This month sees the re-release of three movies by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. As ever this dual format box set is grotesquely overpriced (the same films are available in the US at less than half what Arrow Films are charging). Nonetheless these are three superb movies from two of the heavy-hitters of Italian left wing cinema.
Padre Padrone (1977) is probably the most famous of the three, and the most straightforward. Using many of the techniques of Neo-Realism it tells the profoundly moving story of the poverty and brutality of life in 19th century Sardinia. It is an unforgettable movie which manages to combine deep visual lyricism with a seething anger.
The Night of San Lorenzo (1981) is set at the end of the Second World War. It tells the story of a massacre by the Nazis and their Blackshirt allies and the retaliation by Italian partisans. That alone makes it an almost unique movie — since the glory days of Roberto
Rossellini, left wing Italian film makers have eschewed making movies about the partisans.
The Tavianis tell their story with a savage honesty — we are not denied the pleasure of watching as a teenage Blackshirt is executed out of hand by the partisans. But it is typical of the Tavianis’ artistic daring that we see this through the eyes of a child.
Many critics have lazily compared this wonderful movie to “magic realism” but US film critic Pauline Kael was much closer to the truth when she called it “hallucinated realism”.
That same fusion of realism and dream-like imagination is allowed its full rein in Kaos (1984), which is widely considered to be one of the masterpieces of European cinema. It is a wild, narcotic film set in 19th century Sicily that fuses together four stories from writer Luigi Pirandello.
It is shot with a ravishing beauty but on the surface this is the least political of the three movies; one of the four stories is played for laughs and another is a variant on the Gothic spine-chiller. Only the final story, Requiem, seems to have any political heft.
But watching these three movies together we can measure the full achievement of the Tavianis. It is no accident that these movies were made in the 1970s and 80s, a time when everyday political militancy in Italy was at a postwar high.
While the corrupt and cynical Christian Democrat governments (usually driven by the Mafia-owned Giulio Andreotti) tried to rebrand Italy as a modern democracy of style and sophistication exemplified by fashion brands such as Armani and Versace, the Tavianis and other radical Italian filmmakers instead told stories showing Italy as a land of class viciousness, superstition and crime.
While Francesco Rosi and Elio Petri made movies about contemporary Italy, the Tavianis contested the tourist-brochure image of Italian rural history. And they did it with an audacity and imagination which are still breath-taking today.
So £40 is a lot of money to pay for three old foreign language movies. But these are rich and challenging films which you might find yourself coming back to again and again.