A Civil Laugh: The Films of Luigi Zampa

Why Luigi Zampa? Because he passed away thirty years ago? Because the last book written about him goes back to 1955 (by Domenico Meccoli, for Cinque Lune)? Because he is one of the few filmmakers ignored by trends, film buff re-evaluations and cult status recognition? 

Luigi Zampa directed some of the most successful films in the history of Italian cinema. Some of his films have become legendary: Il vigile, Il medico della mutua. Zampa, however, never became a proverbial director with a well-defined artistic path, like Monicelli, Risi or Comencini; scholars have never studied his work organically, only a few DVDs have been made of his films, and so many of his movies, including his most important works, have not been shown on television for ages. Not to mention his almost nonexistent reputation abroad (which is hardly surprising: the Criterion catalog doesn’t even mention Pietrangeli...). 

What did Zampa lack? He started out with “telefoni bianchi”, he experimented with Neorealism and found his own original voice, he then made comedies and was the precursor of films of social criticism; but Zampa has never been considered a master or a founding father of any of these trends or genres. Perhaps Zampa was a little too ahead of his time. In 1948 he made Anni difficili, a comedy about fascism and post-fascism, which would become a filmmaking trend in the 1960s. The 1952 film Processo alla città, based on a story by Rosi, was the first film about the Camorra. L’arte di arrangiarsi, in 1954, prefigures the role played by Sordi throughout his career. 

It could be that Zampa paid a price for not being an easy person, for not chasing after the media. He was not a celebrity, he gave few interviews and had a gruff and moralistic (in the highest sense of the word) reserve, a bit like Germi – except for venting in two autobiographical novels (Il successo and Il primo giro di manovella), which probably did not make him many friends, at least among the few who read them. 

While he was living, Zampa experienced every kind of trouble and criticism, which he came out of heroically: the case of Anni facili, in 1953, is an emblematic example. And rarely has he been understood or prized as he should be. Collaborating (on six films) with a liberal antifascist like Vitaliano Brancati in the 1940s and 50s meant alienating moralistic (in the worst sense) critics whether right, center or left. His disenchanted bitterness was mistakenly interpreted as political apathy, while his unfailing ability to narrate, describe, characterize, whether angry or amused, went unnoticed. 

Today fans of Zampa are growing in number. The restoration of Anni difficili, arranged in 2008 by Cineteca di Bologna, Fondazione Cineteca Italiana di Milano and Museo Nazionale del Cinema di Torino, has brought back to life a film that is imperative in order to understand Italian History. A starting point for rediscovering a director who, as Ettore Scola wrote in “l’Unità” on August 19th, 1991, “introduced a satirical vein to our Neorealism and helped create the Italian-style comedy. Zampa wished to laugh at the tragedies of his men, too, but laugh civilly.”

(Alberto Pezzotta)

Section curated by Alberto Pezzota