Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 08, 2022 10:13 pm 
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A valedictory film from the remaining Taviani

An Italian review (by Alessandro Cavaggioni) of this composite film by Paolo Taviani calls it "un film disordinato ma severo, esatto ma personale" ("a disordered but severe, exact but personal film"). One might even call it disheveled. But it is still moving, solemn, ceremonial, and interestingly strange. Its title is all that's left of a Pirandello story that wound up on the cutting room floor. The film comes, you see, four years after the death of Paolo's brother Vittorio. This is above all a meditation on fame, creativity, and death. What's left is really two films. The longer first segment is slow and segmented and also referential. It is an hour mostly in black and white about the ashes of the great Italian modern writer Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936). Detached, after that, comes a half-hour in color dramatizing one of Pirandello's last stories, "Il chiodo" ("The Nail"), about a lonely young Sicilian boy (Matteo Pittiruti) who inexplicably murders a young redheaded girl using a large nail that falls from a cart "on purpose." He goes free, but his guilt and reverence at the girl's grave will dominate his whole life.

Students of Italian literature know how great Pirandello was and important to literary modernism. It's impossible to escape reading at least one or two of his novels, and as for the plays, you don't need to be a student of the language to know them. Unfortunately, Pirandello was pro-fascism and pro-Mussolini (though I do not remember knowing this); hence that movement's taking over his ashes, if rather disrespectfully. Mussolini orders Pirandello buried in a black shirt.

Everything in Leonora Addio is dominated by the ninety-something Paolo's opening dedication to his brother Vittorio and the audience reminder that after fifty years of working together - and winning major prizes at Cannes and Berlin and elsewhere more than once - now he is alone. So what do the honors mean now? Thus the film begins with actual footage of Pirandello receiving the Nobel for Literature in Stockholm in 1934, then his words about experiencing great loneliness, then news that he died in 1936. Fascist orders countermanded his wish to be buried in his native Agrigento, Sicily and we see his ashes plastered behind an ordinary burial wall in Rome.

Pirandello's death has been fancifully shown - or is it the death of the filmmaker, or of his brother? - in a scene that references Kubrick's 2001. Clips, not from documentaries but from great Italian films by Rossellini, Antonioni, Lattuada and others, provide glimpses of the period after the War, which is when, ten years after Pirandello's death, with the fascists defeated and Mussolini gone, the maestro's ashes are broken out of the wall and laboriously taken, poured into a bigger vase, stored with a handsome ancient Roman-style vaseto in a large crate, to his native Agrigento at last by a "Delegate of the City Government" of Agrigento" (Fabrizio Ferracane, who was in Il Traditore and the current NIC film Ariaferma). Pirandello's original dying wish was that his ashes be scattered to the wind or, failing that, to be taken to Sicily and "walled within a rough stone in the countryside" where he was born.

The ashes' trip to Sicily is in segments too. A US Army jeep takes the Delegate and the crate roughly down a crowded dirt road, angering Italian walkers. On a small Army freight plane, the mostly Italian passengers one by one get off when they learn it's "il maestro Pirandello" in the box and so a dead man and so serious bad luck. Third segment: the Delegate rides in freight or the lowest class on a train now, with the crate, which gets spirited away at one point by men who use it as a card table. Though the Deligate (in color now) gets to scatter a stolen pocketful of the ashes to the sea, it's only fifteen years after his death that finally the unhurried sculptor finds the appropriate rock for the sculptural tomb the writer wished for. Life isn't easy after you're dead, no matter how famous you are.

But the life of this film is easier in Italy, where the Taviani brothers are revered and Pirandello is one of the greatest names in literature. English language reviews, while acknowledging this film as "deeply moving and quite baffling" (Indiewire), is easily dismissed as "not terribly engaging" (Variety). David Rooney's piece for Hollywood Reporter is the most appreciative and best informed of the main English-language reviews. Rooney points out, for one thing, that the ashes-of-Pirandello story was a long-contemplated project of both brothers, and that "The Nail's" setting is shifted from Harlem to Brooklyn and that this story too is about "finding peace for the deceased" and ritually respecting the dead.

The author of the (unsigned) Variety review finds the recent death of Monica Vitti occasion to return to "wondering why contemporary Italian cinema is such a meager shadow of its former glory," and to note that the Taviani brothers "arrived on the tail end of that wave," "keeping the neo-realist tradition alive for a time." But they insist that the acting throughout Leonora Addio "is transparently phony," notably that of Ferracane and all the extras around him. But another Italian review feels the film is suffused with "bitter irony," it's seriousness colored with a comic edge.

The relative thinness of contemporary Italian cinema is something I remark on every time I review another recension of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series, and the Taviani brothers never really impressed me, whatever their links with the time of greatness, even their most celebrated films such as The Night of the Shooting Stars and Padre Padrone, Good Morning, Babylon, or Kaos. By the same token if this is a relatively slight - but deeply felt - item I find that rather moving. Variety thinks it "landed" in competition at the Berlinale where Caesar Must Die (a somewhat overrated film) won "under a different regime" there, only "out of respect." But it can't have been just "out of respect" that Leonora Addio, this touching, ungainly oddity, won the FIPRESCI Prize. See, for more about "The Nail," the excellent FIPRESCI essay by René Marx which points out both the long film part and the short film part are linked by the way "absurdity is mixed with horror, ironically mixed." He links Paolo Taviani with other "brilliant youngsters" like De Oliveira, Godard, Eastwood, and Bellocchio.

Leonora Addio, 90 mins., debuted in competition at the Berlinale Feb. 15, 2021 (receiving the FIPRESCI Prize), opening in Italy Feb. 17. It was Screened for this review as part of the FLC-Cinecittà 2012 Jun. 9-15, 2022 series Open Roads: New Italian Cinema where it shows at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center.

Monday, June 13 at 9:00pm
Wednesday, June 15 at 1:30pm


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