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Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Stephen Gundle, Death and the Dolce Vita

If you wondered how Berlusconi survived for so long, this well-written book will provide many clues.

Stephen Gundle is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. In the 1950s, Rome was a major film production centre for both Italian and American films. Producers like Fellini, Rossellini and da Sica had international reputations. Italian actors and American actors who worked in Rome were front page material for movie magazines and popular newspapers. Think of Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroiani just for the Italian side.

But rather than write a straightforward history of Italian cinema in the 1950s, Gundle has come at the story from another angle. He structures his book around the never-explained death of a young woman, Wilma Montesi, in April 1953 and provides a crime-detective narrative which, as it unfolds, provides a social history of post-war Rome.

Wilma Montesi was a lower middle-class girl from Rome whose family home was just a short walk from the bright lights of the city. Looking for a life less dull than that favoured by her family and her wooden fiancé, she got mixed up with the wrong crowd and within months died in mysterious circumstances.

The wrong crowd included a career criminal, Ugo Montagna, a man who did not file tax-returns and who had navigated his way to a success which grew through successive regimes - Fascist, American Occupation, Christian Democracy - and the wayward son, Piero Piccioni, of a top Christian Democrat politician. They had a taste for drugs and for sex. Wilma Montesi probably worked as a local drugs courier within Rome and she may have been groomed for sex. One night, something went wrong and she ended up dead on a beach near Rome.

Together Montagna and Piccioni could call in favours and call on connections. Montagna was buddy with the national commissioner for police and the elderly police commissioner for Rome was not going to argue with his boss. The investigation into Wilma Montesi's death was very rapidly closed after a perfunctory autopsy. It was an accident, a verdict her family were happy to embrace since it left their daughter's public reputation - and their own - intact.

The case was only re-opened because Italy's newly-free press would not let go of it. It had all ingredients of a circulation-boosting story: the mysterious death of a pretty young woman, the debauched lives of the rich and powerful (or sons of the powerful) and - not least - cover-up and corruption in high places continuing as if democracy had not yet come to Italy. Silvano Muto, on the journalistic right, led the way and the left followed.

The Vatican also had its own interests. Anything that served to weaken the strength of the Communists in post-war Italy was Good, anything which weakened the strength of the Christian Democrats was Bad. Here the Vatican and the USA, still heavily involved in Italian affairs, shared identical positions.

Gundle develops all this in a carefully-crafted, readable book. He avoids heavy-handed theoretical analysis, but there is an underlying structure: the opposition of high and low life and their proximity to each other in capital cities; the role of mass circulation magazines and newspapers in both sustaining a public sphere of debate but also in structuring the aspirations of young women; the hostility of the Vatican to anything which threatened sexual repression or the subordination of women; the spill-over of film culture into everyday life and the reverse.

If you want to understand the context out of which came Fellini's La Dolce Vita , then read this book. If you want to understand the long-term context in which a regime as corrupt and bacchanalian as Berlusconi's was possible, then this book also provides a remarkable amount of insight.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

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