Tonino Guerra, Writing Images

Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra

Starting tomorrow, the Melbourne Cinémathèque will spotlight the legacy of poet, novelist, and screenwriter Tonino Guerra with a series of six films screening on three consecutive Wednesdays. “The Art Is Very Jealous”: Tonino Guerra, Writing Images will open with Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), a boisterous and kaleidoscopic but also stirring and poignant reflection on village life in Mussolini’s Italy. In the 1930s, Borgo San Giuliano was still outside the city walls of Rimini, a modestly sized town stretched along the coastline of the Adriatic Sea. Rimini is also, of course, Fellini’s hometown.

Guerra, born just a few weeks after Fellini in 1920, grew up in Santarcangelo di Romagna, an even smaller town just a few miles inland. Amarcord, then—the title echoes the phrase “I remember” in the local Romagnol dialect—is a deeply personal project, though both the director and writer would deny that it was in any strict sense autobiographical. The film embodies an “equivocation between memory and invention, between a world represented (remembered) and a world created (imagined),” writes Sam Rohdie.Amarcord is not memory—or if it is, it is false memory—not fragments of what once was but fragments of what is imagined to have been.”

When Guerra died in 2012, the Guardian’s John Francis Lane pointed out that while the novelization was credited to both Fellini and Guerra, it was “clearly penned by Guerra, and in it one detects the writer's contribution on the level of reminiscence in mood and language.” Amarcord was the first of just three features Guerra wrote with Fellini. Guerra worked with Michelangelo Antonioni on ten.

Guerra and Antonioni had “long and violent arguments,” the director once recalled, “and that makes him all the more helpful.” L’avventura (1960) launched a series of collaborations both celebrated and derided for what was seen at the time as a uniquely European strain of modernism, a cinema of alienation. In the New Statesman, Giovanni Vimercati writes that Guerra and Antonioni “explored with an elegant yet pitiless look the inner corrosion of bourgeois values, their fetishist persistence, convincingly framing the elusive essence of impending social diseases. The sense of decline and dilated estrangement the films captured was doubtlessly due to Antonioni’s aesthetic awareness but it was Guerra who wrote these rarefied stories of sentimental immobility and detachment.”

The Cinémathèque will screen Blow-Up (1966), starring David Hemmings as a London-based fashion photographer who thinks he may have inadvertently captured a death on film. The closer he examines the evidence, though, the more it seems to elude him. “Blow-Up is indeed about photographic images and the elusiveness of the real,” writes David Forgacs, “but it is also an exhilarating journey through the London scene of the midsixties—its youth culture, its fashions, its young professionals—and a mystery story that draws us in but offers no solution.”

It was Elio Petri who encouraged the poet to try his hand at screenwriting, and the Cinémathèque will present Petri’s first feature, The Assassin (1961), starring Marcello Mastroianni as an antiques dealer suspected of killing his wealthy mistress. Looking back on the film in 1979, Petri noted that it focused on “a new generation of upstarts who lacked any kind of moral scruple.” Writing for Senses of Cinema, Pasquale Iannone points out that what differentiates Petri’s approach from that of Antonioni is “his open engagement with the genre picture, in this case, the giallo.” The Cinemateca Portuguesa, by the way, will present a complete Petri retrospective in April.

Guerra and Francesco Rosi made eleven features together, and the Cinémathèque has selected The Mattei Affair, the winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1972. Blending fiction and nonfiction, the film is an investigation into the 1962 plane crash that killed Enrico Mattei, the head of ENI, the Italian state energy company. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, the film reveals that “diverse individuals and organizations (from the Mafia to the CIA) had reasons for wanting to see him dead.” In the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris called The Mattei Affair “the most fascinating political film of the year” and singled out “the dynamically unsentimental performance of Gian-Maria Volonte as Mattei.”

Touring Russia in 1975, where he met his future wife, Eleonora Kreindlina, Guerra befriended Andrei Tarkovsky, who would soon be making frequent and increasingly prolonged trips to Italy. “Self-exiled to the West in 1982, Tarkovsky was a man without a country. Hence, Nostalghia,” wrote J. Hoberman in the New York Times in 2014. Noting that the 1983 film was cowritten with a screenwriter who had worked with Fellini and Antonioni, Hoberman found “echoes of both directors in the mise-en-scène, but Nostalghia was filmed in locations that most reminded Tarkovsky of the home he would renounce. The movie is all about finding Russia in Italy.”

Theo Angelopoulos once said that “Tonino has been my psychoanalyst for twenty years.” The eight features that Guerra and the Greek director collaborated on include the “trilogy of silence,” Voyage to Cythera (1984), The Beekeeper (1986), and Landscape in the Mist (1988). The Cinémathèque is going with The Beekeeper, starring Marcello Mastroianni as a retired teacher who wanders Greece in search of nectar for his bees.

In the Notebook, Jeremy Carr writes that “it soon becomes clear his nomadic excursion is basically aimless in every respect except for his ostensible goal: reunions with estranged friends and family.” In 2012, Dennis Lim observed in the New York Times that Guerra’s “affiliations with Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos—who could be considered Antonioni’s spiritual heirs—sealed his reputation as a writer with a questing, poetic sensibility, a hand-in-glove fit for directors who specialized in existential matters and the mysteries of interior life.”

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