“For us it was cinema or death.”
“A few years ago, we met the Coen Brothers. We asked them: ‘How do you work together?’ They replied: ‘No, you started this whole thing – you tell us.’ But then the four of us agreed that it must remain a mystery.”
Born: (Vittorio) 20 September 1929, San Miniato, Italy. (Paolo) 8 November 1931, San Miniato, Italy.
Died: (Vittorio) 15 April 2018, Rome, Italy.
Directing Career: 1962 – 2017.
Traits: Known for their symbiotic working partnership, where each can pick up work where the other left off in complete osmosis. Their films combine the fable with social concerns, often rural set, often adaptations (especially of Luigi Pirandello), and often reflect the ways art and life intertwine and give each other meaning.
Collaborators: Omero Antonutti (actor), Margarita Lozano (actress), Claudio Bigagli (actor), Giuseppe Lanci (cinematographer), Tonino Guerra (screenwriter), Roberto Perpignani (editor), Lina Nerli Taviani (costume designer), Gianni Sbarra (production designer), Giuliani G. De Negri (producer), Nicola Piovani (composer).
When the Taviani brothers were teenagers, the legend goes, they attended a screening of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisa which changed their lives forever. If cinema could do that, then it was what they wanted to do, had to do, and they made a solemn pact between brothers: if a decade later they weren’t filmmakers, they’d shoot themselves. Luckily for them and for cinema they doggedly foraged their way into the world of filmmaking, from their start as documentary makers to their international breakthrough Padre Padrone.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Gavino Ledda — tracing his development from illiterate Sardinian sheperd boy into a noted writer and linguist — Padre Padrone begins with a celebrated sequence in which the real Ledda himself appears. While introducing his own tale to camera, he whittles away on a stick with his penknife and then passes it to Omero Antonutti, the actor playing his father. “Here, he always carried one like this” Ledda tells his ersatz father, quite literally relaying the baton from reality into fiction. It’s a moment that would be fitting for the great masterpieces of self-reflexive 1990s Iranian cinema by Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, only made 15 years earlier.
Antonutti, stick in hand, becomes the camera’s focus and we realise the set Ledda was in is his old school. His father enters a classroom, and yanks young Gavino (played by Fabrizio Forte) out of there — he is needed to tend the sheep. “School is compulsory” the teacher protests, “Only poverty is compulsory” replies the father. He then has a word of warning for Gavino’s classmates: “You’ll be next”. Which leads to the Tavianis’ editing breaking free from the dramatics of the scene for a series of close-ups of these young boys’ faces, with the added layer of their internal prayers being audible on the soundtrack as their worried faces speak a thousand mute words.
It sets the tone for how the Tavianis employ sound as an extra layer of meaning. As loneliness and solitude eat away at Gavino tending to his sheep, an early life-changing moment for him comes in the guise of an accordion which he haggles out of the possession of two gypsies. It offers him a first glimpse of a far-away elsewhere through a Strauss waltz, and learning to play it will be the first inklings of his urge for freedom battling against oppression, economic misery and his father’s traditional conservatism. Later, as the older Gavino of the second half emancipates himself in the Army, it will be the sound of the spoken word that will be another barrier to him: he only speaks Sardinian dialect, not standard Italian. The love-hate relationship is there not just with his father but with the land of his roots too. The story of Gavino’s learning to live with both these relationships is one as universal as it is specific to provincial Italians left behind by the Economic Boom.
This ‘audiovisual organism’, as the Tavianis describe their own films, was initially made to be screened on Italian television but ended up at Cannes, where Roberto Rossellini was president that year. He himself had long been making humble films for television with the intent of being accessible to as many as possible, and Padre Padrone spoke to his heart. He and his jury awarded it the Palme that year. Three decades after their fateful viewing of Rossellini’s Paisa, the Tavianis had truly come full circle. (May 2018)
Caesar Must Die
2012 was, at least for European cinema, a year in which long-standing maestros shone over their younger peers. Haneke’s Amour conquered Cannes with fine performances from veterans Riva and Trintignant; the legendary Alain Resnais showed he still had a few tricks up his sleeve with the meta- and wryly-titled You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet; and in Berlin, the Golden Bear was the Taviani Brothers’ first major award in decades for their idiosyncratic hybrid between theatre, documentary and fiction called Caesar Must Die.
Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been making films together for almost 60 years now, frequently and playfully mixing myth and fact in movies reflecting the ways art gives life meaning and purpose. Caesar Must Die therefore fits in with the finest work of this unique sibling duo. On the face of it, it is a documentary following a group of inmates in a high-security Rome prison, preparing a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the prison’s theatre workshop. At the same time, if one looks deeper this film is not really a documentary.
There are many levels of reality which the film consciously plays with here and enjoys going back and forth from: it eventually becomes clear that the scenes depicting the rehearsals are also staged (by the Tavianis), and the prisoners are often “acting” as themselves, acting as actors in a kind of doubly nested performance. This probably sounds more confusing than it should, so let’s try breaking the film down into 3 sources it draws from: the influence of the prisoners themselves, the Tavianis and Shakespeare.
The first of these turns the film into an inquiry into the transformative power of art. Some inmates had performed on the prison’s yearly theatre program before, and one (who plays Brutus in the rendition of Shakespeare’s Caesar) had already been released and played minor parts in other films, but came back just to be in the Tavianis’ film. We are briefly told of their crimes, and echoes of course abound within the play of the violence in their pasts, but the film manages to let us see the humans behind the label of ‘prisoner’. The intensity with which they merge into their roles is compelling, and their introduction to art both therapeutic and liberating – we see the visible joy on their faces after the success of performance night.
But Caesar Must Die gives a subtle portrait of the other side of these men’s relation to art, which has opened up new vistas for them and only made their cells all the more restricting, as the ambiguous final line of the film suggests. In fact many details added by the Tavianis remind us of the confinement of the inmates, not least the actual structure of the film, with the rehearsal scenes shot in crisp black and white bookended by two colour segments, a sort of metaphor for the two cell walls closing in the prisoners. Rather than recording naturalistically what goes on in this workshop, through formal and structural techniques such as these the Tavianis control, perhaps even create, the ‘reality’ they are recording to make it exactly the film they want it to be.
Finally, the choice of Julius Caesar as the play to be performed is an obviously apt one. The prisoner-actors, many of whom are former Mafiosi who know first-hand violence all too well, connect with the classic tale of murder, power and betrayal. The scenes where they step out of their Shakespearean roles to recite lines as themselves (scripted and staged by the Tavianis) seem less convincing however, but do add another dimension to the film’s theme of life versus art, by making the inmates somehow seem more ‘real’ as their characters in the play than as themselves. Besides showcasing the universal resonance of the Bard’s works, Caesar Must Die also displays the unassuming humanism of the Tavianis and their lifelong meditation on the intertwining of life with art. Long may these maestros continue to make such intriguing films. (July 2013)