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retrospective

Patrick PreziosiI7.7.2022
Pastoral Realism of 1930s European Works: Let’s Move to the Country
A look into a unique era in filmmaking history.

“Beetles and buttercups,” was how Austrian author Adalbert Stifter was derided and dismissed in his time, a preoccupation with the makeup of the natural world branding him as a sentimentalist, a Blümchendichter, more content to paint or write about flowers than to gauge the present, socially and politically. However, Stifter’s masterpiece, the novella cycle Motley Stones, is a far more knotty affair, locating strange human behaviors within the larger landscapes of his country that compelled him so, like a pastor who chooses his permanent station in the arid, rocky region of Corrie, or a forest girl who slowly assimilates into a family at the foot of the mountain, only to suddenly disappear after years of basically adopted stability, tearfully referencing the deaths of family members of her own who’ve remained––and will remain––unintroduced to the reader. Stifter limns his stories with the artifice afforded by literature, and the hills and rivers and valleys nevertheless keep him grounded within a tenable world.

Given his paintings and flights of prosaicism, Stifter was something of a proto-documentarian, mining the land for a realism that required both a familiarity and a sense of unimpeded awe that an outsider would be in possession of. Although his own personal life was comparatively tempestuous, Stifter points forward towards the sort of deceptively escapist work of Jean Renoir, who in The Lower Depths, has his deposed baron discover the pleasures of laying in the grass. And like Stifter’s stories, this temporary serenity that Renoir constructs is always at risk of being disrupted––of course, it being a Gorky adaptation, such oscillation should be expected (interestingly enough, the Russian writer was born the year Stifter took his own life.)

…films that outline the city-country divide, how the responsibilities of a metropolis chase one into the countryside, though the distractions are still intoxicating and deserved.

Pastoralism can often be confused for sentimentalism, a charge Stifter was no stranger to. But the author would often abandon commas when listing the attributes of a specific stretch of land, the cadence then tumbling forth, sometimes clumsily, sometimes gracefully, always affecting. Early sound films also had a fitfully stuttering quality, eager to exploit technological advancements in production while also still being hemmed in by the formal strictures of narrative filmmaking, resulting in a modest adventurousness that was in service of the quotidien, with flecks of melodrama. An antecedent to neorealism, these early sound, “pastoral realist” films by Renoir, Mario Camerini, Rafael Matarazzo, Max Ophüls and Boris Barnet (with the mantle later hoisted by Helmut Kautner, whose Under the Bridges from 1946 finds peace along the canals leading out from a destroyed Berlin) stand as films that outline the city-country divide, how the responsibilities of a metropolis chase one into the countryside, though the distractions are still intoxicating and deserved.

As posited by Bert Cardullo, “the new technology [of sound cinema] required new personalities to interpret it,” which, in Italy, led to the partnership between actor Vittorio De Sica and Camerini, whose apogee as a duo was 1932’s What Scoundrels Men Are! (which wisely eschews the Prince-Pauper dynamic they favored for other collaborations), which Cardullo later calls, “the documentary of a romance, a neorealist comedy.” De Sica is Bruno, a chauffeur and mechanic, who falls for Mariuccia (Lia Franca), perfumery salesgirl and daughter of a taxi driver. Their relationship hits various snags, following an otherwise idyllic drive to the lakes outside Manilla, where cosmopolitan white noise is replaced with the sound of clanging bocce balls and peasant folk songs. Employers and benefactors frequently wrench the two away from one another: caught by his boss’ family at a lakeside restaurant, Bruno has no choice but to submit to his chauffeur duties and abandon Mariuccia overnight, the first of many speed bumps before their eventual marriage (this is a popular comedy, after all). Frontloading the majority of the romanticism allows Camerini the opportunity to argue for the necessity of physical escapism, this working class milieu otherwise tethered to the grinding rhythms of the city, which among other things, foments unemployment, lechery, and the permissiveness of the upper-classes. A reconciliation is achieved within bustling fairgrounds, and the serenity of the earlier, plein-air passages is preserved. 

The mini-vacation of What Scoundrels Men Are! acts as the entirety of Matarrazo’s Treno popolare (1933), which translates to “Middle-Class Train”, a perfect summation of the film. It’s a warm-weather Sunday, and countless Romans are taking the trip out to Orvieto, to gaze at the architecture and picnic in the grass. The lovably scant narrative finds a Harold Lloyd type getting his advances interrupted by Italian Gary Cooper, but that’s where the Hollywoodisms end, veering more into territory staked by the French popular front filmmakers, as well as People On Sunday. Matarazzo is creating something microcosmic, but it’s also transient, temporary, relegated exclusively to the time the train pulls out of Rome (which is represented only by the station), the day in Orvieto, and the nighttime journey back. In fact, there’s no semblance of routine, no real ethnographic import, save for a few interstitial shots chronicling the journey. The beauty is in the fleetingness: the impulsive decision to rent bicycles, a collective picnic, a totally harmless scandal à la Pagnol, trading glances on the train ride back.

Sometimes, the everyday responsibilities intersect more intentionally with the subtle reveries, the working relationships of What Scoundrels Men Are! leveled out, made equitable. Laughing Heirs (1933), an early comedy from Max Ophüls, esconces its screwball scenario of an unassuming nephew inheriting his uncle’s champagne business in the vineyards and hills surrounding the Rhine. The comedy, endearing and infectious, is nevertheless implausible, though it finds a more incisive counterpart in the films of Boris Barnet, which can occur within utopian outposts, where labor is incorporated into the larger natural setting, like the Caspian seaside community of 1936’s By the Bluest of Seas (his second sound film), or even his last film, 1963’s Whistle Stop, where the traumas of war dissipate at the behest of the work and rhythms of a provincial village, pointing forwards to J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel, A Month in the Country

Like the writing of Stifter, these films aren’t necessarily rejoinders to any sort of prevailing conceptions about the world; instead, their meaning is malleable, and occasionally, a little elusive. Renoir, Matarazzo, et. al., elevate intervals of unremarkable circumstances so that they play as out of time respites from the everyday, even as they are made up of the very stuff (demands, routines, commutes, relationships) that characterizes the mundane. 

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