Perra on Zambenedetti, 'Acting across Borders: Mobility and Identity in Italian Cinema'

Alberto Zambenedetti
Emiliano Perra

Alberto Zambenedetti. Acting across Borders: Mobility and Identity in Italian Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. 224 pp. $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4744-3986-2

Reviewed by Emiliano Perra (University of Winchester) Published on H-Italy (September, 2021) Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")

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The fundamental aim of Acting across Borders is to offer an “intervention in the scholarly conversation about the cinema devoted to [people who move and the technologies they employ to do so]” (p. 3). Zambenedetti’s point of departure is that the Italian film industry has engaged with mobilities throughout its history and has produced a distinctive filmic tradition. The book also takes the lead from the recent growth of scholarly work on human mobility in Italian history and culture (with Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s and Stephanie Hom’s 2016 edited collection Italian Mobilities as a key example), which in turn is a reflection of the larger growth of mobility studies stemming from the spatial turn in the humanities of recent decades.[1] The book acknowledges its adjacence to star studies while asking its own original questions, thus offering a timely and welcome intervention in a growing and lively field.

The book’s central argument and rationale is that Italian cinematic mobilities are a constant intervention “in the creation, circulation, and critique of ideas pertaining to ‘the nation’” and its members (and those excluded from it) through interrogation of “the movements of the bodies within, across, and beyond” Italian national boundaries (p. 4). The way in which the author makes this otherwise gargantuan endeavor manageable is by zooming in on two paradigmatic male actors, Amedeo Nazzari and Alberto Sordi. It is an apt choice: in their engagement with mobility (or its opposite), the two stars provided contrasting models of Italian masculinity that, combined, illustrate broader political, social, and cultural shifts occurring between the 1930s and the 1980s.

The book is divided into two parts of roughly equal length: one on Nazzari, the other on Sordi. Each part is comprised of five chapters grouping films thematically as well as chronologically. Part 1 kicks off with three chapters devoted to the discussion of films starring Amedeo Nazzari and produced during the Fascist regime. Chapter 1 analyzes “flying” in Luciano Serra pilota (Goffredo Alessandrini, 1938); the theme of chapter 2 is “returning,” in particular in Montevergine, a.k.a. La grande luce (Carlo Campogalliani, 1939), and La bisbetica domata (Ferdinando Maria Poggioli, 1942); and “fighting” is the theme of chapter 3, with a discussion of Harlem (Carmine Gallone, 1943). In his subtle and informed analysis, Zambenedetti illustrates how the films reflected key concerns of the regime with policing and often discouraging mobility, and especially migration. Chapter 1’s Luciano Serra reappears in Italian East Africa; chapter 2’s protagonists are returning migrants from America who try to reintegrate into Italian society; and Harlem’s protagonists are tainted with, and led to ruin by, US materialism and gangsterism in this prime example of wartime anti-American propaganda film. While there is no space here to discuss the many interesting points developed by Zambenedetti about each film, the thread uniting these chapters is the contrast between mobility and immobility, with the latter often representing both a negative consequence of the former and the happy resolution of the plot. As Zambenedetti points out, the return migration “is always accompanied by the rejection of affectation and decadent behaviour, in lieu of which most of these characters proudly embrace their ‘wholesome’ Italian roots” (p. 41), often leading to a romantic “reconciliation, generating another reproductive (and ideologically conforming) family unit” (p. 39).

While a staple of Fascist cinema, the rejection of mobility in favor of reconstituting the family unit extends to the postwar period and informs the eight melodramas resulting from the collaboration between Nazzari and director Raffaello Mattarazzo, from Catene (1949) to Malinconico autunno (1958), which are the focus of chapter 4. While thorough in illustrating how these “melodramas tempered Nazzari’s heroic qualities … transforming him into a righteous pater familias” (pp. 85, 107), the chapter also draws on the extensive literature on Mattarazzo’s melodramas to account for the immobility of these films’ female star, Yvonne Sanson, reflecting society’s anxiety regarding female sexuality and the preservation of family unit as essential to both patriarchy and capitalism.[2] Part 1 of the book terminates with a (very) short chapter discussing Nazzari’s im/mobility (as Zambenedetti defines it) in Dino Risi’s 1964 Il Gaucho, in which Nazzari’s character’s pathological idealization of his faraway homeland is instrumental to Risi’s caustic critique of post-economic miracle Italian society. Increasingly anachronistic by the early 1960s, Nazzari’s model of mobile Italian masculinity was ready to pass on the baton to Alberto Sordi’s.

After a brief tntroduction to part 2 discussing the film The Best of Enemies (Guy Hamilton, 1961), starring both Nazzari and Sordi, the second part is divided into five chapters “loosely describing actions that motivate a journey or occur during an instance of mobility in a wide array of films featuring Alberto Sordi in a leading or supporting role” (p. 120): late 1950s travel comedies (chapter 6), travel mobility (chapter 7), lawbreaking at home and abroad (chapter 8), exploration and Italian identity abroad (chapter 9), and the satire of petroculture (chapter 10). Clustered between 1958 and 1959, the travel comedies discussed in chapter 6 introduce the theme of leisure travel to the canon of screen representation of Italian mobility. The formulaic nature of these films is thus summarized by Zambenedetti: “characters travel to an exotic destination … where they experience a sexual awakening which gives way to self-discovery, often made explicit during (or immediately before) their return voyage” (p. 128). The means of transportation deployed in these comedies point toward broader notions of class and social status (and aspirations) and are key to these films’ overall message that the quest for social mobility (exemplified by the use of private automobiles) is not conducive to happiness. In Vacanze d’inverno (Camillo Mastrocinque and Giuliano Carnimeo, 1959), for example, the car used to travel from Rome to Cortina to preserve appearances leads to leads to trouble and conflict, and is ditched for the train on the way back, leading to emotional growth and self-discovery.

Self-discovery of sorts also informs the films discussed in chapter 7 about the theme of Italian labor mobilities in the years between I magliari (Francesco Rosi, 1959) and Bello, onesto, emigrato Australia sposerebbe compaesana illibata (Luigi Zampa, 1971). The films discussed in this rich chapter all interrogate “the relationship between labour mobilities and sexuality, the bewilderment that is intrinsic to diasporic existence, and the issues of identity underpinning both” (p. 155). After a discussion of Sordi’s foray into the criminal mobility of the mafia film genre in Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, 1962) and Anastasia mio fratello ovvero il presunto capo dell’anonima assassini (Stefano Vanzina, 1973) in chapter 8, chapter 9 explores Sordi’s engagement with national identity and masculinity in Fumo di Londra (Alberto Sordi, 1966) and Riusciranno i nostri eroi a ritrovare l’amico misteriosamente scomparso in Africa (Ettore Scola, 1968). The chapter provides a nuanced reading of these films’ articulations of national identity through the theme of travel and exploration abroad: that “uncritical xenophilia can lead to a dangerous loss of perspective” (p. 177) and sense of self in Fumo di Londra, and that Italian (and European) identity is tainted by its history of colonial oppression. Finally, chapter 10 discusses Alberto Sordi’s own Un italiano in America (1967)’s critique of the oil-car nexus as symbol of twentieth-century capitalism and consumerism.

There is much to praise in Acting across Borders. The book’s analytical thrust provides a fresh look at two widely studied figures in Italian cinema and paves the way for further future research—for example, an even more systematic study of female mobility, or bringing the analysis forward to include more recent work on mobility (including, centrally, migration) to Italy. The book is also peppered with many interesting insights scattered throughout its text, footnotes included. Perhaps some of the latter could have been embedded in the main body of the text. For example, a relevant methodological point that could have featured in the main introduction is buried in a footnote on page 191. However, these are minor quibbles, and the book will be welcomed by readers interested in Italian cinema and cultural history.


[1]. Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Stephanie Malia Hom, eds., Italian Mobilities (New York: Routledge, 2016); Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” Environment and Planning A, 38 (2006): 207-26.

[2]. On these points, see Danielle E. Hipkins, Italy’s Other Women: Gender and Prostitution in Italian Cinema, 1940-1965 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016); Maggie Günsberg, Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); and Maria Elena D’Amelio, “The Ideal Man: Amedeo Nazzari, Fatherhood, and Italy’s Melodramatic Masculinity,” August 31, 2018, gender/ sexuality/Italy, 5 (2018),

Citation: Emiliano Perra. Review of Zambenedetti, Alberto, Acting across Borders: Mobility and Identity in Italian Cinema. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL:

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