Southern Italy has long been a source of inspiration for film-makers, with turbulent stories and settings presented on a plate. The dramatic landscape, melodramatic society and passionate people make the south a gift to directors, from Luchino Visconti and Francesco Rosi to foreigners such as Francis Ford Coppola and Anthony Minghella. “Film directors are magpies who plunder landscapes, corrupt geography, redraw maps, invent villages,” claimed Minghella.
Southern Italy is a self-conscious movie in the making. As well as being intensely visual, it is perceived of as a place of extremes, of exquisite morality and cold-blooded Mafia murder. The outside world has always been in thrall to a mob mythology of sharp-suited dons wearing fedoras and carrying machine-guns in violin cases. The sun-bleached image of Sicily is second-nature to cinema-goers as the land of The Godfather. The Mafia capital Corleone lends its jagged rocks and sullen populace to the trilogy. But Hollywood’s infatuation with the glamour of gangsterland is matched by the nostalgic, more whimsical appeal of such films as Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino.
Yet cinematically, the two poles of attraction remain Sicily and Naples, confirming their cultural superiority. The Neapolitan director Francesco Rosi served his apprenticeship with De Sica in the heyday of Italian neo-realism and has made a career out of examining the underbelly of southern society. La Sfida (The Challenge, 1957), shot in the style of an American gangster movie, tackles the Camorra’s corrupt control of the city markets, as does the controversial Gomorrah.
As fr Sicily, Giuseppe Tornatore is the best-known director, thanks to the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso (1990). This nostalgic slice of Sicilian history, which shows the arrival of the Talkies in a benighted backwater, celebrates Sicilian exuberance with a bitter-sweet humour that mocks the grinding poverty. In the United States, the film broke box office records for a foreign film. Luchino Visconti, one of the masters of post-war Italian cinema, set several films on the island to great effect. His epic, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) is worthy of de Lampedusa’s novel of the same name. Film purists question the choice of Burt Lancaster as Prince Salina but few movie buffs find fault with the setting, which exudes Palermitan lushness, faded grandeur and decadence.