The Magic Realism of the Taviani Brothers.

February to March season at the BFI Southbank – London.



Magic Realism is a captivating term to illustrate the joyful and disturbing nature of mostly 20th century South American literature.  In cinema it can be loosely applied to many fantasy escapades (Pan’s Labyrinth springs to mind).  Yet more often today it’s surrealism, more than magic realism, that we are presented with across a wide range of mainstream and art house movies.

Yet with the films of the Taviani Brothers we have a pair of cinema magicians, great fabulists steeped in the art of literary storytelling, who directed engrossing tales of beauty and imagination.  For theirs is a multi-layered achievement: where fables mysteriously propel a seamless amalgam of realism, neo-realism, romanticism, radical politics, history and philosophy: all the while giving us abrupt shifts in tone from the comic, erotic, violent, ironic, bitterly tragic and lyrically melancholic.  For sixty years The Taviani Brothers produced a remarkable body of complex and moving films which feel uniquely their own.

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani were born in Tuscany in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.   On seeing such late forties works as Rosselini’s Paisan and Germany, Year Zero they were inspired to become filmmakers.  And they brought on board their beloved landscape of Tuscany which features in so many of their films (Their eye for landscape, an intense characteristic, is comparable to the westerns of John Ford and Anthony Mann).  After making a number of documentaries and shorts the brothers with Valentino Orsini, directed the 1962 A Man for Burning.  It’s a powerful rural drama set in Sicily and initiates their fascination with landscape.  The film’s rough hewn look anticipates one of their later great films Padre Padrone (1972) and assimilates the influence of Rossellini’s neo-realist ethics.

After that came Marriage Outlaws (1963), The Subversives (1967) and Under the Sign of Scorpio (1969).  Then the Taviani Brothers made, for me, their first really major film.  St. Michael Had a Rooster (1972)

is the start of the Taviani adaptations of classic literature – later we have Shakespeare (Caesar Must Die), Tolstoy (St.  Michael had a Rooster, Night Sun, Resurrection) Pirandello (Kaos, You Laugh, Leonora Addio), Goethe (Elective Affinities) Dumas (Luisa San Felice) and Boccaccio (Wondrous Boccaccio).

St. Michael Had a Rooster is a loose adaptation of Tolstoy’s story “Divine and Human.” Set in Umbria in 1870 it concerns an anarchist Giulio Manieri (Giulio Brogi) whose bungled act of revolution has him imprisoned.  After ten years in solitary confinement he’s sent by boat to another prison for enemies of the state.  En route an adjacent boatload of prisoners recognises Manieri and scorns him for being out of touch and having put back the aims of their movement for fifteen years.

St. Michael had a Rooster is a bitter, even anguished, tale of utopian idealism confronted by the harsh reality of a new set of rebels who now believe that scientific reasoning, in the long term, will be more effective, than direct action.  The middle section, depicting Manieri’s attempts to maintain his sanity, and structure his time, alone in prison, is extraordinary.  The Tavianis’ lightly play with storytelling devices to create an imagined reality wherein Manieri can survive.  And they do so without ever resulting to fantasy, dreams or flashbacks.  Brogi gives a brilliant performance, acting out his lonely and deluded life, and indirectly stamping out the beginnings of the Taviani Brothers highly original approach to filmmaking.

The searing Padre Padrone (1977) and heart rendering The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) are certainly humanist masterpieces that have rightly been highly praised.  But I’m personally more drawn back to repeatedly watch what I consider is arguably their greatest film Kaos (1984) an adaptation of five stories and part of a novella by Luigi Pirandello.

A briefly sketched prologue, from the story “The Crow of Mizzaro”, introduces a group of shepherds who tie a little bronze bell round the neck of a crow and release it to fly away.  The crow becomes a kind of omniscient observer viewing its figures, in a harshly beautiful Sicilian landscape, and then settling on the characters of these stories.

Story 1 “The Other Son” is about a frustrated illiterate peasant woman who, after fourteen years, hasn’t received news from her two sons who immigrated to America.  A neighbour has stopped writing proper letters for her and now just doodles on notepaper.

Story 2 “Moon Sickness” concerns a newly married man whose temporary mental illness, caused by the light of the moon, proves upsetting to his young wife.  She’s divided between loving another man, also mentally disturbed, and being compassionate to her husband.

Story 3 is “The Jar”.  When a landowner’s wine jar is broken he asks for a potter to repair it.  He does but because of his hunched back cannot extricate himself from the jar he glued up whilst inside it.

Story 4 “Requiem” is the tale of villagers demanding that their resistant baron allow them to build a local cemetery on his land so as to bury one of their elders.

The epilogue “Conversation with Mother” moves from a 19th century pre-industrial world to the 1920s when Pirandello (finely acted by Omera Antonutti) appears, visiting the house of his recently dead mother.  From now on the film easefully shifts from brilliance into greatness.  Kaos’s depiction of his mother’s memories, reflected on by Pirandello, who imagines her to be in the room, are of Mother as a young girl with her own mother and her brothers and sisters.  They’re on a boat sailing out to sea in a fruitless (serious?) attempt to reach Malta where Father lives in exile.

As the children, dressed in their white underwear and wishing to swim, run down a hill of white pumice, to the sea you feel the energy and innocence of youth powerfully conveyed.  And later when they row back to shore they are told to row hard because they’re eager, young and strong.  Kaos taps into an awareness of how fleeting youth is (“Youth’s a stuff will not endure”, Twelfth Night – Shakespeare.)  Lyrical imagery (An ‘angelic’ white upon white land with its waving children descending into emerald green water) accompanied by the haunting music of Nicola Piovani provides some of the most sublimely poetic moments in all cinema.

Life as a dream, persons as fictions, time, memory and Pirandello’s loss of his mother, with her continual narration of the seafaring incident, bring an understanding of the deep underlying sense of the transience of things that lead to an extinction of all we hold dear.  The unforgettable Kaos reveals The Taviani Brothers at the height of their powers: technically and spiritually transcendent.

Another fine landscape-dominated film is Elective Affinities (1996) where the Germany of Goethe’s novel is replaced by the leafy countryside of Tuscany.  Set during the Napoleonic era it records the relationship of a baron and his wife, the baron’s architect friend and the wife’s goddaughter.  Isabelle Huppert (a superb performance) as the wife dominates in the acting honours as she observes the subtle ways they all romantically interact.  There’s a beautifully edited bedroom sequence where the couple’s partners keep fantastically changing.  The Taviani brothers tease us with erotic magical transformations.  Who is making love to whom? And as for the parentage of the resultant child? Then comes a sudden change of mood removing us from the sophisticated, yet ultimately, tragic liaisons of the gentry; all is ruptured by the grief of a servant girl who mistakenly feels guilty over the death of the goddaughter.  Beautifuly filmed and conceived Elective Affinities stands as perhaps the Tavianis’ most neglected film.

Caesar Must Die (2012) received much acclaim and won the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival.  Yet this mainly gripping adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Acted out in rehearsals by lifers in a prison) is a very good, if overrated, minor film.  Here landscapes are replaced by tight prison interiors that for me tend to constrict the brothers’ imagination.  However the scene where the inmates undergo an audition for the play is remarkable.  They are asked to give their names and date of birth – first acted out sadly then in anger.  What follows is an individual explosion of feeling against authority that’s thematically pure Taviani.

The terrific Alonsafan (1974) contains a marvellous performance from Marcello Mastroianni; You Laugh (1998) reveals, along with Marco Bellochio, that the Tavianis’ are still masters at adapting Pirandello and the 2022 Leonora Addio (Directed by Paolo only, after the death of Vittorio) combines the real funeral arrangements for Pirandello with scenes from many of their films.

This fine Southbank tribute also includes, The Subversives (1967), The Meadow (1979), Good Morning Babylon (1987), The Lark Farm (2007), Rainbow, A Private Affair (2017) and Wondrous Boccaccio (2015).

What’s missing, well unfortunately Fiorile (1984) and Night Sun (1990) – was there a right’s issue here?  The television films Resurrection (2001) and Luisa Sanfelice (2008) couldn’t be shown as no print exists with English subtitles.  But what we have is more than enough to be getting on with.

I urge anyone who thinks that great post war Italian cinema can be comfortably summed up by the grand quartet of Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni and Pasolini to think again and book tickets for the two month Taviani programme at the Southbank.  The brothers’, at their best, and even when not quite at their best, deserve to join their illustrious company: for aesthetically they are brothers in arms and supreme auteur storytellers.

Alan Price©2024.