• Flashback: Francesco Rosi (1922–2015)

    By Peter Cowie


    In December 2001, through the good offices of my friend Lorenzo Codelli, I arranged an interview with filmmaker Francesco Rosi for my book Revolution!, about cinema in the sixties. Rosi lived for decades in the fashionable via Gregoriana, above the Spanish Steps in Rome. His hushed apartment gazed out over the city, and his sitting room was crowded with books, magazines, and memorabilia. A servant brought tea as we talked, Rosi developing his complex arguments and unerring dialectic in a French that was so forceful and clearly articulated that even I could understand it. “I am a passionate man," he said, “but with the ambition to be rational at the same time—and my passion is typically Neapolitan. There's a conflict between the passion and rationality. I live situations with passion, but I try to deal with them in a rational manner."

    Rosi could certainly smile at life's little ironies, but he rarely laughed aloud. He was a serious man, analyzing each and every situation with admirable lucidity. He would have been at home in the Agora in Athens, verbally jousting with Socrates and Plato. Tall, burly, and with his leonine head thrust forward in search of truth, he nonetheless revealed occasional moments of vanity, which made him reassuringly human. He was convinced, for example, that his 1981 movie Three Brothers had lost the Academy Award for best foreign film to István Szabó's Mephisto by only a handful of votes, and books on his work were left discreetly within reach of a visitor.

    He'd established his reputation as “the Italian Eisenstein" in 1962 with Salvatore Giuliano, a Silver Bear winner at the Berlinale, followed immediately by the equally searing Hands over the City (1963), which earned him the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The Mattei Affair (1972) and Cadaveri eccellenti (1976) solidified his status as the most assured and socially committed Italian filmmaker of his generation. And yet, over the course of his career, this Neapolitan master could not be easily pigeonholed as merely a “political" cineaste. The Moment of Truth (1965), filmed in the bullrings of Spain, showed Rosi's gift for operatic suspense, as did his much later (1984) screen version of Carmen with Julia Migenes and Placido Domingo. Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) and Three Brothers could have been made only by a profound humanist; set far from the corrupt whirl of the big city, they celebrate family values and the desperate poverty of the Mezzogiorno.

    In 2004, Rosi was accompanied by his brother to a tribute at the Swiss Cinémathèque in Lausanne. Afterward, Hervé and Jacqueline Dumont hosted a dinner at their home, and Rosi reminisced about shooting Salvatore Giuliano. In response to my rather naive question, “How did you deal with the local Mafia?" Rosi rose to his feet and, clutching his crotch with one hand, stared at me intently across the table, waited a beat, and then growled, “Like this!"

    Dramatic tension, which in Hollywood films is so artificially generated, emerges almost organically from Rosi's respect for his material, and from the urgency of his inquiry. He was not preoccupied with the chronological order of events. In my commentary for the Criterion DVD of Salvatore Giuliano in 2004, I quoted his words to me from our earlier conversation in Rome: “I make dialectical films, and not films as theses. The term political film is improper, imprecise. I make films about reality, films in order to reveal what reality conceals. Let's say 'films of denunciation' rather than 'political films.'"

    In 2008, some of us had succeeded in persuading Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick to give Rosi an honorary Golden Bear in recognition of his career. I think that meant a great deal to him, because Salvatore Giuliano's Silver Bear had been awarded after the film was rejected by other festivals. Delivering the speech in his honor, I asserted that Rosi had spent his entire career confronting issues of power and society. “Like Lindsay Anderson, he has never compromised with his material," I said, “nor has he accepted 'the way of the world.' Corruption is his lodestone, and he has brought an analytical mind to bear on scandals and outrages both real and fictional." Aged eighty-six, Rosi mounted the stage to accept the award and delivered a ringing, if protracted, defense of political commitment in cinema. “He's the greatest living director in Europe," whispered Michel Ciment, a statement hard to dispute given that Antonioni and Bergman had both died the previous July. And now, just days after the terrible events in Paris, which must have aroused his ire (but surely not his despair), Francesco Rosi has left the stage to survivors like Andrzej Wajda and Costa-Gavras.

    Peter Cowie has written more than thirty books on film and was the founding editor of the annual International Film Guide. He was international publishing director of Variety throughout the 1990s and now consults for the Berlin and Venice film festivals, and he is a longtime contributor of commentaries, supplements, and essays to the Criterion Collection.

    This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.


  • By Ross McLeod
    January 12, 2015
    08:13 PM

    Another great article from Peter Cowie regarding the underatted Francesco Rosi !!
  • By Gideon B.
    January 13, 2015
    08:03 AM

    Peter Cowie is not only a man with a phenomenal memory, but one of the ever-fewer film critics with a thorough, historical understanding of the real, intrinsic significance of works that have shaped our society and are continuing to shape it. Needless to say that even his style alone delights -- another ever-rarer commodity in our fast, heedless, daily hustle. - Gideon Bachmann
  • By Criteriophile
    January 13, 2015
    11:18 AM

    Sad to hear this, but I hope that I could live into my nineties. I own The Moment of Truth, but hope to some day own the blu-ray version of Salvatore Giuliano. Are you reading this CC?
  • By HUSKY
    January 13, 2015
    12:32 PM

    The Mattei Affair (Il caso Mattei) on blu please!
    • By Chose_user_name
      January 14, 2015
      12:08 AM

      I second that motion! Italian cinema from '45 to '75 is like nineteenth-century Russian literature: Almost every figure -- even the least famous -- produced work destined for longevity (if not immortality)!
    • By giulietta
      January 29, 2015
      01:30 PM

      I agree!
  • By Michael S.
    January 15, 2015
    07:51 PM

    Here's an interview I did with him when he came to San Francisco to receive the Akira Kurosawa Prize: http://www.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/the-subject-is-rosi/Content?oid=2134168. I introduced him at a tribute at the Italian consulate or some such place. I spoke about how his political films, like The Mattei Affair, brought audiences right to the edge of what was knowable about a factual plot -- and stopped there, unlike the films of Oliver Stone. He thanked me profusely for my praise, then said, with a twinkle in his eye, "You know I really love the films of Oliver Stone!"
  • By Nedervetil_7
    January 20, 2015
    04:37 AM

    One of The best movies from Rosi ; Uomini contro ..... Should be something Criterion should explore..
    • By Martin
      January 29, 2015
      11:47 AM

      I've heard of that movie. Some people compare it to Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. RaroVideo has it on Blu-Ray. I haven't pick it up because it has been a little too expensive. You should check it out.
    • By giulietta
      January 29, 2015
      01:31 PM

      Uomini contro with the great Gian Maria Volonte', should definitely be in the CC collection!
  • By Tom K.
    January 29, 2015
    09:42 PM

    Now virtually unavailable, even on VHS, Francesco Rosi's magnificent "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" should be the very next restoration project by Criterion. I cannot understand how this masterpiece, adapted from the acclaimed novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, can still be unavailable on DVD!