THE ITALIAN CULTURAL INSTITUTE AND THE INSTITUT FRANÇAIS LONDON RECENTLY PRESENTED A COMPLETE RETROSPECTIVE OF FRANCESCO ROSI’S FILMS AT CINÉ LUMIÈRE. PAOLO GERBAUDO TALKS TO ROSI ABOUT BRITISH CINEMA, ‘DOCUMENTED FILMS,’ NATIONAL REALITIES AND HIDDEN POWER IN FILM
There was a period in Italian cinema “when we could not make films without representing the reality around us.” The cinema of Francesco Rosi flourished in that unrepeatable phase - between the end of the second world war and the end of the seventies - marking a second-wave Italian Neo-realism aimed at an analytical investigation of national politics and society.
Now Francesco Rosi is 83 years old, and together with Michelangelo Antonioni, is among the last living directors of a wonderful generation of cinema artists that ranged from Fellini and Visconti to De Sica and Rossellini. The retrospective dedicated to the Italian director by the Italian Cultural Institute and Institute François in collaboration with Conceits Holding and hosted at Cine Lumiere in South Kensington explores a fifty-year career in which Rosi has produced 16 films, from the early The Challenge (1957), to his last film The Truce (1997), based on Primo Levi’s book, starring John Turturro.
A Scene from Francesco Rosi's film of A Death Foretold
At the centre of Rosi’s rich cinematographic career stands the period of the so-called ‘cine-inchieste,’ what he himself calls “not documentary but documented films.” Films like Salvatore Giuliano (1961), The Mattei Affair (1972) and Lucky Luciano (1973) - carefully based on judicial sources and dealing with controversial figures of recent Italian history. Those characters were employed to unfold the complexity of history through the stories of individual men. Powerful and tragic Italians like the national oil company entrepreneur Enrico Mattei and the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano condense in themselves all the contradictions of a society suffering from Byzantine intrigues and hidden complicities between political power and organised crime.
While dealing with these characters and their mysterious lives and deaths, Rosi never tried to impose a unique solution. Their appearance on the screen is not a biographical account but much more the metaphor of a society subject to violent and obscure changes where it is hard to grasp cause-effect laws. “I always tried to represent the reality of my country with all my doubts and all my questions, questions to which I am not able to find an answer.” In his later films, there is no ‘end’: the film and all the questions it posed continue in the reality of the spectator after leaving the cinema. In the impossibility to propose a single answer and in the will to question stands the civic character of a cinema that offers deep insights into a nation and its society.
Lucky Luciano“Only by being national a film can be universal,” says Rosi. His films have become part of an analytical and mythical national narration that, for many years, Italian cinema has beenun able to reproduce. Surprisingly, the “poet of civic courage,” as Carlo Testa realistically defined him, does not seem to have many followers.
Do you think this retrospective is a late acknowledgement of your work in Britain?
Absolutely not. I have already had different occasions to present my films to the British public. After the release of The Truce, a retrospective of my work was organised in Edinburgh. I also attended a retrospective organised in Cambridge by The Guardian that put my film Salvatore Giuliano among 100 great films of the cinema history. Years ago, I organised a retrospective of my films in London at Cinema One and Cinema Two, at that time owned by American producer David Stone. But this is my first complete retrospective, which also includes my documentary Naples Diary that I produced after The Hands Over the City.
What is your relationship with British Cinema? Who are the British directors you feel closest to?
I have a high consideration for Ken Loach. I also like the work of John Boorman, particularly Point Blank, not to speak of Richardson and many other ‘myths.’
The Mattei Affair and Lucky Luciano can be considered your last “not documentary but documented” films as you defined them. Why have you decided to leave that genre in your later work?
I did not abandon the genre. I simply continued to make films about Italian reality in a way that could fit better the new topics I was interested in. For example, to narrate the wonderful book The Context by Leonardo Sciascia was something that would have not fit the ‘documented film’ format. All my films, including the inquiry ones, are first of all films about people, about human passions, about the participation of people in history to overcome oppression and pain.
You often speak of cinema as a mirror of national reality. Why do you think that, while Italian Cinema successfully undertook that task after the War and until the seventies, today it just seems to be a broken mirror?
Because today reality is much more complex. The world has changed. Television undertakes a very invasive role in people’s lives and most of the time it subtracts to cinema the possibility of describing reality with the richness of cinematographic analysis. Television is much more rapid in covering historical events but it does so in a much more simplified way. This, nonetheless, does not mean that cinema cannot express itself any more with the rigour that colleagues of my generation and I demonstrated.
In your films there is often the existence of a power that controls reality but remains behind the curtains. Does this demonstrate the limitation of cinema in describing the invisible power?
To represent power is difficult. Sometimes power manifests itself with crime, violence and oppression. But more often it remains behind people that do not seem to have to do with it. When there occurs any violent historical change, there is always someone standing behind observing it. Real power waits for things to happen.
Who are the directors that influenced you and the ones that you think you have influenced?
It is not a question of influence. It is something in the air, the films you see. I saw Elia Kazan’s films and he saw mine. I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s films and he saw mine. I saw Martin Scorsese’s films and he saw mine. There is something in common among us in our sensibility and our way of approaching reality.
What was the last film you saw?
Good Night, Good Luck. I really liked that film. Interestingly enough, the writer, George Clooney, told the Herald Tribune that he had seen my films.
If you had decided to make a film in London, what film would you have made?
A film that has nothing to do with the kind of cinema we have been speaking about. There is a wonderful story, set in London, by Mario Soldati. It deals with a man held prisoner by two women; a story about a discovery of London made through houses, roofs and dorms. However, I have never concretely thought to set one of my films in London, because you have to know the reality of a country, the reality of a city to recount it. How could I recount London which is such a complex and interesting universe.