Three Films by the Taviani Brothers, by David Bax
Last September, Laemmle reopened the Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills after five years of dormancy. If you live in the Los Angeles area and haven’t made it to this 1937 movie house, you’ve got a great excuse to do so this week. Hell, you’ve got three of them. From January 29th to February 4th, the theater will be screening a trio of films by Italy’s Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, brothers who have been making films together for decades and who continue to do so, with their most recent work, Wondrous Boccaccio, having made the festival rounds just last year.
There have been plenty of sibling directing duos in cinema’s history but the work of the Tavianis stands on its own in at least one major respect. Other pairs tend to take on subjects that are intellectual in nature. Be they postmodernists (the Coens), philosophers (the Wachowskis) or chroniclers of social issues (the Hughes brothers, at least early on), these directors tend to work together toward expressing empirical ideas. The Tavianis have a few similar pet themes but, in watching these three films, you are more likely to be reminded of personal, idiosyncratic auteurs like Fellini or Hou Hsiao-Hsien, filmmakers whose first aims are emotional honesty and beauty.
Let’s go chronologically. 1977’s Padre Padrone (also known as Father and Master) is a biographical film based on the life of Gavino Ledda, a noted Italian linguist. Ledda’s terrorizing father kept him out of school and on the farm for most of his life. By the time Ledda was old enough to join the army, he was still illiterate. Necessarily uncomfortable to watch at times in its depiction of physical and emotional abuse, the film is also blushingly straightforward when it comes to the budding hormones of a boy with few social outlets. There’s a weird sort of eroticism to it all, presented without judgement. It’s also movingly aspirational and triumphant, yet bitterly realistic about Ledda’s inability to ever quite escape the shadow of his father.
1982’s The Night of the Shooting Stars is larger and more inherently cinematic. It’s also an assertively music-forward production, something that will continue into the next film. In the last days of World War II, a large band of men, women and children from a small town wander the Italian countryside, trying to find the liberating Americans before either the Germans or their pro-fascist fellow countrymen find them. That sounds grim and, truthfully, there is no escaping the tragic and fatal realities of the situation. But the Tavianis tell the story through the eyes of two protagonists – an older man (played winningly by Omero Antonutti, who was the monstrous father in Padre Padrone) and a young girl (the adult version of whom serves as narrator) – who find the adventure and excitement a thrilling change from their lives in town. The Tavianis display an adeptness with bigger set-pieces, like the climactic shootout, and a penchant for being romantic and lyrical without sentimentality. The Night of the Shooting Stars plays like the retelling of a familiar folk tale.
That feeling continues and expands in 1984’s massive anthology, Kaos, which adapts four short stories by Luigi Pirandello over the course of three-plus hours. Strung together by the travels of a bird with a bell hanging from its neck, Kaos furthers the flirtations with magical realism established in The Night of the Shooting Stars. The third story, in which a man accidentally traps himself inside a giant clay jar, even includes a music and dance number. The other stories range from heartbreaking (a mother who shuns one son and pines for the two who have moved to America and forgotten her) to fantastical (a new bride discovers that her husband has a secret that comes out in the event of a full moon) to angry (farmers protest for the right to bury their dead on the land they rent from a wealthy baron) before an achingly beautiful epilogue in which Pirandello himself (Antonutti again) reminisces about his late mother and childhood memories of the beach and sand.
Certainly, there are recurring themes that rise to the surface over the course of these three films. For instance, the Tavianis have a clear sympathy for the agrarian poor and a distrust of those with money and power. But, taken as a whole, what truly emerges is a portrait of life in the Italian countryside during the first half of the twentieth century. Even at their most elegiac, the Taviani brothers find space for seemingly autobiographical flourishes. That personal touch is what makes them, collectively, a sort of single auteur.