Although Elio Petri’s second film, I giorni contati (1962), has all the characteristics of the director’s debut feature, L’assassino (1961), it was written (with Tonino Guerra) before it. It is a personal story, a truly visual investigation of unbalanced energy that attempts to say many things at once (1). It tells the story of a middle-aged coppersmith/plumber who, one morning on a tram, stops working after seeing somebody his age drop dead in front of him. The film is directly inspired by a true episode in Petri’s life: his father, himself a coppersmith, and tired of the physically challenging job he started at the age of 12, decided to stop working, never fully explaining the decision to his son (2). In a long letter sent to Giuseppe De Sanctis in 1982, shortly before Petri died at the age of 54, Petri wrote about his father:
he used to came back home with only the tiredness on his face. There was no joy in his work. […] there was no hope of a change. There could have not been. He was the classic type of worker […]. He did everything to keep me out of his work. His dream and his hope was that I had a different life. (3)
The film’s style has two main points of reference: neo-realism and the French nouvelle vague. Petri started as a journalist and broke into cinema by writing the backstory for Roma ore 11 (Giuseppe De Sanctis, 1952) – later published as a book. He wrote four screenplays with De Sanctis (in many ways his filmic “father”) and Cesare Zavattini, as well as several other writers. I giorni contati retains this earlier period’s capacity for following the story, in what Zavattini called the “tailing of the character”. At the same time, as Petri wrote in 1957, neo-realism’s “implicitly Christian” attitude was no longer pertinent and there was a need for new stories to show “the moral breakage that the capitalistic restoration has created in people’s consciousness” (4).
Although I giorni contati is a Roman’s film about Rome, Petri’s preferred choice to play the main character was a non-Roman actor. The names initially put forward, in order of preference, were Totò, Jean Gabin and Salvo Randone. Petri claimed that the producer Goffredo Lombardo (Titanus) settled on Randone “probably because he was the least expensive” of the three (5). But the choice of Sicilian theatre actor Randone (he had played opposite Marcello Mastroianni in L’assassino) is fortunate. Randone, 55 at the time, the same age as his character, Cesare, brought his pensive theatrical manners to this open departure from the neo-realist tradition of largely using non-professional actors. Cesare is a kind of double text. On the outside he may appear as a typically neo-realist working class protagonist-in-crisis. But contrary to Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves,Vittorio De Sica, 1948) he hasn’t lost his job, and what is missing is the meaning of work. On the inside there is an actor coming from a cultivated theatrical tradition who is seeking answers to the existential needs of his character: a worker in search of a fuller emotional life. This contrast between the inside and outside speaks of Petri’s own situation “in between” his working class origins and subsequent bourgeois status. But also in between Ladri di biciclette and I giorni contati, two films about work, there are 14 years of profound change in Italy, a country transformed by American investments from a poor rural economy to a booming consumerist and industrial society.
The references and connections to the nouvelle vague are clear onscreen, in the relationship between the character and the urban environment. Cesare and the city of Rome are visually composed/compared, as two characters defining each other in terms of a progressive estrangement. The city, and the way it is portrayed, becomes a vast tableaux mirroring Cesare’s own sense of detachment. Petri follows the character/city dynamic found in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur por l’echffaud (1958) (6). Not unlike Jeanne Moreau’s Florence in Paris, Cesare experiences a sense of loss while wandering “inside himself”, the city passing by as a mise en scène that counterpoints his emotions. A contrastive comparison can also be made with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962). Petri and Antonioni’s films share the same year of production, the same city, the same screenwriter (Guerra), and the same general topic: existential alienation and an interest in contemporary music and art. But the visual outcome could not have been more different. Antonioni displays a rigidly obsessive control over the frame, moving from the malaise of a bourgeois woman to a heightened level of minimalist abstraction in the famous final sequence. In contrast, Petri’s film acts to escape control by distracting the eye with movement and theatrical effects.
Petri used two newcomers to work on the cinematography and music for his film: Ennio Guarnieri and Ivan Vandor. Guarnieri photographs very freely, with the frequent use of handheld camera avoiding a protracted and self-conscious framing of the image. In the opening shot the camera is situated with Cesare on the tram (close to the dead man) and then follows him out of the tram and into the sunny city streets of S. Giovanni. In a single take, we follow Cesare going back to the tram and carving some space in the crowd of voyeurs looking down upon the dead man. We are next to him while he watches the tram driver covering the dead man’s face with a copy of the Roman daily Paese Sera (where it is possible to read, upside-down, the title of an article: “How Pasolini is Bringing Together Cinema and Literature” ). The camera is a palpable presence throughout, adding its reality to the scene. Its fluid, almost neurotic use prefigures the baroque visuality of later films by the director, a quality that would bring David Thomson to describe as Petri’s “frantic visual style” (8). The images record a working class character in a state of flux, progressively swept away by the reality surrounding him. The use of wide-angle lenses sets Cesare into a diminishing position in the frame. The superimposition of the image of his face over that of a new building on the Roman periphery expresses not just a social problem but also a sense of mental separation. In the final, somewhat experimental sequence the photography becomes blurred and fractured. The escalating subjectivity of point-of-view produces images that are readable only as part of a sequence of visual detachment. This sense of perceptual alienation is increased by the fragmentary sound and dialogue on the soundtrack, which are jump-edited by contemporary ethnomusicologist Vandor.
Art is another key motif in the film, as well as central to Petri’s life and cinema more generally. A collector of and expert in contemporary art, Petri was much closer to artists than to intellectuals (9). For I giorni contati the Roman painter Renzo Vespignani worked as the set designer and did the opening titles. Other artists of the “Scuola di Portonaccio” like Giovanni Checchi and Graziella Urbinati were employed as the interior designer and costume designer respectively. There is also a scene in the film that suggests a parallel between the alienating relationship of the worker and society to the one between the artist and the market. It takes place at Galleria Borghese, where Cesare ends up out of curiosity, and where he meets an art merchant (Vittorio Caprioli) lecturing him on art amongst the works of Cranach, Caravaggio and Raphael. “No – this is not a representation, this is life, its Raphael!” says the merchant, who then invites Cesare to his home to meet an informale painter, Piero Guccione, working on commission. The lecturing of the merchant, often gratuitous, is mainly there to speak not of art but so as to offer a disguise, to cover the deeper reality of class.
The story of a middle-aged working class man dealing with his incapacity to keep working is an anomaly in Italian cinema (as was Petri). But the struggle with and against an identity formed around work is a common characteristic of many of Petri’s central characters (Petri himself fought against the normalising power of politics and ideology within cinema and the former communist party). Influenced by Sartre’s Marxist-existentialism, Petri looks at work as a force that constantly deludes and denies individual expectations in order to satisfy social imperatives. In this sense, Petri’s cinema in I giorni contati is already political because it focuses on the crisis of the individual as symptomatic of a wider social malaise. Cesare’s loss of meaning is the condition imposed by the new industrialised society under the diktat of productivity.
- Alfredo Rossi, “Elio Petri”, Il Castoro, 1979.
- Petri in Faldini Fofi, L’avventurosa storia del cinema italiano (1960-1969), Feltrinelli, Milan, 1981.
- Elio Petri, “Prima lettera a Giuseppe De Sanctis”, Scritti di cinema e di vita, Bulzoni, 2007, p. 220.
- Elio Petri “Il cinema italiano: un elefante castrato”, Scritti di cinema e di vita, p. 56.
- Petri in Faldini.
- After Malle, the key nouvelle vague debut features were nearly all stories of characters shadowed and influenced by a urban consciousness they couldn’t exist without: Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), François Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (1959), Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de soufflé (Breathless,1960) and Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (1961).
- A. Chiesa, “Come Pasolini concilia cinema e letteratura”, Paese Sera 20 September 1961. See also Sam Rohdie, The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, BFI, London, 1995.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Little, Brown, Great Britain, 2003, p. 677.
- Lucia Cardone, Petri impolitico. La decima vittima, ETS, Pisa, 2005.
I giorni contati/Numbered Days (1962 Italy 93 mins)
Prod Co: Titanus-Metro Prod: Goffredo Lombardo Dir: Elio Petri Scr: Tonino Guerra, Elio Petri, Carlo Romano Phot: Ennio Guarnieri Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Art Dir: Giovanni Checchi Mus: Ivan Vandor
Cast: Salvo Randone, Franco Sportelli, Regina Bianchi, Marcella Valeri, Alberto Amato, Angela Minervini, Giulio Battiferri, Renato Maddalena