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Ennio Morricone – composer of the soundtrack to Italian cinema’s golden age

THE work of composer Ennio Morricone, who died yesterday aged 91, was the soundtrack to Italy’s post-war cultural success as well as its political imbroglio. 

One of the most versatile composers for film, Morricone worked with numerous directors and film-makers, including Terence Malick and Quentin Tarantino, and toured extensively with his orchestra.

But while he was better known for the deeply evocative themes for his schoolfriend Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns (The Good the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More), Morricone’s vast oeuvre also included a number of lesser known but critically acclaimed Italian films from the post-neorealist period, as well as Dario Argento’s famous horror films. 

Pick almost any film or director from the high point of Italian cinema, from neorealism onwards, and you will find Morricone’s involvement somewhere along the line. 

Morricone’s career started during the late throes of the neorealist cinematic era, a time famous for films by the likes of Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thieves) and Roberto Rossellini (Paisan, Rome, Open City) depicting ordinary working-class life during the war and post-war period. 

As this style died away somewhat in the early 1960s, film-makers inspired by neorealism but also reacting against their simplistic and overwrought plots created films that would become synonymous with the Italian political upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, depicting complex anti-heroes with themes of immense political and social relevance.

One such example is the work of Elio Petri, who recognised the limits of the neorealist form, and created the critically acclaimed Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion targeting police corruption, starring the Spaghetti Western star Gian Maria Volonté. 

Its Morricone-penned, comically suspicious theme reflects the police’s clownlike yet sinister inability to investigate its own officers, and was later used by Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. 

But the Petri film in which Morricone’s musical compositions are most striking is the second episode in his so-called Neuroses of Power trilogy, 1971’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven. 

Set in a metal-mechanics factory whose workers are forced to risk their health doing piecework, it stars Lulu, a Stakhanovite transformed from scab to striker. 

Morricone’s music, somewhere between funereal march and the repetitive drilling of a production line, evokes the torturous and constant pressure of industrial machinery, creating the atmosphere for the film’s compelling political and social message which reverberates long after the film ends. 

Like his theme for Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, the music has to work hard in films of limited dialogue, where the evocation of political tension is vital to the story and message of the film.

In 1976 came Bernardo Bertolucci’s English-language film 1900 depicting the changing nature of agricultural workers’ struggle, fascism and anti-fascism in 20th-century Emilia-Romagna, starring Donald Sutherland and Robert De Niro. 

Bertolucci had worked alongside Dario Argento on the Sergio Leone classic Once Upon a Time in the West. 

Not unlike his Spaghetti Western compositions, Morricone’s music in 1900 is bucolic and nostalgic, though more typically neoclassical, fitting with the film’s romanticised depiction of workers striking and rising up against landowners and bosses. 

A committed Catholic, Morricone was a supporter of the Christian Democrats, but identified most closely with their left flank, declaring that “Jesus was the first communist.” 

This was not untypical of the Italian post-war era, in which Catholic trade unions formed to undermine the impact of communists, and Christian Democrat governments were forced to introduce progressive labour laws or else risk losing support to the communists and socialists. 

Later, after the fall of the First Republic in the early 1990s, Morricone became involved with the Democratic Party, a coalescence of what remained of the Christian Democrats and communists.

Just as his music evokes the long past golden age of Italian global cinematic success, both in terms of the popularity of the Spaghetti Westerns and the critically acclaimed Italian-language films of the post-war era, Morricone was politically a man of his age. 

Now after years of stagnant growth, recession, emigration and EU-mandated austerity, Italy’s cultural output is a shadow of its former self, and the post-war political and economic context which gave fuel to Italy’s film industry no longer exists, except through the nostalgia of the many films soundtracked by Ennio Morricone.

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