Unknown to many, Nico D’Alessandria (1941–2003) was one of the most important directors of independent Italian cinema. His stories of outcasts and ghost-like characters create a unique kind of poetic cinema, in which reality becomes a dream and the dream becomes reality. If one could sum up his work and personality in one word, that word would be independence. D’Alessandria’s absolute freedom of thought and action from both mainstream and art-house cinema proved to be too much not only for audiences, but also for producers, distributors and critics, leading to his work being frequently misunderstood if not entirely forgotten. Throughout his career he made only three feature films and his total dedication to his work took him so far as to mortgage his house.
D’Alessandria’s films were all shot in the last two decades of the 20th century, but his story as an author and director begins much earlier. His cinema is rooted in the political and cultural movement triggered by 1968, or in what was left of it—mostly anti-heroes and defeat—in a time when those ideologies had lost much of their heft. Nico D’Alessandria is an unusual island in the panorama of Italian cinema of his time: between a wave of “new neorealism” and a bunch of generational sentimental comedies, D’Alessandria went a step further, carving his own genuine, anarchic path.
After studying law, in 1967 he graduated in directing at the Italian National Film School of Rome with a short film based on T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.“ Actor, director, writer, and philosopher Carmelo Bene delivers Eliot’s verses, while D’Alessandria himself plays the role of a drifter, wandering by night around streets that look desolate but are somehow filled with human presence. Eliot’s words chase the images, in black and white, creating a specular but distorted relationship. And who is Prufrock? A fragile idealist, a man choked by everyday life and by the judgment of others who are nothing but masks and no communication with them is possible. Prufrock is the first unfit character to appear in D’Alessandria’s filmography. In 1966, the director had already tackled the claustrophobia of the human condition in his short film Evelina and Marcoaldo, in which an oppressed husband falls asleep in his armchair and starts dreaming of playing cards with a stranger—with his wife Evelina as the stake in the game. The dynamics of the relationship come across as a nightmare; loneliness is a choice (or perhaps an imposed sentence.) There is a dream-like atmosphere and a sense of being unfit, both of which will become trademarks of D’Alessandria’s work.
In 1968 he tried his hand at politically active cinema, working alongside screenwriter Cesare Zavattini at one of his nine Cinegiornali liberi (Free Newsreels). Zavattini was one of the first theorists of Italian Neorealism, a long-time collaborator of Vittorio De Sica in such pivotal films as The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine, and Umberto D. With this new project Zavattini was seeking a new way of informing people through cinema: open to anyone, free of charge and without fear of censorship or power—the current social and political issues seen through the eyes of different authors. Among the stories in the project are an interview with French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit; the incidents at a workers-occupied copy shop in Rome; the tragedy of the earthquake in Belice and the collapse of the Vajont dam; and the police putting down demonstrations in the town of Battipaglia after the local sugar factory was shut down. Roma Amor is the episode D’Alessandria co-signed: the tone is sarcastic and mocking, the camera fixed on St. Peter’s Dome with a fake background of bombings.
Cinema and images, as is to be expected from a film director—but in 1978, after almost ten years of silence due mainly to production and financial issues, D’Alessandria turned his attention to the radio and its own specific language. The result of this was Processi Mentali (Mental Trials), which aired on the national radio station Radio Uno. Six 30-minute episodes are portraits of “madmen” in a journey through the radical social and political changes in the approach to mental illness introduced by pioneering Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia. Basaglia was the main driver behind Law 180 (also known as Basaglia Law) passed by Parliament in 1978 after a long and heated debate. Not only did Law 180 close down all the old asylums to replace them with Mental Health Services, but it restored the rights and the dignity of the patient with mental disorders, finally recognized as a human being and not as a dangerous subject to be restrained and confined for life. D’Alessandria chose five men and one woman from different social and geographical backgrounds all staying at some of the psychiatric hospitals involved in this momentous change. Sergio, traumatized by his experience in the army, now has serious issues with language and the ability to express himself; Cesare, a businessman, is the privileged rich drained by capitalism; Mario, an intellectual, declares himself Greek and blames the Etruscans for ruining Italy; Gianni, a coachbuilder absorbed in his own imaginary world, dreams of engineering a bizarre line of cars; Bino has collapsed into an existential impasse and is slowly coming out of it; Luisa, a single young mother, is guilty of wanting to live a free life in, different from the one that has been forced upon her at a time when honor killing and shotgun marriage were still part of the Italian Penal Code. D’Alessandria talks to his interviewees as a person to another person, he raises concerns and doubts, involves their relatives and friends, thus creating the feeling of a professional and impartial “trial.”
Two years later, in 1980, D’Alessandria’s atypical take on social issues moves to the concept of aging, seen beyond the usual stereotypes and the social conventions. This leads to his first “real” film: Passaggi (Passages). In the form of a documentary, it follows the story of elderly Ginetta on her trip to a spa center organized by the municipality of Rome. We see her house, her trip to the spa and her chit chat with the other “old mates.” A sort of melancholic irony runs throughout the story in a delicate balance with the general feeling of death, which also weaves its way through the film. Ginetta is not your typically romanticized old woman: she is not wise, she is not stingy or out of her mind. Very simply, she is lonely and she knows it.
1987 is the year of his masterpiece, L’imperatore di Roma (The Emperor of Rome), the work for which he is best known in the underground circuit of cinephiles. The idea for the film comes five years prior, in 1982, when D’Alessandria meets Gerardo Sperandini, known as Gerry, a loafer who will become the main actor in the film. The two start a human relationship that goes way beyond the film. They soon start working on the project—a film based on Gerry’s daily life around Rome—but it all comes to a halt when Gerry is considered socially dangerous and interned in a criminal asylum. D’Alessandria comes to his rescue: Gerry is out on parole and D’Alessandria himself takes him into foster care at his home so filming can restart in 1985. The film is shot silent in black and white, with a very loud Arriflex camera—dubbing and sound are added later. In the film Gerry plays himself, a young drug addict outcast, who spends his time walking aimlessly through the streets of Rome. His delirium embraces the whole city: he would like to destroy the Colosseum with pickaxes and thinks he is an emperor back to restore life after the end of the world. His hallucinations are interspersed here and there with music by Tan Zero, a prog-new wave Italian band, in particular the song “We can’t Imagine” played many times during the film. After filming is done, D’Alessandria continued to take care of his actor-friend, but Gerry was lost again and finally was confined in a criminal asylum.
For many film critics The Emperor of Rome is the 1980s version of Pasolini’s Accattone (1961). After all, Rome, the city D’Alessandria loved and hated, is always in the background, revisiting Pasolini’s imagery and symbols in the Italy of the 80s and 90s. But there is more. Just like Pasolini, D’Alessandria raises the question of overcoming neorealism, but goes about it in his own peculiar way. Gerry is a drug addict D’Alessandria really took care of. Franco Citti, the protagonist of Pasolini’s film, did not get the same treatment, in spite of his difficult life. Gerry’s marginal position in the world is also more absolute than Accattone’s. Accattone dies in a motorcycle accident at the bend of a bridge; when Gerry also falls in the very same spot he soon gets up, curses, and is ready to resume his aimless wandering around Rome. Gerry wanders around downtown Rome, while Accattone lives exclusively in the suburbs and only dies downtown, far from his own social milieu. Pasolini starts from reality but impresses his own poetics on the places and characters of his cinema. Gerry’s Rome, by contrast, is both rough and portrayed with affection, and D’Alessandria removes any political implication behind the cultural extinction of Rome’s urban proletariat.
L’amico Immaginario (The Imaginary Friend, 1994) is D’Alessandria’s most autobiographical film. Shot during a time of extreme financial uncertainty, the film’s attention is on how disoriented the characters are. Actor Victor Cavallo, one of D’Alessandria’s friends, plays Dino Raider, Nico’s alter ego: an a misfit, an outcast man who spends his days walking around Rome taking stock of his life. His only true friend is imaginary: a priest, a former schoolmate of his, who after a sudden death begins to guide and inspire the protagonist. There is a sweet, soft feel to this film, no hint of pessimism, even though the political disillusionment of a generation is palpable. Dino Raider sees everybody else as people who have managed to find their own place in the world—he looks up to them and he is jealous of them, although ultimately it is his own ineptness that drags him into a dreamy world where the only genuine conversations can occur with a friend who is not real. Despite his sad strolls around Rome, Dino is not Gerry, and the language of the film is much more narrative. Madness has perhaps been domesticated; pain is still there but also a visibly lighter sense of life. D’Alessandria brings Gerry Sperandini back on the set, but also his own son, Roberto, his doctor, even his mother in a small role. He loved to involve his closest people.