The Taviani Brothers

UCLA is just finishing a comprehensive retrospective of the films of the Taviani brothers. I didn't catch any of their early films (showing at a different venue, possibly in Italian without subtitles - the program materials didn't make that issue too clear), but I saw all of the UCLA screenings except for Kaos, which I had seen (and reviewed on its original release).

A thorough retrospective shown in a limited time really allows one to get a deeper sense of a director, or, in this case, of a directing team. In this retrospective, some things were instantly obvious.

The Tavianis almost exclusively make films set in Italy. (There is actually much to be said on how the Tavianis integrate Italian locations into their films. In many of them, the city or countryside becomes an integral and most definitely Italian component of the film. Fiorile and Padre, Padrone are obvious examples, but almost all of their films include this element.) They usually make films set in an earlier period of history. They make literary adaptations far more often than not, concentrating on short stories and novels written by giants of 19th century literature (Tolstoy, Goethe, Pirandello). Among other advantages, this usually means they have an interesting story to tell. Like many other directors, they have their favorite actors (like Omero Antonutti, memorable as the father in Padre, Padrone, but also featured in other Taviani films like The Night of the Shooting Stars, Good Morning, Babylon, and Kaos.)

But a lengthy retrospective also gives you a great opportunity to look deeper. Seeing so many of the Tavianis' films in a few weeks makes clear to me, for example, that they are deeply interested in disappointment and disillusionment. Many of their films are essentially about extremely deep-rooted cases of these emotions. St. Michael Had a Rooster is about a revolutionary whose belief in his cause, and, more precisely, in how his fellow revolutionaries view his role in furthering that cause, is shaken to the core. Allonsanfan concerns another revolutionary who loses his faith and tries to wriggle out of the movement without being caught by his co-conspirators. Night Sun concerns a man serially disappointed in his nation, his religion, and ultimately himself. Good Morning, Babylon is centered around brothers who find that the special bond they thought held them together could be broken. The Meadow concerns young people whose belief in their liberality and specialness fades under the pressures of the real world. Similarly, love does not withstand fate in Elective Affinities. In the first half of You Laugh, a man's belief in the few things that keep his already disappointed life above water vanishes. Even in The Night of the Shooting Stars, the leading character's belief that the ordeal he has brought people through will fundamentally change them all is questioned at the end. As all of the rest of the travelers return to their newly liberated village, he pauses to savor the last moments of the glory he feels for saving them.

Doomed causes are a related theme favored by the Tavianis. The quartet of lovers in Elective Affinities make a foolish and obviously doomed attempt to maintain their friendship, which only leads to more tragedy. In several films, the Tavianis criticize social revolution as ultimately futile. The young people of The Meadow are hopelessly naive in both their belief in love and their belief that popular youth activities of the late 60s (street theater for children and forming communes on other people's land) will lead to a millennium of peace and brotherhood. The brothers in Good Morning, Babylon plan to revitalize their father's ancestral business of restoring cathedrals, but end up making large plaster elephants for D.W. Griffith, instead. The hero of Night Sun finds that even trying to be a hermit can be a doomed cause.

The Tavianis also like the idea of the journey, especially when the journey brings the voyager back to where he started, not necessarily any better or more enlightened. The goat herder protagonist of Padre, Padrone leaves his Sardinian village to join the army and eventually becomes a professor of linguistics. Yet, at the end of the film, he's back in the village and unsure of his place either there or in the larger world. A group of townspeople in Night of the Shooting Stars flees their town, under occupation by the Nazis, suffers many trials, and eventually returns, saved, but perhaps not very different than when they left. The hero of Allonsanfan dashes all over Italy in his mad attempts to escape his fate. The second half of St. Michael Had a Rooster follows its protagonist on a long, slow trip across the Venice lagoon toward a new prison, a trip that strips away the final illusion that gave his life meaning. Resurrection, based on Tolstoy's novel, features a nobleman who follows an unjustly condemned prostitute to Siberia; despite his sacrifices, the journey does not leave him satisfied with his moral state or happiness. The brothers in Good Morning, Babylon travel from Italy to America, confident that they will succeed and return to Italy to help their father. They do return to Italy, but instead of working together to rebuild their father's business, they find each other while dying on a WWI battlefield. In Fiorile, there are multiple voyages: the framing narration follows a contemporary family on their trip to their grandfather's house in Tuscany; the Napoleonic army tramps through the same terrain; at the turn of the 20th century, a woman and her brothers meet their fates on an excursion to the countryside; and a WWII-era student is recruited to assassinate a fascist collaborator by meeting him on the road. All of these trips are more examples of goals unfulfilled, disappointments, and wrong turns.

A good retrospective can reveal some of the director's weaknesses, too. The Taviani brothers, for example, sometimes fail to see that they are stepping too far into the realm of the absurd. Having D.W. Griffith shift the audience's applause of the premiere of Intolerance to the guys who built the elephant sculptures on the Babylon set is one example, from Good Morning, Babylon. The absurdity of the Rowboat of Doom in Elective Affinities is another example. (You feel almost compelled to shout at the screen, "moron, don't get in the boat, nothing good ever comes of getting in the boat!") Even in a strong film like Night of the Shooting Stars, the parallel between the fight against the Italian fascists and the Iliad seems strained, though it does culminate in a nice image.

Which leads to an observation that the Tavianis are better with images than with camera movement. They do move their cameras, but generally in rather invisible ways. Their eyes seem focused more on fairly static images. The actors might move in these shots, but the camera doesn't, or only does so in subtle ways. These images are made striking not just because of their visual impact, but because they underline core elements of their films' themes. Some examples:

The Tavianis treatment of character tends to be generous, though not uniformly so. In the two-part You Laugh, the central character of the first part is treated with great sympathy, but the "villain" of the piece is really not, and lacks dimension, as does the central character's wife. In the second half, on the other hand, all the characters are given fair treatment, and all are allowed to behave as real people with real emotions. That's more the Tavianis' style. It would have been easy to film Padre Padrone in such a way as to make the stern father a complete villain, but the Tavianis add many touches that humanize him and even, occasionally, elicit sympathy. We are forced to sympathize, finally, even with the fascist father of The Night of the Shooting Stars who must see his son die, even though we've come to hate both the father and son for their brutality.

Ultimately, what do the Tavianis seem to be about as directors, on the evidence of this retrospective?

They are serious. They do not make comedies, even if there are some intentional laughs in their films (and some unintentional ones in Good Morning, Babylon.) But also they are serious in that they make films that they feel deeply about, not just random dramas. They're not just looking for good stories, they seek out material that illuminates their ideas.

They clearly believe in a strong connection between the past and present. Their frequent use of historical pieces is not to show us pageants of quaint folk from the past and colorful costumes, but to point out the ways in which the past forms the context of the present and future, an observation made explicit in Fiorile. The final image in Resurrection is a title saying "20th Century," a clear statement that the story we have seen provides a prelude for much of what happened in the new century. Their not-quite-mocking treatment of 19th century revolutionaries in Allonsanfan and St. Michael Had a Rooster echoes their commentary on late 20th century revolutionaries in The Meadow. It doesn't take much wit to predict their feelings about contemporary movements to change the world.

They are not optimists, but neither are they pessimists. Rather, they suggest that while many human endeavors are doomed to failure, salvation and happiness are possible. The road they chart to achieving these goals is not that complex. Helping others, being kind, taking responsibility for your actions, not blindly following causes, and maintaining a clear view of the world and your place in it can lead to a good life. Doing otherwise is likely to lead to disaster.

Attending this retrospective transformed my appreciation of the Taviani Brothers from a couple of Italian guys who had made some fine films (and at least one really crummy one) to a directing team with a unique world view and a consistent, decades' long commitment to themes and ideas developed in a wide variety of films. I recommend their films highly to lovers of serious, well-made cinema.

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