Bellissimo! Rescuing vintage Italian films

 Sally Jackson

Sally Jackson traces the journey of Italian films to Australia via World Film Distributors and through the hands of several collectors to the NFSA.
World Films Logo

Those used to watching content from anywhere in the world, anytime, with a simple click or tap, might find it hard to imagine or remember a time when this was simply not possible. The tyranny of distance was inescapable.

For the millions of migrants who came to Australia in the second half of last century, anything that came directly from the homeland was precious; from expensive imported foods to an old newspaper brought by a friend. Films in their own languages were an even rarer treat, but thanks to companies like World Film Distributors, ‘new Australians’ were able to see the places they left behind, to hear their mother tongues being spoken in a big cinema. How exciting it must have been, regardless of how good or bad the movie was!
World Film Distributors sign, North Melbourne

There is only sketchy information about Melbourne-based World Film Distributors. Owner Carmelo Palumbo began to import films from Italy and other European countries into Australia for migrants arriving here after the Second World War. With no dedicated cinemas, Palumbo hired venues to screen the films, which were usually mainstream titles. There were often no subtitles but the audiences of new migrants didn’t need them – they were missing home and looking for opportunities for social gatherings.

Two second-generation Italian Australians share their memories of Italian cinema in Australia:

"I can remember the first time I went to the Metropolitano Theatre — in Sydney Road, Brunswick — was with my family to see Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments dubbed into Italian. I was only six years old and what I remember most vividly was the enormity of the screen with Charlton Heston towering above us as though he were God. The screen at the Metropolitano seemed to dwarf the screen of the other Italian movie theatre we would frequent, Cinema Italia in Clifton Hill, which I think is where we saw most of the Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia movies, which we loved. The other great event I can remember about the Metropolitano was seeing my first Spaghetti Western, L’ira di Dio, and having been shocked by the sound of the gunshots. How the sound rang in the ear, much longer and twangier than those I was used to from the Hollywood westerns I had watched on TV." 

Raffaele Caputo, Melbourne

"I was nearly two when my family emigrated from Venice to Canberra in 1961… I feel nostalgic when I recall going to rare screenings of Italian films at Queanbeyan in the 1970s as a teenager, watching black-and-white Totò (Antonio De Curtis) films, not getting the humour that made my parents laugh (yet understanding every word), and having strong emotional experiences and feelings of connection to my Italian background. That contributed to me maintaining my first language and cultural identity, and today I can say I’m a very proud Italo-Australian!" 

Rita Parkinson, Canberra

The flooded basement

Hundreds of those European films imported by World Film Distributors were first saved from destruction by Eric Yeomans in the 1970s. Yeomans, a former projectionist and founding member of radio 3CR, discovered them when the North Melbourne building which had housed World Film Distributors was sold. The films were stored in the basement and Yeomans was able to interest Peter Ricketts, a fellow projectionist, in taking a look.

Ricketts found ‘an Aladdin’s cave’ totally packed with 16mm and 35mm film. With the assistance of another collector, John Leckey OAM, Ricketts was able to move the films from their flooded basement into long-term storage at Moe, Victoria. There they stayed in clean, dry conditions for 30 years before Peter contacted the NFSA and the films came to us in 2012.

When the films arrived at the NFSA in their metal shipping containers, cardboard boxes and stray cans it was clear that there would be much research needed to identify and assemble complete prints. The process of sorting, selection and technical assessment finally took several years.

There were occasional disappointments along the way. We might find a wonderful title like Lucio Fulci’s comedy sketch film I Maniaci (1964) only to discover severe water damage, incomplete reels, mould or that the film title written on the can was not the film actually in the can. Ultimately we managed to save 49 films in total, 14 of them trailers.