GFT Course: Italian Food and Cinema

Like cinema, food is perceived in Italy as culture, creativity, memory, passion and seduction; in a nutshell, as a collective emotion that shapes and informs the life of the country.

Feature by Anna Battista | 16 Apr 2006

Summer 1938, Rome: it is dinner time in Via Albalonga and the tables of a local trattoria are so crowded that they literally invade the pavement, almost occupying the tramway line. There's chaos all around: singers entertain the crowd with traditional songs; beggars ask for money; kids run wildly among the maze of tables; families and friends eat together, noisily chatting between forkfuls of pasta. This was how Federico Fellini paid tribute to the eating habits of the Romans in 'Fellini's Roma' (1972), a sort of dreamy documentary suspended between real memories and surreal and grotesque atmospheres.

This is not the only film, though, in which Fellini used food scenes. Food is present in other films by the famous Italian director, such as '8 œ', in which the chicken eaten by Guido's mistress Carla becomes a symbol of sin and temptation, as opposed to pasta, soup or broth, dishes traditionally eaten while sitting at the family table, as shown in 'Amarcord' (1973).

Federico Fellini is just one of many Italian directors who used food in his films as symbols or metaphors. Like cinema, food is perceived in Italy as culture, creativity, memory, passion and seduction; in a nutshell, as a collective emotion that shapes and informs the life of the country.
Cinema has chronicled the lives of Italians through food scenes: while in films from the Italian Neorealism food highlighted the sociological tensions between the rich and the poor (see 'Shoe-Shine', 1946, and 'Bicycle Thieves', 1948, both by Vittorio De Sica) or the desperation generated by hunger (Roberto Rossellini's 'Rome, Open City', 1945), films from the '50s analysed the consequences of the economic boom and celebrated a new-found wealth and the adoption of new eating habits imported from abroad. Actor Alberto Sordi in Steno's 'An American in Rome' (1954) is memorable as Nando, a young Italian man eager to swap his Mediterranean diet for American products.

Shots of families and friends reunited around a table, quietly eating, noisily partying, fiercely quarrelling or animatedly talking about politics, or scenes shot inside a kitchen seen as the "locus" where all the expectations, delusions and disillusions of a whole country gather, are fundamental in the history of Italian cinema. From the rich banquet in Luchino Visconti's 'The Leopard' (1963) to Pupi Avati's 'The Story of Boys and Girls' (1989), with the uncle listing the sumptuous wedding menu, passing through Bernardo Bertolucci's '1900' (1976) in which the collective food scenes highlight the class struggle between the main characters.

As the years pass, the role of food in cinema will change: from a source of vital energy and a metaphor for life, food will turn into a destructive obsession. In Marco Ferreri's 'La Grande Bouffe' (1973) food loses all its positive values and turns into a fetishist fixation, while Pier Paolo Pasolini's 'Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom' (1976), with its coprophagy scenes, marks the end of the relationship between food and human beings.

There are dishes that can be eaten with your eyes and films that can be tasted with your palate, but good food and films can stimulate all the five senses. This course at the GFT, designed as a fascinating journey through half a century of Italian cinema, is a chance to discover what's behind the fatal gastronomic attraction that haunts some of the most famous films of Italian cinema.

Italian Food and Cinema', a six-week course (2 screenings plus 4 lectures with clips from previously unscreened films), starts at the GFT on April 19 with 'Amarcord' by Federico Fellini and closes on May 24 with 'Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom' by Pier Pa