Sad news… Ugo Pirro has died. Here’s the obituary that ran in The Times.
The screenwriter Paul Haggis was acclaimed recently as the only person ever to have scripted consecutive winners of the Oscar for Best Film – Million Dollar Baby in 2004 and Crash in 2005 – but 35 years earlier the Italian writer Ugo Pirro did exactly the same for two winners of the Best Foreign Language Film.
In 1971 he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, for the bleak, satirical Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and for Best Adapted Screenplay, for The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, based on Giorgio Bassani’s novel about a Jewish family oblivious to the threat of Fascism.
Due to the Academy’s Byzantine rules for submission, the former had in fact already won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film the previous year, and Pirro now made it a back-to-back double when the latter took the same award. Yet he was to be disappointed, losing the contests for the original and adapted screenplay statuettes to The Hospital and The French Connection respectively.
Pirro always considered himself a novelist who happened to be working in cinema, and he rarely addressed anything other than weighty themes, often from a pessimistic standpoint. The highpoint of an output of more than 50 films is generally considered to be the trio of pictures that he made in the early 1970s with the director Elio Petri, the “trilogy of power” which reflected the social and political tensions and intrigues of the times.
The best-known internationally of these was Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. Co-written with Petri (who was also Oscar-nominated for the script), it was a penetrating critique of corruption, with Gian Maria Volontè as a police chief who murders his lover and then deliberately implicates himself to see if his subordinates will do their duty and accuse him.
Pirro’s two other collaborations with Petri were a psychological study of union power, The Working Class is Going to Heaven (1971), and a surrealist post-Marxist fable, Property is No Longer Theft (1973), which reflected Pirro’s own disenchantment with the Communist movement. Together the trilogy arguably was the zenith of intelligent, provocative Italian cinema, a golden era that began with the first film that Pirro saw being made, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945).
Born Ugo Mattone in Salerno in 1920, Pirro was the son and grandson of railway workers. He had a nomadic childhood in and around stations, and later said that it was having met so many people in so many places which first stimulated his writer’s imagination. He worked as a journalist, then moved to Rome after the war to work in film. His first screenplay, Achtung! Banditi!, a drama about partisans with a young Gina Lollobrigida, was made in 1951 for the director Carlo Lizzani.
He would go on to write another six pictures for Lizzani. These included Il sole negli occhi (1953), a study of a country girl who moves to Rome, and Il gobbo (1960), about the city in and after wartime, as well as Il processo di Verona (1963), the story of the downfall of Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister, Galeazzo Ciano.
Pirro’s final script for Lizzani was L’amante di Gramigna (1969), a historical tale of Sicilian banditry. This was also the theme of his first collaboration with Petri, an adaptation in 1967 of Leonardo Sciascia’s superb Mafia novel A ciascuno il suo (“To each his own”), the cautionary tale of a professor (Volontè again) who investigates the murder of a friend.
Pirro was not an easy man to work with. He held firm views about most things – even if he did not hold firm to the same things, moving over the years from the far Left to the far-ish Right – and expressed his opinions frankly. Rigorous and uncompromising, he often quarrelled with directors and other writers, including Bassani, who was offended by him changing the end of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (the script being co-written with Vittorio Bonicelli, and directed by Vittorio De Sica), so that the father also went to the concentration camp.
As Pirro pointed out, however, in the screenwriting classes that he gave, films create their worlds with images, books with imagination, and often alterations need to be made to convey the sense of one within the limitations of the other.
His later films included I guappi (Blood Brothers, 1974), another period Mafia drama, with Claudia Cardinale, for Pascale Squitteri, and Ogro (1979), Gillo Pontecorvo’s film about the assassination of Franco’s deputy, Admiral Carrero Blanco. Pirro’s last script of note was Il giudice ragazzino (1994), the true story of a young judge, Rosario Livatino, killed by the Mafia.
Pirro also wrote a number of well-received novels, including Le Soldatesse (1956), about a group of prostitutes brought in to service Italian soldiers in wartime Albania, and Celluloide (1983), his evocation of the atmosphere on the set of Rome, Open City and among the neo-realist pioneers of the time. Both books were later filmed. Pirro was also a leading activist in Italy’s screenwriters union.
Pirro is survived by his wife, Rossella, and their son.
Ugo Pirro, screenwriter and author, was born on April 24, 1920. He died on January 18, 2008, aged 87