Didactic beauty

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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puccini and the girl, the latest film of Paolo Benvenuti — Filmmaker in Focus at the International Film Festival Rotterdam — is a dashing if delicately stylized piece of Belle Epoque beauty with a gloriously self-conscious pictorial grandeur, according to German film critic Olaf Möller.

Quite a few wondered why Paolo Benvenuti’s long-awaited puccini and the girl (puccini e la fanciulla, 2008) was only shown Out of Competition this Venice. In tandem with Marco Bechis’ birdwatchers it would have made for the finest local ‘front’ in half a decade — actually, since the last time Benvenuti was at the Mostra, causing tempestuous political debate in competition with secret file (segreti di stato, 2003).
But polemics are one thing, a court order to suppress a film is quite another. Benvenuti’s investigation into the suicide of Giacomo Puccini’s maid Doria Manfredi in 1909, whose obscure circumstances puccini and the girl painstakingly and poetically reconstructs, uncovered evidence suggesting the existence of another living descendant and thereby potential heir to the maestro’s estate. With a fortune estimated at roughly $250 million (current currency) at the time of his death, it made the for-now sole official heir, Simonetta Puccini, nervous enough to take legal action. Marco Müller probably didn’t want to risk having to remove a film from the competition by court order. In the end, puccini and the girl could be shown, but that’s probably not the end of this affair.
All of which feels rather bizarre vis-à-vis the film itself. Difficult to imagine anything looking less like a reason for a date with the judge. puccini and the girl is a dashing if delicately stylised piece of Belle Epoque beauty with a gloriously self-conscious pictorial grandeur that is almost unthinkable in contemporary cinema. To further accentuate the work’s artificiality, Benvenuti did away with dialogue. All we hear are voices reading letters that certain parties involved in the drama wrote each other, with any remaining speech existing somewhere between ambient sound and ‘musique concrète’. With that, Benvenuti leaves the last traces of common contemporary notions of realism behind, pushing his praxis-aesthetic of adapting historical documents another step further — toward a cinema of sensual didactics and dialectic enchantment. Something the International Film Festival Rotterdam invites its visitors to discover and explore, with reportedly quite a few more festivals and institutions in line for Benvenuti retrospectives. Finally.

Scrupulous research
Like all of Benvenuti’s seven features to date, puccini and the girl is essentially an epic — in the Brechtian sense — dramatisation of a historical incident. Each of his films is based upon scrupulous research usually contradicting the official version. For only one, gostanza da libbiano (2000), a historical document serves as the primary source; for all the others, either existing studies were adapted or new first-hand research was conducted — leading in the case of secret file to the publication of a new tome on the subject. In this context, il bacio di giuda (1988) probably provides the murkiest case from a historian’s point of view, as Benvenuti here treats the Bible as a historical text (substantially augmented by documents of the time).
The names commonly evoked to shorthand Benvenuti’s lineage in cinema are Roberto Rossellini and Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub — unsurprisingly, as Benvenuti chalked up some first experiences with professional filmmaking on the former’s the age of cosimo dei medici (1972) and assisted the latter on their moses and aaron (1975).
Then again, these references are probably as helpful as they are misleading. While working with Rossellini strengthened Benvenuti’s belief in cinema as communication, as an educational, didactic popular art, his aesthetic impetus is so strikingly different it almost contradicts the master; and while similarities of approach with Huillet & Straub can certainly be detected in medea, un maggio di pietro frediani (1972), those are probably due to his friendship with ‘ur’-Straubians Adriano Aprà and Gianni Menon. (Actually, Straub became interested in Benvenuti only after Aprà screened medea, un maggio di pietro frediani for him.)
All of which doesn’t mean that Benvenuti is not an epigone of Rossellini and Huillet & Straub, but like every artist worthy of that honorific designation, he continues his lineage by congenially adapting his own aesthetic ideas to the principles given — even if that means turning them inside out. For Benvenuti, images as well as sounds have to evoke beauty independent of the narrative. For Rossellini as well as Huillet & Straub, this would be aestheticism going on formalism, even if the latter’s work at times can be enjoyed in a similar vein.
Benvenuti claims that making a film for him means elucidating the meaning of a document. Transposed to our time, a historical incident can have very different meanings. To get closer to a period’s mind-set, he adapts its representational arts — usually painting and theatre — into cinematographic terms. In the autumnal tiburzi (1996), Benvenuti strove for a gaze, colours and structures like the Macchiaioli, a proto-Impressionist school of Italian painting with deep roots in Tuscany; the second Macchiaioli-generation, dear and close to Puccini, then provided one of the two main points-of-reference for puccini and the girl — the other being early cinema. This is about cinema considering itself an epigone of these arts and styles, their projected future, but an art of its own with its own history to learn from. gostanza da libbiano owes as much to Dreyer’s days of wrath (1943) than to any 16th-century engraving, just as tiburzi is carried by Fordian winds. That Benvenuti has certain fetish-images — look for all the shadows on walls — simply underlines that in the end it’s all about ‘his’ readings of history: one man trying to communicate the sense he makes of the world.

Born January 30th 1946 in Pisa, Paolo Benvenuti showed an early interest in painting. He studied liberal arts in Florence only to find himself drawn toward cinema — the Italian Underground, then at its zenith, worked its charms. In ’68 Benvenuti made his first agit-short, balla-balla, about a young militante pummeled by anonymous institutional hands.
During the making of del monte pisano (1971), Benvenuti chanced upon an almost forgotten central-Italian popular theatre, the Maggi, which he then helped to revive. His first masterpiece, the medium-length medea, un maggio di pietro frediani, is an austere cinematographic adaptation of such a performance put on only for the purpose of filming it and given by mainly septo- and octogenarians who’d last thesped in a Maggio during their youth. Two short documentaries, il cantamaggio, done together with Gianni Menon, and bambini di buti (both 1978), further explored the Maggi — the latter harking back to his ‘impossible documentary’ frammento di cronaca volgare, a chronicle of the 15th-century siege on Pisa (a work Benvenuti nowadays quasi disowns, unjustifiedly).
It took another 14 years for Benvenuti to realise his first feature for cinema, il bacio di giuda (1988), a gnostic reading of the Gospel according to Matthew which insists on the importance of Judas’ failing for the Nazarean’s Passion. Call it an opening statement.
For Benvenuti, il bacio di giuda became the first part of an informal trilogy of the Sacred, completed by confortorio (1992) and gostanza da libbiano (2000), two essays on religious persecution that are among the most fascinating and horrifying of Benvenuti’s works due to the way they show their investigator-torturers as men working within a logic obviously alien to their victims whom they will only save if for their own glory.
Of equal political pertinence is secret file, the meta-film that is key to Benvenuti’s cinema. It is at least the fifth take on Salvatore Giuliano, his involvement in the Portella della Ginestra-massacre on Mayday 1947, and his subsequent killing. One of the lawyers in the 1951 trials against the surviving members of Giuliano’s gang, flabbergasted by the mess of contradictions the case actually is, starts to re-investigate the massacre step by step the way Benvenuti himself works, even building a model of the landscape around Portella della Ginestra to better study the sunlight and its possible influence on the events. What becomes apparent is that Giuliano was but a pawn in a game to stop the rise of communism in Italian politics before it spread to the rest of Western Europe. It’s not as if these things were unknown even at the time: Benvenuti mentions reading a screenplay by Giuseppe De Santis written in the ’50s dealing with exactly these political manoeuvres which he couldn’t get produced for reasons easy to imagine.
This doesn’t mean that secret file came too late — it means that we’re in a similar situation whose construction we should study from all angles, carefully. For one thing is certain: While secret file, just like confortorio and gostanza da libbiano, might deal with trials past, they’re all to be read as models for how to look at the trials of our days. Their beauty teaches you.

Olaf Möller

Olaf Möller is the European editor of Film Comment and writes film books.

Powers of ten V
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Bianca Stigter