In Rosi’s film I magliari (The Weavers, sometimes known as The Swindlers, 1959) the Southern Problem is articulated through the theme of emigration. The film is, in fact, both set and shot entirely in Germany where a motley group of Italian immigrants try to make their fortune by engaging in a series of organised scams that appear to revolve around the sale of poor quality textiles to Germans at inflated prices. Although the latter part of the film develops into something of a love story between the rather good-hearted young Tuscan emigrant, Mario (Renato Salvatore), and Paola (Belinda Lee), the wife of the German boss, much of the film focuses on male groups exercising, challenging and negotiating power in a desperate effort to secure spoils and territory.
Released two years before his international breakthrough Salvatore Giuliano (1962), Francesco Rosi’s I magliari (1959) is the story of immigrant Italian workers seeking their fortune in late Adenauer-era West Germany. Unfairly neglected by critics and historians, the film is usually regarded a prelude to the Neapolitan director’s ambitious, labyrinthine chronicles of power and corruption of the 1960s and 70s – works which cemented his reputation as the “poet of civic courage”. Rosi himself has admitted that the film was influenced by socially-committed American cinema of the postwar years: “Along with Italian filmmakers, I was interested in those American directors who were linked closely to the social reality of their country. It seemed natural to be struck by the films of Kazan or Dassin.” Even the director’s first film La sfida (1958) – a Naples-set tale of a small-time cigarette smuggler muscling in on the fruit and vegetable market controlled by the Camorra – has clear formal and thematic links with films such as Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway (1948) or Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). Despite setting his second film in a German context, Rosi continues to address pressing socio-cultural issues of the Italian South, including the far-reaching tentacles of the Camorra.
Renato Salvatori plays Mario Balducci, a young worker from Tuscany who we first see arriving in a bustling, neon-lit Hannoverduring the opening credits. He slowly walks the streets in his heavy overcoat, collar up, suitcase in hand, seemingly downcast. The camera tracks right to left as he passes a stream of shops, arcades and street sellers. The layered sound design sees Piero Piccioni’s jazz-inflected score slowly fade into diegetic street noises mixed in with overlapping bursts of German pop and US rock ‘n’ roll. Highly subjective, Rosi’s use of sound adds greatly to Mario’s strong sense of dislocation. While ordering from a food stall, he begins to hear Italian music wafting from across the street like a clean burst of Neapolitan sea air cutting through the dense urban smoke and grease. He crosses to the restaurant “La Bella Napoli” – a meeting place for Italians living in the city – and it is here that he is introduced to the charismatic salesman Totonno (Alberto Sordi) who proceeds to take Mario under his wing. Although Sordi had shown his range in films such as Federico Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953), he was best known at the time for more comic roles, leading many to question his suitability for what was, tonally, a far more serious film. The Roman actor is, however, ideal for the part of the incorrigible swindler, living off his wits and pulling off all kinds of pyrotechnics to get a sale, despite his sub-pidgin German. In an early scene, he takes Mario to the house of a potential client and manages to sell her an expensive carpet after melodramatically feigning injury. Mario – quiet, sensitive, brooding – becomes the perfect foil for the larger-than-life Totonno and, while initially disproving of his new friend’s methods, becomes intoxicated by the lifestyle it affords.
I magliari was Rosi’s second consecutive collaboration with cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo who employs the monochrome widescreen frame to full effect. Group scenes (dinners, meetings) are covered in few, meticulously designed takes but he is equally effective on a smaller scale. One interior sequence shot sees an old Neapolitan worker sitting huddled at a table listening to the jukebox, his cat in his arms. He’s positioned to the left of the frame, facing the camera while the jukebox – bright, bulbous, the room’s only source of light – occupies the centre. The shot is held as Mario enters from the far right. The old man informs him that Totonno has brokered a deal to take Mario and all the weavers in Hannover away from the local Neapolitan boss Don Raffaele Tramontano (Carmine Ippolito) and consign them directly to Herrmann Mayer (Josef Dahmen), a wealthy industrialist based in Hamburg. By this time, Mario has already begun an affair with Meyer’s young wife Paula (played by British actress Belinda Lee), a relationship that develops further upon the weavers’ move to Hamburg. While never explicit, scenes between Mario and Paula show a remarkable intimacy and frankness: Rosi has one scene play out without dialogue as the couple exchange glances before embracing on the windy port, boats chugging and blaring in the background.
When Totonno’s breakaway operation comes under threat from a rival Polish outfit in Hamburg, Mayer resumes links with Don Raffaele and Totonno’s scheme collapses. The ebullient salesman is then completely humiliated by his former boss in front of the assembled group of weavers and is finally forced to abandon them. A short time afterwards, we are in Totonno’s car as he drives away, framing him in profile from the passenger’s seat. Rosi holds the static shot for several minutes as Totonno, bristling with nervous tension, offloads his frustration in a long, animated monologue – a final, emphatic vindication of the director’s casting.
Despite its formal elegance and the undoubted bravura of its stars, I magliari is at its heart an investigation into the exploitation of immigrant workers and the inescapable shadow of organised crime. As Rosi told Aldo Tassone in 1979, “I wanted to continue my investigation of the world of the marginalized, of the marginalized culture of the man of the South who is forced, by a very precise social factor, to ‘invent’ a job for himself”
— Senses of Cinema [Pasquale Iannone]
Subtitles:English, Italian, Russian (muxed), English (srt)