Elio Petri: The Teacher of Vigevano

I maestro di Vigevano
I maestro di Vigevano

Aka Il maestro di Vigevano
A Dino De Laurentiis Cinematografica production
Director: Elio Petri
Story: Based on the novel ‘Il maestro di Vigevano’ by Lucio Mastronardi
Screenplay: Age [Agenore Incrocci] & [Furio] Scarpelli, Elio Petri
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
Music: Nino Rota, conducted by Franco Ferrara
Editor: Ruggero Mastroianni
Art director: Gastone Carsetti
Cameraman: Arturo Zavattini
Release dates & running times: Italy (24/12/63)
Filmed: Exteriors shot in Vigevano
Italian takings: 566.000.000 lire
Cast: Alberto Sordi (Antonio Mombelli, a schoolteacher), Claire Bloom (Ada, his wife), Vito De Taranto (Pereghi, the headmaster), Ya Doucheskaya (Eva), Guido Spadea (Nannini), Eva Magni (Nannini’s wife), Piero Mazzarella (Bugatti), Lilla Ferrante (Cuore, Mombelli’s sister), Ezio Sancrotti (Carlo, Eva’s brother), Anna Carena (Drivandi, a schoolmaster), Gustavo D’Arpe (Amiconi, a schoolmaster), Ignazio Gibilisco (Maraldi, a schoolmaster), Bruno De Cerce (Cipollone, a schoolmaster), Adriano Tocchio (Racalmuto, a lawyer), Tullio Scavazzi (Rino Mombelli), Egidio Casolari (Filippi, a schoolmaster), Aniello Coastabile (Zarzalli, a schoolmaster), Lorenzo Logli (shoe wholeseller), Enzo Savone (Bugatti’s son), Olivo Mondin (the janitor), Gaetano Fusari (the doctor), Joris Muzio, Franco Moraldi, Umberto Rocco, Nando Angelini, Carlo Montini, Franco Tuminelli

Petri’s next film was The Teacher of Vigevano (Il maestro di Vigevano,63), another intimate, black and white chamber-piece, which plays rather like a retread – albeit an even more pessimistic retread – of I giorni contato.  The everyman protagonist in this case is Antonio Mombelli (Alberto Sordi), a dedicated teacher at an elementary school in the small town of Vigevano.  Despite loving his job, he finds it hard to cope with the pitiful pay, a state which is exacerbated by the continual complaints of his aspirational wife, Ada (Claire Bloom).

His unhappiness increases after discovering that Ada has secretly taken a job at a factory and more especially when his fellow teacher and best friend, Nannini (Guido Spadea), commits suicide.  As a result of all this, the quality of his work begins to suffer and he is subject to several reprimands from the headmaster. He decides to resign and set up his own business making and selling shoes (Vigevano is known for its shoe manufacturing industry), thereby living ‘the Italian miracle’.

Despite a few mishaps (mainly due to Mombelli’s lack of artisan skills), things seem to start off well.  They soon have customers, wealthy friends and – more than anything else – no further need to fawn to their perceived betters.  Inevitably, however, it doesn’t last: a simple accounting mistake leads to disaster, and Mombelli’s life takes an increasingly downhill path.

Based on a novel by Lucio Mastronardi and scripted by the talented Age & Scarpelli [aka Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli] (along with Petri), this is another rather gloomy affair that seems to relish heaping misery upon its likeable central character.  As with The Assassin and I giorno contato, it is immaculately made in a predominantly realist (or neo-realist) style.  For the first time, however, Petri’s more experimental sensibilities were starting to become visible.  This is evident both in the architecture, which contrasts the downtown apartments of the poor with the exclusive, modernist houses of the rich, and also in a lengthy dream sequence that uses speeded up film-stock and imagery appropriated from the biblical ‘Garden of Eden’.  As well as being an entertaining sequence in its own right, this marked a first use of the surrealist imagery that was to become increasingly profuse as his work progressed.

Salvo Randone in Elio Petri's I maestro di Vigevano
Salvo Randone in Elio Petri’s I maestro di Vigevano

In some ways, The Teacher of Vigevano can be seen as a forerunner to Petri’s later, better known The Working Class Goes to Heaven.  As well as centering upon a bickering couple, this has a similar attitude towards work and workers.  Although the teachers here are from the middle class, they’re almost identical to the assembly-line employees of that film; they do their job – and do it well – but beyond their pay they also derive a sense of community from their profession.  When this is cut off, they’re left with nothing.

Another central theme is the impossibility of balancing one’s ideals and social standing.  Mombelli’s satisfaction with his job is compromised both by the headmaster’s dictatorial bearing and Ada’s desire to be seen as the wife of a prosperous man.  Left to his own devices, he would be quite happy just drifting along, but the ambition of others drives him to his own inevitable misfortune.

Fortunately, despite the heavy subject matter, the film is handled with a light touch that keeps it from becoming too oppressive.  This is partly down to the performances: Alberto Sordi comes across a bit like Peter Sellers, his comic timing managing to imbue the character with a tangible sense of pathos.  The character played by English actress Claire Bloom, who appeared in some odd films in the early sixties, is hardly likeable, but you actually begin to understand where she’s coming from, which is no mean feat for such an unsympathetic role.

After this trio of promising works, Petri spent a short while working on a couple of little-known items before attempting his next feature film. Nudi per vivere was a mondo style documentary, directed – under the joint pseudonym Elio Montesti – in collaboration with Giuliano Montaldo and Giulio Questi (a seriously bizarre combination of mavericks), which featured so much racy dancing that it was actually burned by the Italian censors.  Sadly, it remains hard to see today.  Peccato nel pomeriggio, again starring Claire Bloom, was an episode in the comedy anthology High Infidelity (Alta infedelità, 64), which also had contributions from Luciano Salce, Mario Monicelli and Franco Rossi.

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