Over 450 Western alla’Italiana were made in Italy between 1964 and 1977 (Fridlund 2006). Both the Northern Italian film intelligentsia and contemporary American film critics dismissed the genre as crude and violent exploitation, derogatorily referring to it as “spaghetti westerns” (Frayling 2006). This response reveals a fundamental incomprehension of popular cinema in general and of the Italian western in particular.
In Rabelais and His World (1984), the Russian literary scholar Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich Bakhtin describes a similar incomprehension among the literary theorists of his time when interpreting Rabelais’s novel Pantagruel and Gargantua (1955). Rabelais’s novel emerged from the fusion of the carnivalesque genres of the Medieval marketplace with the literary freedom of Renaissance. With the Enlightenment’s consolidation of a new hegemonic worldview, the novel lost coherence and become both scatological and impenetrable.
The parallel with 20th century popular cinema is striking. Both the arbiters of cinematic taste and academics have viewed the Western alla’ Italiana out of context. The genre was a secular ritual with a coherent mythos informed by the profound social and cultural dislocations and transformations Italy underwent following the Second World War and the Economic Miracle of the 1950s.
Though these movies were multi-national co-productions involving Italian, Spanish, and German, and British filmmakers, the westerns written and directed by Italians tended to be thematically distinctive from other Eurowesterns. For instance, in disillusioned Spanish westerns like Gunfight at High Noon (Marchent 1963), For a Few Bullets More (Buchs 1967), The Ugly Ones (Martino 1967), A Bullet for Sandoval (Buchs 1969), and Cut-Throats Nine (Marchent 1972) violence is portrayed as a corrosive force. It is a contagion which contaminates a protagonist that are led through a just self-defense into a tragic revolt against the impersonal authority of the state. Little has been written about these films, but it is tempting to interpret this narrative in terms of the Spanish Civil War and the emergence of the fascist Franco regime.
Italian westerns tend to quite different. In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), the protagonist, an almost spectral gunman called Harmonica, is marked out as different. “People like that,” says another character, “have something inside, something to do with death.” The protagonist of these movies is almost invariably a man who has a special relationship with death. This is not a physical death animated on celluloid but instead is a symbolic death associated with the ritual process described by Turner (1969). This is an initiation rite (Turner 1967; van Gennep 1961) through which the individual is oriented toward the values of Italian modernity.