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Il caffè al cinema: dalla macchinetta alla macchina da presa

Coffee at the cinema: from the coffee machine to the film camera

In the history of the “seventh art”, there are a huge number of titles and sequences dedicated to coffee.

Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Blake Edwards are just some of the directors that have used coffee in their works, with the widest variety of aims.

For some, an emblem of daily life, the star of incisive dialogues for others, coffee has already had a long and brilliant career in films, which still continues to this day.

So let’s take a look at some of coffee’s best films and the role that it has “played”. 

Coffee in films:  when the coffee cup is served on the big screen

From the opening scene of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (directed by Blake Edwards, 1961) with a  “coffee to go” in Audrey Hepburn’s hands, intent on staring at the windows of the famous New York jewelry store, to the poisoned coffee in one of the tensest moments of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ” (directed by George Clooney, 2003), cups of coffee have often been in the limelight, that of Hollywood but also closer to home/Italy.

Here are some significant moments that have marked the relationship between coffee and cinema; either Italian or American.  

Coffee in Italian films  

The conviviality connected with coffee, together with the ritual attraction of its preparation with the mocha, has tantalized the imagination of many Italian film directors.

Let’s start from the 1950’s to see how coffee has been used in our cinematic history, starting with a film in black and white that many will know and remember.

In “La banda degli onesti” (“The Band of Honest men”) (directed by Camillo Mastrocinque, 1956), a coffee, ordered and consumed at the bar becomes the perfect opportunity for Totò to explain to Signor Lo Turco how the capitalist system works. In the screenplay by Age&Scarpelli, the cups of coffee become the perfect example.

At first, both cups contain bitter coffee, then the cup of “capitalist” coffee, more pro-active than the other coffee, ie.

more ready to take initiative, starts stocking up on sugar: Totò continues to add more and more sugar to the coffee, and stops only when the barman warns him that if he carries on, he will have to pay extra.

Totò is convinced that he has provided a brilliant explanation, and Lo Turco is left with nothing but a cold, bitter coffee to drink. 

In the early 1960s, the director Pietro Germi uses coffee in some scenes of his “Divorzio all’italiana” (“Divorce, Italian Style”) (1961), where he tells the story of the unhappy marriage of the Baron Fefè Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni).

Infatuated with his young cousin, the Sicilian nobleman tries to find the best way to get rid of his wife, who actually loves him and does many things for him, like bringing him his coffee in the morning.  

In 1980 the film director Nanni Loy directed “Café Express”.

Already from the title, it is easy to guess the presence of this drink in the film, which sees Nino Manfredi starring in the role of a man who goes around Intercity trains, moving from carriage to carriage, carrying with him a thermos of coffee, that he sells unofficially to the passengers.

Uno spaccato of the various events that intertwine on the train, that Manfredi comes into contact with thanks to the coffee.  

In 1991 the “dark side” of coffee makes its appearance in “Pensavo fosse amore invece era un calesse” (“I thought it was love.. but actually it was a trap”) (directed by Massimo Troisi, 1991): the classic story of unrequited love finds in this famous drink an ally as valid as it is lethal.

Thus Troisi, the protagonist of the film, risks being poisoned with a coffee laced with rat poison, offered to him by his best friend’s young sister who is in love with him.   

Of the (few) Italian films to receive an Oscar for Best Foreign Film,  Mediterraneo” (directed by Gabriele Salvatores, 1992) also uses the narrative pretext of coffee in one scene.

Diego Abatantuono, in the role of sergeant Lorusso, shows his comrades ( who are trapped on a small Greek island during World War II) how to drink Greek coffee, after another soldier complains of how different it is from Italian coffee.

A simple scene but loaded with meaning, which demonstrates how Lorusso has a strong connection with the island, its traditions and its inhabitants, in spite of his duties as a soldier. 

Coffee in International cinema  

Also International cinema  has placed coffee in front of the camera, also setting many crucial scenes in cafés.

Let’s begin with an absolute masterpiece from 1946, “Notorious ” by Alfred Hitchcock: in a story of espionage with the protagonists Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, coffee becomes a way to get free (or at least try ) for experts in double-crossing.  

In the 1960s, the French director Louis Malle in his film “Fuoco fatuo” (1963) tells of the wasted life of Alain, consumed by alcohol and loneliness.

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the film, the protagonist finds himself in the Café Odéon and gets ready to order his coffee, surrounded by the crowd but in reality alone, lost in his thoughts and overwhelmed by his own existence.

Jean-Luc Godard, in “2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle ” (1967), uses shots of a coffee cup as a symbol of the epitome of daily life, while a voice whispering out of shot becomes lost in existential reflections. 

Is there some reason that my coffee isn’t here? 

Has she died or something?  says Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada ” (2006).

In this film directed by David Frankel, Anne Hathaway runs all over New York with a cup of coffee in her hand to bring it to her boss’s desk.

Even Quentin Tarantino seems to have a great love for coffee and chooses to open one of his most famous and loved films  Pulp Fiction” (1994), inside a classic American diner, the Hawthorne Grill.

This where the couple, made up of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) plan their umpteenth armed robbery, while the waitress serves them coffee.

The drink also appears in other scenes, such as that with the cameo of the director himself. 

One of the most well-known films associated with coffee is however “Coffee & Cigarettes” (directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2003), which, as can be seen from the title, promises to be dedicated almost exclusively to the drink.

This film is actually a collection of 11 short films where the camera shoots famous celebrities such as Roberto Benigni, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits during a moment that is so emblematic as to need no further words: the “coffee and cigarette” break, a small pleasure in life, so significant as to have a whole film dedicated to it.

Which are your favorite films where there are scenes focusing on coffee? 

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