Just read a fascinating interview with Piero Vivarelli in an issue of Nocturno from last year. Vivarelli, who died in September 2010, was a truly colourful character, a real controversialist and child of his time who made a far more important contribution to Italian culture than is perhaps apparent from his basic filmography. He’s another one of those people who could makes you think about the term auteur; the more I know about a lot of these people making b-movies in Italy the more I see common threads and ‘auteurish’ aspects to their work. Is the very exclusivity of the term auteur misleading.
Anyway, Vivarelli was born in Tuscany in 1927. Growing up during Mussolini’s rule, he was happy to admit that he had a lot of sympathy for the fascist movement at the time and, as a young man, he joined the Decima Flottiglia MAS, an Italian commando frogman unit who were active in the war carrying out raids on allied boats. (Note, Vivarelli must be one of the few Italian filmmakers of his generation to freely admit to supporting the fascists, most of his peers claim involvement with the partisans or to have been too preoccupied with surviving). Later in his life he changed his political allegiances and became a very active communist, although after quarrelling with other party leaders he went to the Cuban embassy and joined the ‘authentic’ communist party of Cuba, one of only a handful of non-resident foreigners to be allowed to join (something of which he was extremely proud).
In the early 1950s he started writing films, and being a jazz lover he was drawn to the popular musicarelli genre, scripting films such as Lacrima di sposa (55). He also formed strong working relationships with a couple of cult filmmakers. He co-wrote Urlatori alla sbarra and Ragazzi del Jue Box for Lucio Fulci, and also co-wrote the hugely popular Adriano Celentano song Il bacio e come un rock with him (in fact, Fulci had little to do with it and was credited as part of an agreement for which Vivarelli received credit on one of Fulci’s songs for singer Vera Napi which were featured in Ragazzi del Jue Box). For Sergio Corbucci he wrote Carovana di canzoni (54), Supreme Confession (57) and Ángeles sin cielo (57). When Corbucci was having trouble writing Django, he called on Vivarelli for help. According to Vivarelli, he was given a contract to act as a script doctor, but when he arrived at Corbucci’s house to start work he discovered that all there was of the script was Corbucci’s idea for the opening scene, of a mad dragging a coffin across a muddy landscape. The two of them built up an idea from this opening, came up with the idea of calling the character Django (ironically named after one of Vivarelli’s favourite musicians), and wrote the script, all of which they did without knowing exactly what it was that Django was in the coffin that featured in the opening scene.
Vivarelli’s own career as a film director kicked off with a couple of hugely successful Adriano Celentano movies, San Remo, la grande sfida (60) and Io bacio… tu baci (61). Celentano and Vivarelli were friends and collaborators, so it was natural that they’d also make films together. They also worked together on the enjoyable caper movie Super rapina a Milano (64), with Vivarelli acting as an uncredited ‘supervisor’, but relationships between the two men became strained during the shoot. In the meantime, Vivarelli also struck out on his own as well: Oggi a Berlino (62) was a curious neo-realist film shot in Berlin and Il vuoto (64) was an Argentinian co-production set during the carnival and which had initially began life as a project between Vivarelli and Michelangelo Antonioni and was then supposed to be directed by Hugo Fregonese before Vivarelli took over in the director’s role. In the second half of the sixties he made a couple of cine-fumetti, Satanik and Mister X, which were moderately enjoyable and low budget productions that he acknowledges having done for fun rather than because of any particular connection with the subject matter.
His real character is perhaps most visible in the films he made in the 1970s. A self-proclaimed ‘sex maniac’, Vivarelli was extremely interested both in eroticism and exoticism, and these two elements were combined in Il dio serpente (70), Il decamerone nero (72) and Codice d’amore orientale (74). These were often born from local tales or legends, features lots of nudity and were largely shot on territory and acted by local performers. They proved successful enough for Vivarelli to get something of a reputation, and his 1979 film Nella misura in cui… was a very loose adaptation of an incident in his own life (shot in the same location as Il dio serpente, it tells of an older man having a passionate affair with his son’s girlfriend). And his personal life was notable: after a long term relationship with Jamaican actress and singer Beryl Cunningham he married a woman 30 years younger than him and they lived together until his death many years later.
Unfortunately Nella misura in cui… was something of a flop, and Vivarelli found it difficult to get any more work until he directed Provocazione in 1988. Naturally enough, Provocazione was born of his love for mischief; he was inspired by an incident in which a housewives group protested about porn actress Moana Pozzi appearing on TV, so naturally enough he figured he’d make a non-adult films starring her, get it projected in as many theatres as possible and essentially get up their noses! His last film La rumbera (98) was a Cuban shot film based on a novel by estimable Cuban writer Miguel Barnet, with a frankly bizarre cast including Sal Borgese, Michele Mercier and Gabriella Giorgelli.
Although Vivarelli’s films aren’t perhaps all that well known, they’re a compulsive mix of the populist and the personal. He’s a filmmaker who warrants some more discussion…