself said:

“Two things characterized those documentaries: the light media and the ideal upheaval between 1968 and 1978. I liked to come into contact with extreme aspects of life and take up the dynamics, and the documentary form was ideal to keep alive the veracity and scope of them”.

At the same time as these documentary labors, the director began to get passionate about the most narrative cinema and attended, as an aide, the personality sets such as Bellocchio and Pasolini. Finally in 1983, his first feature film was presented at the Venice Film Festival: Amore Tossico, a film that over the years has become a real cult. The film follows the story of some boys from Ostia with a passion for the heroine. Amore Tossico boasts an enormous pre-production job where casting and writing reveal a fundamental role, more than in many contemporary works. Coming from the world of documentary, Caligari wanted to tell the world of the village for what it was, without filters of any kind. To do this, the director found all the cast from the street, recruiting actors who were not protagonists of the area. But not only. As I said, the script was completely adapted and modified during the work, taking into account the opinion of the local actors who often used the right jargon. Another innovative aspect of Amore Tossico is the intent with which it was shot. Caligari didn’t want to denounce heroin abuse, he simply wanted to tell it for what it was, often describing its comic or grotesque sides. As anticipated a few lines above, the film was presented at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Special Award in the De Sica section, but despite this critical acclaim, the film, unfortunately, suffered some ups and downs, being distributed in low circulation and then in very few Italian cinemas.

After the success, it will be necessary to wait fifteen years before seeing the name of Caligari projected on the big screen. In fact, in these years of apparent non-existence, the debut director produced a large number of screenplays which were never realized. But finally, in 1998, The Smell of the Night arrives in the halls, a film of extraordinary beauty that speaks of a band of robbers from the Roman suburbs specialized in thefts in the rich part of Rome. The story, taken from a news story, boasts great names in the cast among which a young Valerio Mastrandrea stands out for the leading role, for the first time in a dramatic role. Beside him and Giorgio Tirabassi, we obviously also see a good number of faces stolen from the street, including that of Emanuel Bevilacqua. Although this film belongs to the Italian genre film, Caligari finds his inspiration in the films of the Nouvelle Vague, writing the character of Mastrandrea always having Jean-Paul Belmondo in mind.

The film, presented out of competition at the festival of the Venetian Lido, was met with moderate success but unfortunately did not bring the director into the spotlight as hoped. It is indeed the last work of the Italian director to bring it on everyone’s mouth. Also this time you have to wait more than 15 years to see one of his new jobs: Non essere cattivo. This film is a conceptual sequel to Toxic love. The setting is always the same, Ostia, but this time no longer in the early 1980s, but in the mid-1990s. Not being bad follows the story of two old friends, united by a love for techno and the constant desire to make money. For this latest work, the director uses first-time actors (who are now internationally renowned), Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi, but once again surrounded by local actors people.

Non essere cattivo is a film that has gone down in history, so much so that it was proposed as an Italian film at the 2016 Oscars.

Unfortunately, this last effort of the director was really the last. After a few days from the end of shooting, Claudio Caligari dies in Rome among his loved ones and his film collaborators who remember him as a true contemporary genius.

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