Just a brief review, as La notte di San Lorenzo (aka The Night of the Shooting Stars) has been more than adequately covered elsewhere. Released in 1982, this was the second big hit for the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, who had made there name with the unexpected international success Padre Padrone (78) and would go on to further triumphs with the likes of Kaos (84) and Good Morning Babylon (87).
The story, based vaguely on an incident that happened in Taviani’s own home town, San Miniato (where the film is also shot), is told as a flashback through the eyes of a woman who was a child at the time. It’s the closing months of the war, and the Germans are in retreat. As the Night of San Lorenzo approaches – a night on which shooting stars are always visible and wishes are supposed to come true – rumours begin to circulate throughout San Martino: the occupational forces, it would appear, have mined all the houses in the town and are planning to blow it up before they leave. All the locals are to be rounded up and held in the cathedral, and anyone breaking the curfew will be shot.
A number of the inhabitants, though, are distrustful of the Germans – rightly so, it doesn’t take them long to blow up the cathedral and all the people sheltering in it as well – and decide to leave the town and try and join up with the advancing American troops. They make their escape, and begin a long march, without really knowing where they’re going. Gradually their numbers decrease: some are killed or recaptured by Germans, some don’t have the stamina for the journey and some of them simply give up. On their journey, though, the remaining travellers meet up with fellow refugees, a town full of rebel peasants and a particularly nasty group of local fascists.
This is a very high quality film, which looks absolutely beautiful (it was shot by Franco Di Giacomo, who also did the cinematography on The Spider’s Strategem and Il postino). As with many of the Taviani’s films, it tells a very personal story within a bigger historical context. Peter Bondanella has described it as a magical realist version of Paisan, and he’s spot on: it’s similarly based around a series of wartime vignettes, all of which amount to a whole which is slightly bigger than the sum of its parts. In fact, this whole tradition of rural magical realism in Italian Cinema is one probably deserves more examination (see also Nuovomondo (The Golden Door, 2006), for instance).
The story is interesting enough, and although it has the deliberate pacing obligatory to Italian arthouse cinema, there’s enough going on to maintain interest. The Tavianis are maybe a bit too reliant on the beauty of the imagery and the locations carrying the story, but they do also throw in some excellent sequences (such as a bloody ambush in a corn field, which comes across a bit like a downplayed, chaotic version of the climactic scenes of The Big Gundown).
There is a slight problem in that none of the characters are really developed; they’re more of an amorphous whole than a group of individual people, and a dying man they encounter on the road is painted with more flourish than any of the supposed protagonists (although maybe this was deliberate). The only exceptions to this are Galvano, the leader of the fugitives, and Concetta (Margarita Lozano, Consuela Baxter from A Fistful of Dollars), the middle aged lady with whom he strikes up a tentative relationship. Even Corrado, traumatised after losing his wife and unborn son, is left rather underdeveloped. But everyone has great faces, it’s the funniest looking bunch of actors since Leone was making gold dust out of sand in Almeria. Oh, and there’s a really horrible little fascist brat (who thankfully gets his just deserts).