How exquisitely agonizing that it's been so hard of late to keep up with the San Francisco Film Society Cinema, whose fine programming includes rarities, recent festival highlights, and oldies-but-goodies like the Italian omnibus Love in the City, opening Friday. This particular film, from 1953, brings a special kind of repertory pleasure -- not just Oh, I've always wanted to see that but Oh, I've never heard of that.
Overseen by early neorealist Cesare Zavattini, who for his part supplies a desperate saga of single-motherhood, Love in the City quilts together a handful of filmmakers' observations on mid-century romantic attachments. In retrospect it's also a handy primer on the attitudes and behavior of modern Italian cinema, as glimpsed in the process of formation. There are the universal truths and then there are the uniquely Italian ones.
Of course it's easy to see any portmanteau as a mixed bag, but maybe more fun to grade internal incoherence on the curve of general accordance with the big-picture concept. Here, a few nonverbal episodes seem deceptively simple, like Dino Risi's smoky dance hall full of fights and furtive glances, or Alberto Lattuada's parade of pretty women and the rubbernecking men who ogle them -- or, worse, cop feels on a crowded bus and degenerate into creepy lecher-zombies. Clearly these set pieces wouldn't sustain themselves at feature length, but compilation conserves and invigorates their grace.
Elsewhere we see masters working up their mastery: Michelangelo Antonioni's restaged suicide attempts seem insouciantly cinematic, but also suggest alienation verging on a pose of itself; Federico Fellini finds poignant whimsy in the tale of a gentle naif who agrees to marry a werewolf, if only to seem agreeable. "I know myself," she says, "I'll become fond of him." Both pieces resonate intriguingly with both directors' later efforts.
Shot through with forlornness, largely from a female point of view, Love in the City is ostensibly feminist, although it's hard not to notice an abundance of maleness behind the camera, particularly in unseen omniscient narration. However sympathetic, its occasional explications can't help but come across also as pat and patronizing, as when one offscreen male voice explains, "Many women like her could be saved with a little true love." Well, it takes a woman's first-hand testimony to convincingly rebuke the will to romanticize: "Love helps conquer all," she says. "If it ends, everything falls apart."
Love in the City runs from August 17 through 23, 2012, at the Film Society Cinema in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit sffs.org.