Darkening the Italian Screen

Sunday, 23 January 2022

Whilst film historian, Eugenio Ercolani’s impressive text on the directors of Italian genre cinema is titled Darkening the Italian Screen, if anything, his tome serves to illuminate the key figures of the industry who debuted and worked in its postwar heyday. An insightful and extensive treatment of its subject, Ercolani’s book is a much needed account of the prominent individuals who worked during this period, cataloguing their experiences and recollections and shedding light on the arduous production experiences they encountered and the central figures they worked with. In Darkening the Italian Screen, Ercolani makes the cinema he details come alive. 

Eugenio Ercolani has established himself as a reliable authority on Italian genre cinema with an extensive knowledge of the industry in its boom years and those involved within it. Chances are that if you’ve watched an extra or two on a boutique release of an Italian genre film than Ercolani has been involved in its production; travelling across Italy to meet and interview an array of colourful characters from the golden heyday of genre cinema. Alongside being a talented interviewer and producer of extras, Ercolani is an accomplished writer as evidenced by his work, Darkening the Italian Screen. It’s refreshing to read a text on this field of cinema which treats its subject with reverence, unashamedly detailing a sphere of cinema that is often unfairly derided or over intellectualised. Ercolani straddles the line, managing to be engaging to the more critically minded fan to appealing to those who are more interested in onset stories and personal insights than detailed analysis. 

Darkening the Italian Screen contains plenty of interest for the connoisseur of the Italian genre film. The work of well loved stalwart directors such as Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato, Enzo G. Castellari and Sergio Martino are covered with interviews from the men themselves alongside accounts from bonafide genre stars such as Giovanni Lombardo Radice and George Hilton and conversations with integral behind the scenes figures like production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Whilst these chapters will perhaps be of greatest interest, the directors included with less of a mainstream/popular following (but are no less important), such as Marcello Avallone and Mario Caino, are given as much respect and reverence with more than enough insightful material to pique the curiosities of those still yet to discover all that this fruitful period of cinema has to offer. Genre wise, Darkening the Italian Screen covers spaghetti westerns to commedia all’italiana to giallo and everything in-between. It’s a good, comprehensive look at the genre film without feeling like it is focussing on the more popular entries at the expense of the lesser known. It also proves the interconnectivity of said films with many directors and key players working between genres with experience in one field informing the other. 

Whilst much has been written about the films and characters detailed in Darkening the Italian Screen, Ercolani’s text provides vital new insights which uncover new perspectives and information as well as adding a much needed personal touch, letting the voices of the individuals involved in these films truly come alive. The number of fascinating stories and tidbits of information revealed in the interviews included is simply mind-blowing. For example, you’ll learn that Giorgio Capitani was next-door neighbours with Paolo Villagio but never clicked with him - viewing him as a comedic caricature, and that George Hilton was the one who introduced Edwige Fenech to future husband and producer, Luciano Martino. You’ll hear stories about influential figures in the industry no longer with us and the thoughts of those who worked with them - they’re not always positive! Sadly as time marches onwards, we find ourselves losing many more of these key figures from this era therefore, a book like Darkening the Italian Screen is essential as it preserves the history of these films by highlighting the stories of those with first hand experience of productions made during the golden age of Italian genre cinema.

One could easily dip into the chapters of Darkening the Italian Screen that interest them but to do so would be to miss out on Ercolani’s chronological exploration of the sphere of cinema he’s so ardently focussed on. We start at 1953 and end in 1969 but cover many films and exploits from the subsequent years. The chronological ordering serves the book well as it provides the reader with a historical and sociocultural context for the films covered as well as a window into a fascinating period in Italy’s history that expands one’s knowledge of the climate these films were made within. Reading Ercolani’s text as a whole allows for strands to emerge such as the circumstances that led to the downfall of the Italian genre film and the difficulty in achieving one’s vision whilst appeasing producers and financiers. Most of all, it highlights the incredible work ethic of many of the figures involved in the industry, tirelessly working to produce films within a very short time frame. It's a testament to the abilities of those involved that they were able to make such engaging and thrilling cinema with limited budgets and time. Again, this also helps to create context and makes one more understanding of the circumstances that certain productions were made within leading to new appreciation. 

What makes Darkening the Italian Screen so impressive, is the heart that Ercolani gives to his subject. He is a man who truly cares about his cinematic speciality and his passion for these films, and the pivotal characters who made them, shines throughout. It is such a joy to relive these stories and Ercolani's descriptions of the settings the interviews take place in and the appearance and mannerisms of the interviewees themselves make you feel like you’re right there with them - reliving glory days and the glamour and chaos that came with them. It makes the book feel very much like living film history that transports you back to another place and time. And that’s fundamentally what Darkening the Italian Screen is all about, allowing you the reader to experience an era of film history that is often forgotten or under appreciated; giving you an opportunity to hear stories that are finally being told. 

Darkening the Italian Screen is an essential text for those with an interest in film history and Italian genre cinema. Containing fascinating anecdotes that enrich the experience and appreciation of the films and characters discussed, Ercolani’s book contextualises a prolific period of cinema, giving voice to its creators. As well as being an enjoyable treatment of its subject, Darkening the Italian Screen will prove to be an essential research tool, helping to expand the criticism and understanding of the films produced during this illustrious period of cinema. I can’t recommend it enough and I personally hope to see Ercolani further expand his impressive work in the future.

If you'd like to discover this magical text, you can find it at the following links...

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