Elio Petri: Investigation of a Filmmaker Above Suspicion

Elio Petri and Franco Nero take a breather during filming for A Quiet Place in the Country

Elio Petri and Franco Nero take a breather during filming for A Quiet Place in the Country

For some reason, Elio Petri is a filmmaker who seems to have slipped off the cultural (and counter-cultural) radar.  To the art-house crowd, Italian cinema is composed of the giants – Rossellini, Visconti, Bertolucci, Pasolini – with very little else getting a worthwhile look in.  Among those with a taste for more exploitative fare, you’re more likely to hear discussion of Batzella’s The Devils Wedding Night (Il pleniluno delle virgini, 73) or Bianchi’s Strip Nude for your Killer (Nude per l’assassino, 75) than Property is No Longer Theft (La proprietà non è più un furto, 73).

Some have argued that this is because of repression; Petri was the most political of directors, and his work couldn’t fail but antagonize the authorities in his own homeland.  This is probably a conspiracy too far, though, with it being more likely that the very ‘unclassifiability’ of his films makes them more difficult to pigeonhole within a traditional critical perspective.  Too populist for high culture, too arty for low, he sits with a small group of mavericks – Valerio Zurlini, Carlo Lizzani, Giuliano Montaldo, Damiano Damiani – who attempted to use genre frameworks as a means of conveying their socio-political ideologies.  It could also be something to do with his comparatively early death, in 1982 – at the age of 53 – of cancer, which robbed him of the opportunity to become one of the elder statesmen of Italian cinema.

This relative obscurity is a shame, as his work includes much to interest the casual observer, the cult fanatic and the traditional cineaste.  Oscar nominated for best screenplay in 1972 for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, 70), Golden Palm winner at Cannes for The Working Class Goes to Heaven (La classe operaia va in paradise, 71), he regularly scored highly on the festival circuit at the time.  Beyond this, however, his work includes an effective giallo (We Still Kill the Old Way (A ciascuno il suo, 67)), a ghost story (A Quiet Place in the Country (Un tranquillo posto di campagna, 69)) and a number of science fiction pieces (The Tenth Victim (La decimal vittima, 65), Todo Modo (76)).  That so little of this is available to date on DVD is frankly criminal, and it can only be hoped that the situation is remedied before too long.

Born Eraclio Petri on January 29th, 1929 inRome, he grew up in the traditional working–class area of the city, where his father worked as a coppersmith.  He became a committed communist at an early age, which led to his expulsion from Catholic school, and soon found work as a cultural coordinator for the youth arm of the Communist Party.  Like many left-wing Italians he found it difficult to reconcile his socialist beliefs with the reality of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and he left the party after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. By this time he’d made friends with Gianni Puccini(1) (who would go on to make Ballata da un miliardo (67) and The Fury of Johnny Kid (Dove si spara di più, 69)), who introduced him to Giuseppe De Santis, the respected director of neo-realist classic Bitter Rice (Riso amoro, 49). Petri was soon acting as a scriptwriter and assistant to De Santis on Giorni d’amore (54) and Uomini e lupi (56), an experience which went on to have a profound influence upon his later directorial career.

Silvana Mangano and  Yves Montand in Uomini e lupi

Silvana Mangano and Yves Montand in Uomini e lupi

(1) Born on the 19th November 1914 in Milan, Gianni Puccini followed in his father Mario’s footsteps by becoming a scriptwriter, working on Visconti’s Ossessione (43), De Santis’ Bitter Rice (Riso amaro, 49) and numerous other reputable films throughout the forties and fifties.  His directorial career was rather more varied, with his main output being middlebrow comedies like L’impiegato (60) and Amore facile (64), and he was also something of a specialist in contributions for the anthology films that were popular in the late 50s and early 60s (Love in 4 Dimensions (Amore in Quattro dimensioni, 64), The Double Bed (Le lit à deux places, 65)).  Towards the end of his career his work became more varied: I sette fratelli Cervi (67) was a much admired political war film, Ballata da un miliardo (67) a cheesy caper flick and The Fury of Johnny Kid (Dove si spara di più, 69) a  very strange spaghetti western remake of Romeo & Juliet (complete with a leftfield ending that has to be seen to be believed).  Unfortunately, just as things were starting to get really interesting he died of a heart attack on the 3rd December 1968.

Posted in Performers & directors | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Christopher Roth

Christopher Roth

Christopher Roth

Director: Maxime Alexandre
Writers: Maxime Alexandre, Philippa Goslett
Stars: Aaron Stanford, Joaquim de Almeida, Ben Gazzara

Christopher Roth was the second film directed by Belgian film-maker Maxime Alexandre, who’s better known as a cinematographer on the likes of The Crazies and The Hills Have Eyes. Alexandre obviously has a liking for Italy and Italian cinema: both this and his previous directorial effort Holy Money were filmed in Italy and fall roughly into the giallo genre.

Whereas Holy Money was a twisty-turny thriller revolving around wine cultivation and Catholicism, this is a simpler affair. The plot follows the titular character, a disillusioned horror writer who is finding that his violent imaginings are increasingly intruding into his real life. So he decides to take some time out in Umbria, only to discover that a serial killer called ‘The Boar’ – whose trademark is to inset boar’s teeth into the cheeks of his victims – is active in the area.

As with Holy Money, it’s a technically accomplished but strangely disappointing affair, let down by some shaky acting and an unfocused script. There’s much too much time spent on the musings of the protagonist, and so few other characters that the mystery element never really gets off the ground. Alexandre has promise, but he could really do with an experienced scriptwriting hand to bring out the best in him.

A charming scene from Christopher Roth

A charming scene from Christopher Roth

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Easy Money

Easy Money, aka Snabba Cash

Easy Money, aka Snabba Cash

In recent years, Scandinavian thrillers have been given something of an easy ride. What’s often not pointed out is that – when you dig beneath the gloomy, downbeat exterior of these productions – they’re often, well, a bit… cheesy. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and assorted sequels) is the greatest example of this, featuring a plot and characters that are more like something that a teenage boy would dream up than a fifty year old Swede; but even the critically impermeable likes of Wallander are full of quite astounding plot leaps that would be frowned upon in British or American productions. Among all this, though, there have been some authentically good films in recent years, and Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money (based on the novel by Jens Lapidus) is one of them.

The plot follows JW (Joel Kinnaman) a talented business studies student who has a bunch of horrible, rich friends he can’t afford to fit in with. In an attempt to make some money that will keep him in preppy clothes and swigging champagne for the foreseeable future, he becomes involved with a scheme to import a huge shipment of cocaine from Germany along with an escaped convict called Jorge (Matias Varela). However, the local Serbian mafia aren’t happy about this, and charge enforcer Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) with putting a stop to it. Mrado, however, is becoming disillusioned with his own position and sees it all as the perfect opportunity to double cross his own bosses and make enough money to finance a quiet life in hiding with his young daughter.

This is a slick, fast-paced thriller looks more to the American model than other Scandinavian productions in the way it emphasizes action and movement over gimmickry and shadowy cinematography. JW makes for an interesting protagonist – he’s sympathetic if hardly likable, especially in his inability to see his revolting friends for what they are – and his shifting relationships with Jorge and Mrado have something of James Ellroy about them. The performances are also excellent (especially Matias Varela, who recently was fed to eels in The Borgias). It was hugely successful in Scandinavia, and has spawned two quickfire sequels which weren’t directed by Espinosa (who went on to make the Denzel Washington film Safe House) but do feature much the same cast.

Matias Varela in Easy Money

Matias Varela in Easy Money

Posted in Capsule reviews | Tagged | Leave a comment

Solitude of Prime Numbers, The

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Here’s an instructive film. Saverio Costanzo’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers is based on the hugely popular novel of the same name by physicist and writer Paolo Giordano. It’s well made, singular and unlike many Italian productions has subject matter that’s of universal interest (i.e. it’s not about immigration or a vehicle for a popular local comedian). And yet, despite picking up several awards and getting decent reviews in the international film press, it only had the most limited of distribution in the English speaking world, and even today it’s astoundingly difficult to pick up on DVD. What’s going on? Why on earth has this never received any kind of showing in the US or England whereas the most tedious of French comedies or Albanian arthouse movies do? I think it illustrates the incompetence of the Italian distribution companies, who both don’t encourage Italian cinema to have a global perspective and then, when something comes along that could do well in the international markets, they simply don’t know how to do anything with it.

The plot follows two damaged characters who become friends if not exactly lovers at several points in their life. In childhood, Mattia is charged with looking after his autistic sister by his distant parents and, frustrated with always having to cope with her difficult behaviour, leaves her in the park while he attends a friend’s brithday party. She goes missing, never to reappear. Alice, meanwhile, is pushed into skiing dangerously by her damanding father, who wants her to become a champion. After becoming stuck in a whiteout she crashes and permanently damages her leg, leaving her with a limp and a lack of confidence.

They meet when they’re teenagers and Alice – who is bullied by the revolting girls at her school – falls for Mattia. He, however, is a child genius who is completely closed down, consumed by guilt and seemingly devoid of emotions (although his self harm habit indicates that he does have feelings). It takes years for him to finally open up and reveal what happened in his childhood, and at that point he’s about to leave for Germany, to take up a position at a prodigious physics institute.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Arianna Nastro and Tommaso Neri in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The plot, therefore, is something like a more poetic, less optimistic Silver Linings Playbook: these are truly broken characters, too damaged to do anything like form a proper relationship or even acknowledge the need they have for each other. The protagonists aren’t whimsical or even particularly likeable, although you can’t help but feel for the childhood Mattia and the teenage Alice.

What makes The Solitude of Prime Numbers so interesting, though, is the way it is filmed. Despite the story being anything but a horror film, Costanzo very deliberately films it in the style of a nineteen seventies giallo. Fabio Cianchetti’s cinematography apes Vittorio Storaro’s work for Dario Argento (snatches of the music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage are used as well), most particularly in the scenes in which Mattia discovers his sister has gone missing, and there are references also to The Shining and The Godfather. Faith No More’s Mike Patton provides a soundtrack that plays on the sound of John Carpenter and Goblin, and there’s a perceptible feeling of dread that hangs over it all, despite the fact that not a great deal actually happens.

Costanzo also deserves points for coaxing some good performances from a not particularly well known or experienced cast. The child actors are well handled, especially Tommaso Neri, and Isabella Rossellini has a nice supporting role as his unsympathetic mother. The segueways back and forth in time are sometimes confusing, especially because the parents of the children are all similar looking and never really developed in any way; and the running time is probably twenty minutes too long at just under two hours, especially as the expected climax never really arrives. But nonetheless this is an engrossing, unusual film that should appeal both to the cult circuit (it has a lot of similarities to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani well received Amer) and the art-house crowd. If they ever get the chance to see it, that is.

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Simon Killer

Simon Killer

Simon Killer

Coming from the same production ‘collective’ as the surprise hit Martha Marcy May Marlene, Simon Killer has many of the same themes – sociopathic men, vulnerable women, the small steps that lead towards darkness – and a similar, sinister atmosphere as that film. It lacks, however, the compelling narrative and tight direction leaving it a rather flabby work, albeit one which has moments which stick in the mind.

Simon (Brady Corbett) is an american post-grad who winds up in Paris after his long-term relationship breaks down. Not knowing anyone there, he spends his days wandering around, watching porn on his laptop and listening to (decent) electronic music. Then he enters into a relationship with a sweet-natured prostitute (Constance Rousseau) and comes up with a brilliant scheme of helping her to blackmail her clients; in the meantime he also meets and falls for a student (Lila Salet). But it gradually becomes clear that Simon is a pathological liar whose previous girlfriend left him because of his violent behaviour.

Given its loose plotting and unhurried pacing, this is rather like mumblecore doing horror, and it shares all the same problems that make most mumblecore films so annoying, most particularly the fact that, despite aiming for a tone of gritty realism, it features characters who are simply unbelievable (the tart with a hart, naive student) and a protagonist who is simply dislikeable. Much of it is simply dull, and the repeated scenes of Simon wandering around Paris make for tedious viewing (the cinematography in general has a washed out, dull tone). But some sequences are effective (Simon growing increasingly anxious as his lies catch up with him while he’s at a cafe) and it does powerfully capture a sense of alienation.

Brady Corbet in Simon Killer

Brady Corbet in Simon Killer

Posted in Capsule reviews | Tagged | Leave a comment

A.D. Project

AD Project

AD Project

I always wondered what had happened to Eros Puglielli, the director of the revivalist giallo Eyes of Crystal in 2004. It was a good enough film to hint that he would go on to better things, but such is the state of the Italian film industry that it was not to be: he now works in television and was recently behind the acclaimed series Baciamo le mani: Palermo-New York 1958. But before moving his focus completely to the small screen he also made AD Project (2006), a micro-budgeted production which was released straight to DVD.

The story follows a group of seemingly random characters who congregate in a small town where some mysterious stuff is going down. There’s actor Marco (Marco Bonini), just arrived for an audition with his frustrated girlfriend (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) in tow; an experimental psychiatrist (Giorgio Albertazzi) whose latest patient (Eleonora Mazzoni) seems to have experienced some kind of unknown trauma and is frankly rather scaring him; her husband (Cristiano Callegaro), who owes money to a mysterious organisation; and a weird porn website owner (Emiliano Reggente). Events slowly build towards a climax at some deserted out of town buildings which are protected by a weird area of high pressure and a shadowy character called ‘the guardian’.

A.D. Project can’t be faulted for it’s ambition. Its budget ($356 according to IMDB) was provided by the cast and crew, who also all act as co-producers, and it was distributed straight to magazine kiosks throughout Italy. Given its limited means, it’s an audacious attempt to do a Dvaid Lynch style story of fractured narratives, weird events and alienated characters. It’s well shot with cinematography that would put many bigger budget features to shame and a suitably creepy atmosphere. Perhaps unsurprisingly the acting can be shakey, the script is often confusing and it seems to run out of steam towards the end. But despite this it’s a laudable effort, and again makes it all the more surprising that Puglielli hasn’t gone on to a more glittering career.

Posted in Capsule reviews, New Italian Cinema, Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Franco Citti interview

Franco Citti in Accattone

Franco Citti in Accattone

Here’s an interview with Italian actor Franco Citti – who is famous for his work with Pasolini but also appeared in numerous other films – that I found on the web and have translated into English.

Fiumicino is cold and grey at dawn. Franco Citti walks along the shoreline exuding melancholy and gratitude. After twenty years of interviews with the protagonist of Accattone his memories are still not spent. The Roman actor tells a portrayal of Pasolini which is unusual: not a Pasolini who is an intellectual, but a friend…

“Look, my brother and I have said this a million times. It is absolutely impossible that his killer was Pelosi. He was a kilometer away from the massacre. And it was a massacre, those things couldn’t have been done by just one person. There are too many things that are unclear, hidden. And there’s also the politics, naturally.”

The voice of Franco Citti, the unmistakeable face of Pier Paolo Pasolini, is harsh and sharp. As are his thoughts, and everything else.

“I initially came from Rome because the Borgate were beginning to disappear, and with them my friends. And when they didn’t have their ho!es any more the people took shelter by the sea. And for this reason I came to live in Fiumicino. There is a sense of mortality, hereabouts, which gives me peace. Perhaps I am already dead, here, in this solitude that I love and that gives me joy. Or, rather, maybe I’m alive because I am in Fiumicino. Perhaps if I’d have stayed in Rome I’d already be dead.”

Q: How did you meet Pasolini?

Through my brother, Sergio, in a pizzeria of Torpignattara. Sergio said to me: “Brother, let me present a friend of mine, a writer.”

Q: You already knew of him, then?

No, in that period he wrote poetry in ‘friulano’, work from his early years.

Franco Citti with Pier Paolo Pasolini

Franco Citti with Pier Paolo Pasolini

Q: So you didn’t know exactly who he was?

No, initially I even thought that he was illiterate. He was a primary school teacher in Ponte Mammolo, my brother told me. I was all covered in lime because I worked as a mason with my father. Then after we met be began to see each other often.

Q: And what was your initial impression of Pasolini.

That he was a normal person. I didn’t think anything of the fact that he was a writer. At times I gave him some lines in Roman that he would use.

Q: So Pasolini put into his books stories that you and Sergio told him?

Paolo above all liked the spirit, the wag of the Roman Borgate, this man who was cheerful and true and who passed his time with us, in the borgate. And so, being someone who wrote by looking at the things that happened around him, he took things for outside and put them in his books. But what really interested me was when he said that he’d got a part for me in his film.

Q: How did you react?

You know, I’m a born pessimist, I don’t believe very much in the things that are offered to me. So I said to Paolo: “OK, good, when we do it we do it.” Then he said again: “There’s a great part for you.” And out of that Accattone was born.

Q: While you were shooting did you feel the part or was it something that you didn’t feel much connection with?

I felt at ease because I was shooting with all my friends from the borgate. We played around a bit.And then that adventure, that story, I liked doing it. For the film I also had to read Ragazzi di vita.

Q: And you shot it at Torpignattara?

Torpignattara, Il Pigneto, Testaccio, Pietralata. We went all around the peripheries of Rome. The film went on in this way for a while. He directed us, but we were free to be ourselves.

Q: So you had the opportunity to add some touches of your own?

You know, the dialogue was already partially written and Pier Paolo wrote it with my brother Sergio, but there were some line that in the dubbing felt better and we put them in. Accattone, though, remained as it was shot, and in fact it’s a good film because it was spontaneous, because it didn’t use professional actors and was made on the fly. And with restricted means. The people who were acting alongside me, and me as well, we didn’t come some mornings, they’d have things to do, they’d go off and do other things, and then it was a bit complicated.

Q: So there were problems that were practical rather than financial?

Financially there weren’t any problems. I believe that the film cost very little. I, for example, was paid eight thousand life per day. I worked for eight weeks, then more on the dubbing. You could say that I worked for about a year and I took home about the equivalent of a million and three hundred thousand more today.

Q: When you see yourself in Accattone what do you think?

I try not to see myself.

Q: Why?

Because now that film is a memory to me, as all the others, of the rest. At times they show Accattone on TV, and I also have the video, but I search for reasons not to watch it. Not because it’s old, but because I like watching it with the right people, with those who at the time challenged it, for example.

Q: How did Accattone change your life?

For the worse. You see, this relationship with Pasolini was for me, in a certain sense, destructive, because it wasn’t that I really loved doing cinema, but at the same time I know that I had to do it, perhaps if only put of friendship. And, as I’ve already said to you, in some ways it fascinated me, most particularly when I was working with my friends. But then I had to work with other people I didn’t know, and it broke my balls because they weren’t loyal to me. They were ambitious, you know? But then some people would say: “Well, that’s a borgataro”.

Q: What type of rapport did you have with Pasolini?

He was a little like a father to me. He had a great fear of me, that I could just disappear one day or another, without finishing the film. And then we did Mamma Roma with Mangani. I had a misadventure with the police, I argued with a policeman and they arrested me for insulting an officer; I did a sentence of around twenty days and then they let me out.

Q: The filming was interrupted because of this?

No, they used my brother’s shoulders as a kind of body double. And after that episode, when we did Oedipo re, Pasolini had no choice but to put a guard on the hotel to make sure I didn’t leave it. But, you know, for me the cinema was an amusement. It didn’t interest me much as a profession.

Franco Citti in The Godfather

Franco Citti in The Godfather

Q: If I’m not mistaken Pasolini has said that he simply wanted you to be yourself rather than to act…

Yes, it’s certainly true that he never wanted me to be French, English, American. But then I had a lot of requests. I did my third film with Marcel Carne, then I worked in America. I did two of the Godfather films with Coppola, the first and the third one.

Q: What significance do you think Pasolini has in today’s society?

He thought so many things which he told through his stories, his writings or his imaginings.

Q: So you think that many of the realities and tensions in his writing are still here in Italy today?

Yes, for sure. I think that if Pasolini was still alive the young people of today would be different to how they are. He would have loved them and would have taught them through his writing and his cinema. I’ve read very few of Pier Paolo’s things, but I knew him well and he was the most humane person I ever met. He was the father to all of us, us from the borgate, and he was very much loved. For us, he was he Baggio of the place, the person who would resolve everything. He gave charity to the poor, and as soon as he began to earn some lire he’d often go to eat, inviting everyone. He was a cheerful family. And I’m sure that it will remain like that for always, also for those who never read his work.

Q: What are the strongest feelings that you still have of him?

He left me with this feeling of a big war, an endless fight between people. But, I repeat, he was the most humane person I ever met. I’ve never met anyone else like him, someone who’d call out to the extras: Please, can you put yourself there. He had an extraordinary sweetness, and that’s what I remember most. He was like a father, you know? A guide along the right path.

Posted in Performers & directors | Tagged , , | Leave a comment