PRINT January 1986


PAOLO AND VITTORIO Taviani’s first feature-length film, Un uomo do bruciare (A man for burning), is, according to the brothers’ own statements and in the judgment of many critics, a declaration of love toward Italian Neorealist cinema at the same time that it is an attempt to reach beyond it. The film was made in 1962, and the Tavianis were prescient in their understanding of the need to respond to the new demands on artistic production that would arise in the ’60s, the decade of the revolutionary movements that would culminate in the revolts of 1968. Yet they remained substantially faithful to the nucleus of Neorealism, which, after its extraordinary beginning in 1942, with Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession), had nurtured them during the postwar period. (Born respectively in 1931 and 1929, into a bourgeois family in San Miniato, in the province of Pisa, they were teenagers during much of Neorealism’s heyday) Their youth was marked by political militancy and by a passion for spectacles, which, they recall, began when they were adolescent visitors to the music festival that takes place in Florence each May.1

Un uomo da bruciare is the story of a Sicilian trade unionist, Salvatore Carnevale, who bucks the Mafia and subsequently is killed. It is a committed work, drawn from current events and strongly political in its thrust, and its broad address of mass popular feeling places it within a certain Neorealist ambit. But it is also true that the neurotic protagonist (played by Gian Maria Volonté, in his film debut) is characterized by excess, by a taste for narcissistic exhibitionism (he has cinema on his mind), and by impatience (a quality that will be explicitly exalted by one of the protagonists of a later Taviani film, Ettore, in Sovversivi [The subversives, 1967]). The sense of fatefulness that stems from these dark aspects of Carnevale’s character, which prevent him from being a conventionally positive hero, diverges from most of what remained of Neorealist cinema in the early ’60s (the movement had come to define itself in the exploration of impoverished rural subcultures). However, the Tavianis’ relationship with Neorealism is in fact profound and basic. Indeed, it is the starting point for understanding their films—films that articulate their various stages in the slow rhythms of memory, and in reflections on the reality of cinema itself.2

This remains true up to the Tavianis’ recent arrival in Hollywood (where they are making their next film), which can be seen as the symbolic conclusion of a phase in their artistic development. Indeed, American culture is clearly interrelated with the Neorealist movement, and with artistic developments in Italy between the ’30s and ’40s, when Neorealism was born. The aggressive vitalism of the period of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, to which Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese refer in their hooks, plays an important role in Italian cinema.3 (The plot of Visconti’s Ossessione, it is worth noting, is taken from an American novel, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.) It is clear that Neorealism’s roots are in Italy—one thinks of the Neorealists’ rediscovery of Giovanni Verga, the Italian realist novelist who was a contemporary of Emile Zola—but its rich dynamic really consists in the grafting together, from an Italian perspective, of the “neonaturalism” that triumphed in American art during the Depression and the New Deal era with an assumption of the "urgency of life’: of the value and power of the actions of real people. Real lives were the basic units of all the Neorealists’ endeavors. Only later, when the movement became involved in the rough ideological alignments of the postwar period, was this humanistic desire for urgency transformed into political commitment, absorbing the ideological influences of Antonio Gramsci, and his theory of a national culture—interpreted, however, in a distorted way—and of György Lukács’ ideas of art’s relationship with reality. At this point Neorealism increasingly came to resemble the didactic naturalism of Stalinist art, mixed with traces of a lyrical populism and with typically Italian story fragments, peasant and precapitalist in origin.

What American culture offered the Neorealists was the sense of a privileged place, a “somewhere else” which proposed a new, removed perspective on their lives. It was as if the idea of America allowed for the possibility of becoming alienated from oneself, of watching oneself from without, and in the process of discovering one’s place in a deeper reality than one was able to be aware of in the habitual everyday. The consequence can be seen in the Neorealists’ sense of existence as an archetype, an anthropological myth connecting all events back to the hidden structures of their origins. Seeking to discover myth beneath historical phenomena, Neorealism assumed symbolic and allegorical forms, suffusing determinate events with the universal and with the collective unconscious. It is from this projected outside perspective that Visconti observes the Po Valley landscape in Ossessione, and Sicily in La terra trema (The earth trembles, 1948)—the film, incidentally, in which he successfully revived a Verga novel. And in Paisà (Paisan, 1946) Roberto Rossellini sees Italy through the eyes of American soldiers working their way up the peninsula during the liberation, finding a tragic force in the tortured populace, which has found its true identity in the drama of war.4 Significantly, it was seeing Paisà, perhaps the apex of Neorealism, that propelled the Tavianis toward their career in cinema.

The brothers’ early films, from between 1954 and 1960, were short documentaries on which they collaborated with the director Valentino Orsini, as they were to do on their first features. By the time they began developing a cinema of fiction, Neorealism was ideologically spent—the ideologies themselves had crumbled with changing conditions (the collapse of Stalinism, the close of the cold war). If one adds that Italy was then in an economic boom period, and that the new kinds of social unrest that would be characteristic of the ’60s had already begun to appear, one can well understand how it had become impossible for the Tavianis to approach their subject as Rossellini did. They had to return to Neorealism’s roots—to its spontaneity, which lay outside any esthetic or avant-garde logic, since it put art and life on the same level. They had to free Neorealism from the ideological encrustations that had reduced it to sociology, had transformed myth into politics. Their films, then, are not the kind of assertion of rationality that was seen in Italy shortly after the war, during the period of democratization, when literature that had ’destroyed reason’: in Lukács’ words, was essentially on trial. Nor do they deny the function of memory or the themes of alienation and incommunicability that Michelangelo Antonioni had already advanced in Italy and that seem to have informed the entire nouvelle vague in France. This is a reproposal, if in innovative terms, of the obscure anthropological dimension of myth, from which democracy had withdrawn in idealizing rationalist models. The Tavianis reclaim symbolic and allegorical form for cinema. They seek truly original ways of expression through which the disruptive force that runs through all their work can reveal itself, as if from the depths of the unconscious into which historical events have sunk.

The Tavianis’ process was initially uncertain—a long lull followed Un uomo da bruciare, broken by I fuorilegge del matrimonio (The marriage outlaws, 1963), a minor film—but beginning with Sovversivi its characteristics are clear. The brothers had ended their relationship with Orsini, and the film represents a decisive development in their work. Sovversivi intertwines four separate stories of communist "subversives:’ social transgressors in different ways, whose unfolding lives are seen to echo each others’ (though the characters never meet) at the time of the funeral of Palmiro Togliatti, head of the Italian Communist Party during the fascist period, on August 25, 1964. The Tavianis had shot extensive documentary footage of the event, which they incorporated in the film. Between 1964 and 1967 they had come to fee] that the death of the charismatic head of the largest communist party in the West had symbolically ended an entire era for the left, as well as bringing the Neorealist option to a close in the cultural sphere. Using an innovative film language of brief sequences and of rapid, at times convulsive montage (it is worth noting that one of the protagonists ends up in a movie theater where Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, 1965, is showing), Sovversivi achieves a unity of the political and the personal, the public and the private, the historical and the biological.5 It ties empirical occurrences back to their deep roots in the mind and soul, in the unconscious forces that express themselves in urgent life through historical events.

Here, however, the urgency of life is manifested through the necessity of death, of a liberating funeral ritual, a sorrowful popular celebration for the burial of the “father,” Togliatti. The end of his protection brings both anguish at the responsibility that implies adulthood, and also relief: a sense of the end of youth, and of the security that comes with membership in a family, a group, is accompanied by an opening up toward a new life, by the end of an ideological alignment and of an order that assigns everyone to a set role. The Tavianis’ protagonists find themselves alone in a new era (an era that in reality was already well under way when Sovversivi was made, and would shortly end in the upheavals of 1968): alone with true revolutionary vocation (the Venezuelan guerrilla Ettore [Giulio Brogi]), with true sexuality (Giulia [Maria Tochinowski], who discovers her lesbianism), or with a truly unlivable existence in which the most interesting thing at a funeral are some kittens (the photographer Ermanno [Lucio Dalla]). This new era no longer permits Neorealism’s blending of myth and history, its phrasing of the voice of a whole people in the act of self-discovery, its disclosure of hidden anthropological structures in events, or its bestowal of realistic forms on the irrational, the biological, the unconscious. The communist masses who follow their leader’s coffin are no more than a background which frames the individual histories of the protagonists but cannot merge with or absorb them, the background of a drama that has become personal rather than communal. Sovversivi traces a rupture between myth and history; from here on they remain divided, both in utopian ideas of the future (the revolution) and in nostalgia for the past.

With Sovversivi the Tavianis put themselves in the van of a new Italian cinema (along with Marco Bellocchio, Marco Ferreri, and Pier Paolo Pasolini), bringing them to the attention of a European audience and pushing them to search out a new artistic construction lying between the hidden anthropological roots of a people’s way of life and the historical path that that life takes. The result was Sotto il segno dello Scorpione (Under the sign of Scorpio, 1969), a move toward the archaic, toward the prehistoric reality of myth—mediated here through the classical legend of the rape of the Sabines and through Vergil’s Aeneid. The title comes from a film the directors had planned earlier but never realized; it refers above all to the violence of large historical changes, symbolized by the astrological sign of Scorpio and embodied in the film by the group of youths who form a collective protagonist. These young men land on an island similar to one they have had to abandon after a volcanic eruption. Agents of change, they seek to transfer the island’s inhabitants (who include women, source of life) to the mainland, where environmental conditions are more favorable. This will effect the transition from the prehistoric to the historic, from the archaic to the contemporary; moreover, the escape from nature suggested by departure from the island will realize the modern human condition.

The archetypal, mythic quality of Sotto il segno dello Scorpione is basic to the film, which constitutes a deep violation of Neorealist language in its progress from symbolism and allegory toward metaphor, a characteristic feature of the Tavianis’ work from this point on. To some extent the film is linguistically in the shadow of Godard (sequences are joined by black film leader, images and the spoken word don’t always synchronize, and aural superimpositions sometimes make the soundtrack incomprehensible), and, while it contains some original stylistic ideas, it ends up confused and often obscure, but it does have the distinction of acting as a discourse on cinema, on representation, and, more generally, on communication itself. The group of male escapees from the volcano try to persuade the islanders of how good life will be on the mainland through a pair of performances, both of them destined to fail.6 Unable to communicate utopia, the scorpions resort to violence, breaking the conventions of representation (the social rules) and abandoning metaphor (cinema).

This ultimate rejection of metaphor confirms the persistence of Neorealist ideas in the Tavianis’ work, even while their cinematic vocabulary decisively breaks from Neorealism. And the Tavianis’ unease with metaphor in this film prevents its metaphorical narrative from achieving the necessary clarity. Yet with Sotto il segno dello Scorpione the Tavianis’ cinema acquires another of its basic elements: an interest in visual spectacle, already hinted at in earlier films, is integral here and from here on. The brothers’ work—in collaboration with Giuliani G. De Negri, their producer and a valued adviser—becomes more visual and more seamless in its production; the effect is that the world shown in each film comes to seem more self-enclosed. The film is brought into existence by a fiction, a nonmimetic, antinaturalistic creation of the mind, separate from everyday existence. Subverting familiar linguistic norms, it invents new communicative relationships with its audience.7

The Tavianis’ next production, San Michele aveva un gallo (Saint Michael had a cockerel), is a spectacle in which history, substituting for myth, appears to possess the kind of classical rational balance that can contain and equilibrate the force of the irrational, the socially transgressive. The movie was made in 1971, when the spontaneous explosion in which the revolutionary ferments of the ’60s climaxed had subsided. Among radicals, recovery from that explosion involved organizing various political groups—a return to order and away from the irrational and anarchic, and a fragmenting of the antiinstitutional unanimity of 1968. The Tavianis keenly sensed the changes in the air, and responded by returning to historical events—San Michele aveva un gallo is based on the social conflicts in Italy in the last decades of the 19th century And they returned to the great tradition of bourgeois culture (their love of Bertolt Brecht is matched by their love for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe): the plot is inspired by a Leo Tolstoy story, “The Divine and the Human.” But the historical concreteness of the events, and the classical objectivity in the balanced progression of the narrative, actually attest to the ineradicable persistence of the anarchic, the irrational—embodied here by the protagonist, Giulio Maneri (Giulio Brogi), and flowering in the utopian myth of revolution, the dream of a liberated humanity This irrationality is the thorn in the flesh of “scientific” Marxism that it has never been able to remove, an a priori human condition which urges the primacy of the individual over all organizations, even revolutionary ones.

The anarchist hero Maneri manages to live through defeat, death sentence by firing squad (commuted to life imprisonment), and ten years of solitary confinement. He survives by replacing reality with a more profound reality—a representation of a utopian future, which takes the form of a continuous recitation that he performs to himself. Maneri invents history itself, as well as life. History is a metaphor for the present, and he subjects the present to a mythical future made real to him through the representation he imagines for himself. But at the end of the film Maneri is in transit from one prison to another, and, on a Venetian lagoon as livid as the Po River in the scene in Paisà of Nazis throwing the corpses of partisans into the water, he encounters a new set of revolutionaries on their way to jail. Where he was an idealistic anarchist, these new subversives are Marxists, dogmatically rigid and scientific in their approach—and like the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Maneri kills himself, for he understands that myth is destined to become reality, the revolutionary utopian dream to become actual socialism.

The organizational frenzy of the return to order in the early ’70s was upsetting to the imagination, and in 1974 the Tavianis made Allonsanfan, a metaphor for the state of affairs of that period which took the form of a grand fresco of a specific historical phenomenon, the Restoration (the period in Italy after the Napoleonic wars, when the Congress of Vienna reasserted much of the country’s former structure of rule). Once again, concrete historical references (to which the Tavianis, inspired by Visconti’s Senso, 1954, add expressive devices from 19th-century melodrama) do not prevent the film from suggesting a place outside history and somewhere in the collective unconscious, in the obscure biology of the human mind, the depths that can upset the revolutionary’s quest and prevent the fulfillment of our natural right to happiness. The hero is Fulvio Imbriani (Marcello Mastroianni), an aristocratic Lombard who has suffered imprisonment for his activities as an Italian patriot at the hands of the Austrians (who governed that part of northern Italy at the time). Imbriani is another Mancri, but, rather than killing himself when he emerges from jail, he seeks to return to his family and to enjoy the privileges of his birth. Forces that he himself has helped to set loose stop him from doing so, and bring him to his death, in a revolutionary expedition doomed to defeat.

If San Michele aveva un gallo can be compared to a perfectly performed chamber-group concert, Allonsanfan reveals a more sweeping command of music, but ultimately it betrays its directors. (The music in the Tavianis’ films, incidentally, is an essential correlate of the imagery) It involves them in its intriguing fictions, distracting them, after an extraordinary overture, in a web of intertwining misrepresentations, preventing them from reaching a coherent conclusion. A metaphor for the anthropological origins of history, Allonsanfan, while often highly expressive, resists the Tavianis’ attempts to affirm a utopian future by portraying the past. Thus the film’s final affirmation of hope, which leaves open the possibility of the return of the irrational, ends upseeming superimposed, dictated by a noble but incongruous impulse extrinsic to the internal logic of the work. As manifested in Allonsanfan, the Tavianis’ cinematic language had continued to grow; it made no clamorous avant-garde ruptures with more traditional film vocabularies, but it had its own originality. Yet it could not free the brothers from this ideological knot that had repeatedly arisen in their films, creating a subtle but noticeable strain—the complexities of the utopian dream. By Padre Padrone (Father master, 1977), however, the brothers had further matured, and this work represents a noticeable step forward. The film is a typically Neorealist undertaking.

Padre Padrone is based on the story of a real man, Gavino Ledda, whose part is taken in the film by Saverio Marconi but who also appears himself in certain sections. The process by which Ledda breaks away from the fierce, archaic rural culture of Sardinia, into which he is born, and comes to embrace the modern(an acculturation that costs him blood and tears), is a progressivist allegory of liberation from myth—most overtly, the myth of the father. Myth holds man immobile, outside history, in the grip of nature. In Padre Padrone Ledda’s entry into civilization, and his acquisition of language, are not metaphors for the reconciliation of myth and history, however; they set up an opposition between coexisting archaic cultures and modern, rationalistic ones. The film is not about a man’s realization of a utopian future, but about his titanic effort to wrench himself from his natural roots and to acquire the present (which, however, enters his life of its own accord, in an insidious counterpoint to his attempts to come to terms with it). Ledda breaks away from his father, Fisio (played by Omero Antonutti, with extraordinary bravura), and from a shepherd’s life. That way of life is represented in its natural "truth:’ but without a surfeit of realistic reportage; it is revealed within the totality of a spectacular fiction that absorbs its underlying ideology while at the same time creating an autonomous reality.

By incorporating in their narrative the ideological residues, the ideas, that motivate a way of life rather than concentrating on its various details, the Tavianis loosened their bond with history in favor of an increasingly articulate representation of human universals. Their interest increasingly lay in an urgency of human feeling, a liberation of the psychological nucleus into the narrative form. Here, myth coincides with fable. The Tavianis’ first undertaking along these lines was marked by the casting of Rossellini’s daughter Isabella as Eugenia, the fascinating but acerbic heroine of Prato (Meadow, 1979), a film that describes (within obvious narrative limits) the end of utopia—or, better, the end of the utopian myth or dream. The “dream of something” remains a personal, sentimental, private fantasy, one bound to clash with reality—for if there is no utopian future, then the present simply reproduces itself endlessly, and in such a system it is impossible to bring forth anything new Dreams of a better world may encourage a break with one’s current condition, but if the present recurs eternally, they cannot offer a successful resolution. And if the present constantly reproduces itself, it reproduces the need for the new (a need that is included in the present), but it does not reproduce the necessary conditions for achieving the new. Thus the tender, passionate love that ties Eugenia to two young men only generates impotent desperation, resulting in the suicide of one (while Eugenia is at the movies, watching the famous sequence in Isabella’s father’s Germania Anno Zero [Germany year zero, 1947] in which a boy jumps off a roof), and the anguish of the second, who is left behind to live.

The end of utopia—of the future—in the Tavianis’ thinking also entails the impossibility of using past events as metaphors for the need to break out of the present; there is no future to break into. The past, then, can only be narrated as a fable, a mythopoetic memory, a tale removed from history and consigned to the realm of story-telling. And so, after Prato, the Tavianis dug into their own personal and professional past and shot a kind of remake of their first film short, San Miniato, Luglio 1944 (San Miniato, July 1944). In that film, now lost, they evoked, ten years after the fact, the destruction wrought by the Nazis on their small hometown, including the razing of the church and of their family home. The remake, La notte di San Lorenzo (The night of Saint Lorenzo; released in the US as The Night of the Shooting Stars, 1982), takes the form of a story told by a young mother, Cecilia (Micol Guidelli), to her son, who is yet too young to understand the events she experienced as a child: the flight of a group of villagers who realize, through instinct and the arguments of their guide, Galvano (again, Omero Antonutti), that this is the only way to escape fascist reprisals; their march through the hills to reach the advancing Americans, while the villagers who remain are killed in the church; the various human, personal, emotional stories that animate the march; an encounter with partisans; and a battle with fascists in a wheat field.

Cecilia was a child when she experienced these events, and she retells them in the “natural” language that mothers use to speak to their children; they are distanced in memory, removed from their historical reality to be transferred, through story-telling, into a space between reality and fantasy As a consequence, the narration often pushes toward the surreal. It is worth remembering, in fact, that one route of Italian filmmakers trying to break with Neorealism was a sort of surrealism, most memorably in the collaborations of De Sica and Cesare Zavattini; the Tavianis themselves had shown surrealist tendencies of a different kind, and in La notte di San Lorenzo these traits become the format through which they reconcile the fabulist approach of the film with its underlying basis of history. Their unbroken relationship with Neorealism is manifested here by the persistence of this historical thread, even though it is now history that flowers through the narration of myth rather than the other way around. The Tavianis can never turn their backs on history, and they allow it to emerge bit by bit in the film in a way that sometimes upsets the flow of the work—though this is always reestablished, and with an epic intensity.

By La notte di San Lorenzo the Tavianis had definitively mastered the art of spectacle, of following a discourse through the fluidity of a representational fiction, and of communicating powerfully with an active audience. This allowed them to expand their narrative powers in their most recent project, Kaos (Chaos, 1985), which brings them back to Sicily, where they started out in Un uomo da bruciare. (The film imbues the Sicilian landscape with epic grandeur—in one sequence it is seen through the eyes of a crow in flight.) The five episodes of Kaos are inspired by the stories of Luigi Pirandello. While the film is discontinuous in mood—the section entitled “La giara” (The jar) is like a Neorealist comedy, while “Mal di luna” (Moon sickness) concerns a werewolf spell—as a whole it reprises the Tavianis’ intellectual history. In La notte di San Lorenzo, for example, the historical reality of the black-shirted fascists contradicts the mythic, epic nature of the battle in the wheat field, a contradiction resolved by surrealist techniques; similarly, the realness of the story in the first episode of Kaos, “L’altro figlio” (The other son), contradicts the sense of the mythic conveyed by for example, a crow with the bell hanging from its neck, whose sound we interpret as a sign or omen from the natural world. The surrealist reconciliation of the two approaches in Kaos is most persuasive in the scenes of bandits playing boccie with decapitated heads, in the ambiguously saintlike appearance of the ghost of Giuseppe Garibaldi, in the burial of the still-living patriarch in the “Requiem” section (unjustly cut from the Italian version of the film, but present in the American release), and in the encounter between Pirandello (Omero Antonutti) and his dead mother. In this last episode, a description of a fabulous boat trip and a landing on an island of pumice ablaze with color (repeating the suggestion of myth present in nature), the disjunction is so successfully resolved, again through evocation of the distance of memory, that the mythic narrative easily carries the political undertones of the boat crossing—the travelers are going to find their father, who has been interned.

Kaos confirms the Tavianis’ ability to create a narrative capable of absorbing the ideological extremes of their filmmaking. At this writing the brothers are in Hollywood, where they are shooting Good Morning, Babylon, a film about two Tuscan artisans brought by the great early American director D. W Griffith to work on the set of Intolerance. This seems a natural development in the Tavianis’ voyage toward the roots of Neorealism. In America, that privileged place where so many modern myths have been and continue to be born, and where Pavese perceived “the gigantic theater where, with greater sincerity than anywhere else, everyone’s drama is enacted,” the Tavianis are concluding this phase of their work; to reflect on cinema and its destiny, they are returning to the origins of cinema, and to the actual set of one of the films that first synthesized the cinematic vocabulary.

Now that American alienation has become world alienation; now that cinema is identified with reality, totally representing it and replacing it; now that cinema and world seem to coincide in an eternal present, proposing no utopian future other than a technological one and feeling nothing more for the past than nostalgia—at such a time, to reflect on cinema and the myth of its origins may be an undertaking of great realism.

Vittorio Boarini is an art critic and the director of the Bologna cinema archive Cineteca. He also directs the International Festival of the Free Cinema, which takes place in Bologna every year.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Valuable documentation on the Tavianis has appeared in Cinema e Utopia (Parma: Cooperativa Nuovi Quaderni, 1974).

2. See Bruno Torri, Cinema Italiano: dalla realtà alla metafora (Palermo: Palumbo Editore, 1973).

3. See Giaime Pintor’s review of Elio Vittorini’s anthology Americana in Il sangue d’Europa (Turin: Einaudi, 1950).

4. See the pages on Vittonni, Cesare Pavese, and Roberto Rossellini in Vittorio Boarini and Pietro Bonfiglioli, Avanguardia e Restaurazione (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1976).

5. See Adelio Ferrero, “Vitalità del negativo e dialettica dell’utopia,” in Cinema e Cinema, vol. I no. I. Venice, October–December 1974.

6. See Pascal Kane. “Sous le signe du Scorpion,” Cahiers du Cinéma no. 228, Paris, 1971, and comments on this article by Leonardo Quaresima in “Cahiers Scorpione,” Cinema e Cinema vol. I no. I, October–December 1974.

7. See Fulvio Accialini and Lucia Colucelli, Paolo e Vittorio Taviani (Florence: La nuova Italia, 1979).