Beatriz Leal Riesco reviews Elio Petri's Writings on Cinema and Life

Translated from the Italian by Camilla Zamboni and Erika Marina Nadir (Contra Mundum Press, 2013)

In the history of cinema, scarcely a handful of directors can boast of having triumphed at Berlin, Cannes, Venice, and the Oscars—particularly in the sixties and seventies, when the 20th century's chief directors were experiencing their moment of greatest fertility. Elio Petri (1929–1982) attained this distinction with little more than ten full-length features; and even if we distrust such accolades, the question remains: how is it that a director whose work triumphed over Truffaut's Jules and Jim to win Best Film at the 1962 Mar de Plata Festival, who counted the Mastroianni brothers, Ennio Morricone, Ugo Pirro, and Tonino Guerra among his unconditional collaborators, who rubbed shoulders with Pasolini, Bertolucci, and Pontecorvo, and who left behind one of the most incisive and critical portraits of the Italian society of his day—how can such a person remain unknown to the cinema-going public outside of Italy?

The oblivion conferred upon Petri by international critics, despite his prestige in his home country, is doubly incomprehensible when considered alongside the renown enjoyed by so many of his contemporaries. With Petri out of view, the tumultuous history of Italian cinema since the 1960s—and, by extension, that of world cinema—remains incomplete. The creation of the Mostra internazionale del nuovo cinema in Pesaro in 1965, the establishment of Le giornate del cinema italiano as an alternative to the Venice Film Festival in 1971, and the fiery debates in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, transformed the concept of cinema as an industry of the spectacle, and put into question the place this industry would occupy in the lives of men and women in the modern age. And in each of these events, Petri played a major role.

The idea of cinema as a business, with its endemic power-jockeying and dependence on box-office receipts, on the acquisition of international awards and the benevolence of critics, is apparent in the declaration that opens the documentary Elio Petri: appunti su un autore (Elio Petri: Notes on an Author, 2005): "To make a film today requires a great deal of madness and a great deal of love for cinema. And this is, in all likelihood, the only positive aspect of the undertaking." These words sum up Petri's unconditional affection for cinema as well as his bitter acquaintance with the less savory aspects of the medium's roots in market capitalism. Petri was an intellectual committed to the working class and a believer in the power of film as a mass art, with an abiding awareness of his predecessors. He was the only son of a humble Roman family, driven by a passion for film (as well as such popular arts as light music and boxing) to pursue a unique path in cinema. An autodidact, deeply aware of the socio-political context he was destined to inhabit, he was educated at the feet of the groundbreaking neo-realist Giuseppe De Santis. Petri's rejection of the artistic vanguard (rampantly mischaracterized as "art for art's sake") and his reinterpretation of the existentialism of his beloved Jean-Paul Sartre (in 1978, Petri would direct a television adaptation of Satre's play Les mains sales) are constants that shine through his directorial work as well as his writings, assembled by his personal friend, the French cinema critic Jean A. Gili, and finally translated into English by Camilla Zamboni and Erika Marina Nadir and published by Contra Mundum Press.

After the success of his debut L'assassino (The Lady Killer of Rome, 1961), which marked the beginning of his collaboration with the Mastroianni brothers and Tonino Guerra under the umbrella of the production company Titanus, Petri embarked on the highly personal I giorni contati (His Days Are Numbered, 1962). This established him as one of the promising young figures whom such giants of Italian cinema's golden age as De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti would entrust with bringing their ambitious visions to life, with casts that would count among their members Marcello Mastroianni, Gian Maria Volonté, Alberto Sordi, Ursula Andress, Franco Nero, and Vanessa Redgrave. A year later, he locked horns with the auteur Alberto Sordi during the filming of the comedy Il maestro di Vigevano (The Teacher from Vigevano, 1965), a competent piece of craftsmanship, executed on commission, that left little room for Petri's artistic vision to flourish. This was followed by La decima vittima (The 10th Victim, 1965), his last work done in cooperation with a large producer, as the daring and original nature of Petri's future projects led De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti to withdraw their support from him. This setback only served to highlight Petri's capacities as a negotiator who excelled in enlisting the resources of independent producers and other collaborators for his unorthodox films.

Petri's life and work are narrated through his faithful collaborations. As a scriptwriter he worked first with Tonino Guerra and then with Ugo Pirro, to equally impressive effect. The stringent demands he imposed upon all aspects of his work left him dissatisfied with numerous soundtracks, until the score composed by Ennio Morricone for Un tranquillo posto di campagna (A Quiet Place in the Country, 1968) convinced him of the legendary composer's aptitude. Thereafter Morricone—along with director of photography Luigi Kuveiller and editor Ruggiero Mastroianni—formed a permanent member of his production team. The testimonies we have regarding the emphasis Petri placed on the importance of extended friendships are reinforced by the record of these collaborations.

To return to the original question: what accounts for Petri's absence from the critical recognition accorded to Zavattini, De Sica, Fellini, Visconti, Rossellini, Bertolucci, and Pasolini? Even at the time of their release, his films unnerved critics at home and abroad. Though a detailed analysis would reveal his kinship to De Sica and the baroque inheritance of Visconti, and despite the continuity of his artistic collaborations, every film Petri released seems to be the product of a different director; this proved disconcerting to cinema experts and the public alike, particularly as it called into question the auteur concept coined by the young Turks of Cahiers du cinema. In a masterstroke of self-promotion, Cahiers' contributors, with Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer at their head, had imported the idea of auctorial style from literary criticism in order to legitimize the value of the Seventh Art, lionizing a restrictive group of directors congenial to their tastes while paving the way for their own later offerings. Yet, at this key moment in the history of film criticism, Elio Petri proved erratic and difficult to grasp, requiring a theoretical and analytical background largely unavailable to those outside of Italy. His films were openly political and too complex for superficial formal analyses. Moreover, Petri refused to act as a snake oil salesman, narcissistically hawking his own wares. In his films, literary writings, and criticism, Petri delves into the wounds of the benessere of postwar Italian society, demanding a degree of acquaintance with art and history that few in his potential audience were willing to acquire. Strange as it may seem, the depth of Petri's commitment to understanding the problems of his time wound up banishing him from the official history of cinema.

Anglophone ignorance of Petri cannot be explained without reference to the manifestly political turn his films took in the 1970s. At a time when postmodernist critique and the derivative vacuity of cultural studies came to hold sway over the English-speaking academic imaginary, the label "political filmmaking" was only permissible for Third Cinema directors arriving from Latin America, and a select cadre from Africa and Asia. When many had abandoned their identification with the proletariat, Petri (who broke ranks with the Italian Communist Party after the armed reaction of the Soviet Union to the uprisings in Hungary) reaffirmed his pro-working-class stance in the series of misunderstood and underrated films La classe operaia va in paradiso (The Working Class Goes to Heaven, 1971), La proprietà non è più un furto (Property is no Longer a Theft, 1973), and Todo modo (1976). The last of these is a masterful exercise in political prognosis, with Volonté flawlessly interpreting the role of Aldo Moro in a performance only equaled by Toni Servillo's exquisite portrayal of Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo: lashing out in all directions, the film's baleful consequences for Petri's career only underscore its probity. The menace Petri posed doomed him to an ostracism from which he would never recover. In 2007, when Jean A. Gili published the volume Elio Petri: Scritti di cinema e di vita, he opened a new chapter in film history. And more than thirty years after Petri's death, the translation of these writings for the English-speaking public represents an enormous step in the vindication of this director's life and work.

Is the public ready for a body of work of such complexity and intellectual seriousness? The socio-political analysis and literary, philosophical, and artistic erudition embodied in Petri's works mark him as a formidable creator immune to casual critique, as the projects he took on demonstrate: adaptations of Sciascia and Sartre; investigations of the contemporary plastic arts and the dynamics of art as an institution; an audiovisual rendition of the moral acumen of science fiction in the tradition of Stanislaw Lem; an infiltration of the intricacies that lead a human being to commit murder; and an approximation of the realities of that proletarian class that has proven so uninviting a subject for high art since the Second World War—a fact that should lead us to question the entire historical drift of twentieth-century aesthetics. His neglect should also be examined in relation to the dynamics of the international art market, as reflected in La decima vittima, or his reprimand Un tranquillo posto di campagna (in preparation for which he brought the painter Jim Dine to Italy to provide inspiration for Franco Nero, who plays an artist in the film). It is a market governed in large part by the tastes of an economic elite, and supported by a critical-institutional apparatus whose self-preservation depends on the penalization of artists daring enough to create uncomfortable works of critical intelligence, artists who refuse to flatter themselves with the "transgressive" label behind which so much banality is concealed.

Petri devoted years of research and labor to each of his works, allowing them to gestate little by little and putting them together meticulously, in premeditated opposition to those bourgeois entertainments that pass interminably and fleetingly before the spectator's eyes, leaving no substantive impression.

A reading of Writings on Cinema and Life obliges one to cast aside the predigested labels furnished by cinema critics and historians in order to recuperate one of the most original and interesting directors of the twentieth century. Organized chronologically, with a selection of photographs and a meticulous typography that recollects the books of the era, this work is an ideal introduction for the Anglophone reader, particularly when examined alongside Petri's films. The book comprises a selection of film scripts, articles, and reflections by Petri himself, a complete filmography and updated bibliography, as well as a critical introduction by Jean A. Gili. In its pages we discover Petri the intellectual and social commentator, with articles published in Città aperta during its brief existence (1957–8) and in Nuova cucina in 1980. He analyzes films and elaborates an original approach to figurative arts that shows his acquaintance with psychoanalysis, literature, and philosophy, as well as his deep roots in the European and Italian aesthetic traditions. Picasso, Elia Kazan, Antonio Bardem, Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer, all pique his interest and serve as lightning rods for his acumen. He participates in the debate over the state of Italian cinema from a Marxist perspective educed from his intellectual engagement with the "social, moral, and cultural renewal of our country" (in the words of a collectively signed article in the inaugural issue of Città aperta). His openly political declarations are gathered together in the book's second chapter, "The Debate About Italian Cinema," which stretches from 1962 to Petri's death in 1982.

In the film I giorni contati, the Sicilian actor Salvo Randone, another of Petri's constant collaborators, reevaluates his life after witnessing a middle-aged man die from a heart attack on the tram on his way to work. This dramatic event provokes him to leave his job at the age of fifty-three to throw himself into the search for the meaning of existence. Since the loss of his grandmother at twenty-one years old, the future director felt himself stalked by the presence of death, and this obsession compelled him to take refuge in cinema, where the theme would show up incessantly. In one of the central scenes of I giorni contati, Randone asks his doctor: "Do you know, more or less, when I'll die?" The answer remains suspended until the final scene, when he falls dead seated on the tram after finishing up at his job. Petri's life and work can be summed up in Randone's peregrination through the urban spaces of the Roman proletariat, his visit to a long-lost love, his descent into carefree bourgeois hedonism, and even a flirtation with crime, before finally, with a heavy heart, he returns to his routine as an honest plumber. Petri would die of cancer in 1982, at the age of fifty-three, in a macabre finale that brought together the fatidic character of his life and work. In the first scene of I giorni contati, the viewer witnesses a fleeting homage to the director's friend Pasolini in the words printed on a newspaper clasped in the hands of the already dead protagonist: "Come Pasolini concilia cinema e letteratura" (How Pasolini reconciles cinema and literature). In another version of the film, with Petri as the protagonist, the headline would read: "Come Petri concilia cinema e vita" (How Petri reconciles cinema and life). The title chosen by Jean A. Gili for the present text could not do its author greater justice.