Illustrious Rosi

Illustrious Rosi – director Francesco Rosi; includes interview

Stuart Klawans

EXTERIOR: DAY. A young man lies facedown in a Sicilian courtyard, bloodstains visible on his shirt, a handgun and a rifle by his side. Around him are gathered perhaps a dozen living men–cops and town officials. One, circling the corpse, is busy dictating an inventory; item by item, he translates the enigmatic physical reality of this scene into bureaucratic language, which will soon prove to be no less enigmatic, and no less disturbing, than the body itself.

Such is the opening of Salvatore Giuliano, the film that established Francesco Rosi’s reputation. Using a gambit he would frequently play again, Rosi hooks the audience with the mystery of a violent death, then spends the next 107 minutes refusing to solve it. Why should he? In that opening sequence, Rosi already has laid bare what he conceives to be the real mystery: the process by which potentially disruptive events yield to official control. Bureaucratic language turns out to be the most dangerous weapon used in Salvatore Giuliano–so dangerous that the town official, in describing the corpse, might be said to murder the title character right before our eyes.

Critical reputations can be dangerous, too. Rosi’s jelled between 1962, when Salvatore Giuliano came out, and 1976, when he released Illustrious Corpses. During those years, a significant number of filmgoers came to see Rosi as a figure of probity, both political and artistic. A man of the left, he used film as an investigative tool, exposing the convergence of power among business interests, political parties, and organized crime in his native Naples, in Sicily, and throughout Italy. And yet, as he told David Overbey of Sight and Sound in 1976, “I don’t make documentaries…I make documented films on a certain reality of life.” Like the neorealists, he favored shooting on location, often with casts full of nonprofessionals, but he rejected the neorealists’ use of sympathetic characters embedded in well-rounded plots, preferring instead to tease and provoke the audience in the name of a critical cinema. Rosi’s storytelling was disjunctive, characterized by brusque editing and jarring chronological jumps. His principal characters were often strangely distant, or even absent from the scene.

“In the general economy of the stories,” Rosi told Overbey, “personal lives have no real importance.” Some of the protagonists bore the names and manners of well-known figures; others were entirely made up. But during these key years, Rosi’s view of character was consistently long-distance, so audiences would understand that his films were not so much “based on a true story” as “based on a true social force.” Watching Salvatore Giuliano, we rarely see the Sicilian bandit leader, who comes into closeup only when laid out for burial. Nottola, the politician and real estate developer who is at the center of Hands Over the City (’63), goes through the entire film with his son in hiding from the police; yet we don’t hear him voice any concern, nor do we get a single glimpse of his family life. The title character of Lucky Luciano (’73) does come before the camera; every few minutes he even speaks occasionally; but he never does much of anything, except to smile knowingly and eat his dinner. As for Rogas, the detective who provides the point of view for Illustrious Corpses, Rosi grants him one scene at home, which is just enough to establish that he is divorced and lonely–and, more important, that he realizes his phone is tapped.

Perhaps Rosi, too, became like one of the protagonists from this period. Considered as an auteur, he was an exemplary figure, more of a locus than a person, on which different critical interests converged. But I would suggest that this image, like that of his characters, was tricky, too–as filmgoers discovered when Christ Stopped at Eboli was released in 1979.

On its surface, the film’s subject seemed fitting for Rosi, since it dealt with both politics and the South. The story–even some of the language–came from a memoir of the same name published in 1945 by Carlo Levi, a Jewish physician and painter from Turin, who spent several years of the Fascist era in internal exile in a village in Lucania. But rosi turned this material into something that was sensuous, meditative, thoroughly enveloped in the presence of its point-of-view character–something that invited viewers to dream, rather than to debate. “Francesco Rosi” never would have made this picture.

The films that followed–Three Brothers (’81), Carmen (’84), Chronicle of a Death Foretold (’87)–made it obvious that Christ Stopped at Eboli was no fluke; audiences were going to have to revise their notion of Rosi. Now, with the completion of his Neapolitan Diary (’92), the most personal film he’s yet made–and with the screening in October 1994 of a complete retrospective at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater –we have a good occasion to rethink Rosi, to see what the connections might be between the jumped-up, critical modernist of the earlier films and the warm, suave director of Eboli.

SALVATORE GIULIANO “was the first film in which I felt I had mastered the delicate balance between reality itself and an interpretation of reality,” Rosi has said. It was his third feature, and still commands critical attention as the starting point for everything that is distinctive about his work. But when Rosi released his first feature, La sfida (The Challenge), in 1958, he was already 36 years old and had ten years’ experience in the movies behind him, plus another four years on the stage and in radio. By any standards, he was mature, and the film shows it.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of La sfida, for those who know only the later work, is the fluidity of Rosi’s direction. He choreographs the movement of the actors and the camera, so that action runs continuously from the beginning of a scene through its end. He also builds up a sense of space through cross-cutting, as when the film’s Neapolitan slum-goddess Assunta (Rosanna Schiaffino) spies across a tenement courtyard at Vito (Jose Suarez), the pampered tough guy who wants to muscle his way into the Camorra. It’s too easy to dismiss these directorial conventions with the word “Hollywood.” For one thing, relatively few people in Hollywood have ever handled the conventions so adeptly as Rosi did his first time out. For another thing, this sort of seamless storytelling has been practiced outside of Hollywood–in Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima and Senso, for example, films on which Rosi had worked as assistant director.

You can see how much Rosi learned from those experiences in big set-pieces, such as the wedding sequence of La sfida; he’s absolutely confident in handling dozens of extras. And, of course, you can also see the influence of his very first job in film, as an assistant on Visconti’s La terra trema. Like so many neorealist films, La sfida is a blend of real, down-and-dirty people and places with an artfully un-real story. Not only does Vito publicly announce his intention of marrying Assunta, but he does so immediately after their first sexual encounter and immediately before the film’s intermission. Not only does Vito come to a bad end, but he does it in front of Assunta’s eyes, on their wedding day. Sentimentality, you could say, echoing one of the standard complaints against neorealism; but again, this is too easy a response. I think Rosi’s screenplay, written with Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Enzo Provenzle, may give us an important key to the later films.

Again and again–in the stories of Salvatore Giuliano, of Nottola in Hands Over the City, of Enrico Mattei in The Mattei Affair (’72), of Inspector Rogas in Illustrious Corpses, even of the bullfighter Miguel in The Moment of Truth (’65)–Rosi repeats a pattern he established in La sfida with Vito’s rise and fall. A tough man, whose energy and singlemindedness make him admirable even when his motives do not, dares to imagine that he is bigger and stronger than the existing power structure, with consequences that usually are fatal. From a political perspective–the one Rosi has most often taken in his interviews–these stories are about how people break with authority, and how authority seals the rupture. From a literary perspective–which Rosi does not often discuss–the stories are of course tragedies (or near-tragedies, since Nottola wins his bet). But from a personal perspective–which Rosi almost never takes–Vito and his successors are figures out of a family romance.

In a series of conversations edited and published by Michel Ciment–Rosi’s most consistent and eloquent champion–the filmmaker spoke revealingly about how he remembers his childhood, and about the different worlds he intuited through his father’s family and his mother’s. Talking about the father’s side, he suggested the origins of the Francesco Rosi who is morally rigorous and intellectually tough. His paternal grandfather, of Calabrian peasant stock, came to Naples alone at age 9 to look for work. He became a tailor, and while at work managed to put himself through school, meanwhile saving enough money to bring his mother to Naples. Though Rosi’s father had to work for a while in the new family business, he soon broke away, selling sketches (especially caricatures) to the newspapers, taking up photography, and eventually settling into a job with a shipping company. As Rosi narrated this story to Ciment, his father’s family emerged as disciplined, dignified, politically serious, tied to both the world of ideas and the world of the Neapolitan working class. On the one hand, Rosi first visited Pompeii and Herculaneum with his paternal grandfather, who had an interest in archaeology. On the other hand, Rosi got to know the Neapolitan docks by hanging around his father’s office.

With Rosi’s account of his mother’s side, though, we get hints of another aspect of the filmmaker. Here we have the man who is fascinated by “imagination and liberty”–the one who can’t stop making films about swaggering, self-destructive gamblers.

His maternal grandfather, from a rich merchant family in Naples, fell passionately in love with a cousin when he was 16 and declared he would commit suicide unless he was allowed to marry her. His parents, suitably impressed by the gun he was waving, decided to grant his wish, at the expense of getting a special dispensation from the Vatican. Such theatrics were evidently not uncommon in the family. One of Rosi’s great-aunts was a soprano who indulged in the usual love affairs and scandals. An uncle was the head of the claque in Naples and spent as much time as possible at vaudeville shows, operettas, and circuses. (He took young Francesco to see Josephine Baker.) On the New Year, some of the other uncles (who were secretly socialists and Freemasons) took advantage of the hubbub to go out on the balcony and shoot their pistols. Reading the account Rosi gives of this “tribe,” you get the image of a mansion (complete with a private chapel) ringing night and day with madcap antics.

But then, the grandfather’s antics were not so funny. When not engaged in propagating the family–nine children survived–he was off gambling in San Remo and Monte Carlo. He lost everything, and in losing it “he let the family taste the joy of the fall.” Eventually, Rosi claims, he became a croupier in the Naples casino where he’d gone bust, just so he could remain close to the game.

The veracity of this wonderfully colorful story is both questionable and beside the point. Rosi clearly believes in the tale (even though he might not believe it), which is enough to account for his fascination with figures such as Vito, Giuliano, and Mattei. He could easily have chosen some other type on which to base his cinematic investigations; but perhaps a more sober character (like the teacher played by Vittorio Mezzogiorno in Three Brothers) would not have sparked in him the exuberance of those earlier films.

Understandably, the possibility of Rosi’s personal engagement in those pictures has not much been discussed. His attention, and that of the audience, was always directed straight toward the subject matter, which not only was impersonal in nature but often alarmingly prescient, too. (Rosi managed to bring out The Mattei Affair, about intrigues in the international oil business, just before OPEC became a household acronym. He portrayed the political situation of Illustrious Corpses–what we might call rigidly controlled anarchy–just before the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro.) And yet rosi’s overextended gamblers keep cropping up, to emotionally complex effect. It’s true, for example, that the title character is largely absent from Salvatore Giuliano, but Rosi fills that void with Giuliano’s lieutenant Pisciotta (played by the American actor Frank Wolff), who gradually takes on the air of a tragic hero. By the time Pisciotta becomes central to the film, he is already a prisoner, standing trial with the remnant of Giuliano’s bandits for having massacred a Communist Party rally. Clearly he’s a villain–a smirking, bullying villain at that. But as Pisciotta begins to understand how many different ways he’s been betrayed–by the police, by the government, by the Mafia –his wiseguy manner gives way to defiance, and he seems to grow. There is nothing “honorable” about this man (any more than there’s honor in throwing your money away at the roulette table); but now that he’s gone too far, now that he’s accepted the dare and exposed himself to ruin, he plays out his fate magnificently.

Through Pisciotta, Rosi gives the viewer (and himself) a chance to become emotionally engaged in Salvatore Giuliano. And there’s another hook as well: Rosi’s bursts of stylistic flamboyance. When the bandits stage their first night attack, for example, Rosi shows us how the band silently takes up positions around a police station. The station stands in the distance poking into the foreground, at the left of the frame, is the barrel of a machine gun. There’s a pause; then the screen abruptly goes black, except for a roaring stream of white light from the gun.

Such stylized, expressionistic surprises recur throughout the first phase of Rosi’s career. In Hands Over the City, Rosi dramatizes Nottola’s deepest crisis by showing him pacing through his office alone at night, while the camera patiently tracks him–for close to three minutes! (As if to underscore how unnatural a moment we’re watching, Rosi fades out the ambient noise–sounds of traffic on the street below–and brings up a full-length rendition of Piero Piccioni’s jazzy theme music.) Or, to take an example from The Mattei Affair: A journalist who is preparing a report on the sudden death of the industrialist Enrico Mattei holds up an old photograph of him, taken in 1945. The camera moves in until the screen’s frame matches the photograph’s; then the still image comes to life, and the story continues in flashback. It’s essentially the same trick that Orson Welles used when he brought to life a photograph of Charles Foster Kane’s newspaper staff. Is it pure coincidence that Rosi should have duplicated Welles–another hubristic figure who thought he was bigger than the establishment, and suffered for it? Is it just coincidence that the journalistic investigation of Mattei’s death recapitulates the inquiry into Kane’s? I also note that The Mattei Affair begins with a mystery about a private airplane. So, too, does Mr. Arkadin, the alternate title of which–Confidential Report–would go very nicely with half a dozen of Rosi’s films.

I would suggest that in both his style and his choice of central characters, Rosi was indeed acting out a personal drama–something that did not contradict the critical and political agendas of his films but helped to animate them. With Illustrious Corpses, though, both of these aspects of Rosi’s filmmaking seemed to reach their limit.

In this utterly paranoid story about political assassination–Rosi based the screenplay on the novel Il contesto by Leonardo Sciascia–a cop named Rogas (Lino Ventura) investigates the murder of a judge, and then another murder, and then another. Death swallows death, suspect swallows suspect, until it seems as if virtually every institution of Italian society is implicated in a grand conspiracy, reaching from the Mafia and the banks to the Communist Party and the terrorist left. In style, the film is ponderous and baroque, its figures dominated by the grandiose architecture that forever looms over them; in a word, it’s Wellesian. But by this point, Rosi’s ideology was one of despair. Power is absolute in Illustrious Corpses, and absolutely violent. Though Rogas tries to forge ahead, he’s dogged rather than defiant; there’s no thrill to his gamble, and no chance at all that he might win.

IT WAS AT THIS POINT in his career, when he had envisioned complete stasis, that Rosi took up a different character and a different kind of story. He turned to Carlo Levi and Christ Stopped at Eboli.

Here at last we do not have the sympathetic tough guy who must see his gamble through to the end. Instead, we have an artist, a thinker, a quiet observer, played with great wit and depth of feeling by Gian Maria Volonte. Exiled from Turin to the village of Gagliano in Lucania, Levi has no one to whom he can speak freely, no scope of action and so, for all his otherness, he is oddly in tune with the villagers around him. As Jean-Philippe Domecq wrote in Positif, “Rarely as in this film has the art of the image been so skilled at translating that which resists image-making: silence. Because exile is the weight of silence, especially in this village, where the peasants communicate by gestures or daily rituals more than by words.”

It’s as if Rosi had now imaginatively accepted the condition dramatized in Illustrious Corpses, that of the futility of all action, and in accepting it had discovered a new range of possibilities, both emotional and sensuous. Or, to put it another way: it’s as if Rosi had forced himself to rediscover another part of his personal history, coming from his own experience of the Fascist era. In 1942, he was drafted into the army and sent to officers candidate school. By the time he finished his training, apparently, Mussolini had fallen; yet Rosi was sent to the north to fight. Once there, he discarded his uniform and, in the company of a few friends, spent a year hiding out in Tuscany, where he made contact with the Resistance. Silence, exile, cunning: Although he had traveled in the opposite direction from Levi–south to north –Rosi wound up in a place that was existentially similar.

If Salvatore Giuliano is the masterpiece that set the tone for the films of Rosi’s first period, then Christ Stopped at Eboli is the masterpiece that established the second. There, and in Three Brothers and Carmen, Rosi seems to sink into the landscape in a way that’s new for him. Before, his actual locations and nonprofessional casts had been at the service of a dramatic outrageousness. (Think, for example, of the Neapolitan town councillors in Hands Over the City, who play the role of the Naples Town Council. Did Rosi use them because they were the real thing, or because no other actors could have gone so far over the top, waving their hands in the air while screaming “Our hands are clean”?) Starting with Eboli, though, flamboyance gives way to sustained observation. The films are less exciting, perhaps, and less provocative, but they’re infinitely more absorbing.

There has been a throwback to the older style, of course–a film that might have been called a revisitation, had it been successful, but which may more accurately be described as a relapse. Although To Forget Palermo (’90), an examination of the politics of drug-dealing, attempts to revive the investigative thriller, it’s ultimately unwatchable. How could it be otherwise, with James Belushi and Mimi Rogers in the leads? But the script (by Rosi and his longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra, with an assist from Gore Vidal) is even worse than the performances. It’s touristic–the last thing you’d expect of a Rosi film set in Sicily–and its slide-show method of documenting the drug traffic betrays Rosi’s entire career of interpreting reality. Watching the film’s illustrated lectures, you cannot doubt that the people on screen are explaining what you should know, and you–poor, dumb media-prole–had better take notes.

It would have been heartbreaking for Rosi to have ended his career with that mess. Fortunately, the old trickster has had at least one more surprise in him. With Neapolitan Diary, he at last put himself on the screen–not as part of the investigation (as he’d briefly done in The Mattei Affair) but as a subject. Not only does he interpret the reality of Naples, but he is implicitly interpreted by it.

The frame of the story has Rosi coming back to Naples to attend a 30th anniversary screening of Hands Over the City at the School of Architecture. Rosi holds forth for the students; so do various professors Then Rosi wanders off in one direction, his two young assistants wander off in another, and the film becomes a peripatetic meditation on change, in both the city and the generations. The sense of futility that has hung over Rosi’s work since Illustrious Corpses is still present–all the authority figures seem to agree that Naples has gone from bad to worse, with no good in sight. But there’s humor as well (as when Rosi is mistaken for Vittorio De Sica), mingled with a retrospective mood that almost gives nostalgia a good name.

By the end of Neapolitan Diary, you feel as if the hemmed-in, neglected core of Naples, its historic heart, was absorbing rosi. He, too, is going to be part of the city’s past; he takes pride in knowing he deserves to be remembered and worries a bit that the conservation effort might be shoddy. That much you can guess on your own. The part that Rosi tells you, explicitly, is that he still dreams and is not at all resigned. The final sequence of Neapolitan Diary? It happens in Rosi’s head while he dozes on the train back to Rome. He sees the celebrated scene from Hands Over the City in which the tenement collapses–only this time, the rubble slowly rises from the street and reassembles itself into a part of the old, filthy, impoverished, dangerous Naples that he loves.

Francesco Rosi

interviewed by Howard Feinstein

In 1976, you told a journalist: “I am pessimistic, but I am not cynical. I am pessimistic with my mind, but I am optimistic with my sense of responsibility, in my will, in my heart.” Is this still valid?

Yes, the pessimism of reason and the optimism of the will. I want to be optimistic. But when I work only with my mind, I’m pessimistic.

If you had to place your position in the context of some political movement, would you say it comes closest to anarchism? Are you part of an institutional political system?

No. I align myself with what’s loosely defined as socialism; liberal, democratic socialism.

Philosophically rather than politically?

No, politically.

I’ve noticed a trajectory in the way you connect your political message to the narrative structure of your films. It seems to have changed over time, from La sfida to Christ Stopped at Eboli to Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

I’ve made a group of films that show the history of Italy over the last forty years: Salvatore Giuliano, The Mattei Affair, Hands Across the City, Lucky Luciano, Illustrious Corpses. They have more of a political focus than my other films. Christ Stopped at Eboli and Three Brothers are more focused on the social situation, but they are no less interested in political subjects. Hands Across the City and The Mattei Affair center on political debates, but my interest is in man: the problems of man in the face of power, in the face of political systems, in the face of social reality. Man, not concepts or ideas. I am a narrator. I make films, stories, not political sermons. I make films in which you see human sentiment, hope, both the bitterness of defeat and the exultation of victory. I want to present the reality of my country, because I think film is the best way to testify to the reality of our time.

You told Variety in 1982, “Film does not have the power to change politics.” Do you still feel this?

Yes. But film does have the power to make people more reflective. The real power of certain films before the advent of television was to inform, to denounce, if necessary. At the same time, they offered the possibility of reflection. Film is narration, a story, and the story gives you ideas through emotions. You can recognize in the characters your own sentiments, your own preoccupations, your own problems.

Do you think your films have become more reflective? Slower, more meditative?

In La sfida, action predominates; Christ Stopped at Eboli is more reflective. Forty years of making films is a long time in the life of a man. And I hope to continue! I transfer to my films my personal evolution, my personal sensations, my personal history.

So if, in 1958, you’d been given the same material for Eboli, you would have made a different film, or, in the mid Eighties, the same thing for La sfida.

Yes, but I think La sfida is a film that still has its raison d’etre. It was my way of presenting problems and my interests at that time. Today, obviously, I’m older; probably more meditative, like everyone as they get older. That doesn’t mean that today I might not get an idea for a strong, fast-paced movie as aggressive as La sfida.

One of your subjects is the public life of private people. Is your personal life reflected in your films?

Well, I think that in a film, naturally, it’s possible to see part of the private side of the author’s life. Certainly, it emerges and is recognizable. But when I did [the more overtly political films], I was definitely more interested in the collective than the private and the personal. They’re stories about society. I wasn’t interested in going into depth or getting to know the psychology of Mattei, of Salvatore Giuliano. What I was interested in showing was the relationship between these people and society, the collective problems these men created. Naturally, I felt the responsibilty of a citizen. I believe a film has a great responsibility to society. When one chooses certain stories that are not only about private matters, there is a responsibility that comes with the telling. And that is why when I did Salvatore Guiliano or The Mattei Affair, I was concerned with interpreting, not inventing. I didn’t want to add imagination–quite the opposite. My responsibility was not to create heroes, but to create men and to investigate them and their actions. Very often, one deals with characters who become the heroes of a story. When one decides to tell a story like Salvatore Giuliano that expresses a complicated historical moment–people’s suffering, political consequences–then it’s inevitable that one is going to find oneself facing this responsibility. What can we expect next?

I have many projects, but there is a special one that I hope to direct. It’s a film based on Primo Levi’s book, The Truce, which begins where Spielberg’s Schindler’s List ends. It’s about a group of prisoners liberated at Auschwitz, Jewish and not Jewish, Italian, French, Greek, even German political prisoners, Poles and Czechs. It’s about the long, long, long journey of coming back home. It’s the return to freedom, to love, to life. And this long trip is a tragedy, but at the same time it’s comic, like life. Life is the truce between one war and another. In America, the title is The Reawakening, but I don’t like it. The Truce is prophetical about the actuality we are living now. If you think about what Europe is now after the fall of the Berlin Wall, instead of friendship and fraternity and peace, we have war. This interests me very much. I hope to make this film. It’s a film that I have to shoot in Poland and Ukraine. So, as you can imagine, there are some problems.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group