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Italian Neo-Realism burst upon the world with the films of Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, and Vittorio De Sica in the mid-forties, just as Italy was coming out from under the rule of Benito Mussolini. Films like Ossessione (1943), Rome: Open City (1945), and The Bicycle Thief (1948) define the movement for most people but one film, Without Pity (original title Senza Pieta), from 1948, penned by a young Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli, and co-written and directed by Alberto Lattuada, doesn't have nearly the same name recognition yet, in many ways, it is more daring than any of them.
Without Pity takes as an important plot element a very real situation that occurred in Italy, in 1945, after the war wound down: Some African-American soldiers chose to stay in Italy after the war rather than return to America to face the same discrimination and the same limited opportunities they had experienced before they left. In America, they were second-class citizens. In Italy, by contrast, they were treated as equals. In fact, the lead actor in the film, John Kitzmiller, himself an African-American soldier serving in Italy, decided to stay in Italy after his tour of duty was over.
The movie starts with Angela (Carla Del Poggio) hitching a ride on a boxcar, headed for another life, better than the one she has now. As the train pulls away, American military police and soldiers round the corner chasing a man who jumps aboard the very car Angela is on. A soldier, Jerry (John Kitzmiller), jumps aboard in pursuit and is shot by the pursued man who then jumps off the train. Angela cares for Jerry until the train stops and she can get him proper medical care.
Later, Angela is interrogated by American military police and sent away to a detention area for other female prisoners, despite her protests that she'd done nothing wrong. She meets up with Marcella (Giulietta Masina) and the two bide their time until a mass escape allows them to get away. After going into business with a racketeer, Angela meets up with Jerry again and the two form a bond, both of them desperate for life to give them a better shot.
Alberto Lattuada, despite the risky subject matter, tackled the story head on. While they never make physical their love, through a kiss, Angela and Jerry are clearly in love and will live and die for each other if need be. This kind of interracial romance in 1949 didn't sit well back in the states and Lattuada had an impossible time finding backing and distribution for wide release in the United States. Near the end of the movie, Jerry says that he will love Angela like a brother loves a sister, a line no doubt inserted with American censors in mind, to brush off any claims of miscegenation. It didn't help. Since the Production Code forbade portrayals of mixed race romances, the film was not given wide distribution or approval and, as a result, went unseen for decades in the States.
What stands out more today than the interracial romance, which now seems not only harmless but too nervously guarded, are the early Fellini motifs, present in every frame: The seedy charlatans, the fortune tellers, the oddball locals, the partying nightlife and, of course, Giulietta Masina. Fellini and Masina met in 1942 and were married in 1943. Although she had acted on the stage for years, and done bit parts in movies, it wasn't until Without Pity that she finally got onscreen billing in a major supporting role. It's immediately clear from her first moment onscreen that Masina has more charisma than the entire rest of the cast combined (but they're all good nonetheless) and that she would soon find stardom (and she did). Her goodbye to Angela, late in the movie, is worth the whole film alone for the energy, emotion, and heartbreak she brings to it.
The director of the film, Alberto Lattuada, worked with his wife on the film as well. Carla Del Poggio and Lattuada had married in 1945 and remained married until his death in 2005. He would not have the same internationally famous career as his protégé, Fellini, but was very successful in Italy and could take solace knowing he helped launch Fellini's career. In 1950, he co-directed Variety Lights with Fellini, the film that would mark Fellini's debut as a director. And, yes, Carla Del Poggio and Giulietta Masina starred.
Without Pity is in many ways a groundbreaking film, not just within the Italian Neorealist movement but for any films anywhere. It was one of the first honest portrayals of two people of different race falling in love with each other. And it made John Kitzmiller a star in European movies. In 1957, he even took home a best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for the movie, Valley of Peace (1956). Later, in the states, he became most famous for his portrayal of Quarrel in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). But no role was ever better than Jerry, American G.I. in love with a down and out Italian woman after the war. It's a romance that hasn't gotten nearly the amount of attention it deserves.— Greg Ferrara, TCM.com
Sat January 25, 2020, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
Italy, 1948, in Italian with English subtitles, Black and White, 90 min, 1.37 : 1
Writer: Federico Fellini, Director: Alberto Lattuada, Cast: Carla Del Poggio, John Kitzmiller, Pierre Claudé, Giulietta Masina