The Indelible Footprints Left by Italian Auteurs and Actresses at the Cannes Film Festival

Ahead of the 77th edition, The Rake revives La Dolce Vita at La Croisette. Italian maestros and muses weave their poetry through Cannes’ storied tapestry.

The Indelible Footprints Left by Italian Auteurs and Actresses at the Cannes Film Festival

In 1977, for the 30th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, the Polish painter and sculptor Wojciech Siudmak was given his second commission to create the festival’s official poster. It was an era when surrealism artwork was favoured, and draped across the Palais des Festival’s façade was a Venus-like goddess standing on a sea platform, having either just landed from outer space or ascending from the deep, and wearing an azure-hued one-shoulder dress that extended beyond her breast. In front of her was a peacock, and one can only postulate that the festival committee was conveying its core beliefs that cinema is divine, nudity is unopposed, and peacocks are welcomed!

That year, confined to his briefs and surrounded by a troupe of Folies Bergère dancers, Arnold Schwarzenegger was illustrating the title of his docudrama Pumping Iron on the Croisette beach. Over on the Carlton Hotel beach, Dutch actress, model and singer Sylvia Kristal was posing as a 'starlet' for a multitude of photographers who were crouching to capture the perfect angle. But behind was a large skimpy-dressed audience, some of whom seemed to be trying to blend in as photographers, while the American actress Edy Williams was strolling along the promenade in front of another vast gallery, topless but bejewelled with a pearl necklace. For all of its joie de vivre, perhaps escalated by the milestone and the poster, the 30th edition is commemorated by cinéastes for the immense contribution by Italian auteurs and actors/actresses.

From left: Italian film director Federico Fellini, French actress Anna Prucnal and Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, face cameras during the 33rd Cannes Film Festival, on May 20, 1980. Getty Images.

Considered to be a direct descendent of the neo-realism movement, A Special Day 1977, directed by Ettore Scola, one of the great Italian filmmakers of his generation, not only exemplarily explored the themes of homosexuality and fascism at a time Adolph Hitler was making his way through Italy to meet ally Benito Mussolini, but it beautifully rendered the working and romantic relationship between actors, actresses, and filmmakers in Italian cinema, plus its education on Italian life in 1938. Many years after the film's release, Sophia Loren confided in an interviewer, "Whenever I was asked to do a picture with Marcello, I would always say yes, yes, yes, without even reading the script." The venerated acting duo made seventeen movies together and quite rightly at the Cannes Film Festival, which awarded Loren as the best actress in 1961 and the men’s equivalent to Mastroianni in 1970 and 1987. For Loren, the title A Special Day could have conveyed deeper personal emotions, given that her husband, Carlo Ponti, was the highly reputable producer of the picture, and one only has to delve into the enormity of the obstacles they faced to share their lives with one another. Loren’s dalliances with Cary Grant and Peter Seller were only minor interruptions. But back to A Special Day being premiered at the festival: that year, the Roman-born auteur Roberto Rossellini, who incidentally directed Rome, Open City, 1945, the first Italian-made film to win the Palme d'Or, was appointed to be the jury president. However, after Padre Padrone received this most prestigious award, certain filmic denizens expressed their indignation that A Special Day wasn’t awarded the highest prize. But it didn’t dwindle the Italian contribution that year, as Padre Padrone was the genius creation of two Italian brothers, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, and the Italian actor Omero Antonutti, extolled in the leading role. 

Ettore Scola, Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti at Cannes Film Festival, 1977.
Ettore Scola and Federico Fellini, Cinecittà, 1986.
Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 1963.
Roberto Rossellini, 1960.
Directors Claude Lelouch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Jacques Cousteau, Costa-Gavras, Andrzej Wajda, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Bille August raise a glass to Akira Kurosawa at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.

Published by different sources over the years, film critics have ranked Palme d’Or winners. The judgement varies only a little, but if you’re seeking the most credible source, you’d probably turn to The Hollywood Reporter. Occupying the top five positions are three Italian films: 4th Blow-Up (1966), 2nd La Dolce Vita (1960), and 1st The Leopard (1963), which is a rather monumental tag. The 77th edition, 2024, will premiere only one Italian entry in the form of Paolo Sorrentino's new movie, Parthenope, but in vain of Italy's stature at the Cannes Film Festival, the French-Italian comedy film Marcello Mio carries unrivalled sentiment for the iconoclastic actor Marcello Mastroianni, who would be 100 this year. Filmed in Paris, Rome, and the beach resort of Formia, south-east of the Italian capital, the film is worthy of being the most intriguing picture of the year. Directed by Christophe Honoré, the synopsis is that Chiara Mastroianni, an actress and daughter of Marcello and Catherine Deneuve, decides to bring him back to life through her own self. She takes on his name, emulates his style of dress, and gains the title of an actor, an identity she refuses to renounce. 

Despite his two triumphs as best actor, this is not the first time the self-effacing Mastroianni has received recognition at the Cannes Film Festival. For the 67th edition, he was the subject on the poster, and it was thanks to the handiwork of Hervé Chigioni, who used a photogram taken from Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½, which was presented in the Official Selection in 1963. The poster designer said, “The way he looks at us above his black glasses draws us right into a promise of global cinematographic happiness. The happiness of experiencing the Festival de Cannes together.” Not as renowned as being a pioneer of the Italian neorealism movement, Fellini was an adept illustrator—a vocation he nearly fell into as a young man. However, his talent never folded, and he was the artist who produced the posters for the 1982 and 1994 editions. The Italians' participation in official posters hasn't always translated into a cordial outcome. In 1959, there was fury that the festival had supposedly airbrushed Claudia Cardinale thighs to look slimmer, when swirling her skirt on a Rome roof. "Claudia Cardinale dropped a dress size in one swirl," said the left-leaning Liberation, while the culture magazine Telerama questioned why it was necessary to retouch the famously sexy star when she was in her heyday.

Federico Fellini riding the crane whilst making Roma, circa 1972. Getty Images.
Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita, 1960.
Claudia Cardinale, Venice, 1965. Getty Images.

During the last century, entertainers frequently adopted eclectic animals as pets, often spotted on French soil. These pictorial scenes were especially common at the Cannes Film Festival, notably featuring Italian thespians and directors. In a stunt to promote The Leopard (1963), Claudia Cardinale and Luchino Visconti’s poses on the beach with a leopard, while Gina Lollobrigida, a grandam of the festival until her passing last year, was pictured in undeniable glamour with four Dalmatians at the Hotel Carlton in 1972.

The storied history of the Cannes Film Festival is much richer with the contributions of Italians, but on the flip side, the festival has provided a platform to launch flourishing acting careers. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, L’Avventura (1960) starring his artistic muse, Monica Vitti, is regarded as arguably the most divisive film in history to have screened at the festival, yet it was awarded the Special Jury Prize, thus establishing Vitti as an international star. The festival significantly boosted the careers of other actresses, such as Guilietta Masina, who won the best-actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in Fellini's 1957 film Nights of Cabiria. The two other brilliant Italian actresses take home this illustrious award: Ottavia Piccolo (1970) and Virna Lisi (1994). 

Festival de Cannes 1960 Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti. Getty Images.

There are many other Italian names, particularly filmmakers whose tales you could decipher from the festival, including directors such as Mario Soldati, Alberto Lattuada, Dino de Laurentiis, and Bernardo Bertolucci. But perhaps during the 77th edition taking place between the 15th and 25th of May 2024, especially with the inclusion of Marcello Mio, there could be new stories to be told from the denizens of La Croisette.

Festival de Cannes, 1947.