- Although subsequently often relegated to the status of poor cousin of the fictional feature film, the documentary held pride of place in the early years of the Italian cinema. Indeed it would appear to have been the commercial success in 1904 of his first two documentaries, La prima corsa automobilistica Susa-Moncenisio (The First Car Race between Susa and Moncenisio) and Le manovre degli alpini (The Alpine Maneuvers), that prompted the Milanese optical equipment merchant Arturo Ambrosio to establish Ambrosio Film, the production company that would soon become one of the major pillars of the Italian film industry in the early silent period. Other early film pioneers like Luca Comerio remained firmly devoted to the documentary even during the full bloom of the fiction film. Ambrosio's close collaborator and cinematographer, Roberto Omegna, directed dozens of fictional features at the Ambrosio studios, but he became best known for exotic nature and ethnographic documentaries such as La caccia al leopardo (The Leopard Hunt, 1908), Usi e costumi abissini (Abyssinian Customs, 1908), and Elefanti al lavoro (Elephants at Work, 1911). In 1911 Omegna's remarkable nature study, La vita delle farfalle (The Life of Butterflies), was awarded first prize in the documentary film section of the Turin International Exhibition by a jury that included Louis Lumiere and Paul Nadar. In the same period another Ambrosio cinematographer and collaborator, Giovanni Vitrotti, also produced numerous documentaries while traveling extensively through Russia and the East.The documentary came to be somewhat marginalized during the golden age of the Italian silent cinema when it was overshadowed by the grandeur of the historical Roman epics and the passionate melodramas. However, as the Italian feature film industry initiated its steep decline in the early 1920s, there was a marked resurgence of interest in using the cinema for informational and educational purposes. The result was the establishment in 1924 of L'Unione Cinematografica Educativa (Union of Educational Cinematography), better known by its acronym LUCE. In 1925 LUCE was nationalized and thereafter functioned as the chief instrument for propaganda and consensus building of the Fascist regime, especially through its newsreels and reports, which, from 1926 onward, were required by law to be screened before every feature. Nevertheless, LUCE also hosted a number of technical departments, including a science unit directed by none other than Roberto Omegna and which thus continued to turn out first-rate and award-winning scientific documentaries throughout the years of the regime.LUCE remained the exclusive producer of documentaries in Italy until the early 1930s when, following the death of Stefano Pittaluga, Emilio Cecchi took over as artistic director at the Cines studios and began to encourage artistic and experimental documentary filmmaking alongside the production of fiction films. During Cecchi's brief reign, 17 documentaries were made at the Cines, including Aldo Vergano's I fori imperiali (The Imperial Forums, 1932), Umberto Barbaro's Una giornata nel cantiere di Monfalcone (A Day in the Monfalcone Shipyard, 1932), Alessandro Blasetti's Assisi (1932), and Francesco di Cocco's Il ventre della citta (The Belly of the City, 1932), a remakable exploration of Rome's abattoir and its central fruit and vegetable market. In 1938, LUCE's dominance over documentary filmmaking in Italy was eroded further with the birth of Industria Cortometraggi (Short Film Industry), which soon became well known for its La Settimana INCOM (INCOM Weekly). The heightened competition prompted a rise in the quality of documentaries during this period, resulting in firstrate works such as Giacomo Pozzi Bellini's Ilpianto delle zitelle (The Spinsters' Cry, 1939), Francesco Pasinetti's Venezia minore (Venice in a Minor Key, 1942), and Fernando Cerchio's Comacchio (1942). It was also during this period that Luciano Emmer made the first of what would become a long series of acclaimed art documentaries with Racconto di un affresco (Story of a Fresco, 1938-1941), and Michelangelo Antonioni began filming his Gente del Po (People of the Po), a stunning portrait of hardship and misery in the Po delta, which was interrupted by the war but eventually completed and released in 1947.In the immediate postwar period a widespread desire to bear witness to recent history produced a number of documentaries celebrating the Resistance movement, foremost among them the collaboratively directed Giorni di gloria (Days of Glory, 1945). The documentaristic tendency also naturally spread and found a place in the fictional features that came under the banner of neorealism. However, the greatest boost to medium- and full-length documentary filmmaking was provided by the Italian government itself, which in 1947 passed a law that introduced both a significant financial subsidy to documentary film producers and a legal obligation on exhibitors to screen nationally produced documentaries together with feature films on at least 80 days each year. The immediate result was a massive increase in the annual number of documentaries, rising from approximately 250 in 1948 to 1,150 in 1955, the year in which the law was due to expire (it was, in fact, extended until 1962). This vast expanse of production was uneven in quality, and some of it was undoubtedly motivated by largely commercial considerations on the part of fly-by-night producers. Nevertheless, many of the short and medium-length documentaries made under this dispensation also represented the first testing ground and apprentice work of future auteurs like Valerio Zurlini, Florestano Vancini, Gillo Pontecorvo, and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, not to mention two filmmakers who would remain dedicated documentarists, Vittorio De Seta and Luigi Di Gianni. By the end of the 1950s Roberto Rossellini also turned to the documentary, beginning his move away from film to television with the 10-episode L'India vista da Rossellini (India Seen by Rossellini, made 1957-1958, broadcast 1959). Indeed, with the abandonment of the screen quota for documentaries in the early 1960s, the greater part of documentary production inevitably came to gravitate toward the small screen.The genre continued to flourish in Italy in the early 1960s, not only in the more traditional forms of the nature and travel documentaries of Folco Quilici but also in the more hybrid forms of Ugo Gregoretti's I nuovi angeli (The New Angels, 1962) and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Comizi d'amore (Love Meetings, 1964). An even more audacious transformation of the genre into what came to be known as the "shockumentary" was enacted in the crowded series of "mondo" films, beginning with Gualtiero Jacopetti's Mondo cane (A Dog's World, 1962) and continuing through his La donna nel mondo (Women of the World, 1962), Africa addio (Africa Blood and Guts, 1966), and Addio zio Tom (Goodbye Uncle Tom, 1971), as well as in the plethora of other "show and shock" films, such as Gianni Proia's Mondo di notte 3 (Ecco, 1963), Marco Vicario's Il Pelo nel mondo (Go! Go! Go! World, 1964), Paolo Cavara's L'occhio selvaggio (The Wild Eye, 1967), and Luigi Scattini's Svezia: Inferno e paradiso (Sweden: Heaven and Hell, 1965).After a host of small-budget prolabor and agitprop films made in the wake of the 1968 uprisings, and auteurist documentaries such as Antonioni's Chung-Kuo Cina (China, made in 1972 but first broadcast on Italian television in 1973), documentary production in Italy declined to a trickle by the end of the 1970s. After two decades of relative neglect, however, the documentary returned in force to Italian screens in the mid-1990s. In 1994, the year that marked the beginning of the undeniable resurgence of the form in Italy, the Fondazione Libero Bizzarri instituted an annual film festival and prize in order to showcase and encourage documentary filmmakers. In the same year, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia also established its first course in documentary cinema and the influential National Syndicate of Italian Film Critics (SNCC) united with the Florence-based Festival dei popoli (Festival of Peoples) in publishing a white paper on the state of Italian documentary. An even greater boost to documentary filmmaking was provided by the pay satellite television channel Telepiu, which from 1998 onward bought and broadcast the work of both established and up-and-coming Italian documentarists such as Daniele Segre, Daniele Incalcaterra, Gianfranco Pannone, Alessandro Rossetto, Daniele Vicari, and Stefano Missio.Interest in, and production of, documentary films has continued to grow in Italy in the new millennium to the point where many critics have taken to speaking about a vogue. In the year 2000 Stefano Missio and Francesco Gottardo established the dedicated website www.ildocumentario.it, which has continued to grow and flourish ever since, and three years later over 250 Italian documentarists came together to form their own professional association, Doc/it., which has become an influential lobbying group with both government film authorities and RAI television. With annual documentary film festivals such as the RomaDocFest now as eagerly awaited as Venice or Cannes, the documentary has never been in better health in Italy since perhaps the very earliest days of silent cinema.
Historical dictionary of Italian cinema. Alberto Mira. 2010.