Kaos unites the Taviani brothers with Nobel Prize-winning author Luigi Pirandello for an explosion of onscreen Siciliana. As they had done for Sardinia in Padre Padrone (1977) and Tuscany in La Notte di San Lorenzo (The Night of the Shooting Stars, 1982), the directing team of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani in 1984 attempted to bring a region of their native Italy – the scorched island of Sicily – to the notice of the world. Perhaps because of its extreme length, and despite its positive critical reception, the film was not distributed as widely as that famous pair and is not as well known today. But filmgoers should make no mistake: Kaos is major Taviani, a film to be savoured both for its familiar resonances and for its surprises.

Sicily was not native territory for the Taviani brothers, who were born two years apart – 1929 (Vittorio) and 1931 (Paolo) – in the town of San Miniato in Tuscany. Both attended the University of Pisa, where Paolo majored in liberal arts and Vittorio in law. In 1948 they fell in love at the same time – with cinema. Feeding their crush was Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan, 1946), the gritty postwar neorealist drama that carried the excitement of a new genre.1

Over the next several years the brothers worked together in theatre and in minor production roles in film. Collaborating with a Communist friend, they wrote and produced two plays that reflected the passion for social justice underlying Rossellini’s work. The long recovery from fascism was underway, and the Tavianis were determined to be a part of it with a passion that would scarcely diminish through their decades-long career. It was still white-hot when they made their first film, San Miniato, Iuglio ’44 (San Miniato, July ’44, 1954), a short documentary reporting the German acts of atrocity that had been carried out in their hometown a decade earlier. (Thirty years later, the Tavianis would revisit this event with unsentimental detachment in The Night of the Shooting Stars). For their maiden effort, they had the advice and mentorship of Cesare Zavattini, the great neorealist screenwriter and creative partner of Vittorio De Sica. Rossellini and Zavattini provided impeccable credentials for the start of a career in humanistic filmmaking. Ironically, just weeks before his death, Rossellini would serve as the chairman of the Cannes jury that would award the Palme d’Or to Padre Padrone, the powerful saga of a Sardinian shepherd who overcomes poverty, illiteracy, and an unforgiving father to become a respected scholar; a film widely considered to be the brothers’ masterpiece.

But if there is an underlying human sympathy in the films of the brothers Taviani, a legacy of their neorealist roots, there is frequently a competing aesthetic complexity that adds interest to the viewing experience. For example, shots of conflict between characters that seem to demand the viewer’s attention are suddenly counterpointed by sweeping overhead or long tracking shots that place the audience at a distance. At a moment of absorption, we are reminded that the directors – who literally call the shots – are in charge, leaving us straddling the narrative rather than at its centre. In Kaos there are many such aerial shots of the parched Sicilian landscape, indicating not just another source of hardship for the land’s hapless agrarian denizens, but a reminder that they – and we – are in the godlike control of mysterious artistic forces. Nicola Piovani’s haunting but unmistakably Sicilian score supports the illusion. 

In short, we have the real world vs. the imagined world of art. In Passion and Defiance, a study of Italian films from the 1940s to the 1980s, Mira Liehm identifies two competing trends in Italian cinema: the historico-realistic and the metaphorical-poetic (for quick illustration one might think of Rossellini/Zavattini neorealism for the former and De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano [Miracle in Milan, 1951] and almost any of Federico Fellini’s late films for the latter). Writing in the mid-80s, Liehm claimed the Tavianis were attempting to synthesise the two.2  Although her reference point was The Night of the Shooting Stars, it is possible to see similar rival impulses at work in the brothers’ very next film, Kaos, in which the compassionate depiction of real characters seems to be often superseded by an attempt to make them something larger: poetic folk figures. The resulting artistic agon is rarely disturbing, and frequently enchanting. 

The title of Kaos (as explained by Pirandello himself) is a linguistic corruption of the name of a forest near the author’s birthplace. While staying largely faithful to the original sources, the Tavianis respectfully leave their mark on Pirandello in this anthology film consisting of four separate stories enclosed within a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue shows a group of peasants tying a bell to a raven, which flies about as if magically ringing, and serves as a bridge from one episode to another. The first story, “L’altro figlio” (“The Other Son”), is about emigration and its effects on those who remain behind. As an aged mother grief-stricken by the failure of her two immigrant sons to return from America, Margarita Lozano gives an impressive star performance. In the Taviani rendition, the mother is perhaps a more controlled and dignified figure than the maddened old woman in the Pirandello tale, but no less of a folk figure. In story number two, “Mal di Luna” (“Moon Sickness”), a newlywed woman (Enrica Maria Modugno) discovers on the twentieth day of her marriage that her husband (Claudio Bigagli) turns into a dangerous madman when the moon is full. The humour inherent in Pirandello’s absurd premise is not ignored, but a cynical ending in the original tale is significantly softened by the Tavianis.

The third story, “La Giara” (“The Jar”) is pure comedy: A mean landowner is pitted against an honest tradesman with Chaucerian, serves-him-right results.3 In case anyone is tempted to take this contest too seriously, the popular comedy team of Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia play the main roles. In the last story, “Requiem,” the rich vs. poor theme is repeated, as a group of villagers try to obtain burial rights for their dead from the baron who owns the land. The film presents the baron’s side of the conflict but remains faithful to socialism, while a streak of Taviani madness energises the narrative.

Kaos ends with an epilogue in which the Tavianis imagine Pirandello having a conversation with his deceased mother. Like the mother in the framing device of The Night of the Shooting Stars, she remembers a story from her childhood that she shares with her own child. It is a remarkably successful sequence, with Omero Antonutti – so memorable as the unyielding father in Padre Padrone – skillfully playing Pirandello with quiet authority. As the last shot of the gently nodding author fades, the brothers seem to be suggesting he is at peace with the three-hour cinematic enterprise coming to its end. 

Kaos (1984 Italy 187 min)

Prod Co: RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana Dir: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani Prod: Giuliani G. De Negri Scr: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, Tonino Guerra Ed: Roberto Perpignani Phot: Giuseppi Lanci Mus: Nicola Piovani Cos: Lina Nerli Taviani

Cast: Omero Antonutti, Margarita Lozano, Massimo Bonetti, Franco Franchi, Ciccio Ingrassia, Regina Bianchi


  1. Pasquale Iannone, “Honourable Men,” Sight and Sound (March 2013), pp. 34-37.
  2. Mara Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 313-314
  3. Interestingly, this is not the first film version of “The Jar.” Thirty years before Kaos, it was the lead episode in a Pirandello anthology film called Questa é la vita (Such is Life, 1954) directed by Giorgio Pastina with famed character actors Turi Pandolfini and Natale Cirino. A decade earlier Pastina had directed a film version of Pirandello’s play Enrique IV (Henry IV, 1944).  Kaos is part of a long tradition of adapting Pirandello’s plays and novelle to film.

About The Author

Joseph Sgammato has written for Sight and Sound, The Wordsworth Circle, The College Language Association Journal, and other publications. He teaches English and Film at Westchester Community College, a division of the State University of New York (SUNY), in Valhalla, New York, USA, and lives in Norwalk, Connecticut.

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