A Giorgio Mangiamele filmography is at the end of this essay.
This is a much longer version of an article published in C-teq, Annotations on Film 4/97. I have maintained the present tense of the previous version, because the memories of time spent with the Dead seem like a dream. Except you become uncertain: was that time lived a dream? Or are memories the artifacts that prove that those who touched us, whose thoughts have altered our own, were not dreamed and were real?…
… Fitzroy, Victoria, August 1997…
… On the table beside my tape recorder is a coffee table astrology book, open on the day of my birthday. This page, which Giorgio has been so excited to show me, is headed “The Day of the Commentator” . In the kitchen, I can hear the sounds of coffee being brewed… and a Mario Lanza-like, sweet, light tenor voice, swelling… The voice is familiar; I have heard it somewhere before… Its owner is dressed up for an outing which our interview has postponed and which his generosity to me eventually causes him to cancel altogether. He’s in a good mood; after decades of hammering at Australia’s state film financing system, he has just received script development funding for Angela (1996), a feature project set in Papua New Guinea that he has been working on for many years.
Although Melbourne film buffs over 50 will nod knowingly at the mention of his name, for many, awareness of Giorgio’s life as a film worker only dates as far as Graham Cutts’ 1992 Cinema Papers interview (1). But that is already far enough in the past for the whole thing to have to be explained to yet another generation. I had come to talk about the films the Melbourne Cinémathèque were to screen in a ‘retrospective-ette’ late in the year, but I was maybe a little more interested in things which I couldn’t screen – especially his first feature, Ill Contratto (1953)
Its intrinsically curious historical position – a feature film shot in Melbourne in the early 1950s – had compelled me to seek the film out at the National Film and Sound Archive (2) some months before. Initial curiosity became amazement. It struck me as one of the most extraordinary independent feature productions in Australian cinema history. This was on two counts at least. The first confirms, indeed enhances Mangiamele’s pioneering contribution to the Australian Cinema of the Migrant experience. The other is quite besides its representational themes of ethnicity, having to do – sans its ‘Italo-Australianiness’ – with Giorgio as a pioneer ‘no budget’ independent personal filmmaker. Shot silently on a 16mm Bolex only 18 months after the filmmaker’s arrival in Australia, Ill Contratto is a social melodrama of the frustrations, loneliness and communal bonds amongst young, single Italian men fresh off the boat and looking for work in early 1950s Melbourne.
“… That was how men would come out to Australia; you’d sign a contract to stay three years… It was terribly hard. I knew men who committed suicide. I was lucky because I knew English and had my photographic work. I was already making money on the ship, taking photos they wanted to send home…”
Its ensemble cast – friends Giorgio met on the boat, clients and contacts he had developed from the photographic business – also crewed between takes. No dialogue was recorded. Lines were delivered in Italian and English with the intention of eventually post-syncing the film into Italian. English-language dubbing was probably only a second thought; Giorgio suggests he had his mind on a film to crack the Italian ‘B’ feature market. However he was never able to fund post-production (“there was no budget… I just bought stock as I went…”); and the surviving mute 90 minute film has only ever been publicly shown in extract in exhibition venues (3).
However, lip-reading skills are not essential in order to make sense of the film. I am subsequently to learn how Giorgio is enamoured with the silent film image; this ensures that his narrative is fairly opaque to a sight-reading. Whatever my fascination with the film I won’t avoid the fact that the film artifact that survives now is anything but the work of a naïve and sentimental young filmmaker. It seems like a rough-cut (I still wonder if it was – although Giorgio suggests that what is at hand is completed). The editing is often grammatically semi-literate, alternatively redundant or fragmented; the ensemble of characters (including the young, tar-haired Giorgio himself) are often allowed to be caught loitering on their marks, waiting for their “action” call; explicative cut aways are awkwardly matched or missing. In many ways a project that was historically extraordinary in conception was very ordinary in realization. Some of this is youthful stylistic voracious hunger: already, the filmmaker’s romantic preference for something more harmonically felt than neo-realism’s discords can be discerned through its brittle cladding of modish neo-realism.
Although surely neo-realism would have been something impossible to avoid for any young Italian film intellectual. In one sense, this is not an Australian film – well no more so than On the Beach (1959). But I cannot underestimate Ill Contratto‘s significance when it is historically positioned against the film culture Giorgio was not yet a part of, but was to adopt. This requires some exploration of the context of Australian cinema’s art and industry at this time. Although he was then unaware of it, or any Australian filmmaking for that matter, Ill Contratto now feels like a work of response to Maslyn William’s Mike and Stefani (1952). Or rather, to the culture which could take Mike and Stefani to be an adequate investigation of the conditions of Australia’s post-war immigrants: Maslyn William’s government film unit docu-drama remains to me a film which (its terse celebrated proto-verite interview sequence aside) is often misunderstood as a film about immigration. It is really one about emigration. Presumptive that its eponymous protagonist couple has arrived, at film’s conclusion, at the littoral of the New Antipodean Jerusalem, the film narratively seizes up just as the migrant passenger liner puts the knots between itself and the exhausted Old World. If Ill Contratto could be seen at all, it should be so, naked and alone in its times, as being a film that starts thinking where Mike and Stefani presume the problems of European immigrants have all been sorted. The only other reasonably contemporary film which even hints at the social and personal dislocation inherent in the Australian Government’s post-war European immigrant trans-migration program was Jennie Boddington’s important featurette Three in a Million (1959). But that film’s initial discerning suggestions of loneliness and alienation – that migration was also cultural and emotional exile for so many – are promptly swept aside in a made-to-order hermeneutic happy ending under the bright yellow shell of its oil company sponsor.
Measured against everything else Australian cinema was producing at the time and place of Ill Contratto, the film seems a little startling, disorientating, almost like a hyper-leap in a filmmaking future – maybe just as Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd’s Melbourne streetscapes must have seemed to many in the same period. This is about as close as mid-century Australian cinema culture gets to something like the moment in Australian visual arts in this period when a Modernist vision was belatedly ‘imposited’ into Australian painting. It’s not quite that a social problem mode was absent from our cinema. Mike and Stefani and the companion works of Griersonite documentary (films by John Heyer, by Colin Dean, by Catherine Duncan) that emerged from Australia’s post-second World War, first New Wave were continually trying to workshop the problems of Australian economic and social reconstruction. But they are agit-prop and didactically noisy, in the manner of Russian formalism and The Crown Film Unit films – their two dominant stylistic models. The occasional flutters on the social melodrama genre undertaken by our more commercial studio producers apart (Ken G. Hall and Cinesound’s Mr Chetworth Steps Out , for example) it is true that Australia’s national cinema had not yet acquired the mode of address to have been able to make a film anything like an Ill Contratto - or had maybe lost it with the termination of Raymond Longford’s career in the early ’20s. Quite innocently, Giorgio arrived in Australia with the zeitgeist of one culture – Italian neo-realism – in his creative kit and applied it to a place and a milieu where (although admittedly de Sica and Rosselini’s early films were then known here to early Film Festival audiences) a vernacular Australian neo-realism film style and narrative was yet unimaginable as having any place.
Only Cecil Holmes’ work in this period (Captain Thunderbolt , Three in One ) has anything like Ill Contratto‘s contemporaneousness. Yet paradoxically Holmes, although both a more socially sophisticated maker of film narratives and probably far more of a genuine social realist, was trying at the time to forge a commercially viable national film product. Out of this imperative, he largely sublimated his own otherwise realist and contemporary thematic pre-occupations into popular vernacular period drama genres, such as the Lawsonite yarn or the Bushranger adventure. No matter how much Holmes transformed these genres through (cryto-) Marxist reading, they none the less indicate an opinion that Australian post-war cinema audiences, quite unlike their Italian counterparts, were not particularly engaged in any romance with the reconstructing contemporary. Only the final section of Three In One (1955), the The City episode, consciously invokes the one commercial genre Holmes had not yet tried – the realist art film. But even then, Holmes and cinematographer Ross Wood’s scheme is shaped more by the good manners of English studio picture realism of the period, such as that of David Lean or Thorald Dickinson.
Ill Contratto is the real thing: in its use of found locations, cast and celebratory communal occasions; in its sense of urban place; and in its interest in the common plight of marginalized Australians. Consequently, the film is a grievous absence from Australian feature filmographies, including early Australia film history’s “Doomsday Book”, and Pike and Cooper’s Australian Film 1900-1977 (4). In this also it is the film truest to Giorgio’s (I think slightly contrived) reputation as an Australian de Sica. Indeed, social specific immigrant themes dominated this primal project in a way that they never would, despite Mangiamele’s reputation in his subsequent career. This is Mangiamele as he has tended to be remembered – in the film least seen of all.
That anyone, especially a non-English speaking migrant in early 1950s Australia should throw himself into the deep-end of filmmaking argues either for Giorgio’s energies – or for his naiveté. But Giorgio arrived in Australia as an experienced filmmaker and graduate from an unlikely film school:
“… I studied photography in Sicily and at University in Rome. But I learnt about filmmaking in the Rome police force, the Polizia Scientifica. We’d film surveillance or demonstrations and that needed film technique… establishing shots, close ups, zoom ins … and then a sense of how to cut the film together for showing later on to the Magistrate… We were all film buffs in the police force; we’d see films together and talk about them constantly… “
Teasing formative influences from Giorgio is difficult. I mention the Hollywood films he might have seen in Rome but he is insistent about the “… noisiness…” of American Cinema – then and now. The neo-realists? De Sica, Rossellini suggest themselves, of course. But, whilst Giorgio talks about the neo-realist’s working methods – the ‘art’ of post-syncing dialogue, using magnetic track or double head projector, which, like Orson Welles he always relied upon in his own filmmaking – he only refers to their importance at my prompting. Later, more spontaneously, he mentions the impact of Eisenstein. I suggest the possible influence of the so-called French Impressionists of the 1920s: Epstein, Dulac and early Renoir. To that, affirmatively, warmly, a yes; and his discussion shows a now rare knowledge of their work and expresses the importance of the image and the use of silence in cinema.
Let’s make a frank digression here: that Giorgio was trying to make a cinema in an adopted language was the curse and blessing of his career. The importance of Impressionist cinema may have been a migrant’s retreat into the private poetic place within and a redoubt against an Australian vernacular, a ‘Local’ he never really could penetrate. I know that film historians often cite the importance of imported European directors in providing a distaff, outsider’s vision of America. But it tends to be forgotten that many of these were Englishmen, whilst those for whom English was not a first language were carefully policed, artistically by the strictures of Hollywood’s studio system. The true history of foreign language directors making independent films in English is far more wayward. Werner Herzog’s own Australian experiment, Where the Green Ant’s Dream (1984) is only the most local example of a foreign vision which, rather than seeing with an outsider’s clarity, has got totally disorientated and now sounds quite tin-eared.
This is a particular problem when one is meant to be a filmmaker of the vernacular, as neo-realists are meant to be. Thus to me the baggage of Italianness and neo-realism has, I believe, done considerable disservice to views of Giorgio’s work, enforcing on his career a naturalist narrative formal model to which he rarely had any interest in aspiring to. It may have not been the intention to leave Ill Contratto to us as a silent work, but in retrospect, it seems appropriate to the aesthetic practice he was to subsequently forge. Inevitably, Giorgio’s failure to be very interested in being the realist he was supposed to be seems to lead to the inevitable charge that he was, somehow, a ‘naïve’ filmmaker. Adrian Martin’s recent argument for the existence of a naïve art film school in Australian cinema – in particular in the features of Rolf de Heer and Paul Cox – could be applied retrospectively to Mangiamele (5). But critically, Giorgio was a cogent stylist of a specific type of art film, whereas (if I can extrapolate Martin’s argument a little) de Heer and Cox are curiously artless as film stylists.
Rather, I believe Mangiamele shares with the ‘high’ silent era an interest in allegorical narrative, the Symbolist image and the filmed dream. (“That is what they didn’t understand about Clay (1964)… it’s a dream . . .”). It may be that Giorgio is a filmmaker out of his true time; the emphasis on dramatic and psychological realism to which dialogue inevitably drives narrative cinema is almost a burden in his films.
One can’t escape the ‘elementary’ nature of Giorgio’s themes and articulation of human relationships in the three short features Giorgio made after Ill Contratto. The Brothers (1958), Giorgio’s first completed film (apart from various test sequences and a lost 20 min. short Unwanted, all filmed as exercises for the cinema school he ran in Russell St. in the 1950s) has these almost Biblical qualities. The film also marks the beginning of two key working relationships of his career. The first was with the actor Bob Clarke, who scripted many of Giorgio’s original story ideas, who acted in all of Giorgio’s films in this period and often provided many of the post-sync voices for actors cast primarily (á la neo-realism) for their visual appeal. It seems clear that Clarke was Mangiamele’s ligature to the social Australia of the late ’50s.
The other partnership was with the then adolescent Ettore Siracusa, who starred in The Brothers and continued as Giorgio’s assistant director on all of his following productions (6). Giorgio now indicates that the following featurette, The Spag (1960) was an attempt to rectify the weakness of The Brothers. This was at the suggestion of Erwin Rado, then Melbourne Film Festival and Australian Film Institute Head.
“I’d entered The Brothers in the first award competition in 1958. Rado said he liked the film but should have done this and this, etc… if it was to screened… And by 1960, lab facilities for doing the sound had got better and I thought I could do a better job. Most of it, like many of my films was shot round my photographic studio in Elgin Street… Bob Clarke found most of the actors. He brought along Terry Donovan, who later worked for Crawfords, and he seemed right for a University student. I saw Terry recently, doing a play. He said ‘Giorgio… you were my first film director…’”
Although The Spag shared plot and visual narrative elements and visual imagery with The Brothers (the impressionistic use of semi-abstract montage effects, especially the displacement of violence represented into graphic motifs such as newspapers blowing the street, oranges rolling away, for example), its greater significance is that it seems to be the first Australian film to universalize the alienating experiences of migrants in the Australian inner cities. Mangiamele’s lonely Carlton lanes dovetail effectively into the alienating Australian suburbs of Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot or Robin Boyd’s Australian Ugliness.
Again, this was an advance on these films’ only precursors, the Commonwealth Film Unit’s post-war cycle of liberal fair play sponsored documentaries about the ‘problem’ of immigrant assimilation such as No Strangers Here (1949), Double Trouble (1951) as well as the previously-discussed Mike and Stefani. But, again also, the case for Giorgio as a ‘multicultural’ filmmaker should not be overstated. The Spag‘s single mother and son (as is the case with the single father and son in the following Ninety-Nine Percent) are defined by their relationship with sympathetic or bellicose Anglo-Saxons, rather than within the mores of an ethnic sub-culture. Both films are about being alone, of adjustment and alienation within the mainstream, rather than about the veiled domestics of constrained minority communities (the interest of more recent filmmakers such as Siracusa, Monica Pellizzari, Tek Tan or Tracey Moffatt). They are not culturally specific, but rather allegoricalise the general human tragedy of loneliness.
Or its absurd, comic possibilities. Ninety-Nine Percent (Mangiamele’s first 35mm, from 1962) is to me Giorgio’s best; a surprise because its flippancy and absurdity contrast with the moral seriousness of everything else in Giorgio’s career. Apart from the traditions of Italian stage farce it owes as much to silent comedy as the other films owe to the silent cinema’s melodramatists. Jacques Tati comes to mind – although Giorgio derives his comic effects from montage rather than extravagant and comically assembled mise en scène. Clarke and Giorgio have Tati’s sense of human speech as comic sound effect rather than text (the meeting of school teachers limited to somnambulant, monosyllabic exchanges; the stranger who thrusts a lighter before the father struggling with his own with the remark: “. made in Australia”). Again, the mode is parable: a spivvy Italian father tries to please his Anglicized young son by integrating into the mainstream through an arranged marriage. The film’s comic pleasures address the divergent cosmopolitanism of Carlton in the ’60s rather than the exclusive picaresque of the Italian community there (and Giorgio’s film co-incidentally observes the changes overtaking the suburb in the post-war period).
One wonders why Giorgio never returned to this comic style:
“You only make comedy because the story says ‘this is comedy’. It comes from the story… yes it’s organic. Joe was another migrant I knew in Carlton who used to tell these stories. The film just came out of the stories. He had a wonderful face and so did his son, but his English was no good, so he did it in Italian… Bob (Clarke) did the voice later… “
Later that afternoon we go on to talk about Giorgio’s two features of the 1960s: Clay (1964) (of which Giorgio is still proud) and Beyond Reason (1970) (of which he is not – “I had no time to make the images look good. It was shot in a couple of weeks for TV…”); his work for the Papua New Guinea Government film Unit (where he shot Sapos, probably the first Pidgin language feature made in PNG), his frustrations with funding bodies over the last 15 years and of so many films lost or prevented; his hopes for his new project, about his PNG experiences, on which he is currently working with scriptwriter Frank Wilmot.
I return to Clay because of its relationship to the earlier short films, its historical significance as one of the first Australian feature in competition at Cannes, its critical dismissal. For these reasons, I simultaneously hesitate to raise it. Clay is the film by which Giorgio gets remembered – too often in a truncated TV version SBS occasionally screens – as the first Australian Film at Cannes (not strictly true – Chauvel’s Jedda  was there in 1955). Again, it is another aspect of Giorgio’s career that gets in the way of a clear understanding of his contribution to Australian cinema. But still, whatever its dramatic faults (if it is a filmed dream then the dream is too melodramatic and straight, lacking the real oddness of dream’s alternatively distressing and cocked-up logic) it remains one of the best looking features of the period between the war and the feature revival. Again one has to look to the Cecil Holmes-Ross Wood features for any comparison on 35mm in this period, at least until that kindred attempt to pioneer an Australian art feature, the Rob Copping-shot, Tim Burstall feature 2000 weeks (1969) came along a few years later.
This is not just for Clay‘s sleek, art photography production values. It is for the evocative power of its narrative montage and ambient sound to evoke intense sensations of human passion and the Australian rural winter. It reminds me of later Welles (although Giorgio insists he has not seen any of Welles apart from Citizen Kane.) None the less, the film was as poorly received at festival screenings, and was thrown away by exhibitors. Although happy to lap up the not dissimilar stylistic range of Ingmar Bergman at this time, Australian film culture was still possessed by the dominant post-war idea that literary realism was the only mode of film art address.
Ironic then, that, of course, the dream landscape of Clay is almost that that Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) was later to penetrate. Clay closes with the voice of its ingenue speaking from death and over an unreal landscape, announcing that “. Life is a Dream”; 10 years later Picnic‘s Miranda would syncronize with her in speaking of “. a dream within a dream” minutes before she melted into Weir’s own similarly uncanny locations. Giorgio admires Weir’s film greatly, although he resists the idea of literary adaptation himself:
“You have to start with the image. I can’t take a story from somewhere else. It has to come from within… “
As the coffees grow more frequent and the Saturday afternoon is lost to the fish-scale light and football final scores of an inner suburb Melbourne winter, I ask him about what he’s seen and what he’s admired amongst recent Australian cinema. He speaks immediately and positively about Samantha Lang’s The Well (1996), another film enveloped in a hyper-, surr-naturalistic sense of Australian landscape.
I make my final note of the day – that these are hardly the thoughts of a neo-realist.
A consideration of a filmmaker’s poetics should not be aesthetically hamstrung by a flow of cultural associations now inevitable to any suggestion of the presence of a Cinema of Migrant Experience. That is to put the cultural cart before the poetics horse. Giorgio Mangiamele needs to be remembered much more, I feel, as maybe one of our first art filmmakers, as a poet of cinema’s power to universalize feelings, as much as an accountant of the social and historic conditions from which the feelings which were important to him – of alienation or oddness in a place – were derived. Australian cinema’s past is present as film art too – not just as a history.
(For Ana and Giorgio – two immigrants I once dreamed of)
Ill Contratto (The Contract) 1953;
Beyond Reason 1970;
Sapos 1979-82, (in Pidgin for PNG Govt. Film Unit);
Angela aka The Edge of Paradise 1996- (in script development)
The Brothers 1958;
The Spag 1960;
99 % 1963;
The Boys in the Age of Machines 1964;
Papua New Guinea Enters the Silk World, The Living Museum, The Caring Crocodile, South Pacific Festival of the Arts 1979-82 for PNG Govt. Film Unit
TV: as Photo:
Sebastian the Fox 1960-62 (dir: Tim Burstall)
- Graham Cutts: ” An Interview with Giorgio Mangiamele”, Cinema Papers, 1992
- Now ScreenSound Australia – the National Screen and Sound Archive (SSA). The author was, at the time of this interview, a freelancer who occasionally worked with that organization. He is at present its full time employee.
- Initially at “The Italians and Jews of Carlton”, Melbourne Museum, 1993. The surviving print of Ill Contratto lodged with the SSA has for a soundtrack Giorgio’s attempt to provide a kind of spontaneous narrative commentary to the film – which characteristically becomes an excuse (rather like the Bensji who accompanied Japanese Silent Cinema) for the filmmaker to exercise his love of Italian light tenor. and that was where I had heard that voice before.
- Ross Cooper, Andrew Pike: Australian Film, 1900-1977 (Oxford University Press, 1978, 1999)
- Adrian Martin, “Australian Art Films”, Cinema Papers, no. 136 Dec 00-Jan 01
- Siricusa subsequently went on to direct a number of experimental narrative films in the 1980s, including Natura Morta: Still Life (1982), one of the most significant film essays on the migrant experience in Australian Cinema.