From its opening moments, Padre Padrone (1977) defies expectations. On the surface, this film by brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, which is based on an autobiography by Gavino Ledda, begins with Gavino as a boy (Fabrizio Forte) forced by his father Efisio (Omero Antonutti) into being a shepherd, with the young adult Gavino (Saverio Marconi) eventually leaving his rural home in Sardiana, venturing out into the world, and broadening his horizons. This summary may sound like an uplifting tale of a young man overcoming insurmountable obstacles to find a better life, in the vein of Italy’s classic neo-realist films. However, audiences might be shocked if they expect this film to be an emotional child’s-eye experience like Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica, 1948). As the title suggests, this is a film about a father who is also a master, a threatening yet pitiable man who is a tyrant to his son. Efisio is seen through the eyes of Gavino, but this is no close bond between father and son as seen in Vittorio De Sica’s classic, and the Taviani brothers’ film is not told in a strictly neo-realist way.

Before the story of Gavino’s childhood begins, Padre Padrone introduces the adult Gavino, played by Gavino Ledda himself, cutting shoots from a tree branch and handing the resulting stick to the actor Omero Antonutti. However, the stick is not an aid for walking or a shepherd’s crook – the implication is that it is a cane for beating. Right from the start, the film surprises its audience. As Millicent Marcus observes: 

This is an extremely complex piece of stagecraft whose ironies exceed the psychological fact that Gavino is handing his father the very instrument and symbol of his tyranny. By including the real Ledda in this prologue, the Tavianis pursue an ambiguous representational strategy, insisting on the one hand that this film has a referent in extra-aesthetic reality, and on the other hand that their film language is an autonomous sign system whose signified is indissolubly bound to its signifier.1 

Reality and the cinematic mechanics behind its representation are side by side from the off, with the real Gavino leading the way.

Why start the film in this way? A glimpse into the background of the Taviani brothers reveals that they grew up with neo-realist films like Paisà (Paisan, Roberto Rossellini, 1946), which made a great impression early on their lives, but that they took a different path when creating their own cinema: “As far as we were concerned, the audience must always understand that they are watching a film. They may then become emotionally involved and simultaneously make that experience their own by reflecting on it.”2 Presenting the real Gavino upfront and showing him interacting with the cinematic representation of this father does just this, making the audience conscious that Padre Padrone is cinema whilst showing that the individual to whom these events happened is a flesh and blood person. 

In a later interview around the time of the Taviani brothers’ 1993 film Fiorile, Paolo Taviani clarifies why he and his brother took this type of approach in their films: 

As all filmmakers of the post-war era, we were ‘baptised’ by the water and fire of Neo-realism. Vittorio and I started our career with a war documentary. Neo-realism was our father. When we ‘came of age’ as film makers, we enacted the ritual negation and death of the father… The Neo-realist perception of reality began, for us, to shift towards the magic margins of our imagination. All our subsequent works, to our last, Fiorile, live by an oscillation between those poles: reality and invention.3 

So it is with Padre Padrone, which is neo-realism filmed through the looking glass. The presence of the real Gavino at the beginning makes an audience aware of the cinematic artifice, but it also serves to authenticate what will subsequently be seen and heard; or, at the very least, the real Gavino’s appearance is a tacit approval of the film’s depiction of events, whether the audience are supposed to take everything they see and hear as literally believable or not. Paolo’s reference to the brothers’ cinematic ‘father’ is fascinating, too – while not a comment about Padre Padrone specifically, this feeling reflects the journey of Gavino, as he eventually ‘negates’ his father. 

Once the stick is handed from the real Gavino to the fictional Efisio, Antonutti then slips into his role of Efisio and the childhood portion of the story begins, with Efisio quickly revealing himself as a tyrannical father. In this scene, the audience are introduced to the striking use of sound, which will play a major expressive role in the film. As Mark Graham explains: 

Efisio, the padre padrone of the title, comes to take his son Gavino out of school in order to have him tend the family’s sheep. Just before leaving, he threatens the schoolboys by saying, ‘Today it’s Gavino’s turn. Tomorrow it will be your turn.’ Then, during a series of sustained closeups of four of the boys, who are clearly upset and dumbfounded, we unexpectedly hear them expressing in voice-over their fears that Efisio’s threat may indeed be well-founded and that what has just happened to Gavino may shortly happen to them, too. From the outset, then, sound is employed to link Gavino’s situation to that of other individuals and to emphasize their shared social, economic, and cultural circumstances.4

Later, as Efisio teaches the boy the hard life of a shepherd, brutal punishments to the disobedient son are administered by the tyrannical father. Gavino’s mother (Marcella Michelangeli) initially seems just as cruel as her husband, with her mocking laughter at Gavino just before he leaves his home. The mother is a somewhat marginal figure in the story, which is perhaps expected when the relationship between father and son is at the core of the film (particularly in its first half), but as the Taviani brothers note: “She was barely present in the book, but we felt that she had to carry a certain burden of injustice and that this sense of injustice places her close to Gavino. Behind her unnaturally harsh laughter there lies a sense of a whole, unexpressed struggle.”5 Indeed, there is a sense that the mother is as much bullied by Efisio as Gavino is.

When the film moves forward to Gavino as a young adult, he is still stuck in the fields, but his life will soon start to change. When he hears somebody passing by and playing the accordion, it stirs something within him. Pauline Kael notes this key moment and links it with other elements of the film’s sound design: 

Sound is the Expressionist element in this movie. The heightened whispers of nature, the percussive clangings of Gavino’s rage—these are uncontrollable sounds that come up out of the silence. But when Gavino, sullen-faced, spaced out in the stupor of loneliness, hears a distant accordion playing the waltz from Fledermaus, it’s fiercely pleasurable. It’s more than an accordion, it’s a whole band. It’s the world outside his field coming to him.6 

It is Gavino’s first step into a world beyond the backbreaking work bequeathed to him by his domineering father. 

When the story explores the life of Gavino as a young adult, his eventual break away from his home and education about – and exploration of – the outside world (along with the audiences’ knowledge that the real Gavino was present at the start of the story) seems to say that Gavino managed to grow beyond his roots. However, the film offers no simplistic catharsis for Gavino, no straightforward happy conclusion. As Philip French notes: “The film is full of vivid, incisive incident and powerful metaphors, and though affirmative it’s devoid of sentimentality or triumphalism.”7 This statement by the Taviani brothers about the conclusion of the film, with the real Gavino back in his Sardinia home, explains the lack of a triumphant feeling: “The implication is that although he has made a massive effort, the struggle continues. The end also says something about the solitude of the man who is neither shepherd nor intellectual.”8

As previously noted, Padre Padrone is not like the neo-realism of Bicycle Thieves, yet nor is it the magic-realism of Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, Vittorio De Sica, 1951). Instead, it is a fusion of the two – Padre Padrone never indulges in the overt flights of fancy of the latter, nor does it adhere to the type of post-war realism of the former. Of course, Padre Padrone came after the neo-realist classics of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but rather than the character being a cinematic descendent of the people seen in Italian neo-realist films, Gavino can perhaps be seen alongside the type of ‘working-class boy makes good’ characters epitomised in British ‘Kitchen Sink’ dramas like Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960). The young Gavino could be a variation on the ‘angry young man’ archetype familiar from those films, breaking free of his oppressive, provincial, stifling roots and becoming his own man. He may also have elements of the titular character in Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) as well – while not having the outlandish dreams of Billy, he shares a yearning to leave yet feels tied to a home from which he cannot completely escape. 

There is a suggestion of this type of Billy Liar behaviour at the end of Padre Padrone – while Gavino managed to leave home, he has also chosen to return, which gives the film a cyclical feel. There are also moments earlier on that underline this. When Gavino and other young men leave their rural homes to emigrate to Germany for work, it recalls a similar moment of departure from I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953). However, the attitude of Gavino and his fellow young men is more contemptuous than the leading men in Fellini’s film – as Gavino leaves, he urinates on the landscape that passes by. His absence is short-lived, however, with this attempt at leaving thwarted. The real Gavino eventually leaves his home and his past, but the end implies that it has not left him. Perhaps the telling and retelling of his story is Gavino’s way of reconciling himself with the past, where harsh reality can be confronted in art, in Gavino’s literature and in the Taviani brothers’ cinematic work. In the film of Padre Padrone, “reality and invention” (as Paolo Taviani suggested) can be simultaneously contained and expressed. 

Padre Padrone (1977 Italy 113 mins)

Prod Co: Radiotelevisione Italiana, Scr: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani (Story by Gavino Ledda) Prod: Giuliani G. De Negri Dir: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani Phot: Mario Masini Prod Des: Gianni Sbarra Mus: Egisto Macchi 

Cast: Omero Antonutti, Saverio Marconi, Marcella Michelangeli, Fabrizio Forte


  1. Millicent Marcus, Filmmaking by the Book: Italian Cinema and Literary Adaptation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 159.
  2. Verina Glaessner, “The Brothers Taviani,” Cinema Papers, Number 15 (January 1978): p. 228. Any quotes from the Taviani brothers are presented as if said by both: “In this interview, conducted in Italian and through an interpreter, Vittorio took the lead and Paolo added succinct comments and examples.” (p. 226)
  3. Liberato Santoro-Briezna, “Between time and eternity,” Film Ireland, Number 39 (February/March 1994): p. 16.
  4. Mark Graham, “‘Padre Padrone’ and the Dialectics of Sound,” Film Criticism, Volume 6, Number 1 (Fall 1981): p. 21.
  5. Verina Glaessner, “The Brothers Taviani,” Cinema Papers, Number 15 (January 1978): p. 281.
  6. Pauline Kael, When the Lights Go Down (London: Marion Boyars, 1980), p. 300. The review of Padre Padrone appears under the title “The Scared Oak”, dated 3 October 1977, and originally appeared in The New Yorker.
  7. Philip French, “Padre Padrone,” The Guardian, 23 September 2007.
  8. Verina Glaessner, “The Brothers Taviani,” Cinema Papers, Number 15 (January 1978): p. 281.

About The Author

Martyn Bamber has previously written for Senses of Cinema and is a contributor to the book: Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964–1999.

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