The landscape is never simply a landscape for the Taviani Brothers. Whether fertile or barren, and in Sardinia or Sunset Boulevard, the landscape is more than a picturesque accretion of fields, trees, valleys, or hills.  It is not timeless and changeless, outside human history. The landscape in Taviani films would barely exist if there were not people to see it, live in it, work in it, make it grow; to love, maim, or kill in it; to colonise it, resist in it, escape from it; to remember it, dream about it, or romanticise it.

Take the opening sequence of La Notte di San Lorenzo (The Night of the Shooting Stars, 1982). Shots of golden pasture glistening in the sun, shots that would not look out of place in a promotional tourist film. All is in harmony with nature, with the seasons – even a fruit falling from a tree. All is as it was forty years ago, a hundred years ago, two thousand years ago. There is no-one to be seen, and the only evidence of human presence is the hay gathered in stacks as the result of earlier labour. 

Suddenly the hay moves – it functions as camouflage for someone in hiding.  People emerge from under ground, like insects or nocturnal animals. History and society enter the eternal.  Relationships and social roles are asserted – men and women, young and old, families, communes, a region, a religion, a language. Entwined histories – a man in July 1944 who has deserted the Italian army as the fascist regime is pushed back by the advancing Americans, takes a break from history to marry his pregnant girlfriend. History as a way of reinserting itself – another deserter is told by his sister that their town of San Martino is about to be abandoned by the Nazi occupiers. Houses, including theirs, are about to be blown up in the retreat.  

The houses are marked by a cross – a symbol in the dominant Catholic religion of redemption and rebirth, has been appropriated to facilitate destruction, displacement, and death. This struggle between religion and nihilism is played out in the town church, where the locals gather in promised safety while the town is razed. Just as the cross was falsified by fascists, so the traditional sanctuary offered by the church is abandoned as the inmates are betrayed by the authorities and burnt alive.

Played over this sacrificial burning is the ‘Offertorium’, a rare moment of peace in Giuseppe Verdi’s violent and agitated Requiem (1874). The requiem is the Catholic funeral mass; the offertory section is supposed to be a prayer that the ‘faithful departed’ be delivered from the fires of hell, but in this disordered world, it marks an earthly refuge turned into an inescapable inferno. For the Communist Tavianis, the scene and the music are not metaphysical, and function solely as a memorial to the dead, innocent and guilty alike – people of all ages, walks of life, and ideological persuasions. The key sequence shows a woman and a bishop dragging the dying pregnant bride onto a cart. The public square is filled with smoke, rubble, panic, and mangled bodies. The look the woman gives the collaborator-bishop is a loaded accusation against a patriarchy that has appeased tyrants, and oppressed women and the lower classes, for millennia. No wonder the defeated old man quails.

These brief descriptions of a few episodes do not even begin to approach their ramifying complexities, but hopefully hint at the aesthetic and ethical stakes at play in a Taviani Brothers film. Once the haystack moves in the opening sequence, human and historically informed ways of seeing and shaping experience are mobilised. A man bathing, surrounded by women, or a pregnant woman in blue, becomes Christ baptised, the dead Jesus being prepared for burial, or the Virgin Mary with child. The film’s framing of the landscape, with groups composed in planes against nature and buildings, and its framing of individuals, twisted into meaningful poses, recalls medieval, Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque art. An elderly character fond of quoting The Iliad evokes thousands of years of oral storytelling, narratives of families, gods, and warring neighbours under the Mediterranean sun. The film’s central situation, following a group of San Martino locals who defy official instructions to travel and meet the approaching Americans, depends on a whole series of literary and artistic associations – the picaresque tale; the pilgrimage and flight narratives of Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Giovanni Boccaccio (the Tavianis postponed their adaptation of the latter until 2015 with Maraviglioso Boccaccio [Wondrous Boccaccio] after Pier Paolo Pasolini released his Il Decameron [The Decameron] in 1971); or the medieval allegories of the Dance of Death and Ship of Fools. Simple human activities, like the shared eating of bread, become charged with ritual. The framing narrative reworks a young girl’s experiences into a fairy tale, nursery rhyme, or bedtime story told by a mother to her baby. These overlapping layers situate the remembered past and the present in a historical continuum – as the Tavianis would do more literally in Fiorile (1993), wherein the same actors play characters in different historical epochs. The intertextuality is not the elitist grandstanding of modernist intellectuals, but draws on a common culture of church imagery, street theatre, music, and popular literature.

By The Night of the Shooting Stars in 1982, the Tavianis had travelled far from their neo-realist roots. The brothers were inspired to devote their lives to the cinema by a teenage encounter with Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan) in 1946, which allowed them to process for the first time the personal and collective trauma they had experienced during the war – San Martino is based on the brothers’ hometown of San Miniato, its fate in July 1944 the subject of a now lost documentary, San Miniato, Luglio ’44 (San Miniato, July ’44, 1954). Their early work in documentary and film criticism was informed by associations with major neo-realists such as Cesare Zavattini, Carlo Lizzani, and Rossellini himself. By the early 1960s, however, together with contemporaries like Pasolini, Marco Bellocchio, and Bernardo Bertolucci, the Tavianis realised that neo-realism, with its attachment to the visible surface, had to be renewed and re-conceptualised, if it was to also accommodate subjective experience and the layered nature of history and culture.

Of course, neo-realism was never as superficial or one-dimensional as its detractors claimed. Many of the Tavianis’ innovations were anticipated by their great predecessors – the fables and magic realism of Vittorio de Sica; the Brechtian collision of narrative registers in Rossellini; the structural deployment of opera and the theatrical in Luchino Visconti. The first landscape we see in The Night of the Shooting Stars is not the opening sequence described earlier, but that in the credit sequence, a night scene barely visible through an open window, the first of many scenes through windows and doorways in the film. The window is framed by curtains, like the curtains at a theatre, as the music plays like an operatic overture. The bedroom is seen from the viewpoint of the narrator and is like a stage set before the play begins, waiting to be activated by the actors. Actors who will reject the passive, stereotyped role forced on them by regimes, official histories, historical narratives, or generic forms. Actors who will live and love, confront and cower, yearn and masturbate, feast and fart, and be filled with seemingly trivial desires when they should be attending to the seriousness of History. This polyphonic and multi-layered vision of atrocity and trauma is paradoxically joyful and life-affirming, an act of resistance against the forces of oppression in every age.

La Notte di San Lorenzo/The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982 Italy 105 min)

Prod Co: RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana & Ager Cinematografica Prod: Giuliani G. De Negri Dir: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani Scr: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, Giuliani G. De Negri, and Tonino Guerra Phot: Franco Di Giacomo  Ed: Roberto Perpignani Mus: Nicola Piovani Prod Des: Gianni Sbarra Cos Des: Lina Nerli Taviani

Cast: Omero Antonutti, Margarita Lozano, Claudio Bigagli, Enrica Maria Modugno, Dario Cantarelli, Giovanni Guidelli

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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