I only heard yesterday that this great Italian director had died. His passing was announced on January 12th, he was 92. We were fortunate in Leeds when the 19th International Film Festival featured a complete retrospective of his films. Some of us were fortunate to see one of his masterworks, Illustrious Corpses (Cadaveri Eccellenti, Italy / France 1976) twice. The first print to be screened was in immaculate condition but without subtitles. Credit to the Festival, later in that week they arranged a second screening of a print with subtitles, though not quite in the same mint condition. Like much of Rosi’s work the film has a labyrinthine complexity: following the first screening was a challenging act. But visually the film was stunning. The opening presents one set of the various corpses in the film: skeletal but robed they hung in an underground passage, full of foreboding.
Rosi was born in Naples in 1922. Many of his films addressed the economic, social and political problems of the ‘south’ in Italy. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he worked as an assistant with both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni. The first film that I saw directed by him was Salvatore Giuliani (1962), at, I think, at the Academy cinema in London. This immediately struck me as both a marvellous and radical film. In some ways a documentary, the film provides a labyrinth of facts, characters and events. All are presented in marvellous black and white cinematography. Excitingly the film also offered a political deconstruction of Sicily and Italy at the time.
After this I watched out for his films. There was Lucky Luciano (USA / France / Italy, 1974). A biopic of a Mafioso gangster, the film had a marvellous central performance by Gian Maria Volonté. Volonté was himself one of the outstanding actors in Italian cinema of the period and he appeared in five of Rosi’s films.
Then there was Christ Stooped at Eboli (France / Italy 1975), also starring Volonté. In this film an anti-fascist in Turin is exiled to a remote peasant region. The film, with sure slowness, followed the protagonist, Carlo Levi, as he grew into the culture and community that he found there.
I caught The Mattei Affair (Il Caso Mattei, Italy, 1972) late: it followed the form and style of Giuliani. The film again starred Volonté, this time as an oil magnate who died in mysterious circumstances. The film explored the political corruption involved in this story, whilst avoiding pat explanations or resolutions. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972.
Then in 1984 there was a terrific adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen with a fiery central performance from Julia Migenes-Johnson: Placido Domingo could not quite match her tempestuous characterisation. But the film had great mise en scène, especially in the final bull-fighting spectacle.
The Leeds Festival screened all of his 17 films to date in 2005. One pleasure was catching the several of his films I had not been able to see before. The standout of these was Hands over the city (Le Mani Sulla Citta, Italy/ France, 1963). This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in the same year. The film treats the collapse of a block of flats in a poor area of Naples: it also explored the corruption involved in this tragedy. Whilst the cast was mainly non-professionals, the central and powerful performance was by Rod Steiger. The collapse of the block used an actual demolition, filmed with multiple cameras. It was extremely impressive.
Another film that I saw for the first time at the Festival was Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Cronaca di una Morte Annunciatel, Columbia, France, Italy, 1987), adapted from the famous novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I had [foolishly] once watched the film on television, where it was cropped to 16:9. Now I saw it in its full 2.35 ratio and I realised that it was far better film and adaptation that I had previously thought.
Rosi’s films carried on much of the style of the neo-realists. His major films always had a documentary feel, and the word ‘journalistic’ was often used in reviews. Where he stood out in the 1970s and beyond was that he continued the political emphasis that was found in the best neo-realist films. Rosi worked on the scripts of all his films, so there was a definite authorial input into the themes. He was also a fine director of actors and encouraged his colleagues in design, cinematography and editing to produce splendid visuals. It is sad to think we will not see any more of his angry, complex and stimulating films: but we might get another retrospective.