Vittorio Taviani, 1929–2018

La Repubblica’s Alessandra Vitali is among the many Italian journalists reporting on today’s passing of Vittorio Taviani at the age of eighty-eight. In 2013, Ryan Gilbey, writing for the Guardian, declared that Taviani and his brother, Paolo, eighty-six, “are among the last titans of classic Italian cinema. They came of age in the era of Rossellini and Pasolini; they count Bertolucci among their contemporaries; they have been a nurturing influence on younger countrymen such as Nanni Moretti. They won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1977 for Padre Padrone, an odyssey of rural hardship shot through with transformative fantasy and theatricality. It begins with the Sardinian farmer’s son, on whose memoir the film is based, handing a prop to the actor who will be playing him; another scene allows us access to the inner monologue of a goat with which a boy is having sex (‘I am going to shit in your milk!’). That playfulness persists in the wartime fable The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), Pirandello adaptation Kaos (1984) and Good Morning Babylon (1987), about set designers working for D. W. Griffith.”

Last summer, the Taviani brothers spoke to Criterion about the tremendous influence Rossellini had on their work and, the summer before that, Variety’s Nick Vivarelli asked them about Rossellini’s decision, when he presided over the jury at Cannes in 1977, to award the Palme d’Or to Padre Padrone rather than to Ettore Scola’s A Special Day. They also discussed—and it’s telling here that Variety doesn’t designate which brother is speaking in reply to Vivarelli’s questions—working with poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra on The Night of the Shooting Stars and Kaos. Vivarelli also asks about Caesar Must Die, their film about prisoners staging Shakespeare which won the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlinale, and about Wondrous Boccaccio (2015), an adaptation of The Decameron.

The brothers: “Actually the two films spring from the same emotions. In jail there is horror and suffering, so Dante or Shakespeare really speak to them and when they act they put all their passion into it. Thanks to Shakespeare they save themselves. It’s like a mass escape. Art saves them, even if only for a moment. In The Decameron it’s the same thing. There is the plague, horror, suffering, desire to survive. How do these young people survive? Telling each other stories. For a few days they manage not to think about death, or to think about it only sporadically.”

“With theatrical form and technique serving as the framework for their political cinema, and complex, individualistic characters as protagonists, the Tavianis are as concerned with corruption, abuse of power, poverty, and suffering as were the neorealists and their successors,” writes Lillian Schiff for Film Reference. “Other themes and topics in Taviani films include divorce, revolution as an ongoing effort interrupted by interludes of other activity, the changing ways of dealing with power and corruption, resistance in war, fascism, and the necessity of communal action for accomplishment. The Tavianis use the past to illuminate the present, show the suffering of opposing sides, and stress the major role of heritage and environment. Their characters ask questions about their lives that lead to positive solutions (and sometimes to failure). The two directors believe in the possibility of an eventual utopia.”

In the summer of 1982, Peter Brunette met up with Vittorio Taviani in Rome, and the interview appeared in the Spring 1983 issue of Film Quarterly. “When we first got here from Tuscany to make films—you had to come to Rome to make films—we got here around 1954 or 1955. And really, it seems a bit romantic, but the difficulties were so terribly great—there were only two films in production at the time—that we said to ourselves, ‘Cinema or death!’ That’s a little juvenile, and a little romantic, but we gave ourselves five years. We would do everything possible to break into filmmaking, and if we didn’t succeed in five years, we would kill ourselves.”

Fortunately, by 1960, they’d made their first feature with Joris Ivens, the documentary L'Italia non è un paese povero (Italy Is Not a Poor Country), and nearly two dozen features would follow.

Update: “So close was the brothers’ partnership that Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni called them individually ‘PaoloVittorio,’” notes Andreas Wiseman at Deadline. “The pair often adapted high-brow literature, including works by the Italian author Luigi Pirandello (Kaos and You Laugh), Russia’s Leo Tolstoy (Resurrection and Night Sun) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Elective Affinities).”

Update, 4/16: “The lush countryside is a vital and sensuous presence in the Tavianis’ work,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “and yet it is unsentimentally also seen as the site of cruel agricultural labor and even as a kind of prison. In their films, the land is a counterpoint to humanity’s trials, dramas and absurdities, which they often put in ensemble and anthologized form, perhaps to get a larger perspective on individual stories. It wasn’t just a matter of quietism and contemplation. The brothers were also deeply engaged with Marxist and Brechtian thinking . . . They were looking for radical, challenging ways to present human life.”

Updates, 4/18: “The Taviani brothers were the first directors to ever hire me as an actress,” writes Isabella Rossellini on Instagram. “I had just lost my father and they became for me what for a ship at night is a lighthouse. With their warmth and affection they indicated to me a path way beyond acting—how artists think, behave and what are our responsibilities.”

“The roughly twenty features they made together influenced a younger generation of Italian filmmakers, including Giuseppe Tornatore, whose Cinema Paradiso became an international hit in 1988,” writes Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times. “‘Since I was a young boy, I’ve watched every film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani,’ Mr. Tornatore said by email. ‘I loved their style and their way of combining a sense of politics with one of poetry.’”

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