13 Aug 1926 – 13 May 2001
This article was first printed in The Age (Melbourne).
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In a country which boasts of its multiculturalism, one of its most important filmmakers and photographers, Italian-born Giorgio Mangiamele, has all but been totally ignored.
Born in Sicily in 1926, Mangiamele studied fine arts in Catania, and film technique at the Polizia Scientifica in Rome. After arriving in Australia in 1952, Mangiamele made the silent feature, Il Contratto (The Contract, 1953), about five migrants brought Down Under on a two-year contract and then left to fend for themselves. “I wanted to portray the struggle of those first migrants; after all, I was one myself”, Mangiamele told Graeme Cutts in the only overview of his career (Cinema Papers, October 1992).
After briefly running one of Australia’s pioneer film schools, and making Unwanted (1955), about a man who doesn’t wish his daughter to marry a migrant, Mangiamele moved his film activities to his photographic studio in Carlton. He was naturalised in 1957, and filmed The Brothers (1958), about a man who must quickly return £500 stolen from work, and the effect this has on his younger brother. Mangiamele continued to explore the migrant experience in The Spag (1962): “There are migrants involved in a lot of my early films, because . that was my social world, my contact with the new”. About rebellious youth, it won several awards and was praised for its unfashionable subject matter and “strong Italian Neo-Realist flavour”.
Mangiamele also worked with director Tim Burstall, a key figure in Australia’s 1970s film renaissance, shooting Burstall’s acclaimed puppet series, Sebastian the Fox, and documentaries on Matcham Skipper and Gil Jamieson. This led to Ninety-Nine Percent (1963), Mangiamele’s first 35mm film. An Italian widower with a child wants a wife and goes to a marriage agency, with often comic results. However, the film which gained Mangiamele his international reputation was Clay (1964), paid for by mortgaging his house. Shot at Montsalvat in Eltham, it tells of a criminal on the run from the police who falls in love with the girl who shelters him.
In 1965, Clay was selected for Competition at Cannes, but that achievement was ignored in the headlong rush to promote the young and new. This haunted Mangiamele all his life. Of Clay, Variety wrote that “Visually it’s frequently a poem brought to life with some breathtakingly poignant and arty shots”, while La Cinématographie Française argued “Mangiamele has painted in his visual poem the story of an impossible love.” In Australia, The Advocate said, “Mangiamele is one of the world’s master craftsmen in the art of film, a man who really knows how to use a camera to tell a story and whose photography is a joy”, and The Australian wrote, “Clay is a film of singular visual beauty . there is a poetry in the treatment, tact and sensitiveness in the direction”.
Mangiamele was primarily a visual director and his films belong to the era of Film as Art, where (mostly) European directors conjured powerful tone poems that are the antithesis of the dialogue-driven narratives of today.
Despite jobs offers in Europe, Mangiamele came back to Australia . and total apathy. He did not make another film until Beyond Reason in 1970, a psychological thriller about people confined in a building by the threat of atomic exposure. With its sexual and thriller aspects, it is Mangiamele’s most mainstream work.
Feeling prejudiced, Mangiamele left Australia for Papua New Guinea, where he made five films for the PNG Office of Information. Three years later he returned to an apparent government film-body indifference that would last until his death.
In vibrant film cultures, filmmakers of all ages and cultures work together, the young gaining immeasurably from associating with the experienced and differently orientated. Australia was too ageist, too narrow in its view about what sort of films ought to be made, for there to be space for a sensitive, inventive, deeply-passionate filmmaker like Mangiamele.
One of the few connections he had with cinema in his last decades was as stills photographer on this author’s Devil in the Flesh (1986). But somehow it wasn’t fair that he was snapping images of someone else’s work; he should have been on his own film set, creating visual poetry and further enriching Australian culture.
In 1965, the International Press Bulletin in Los Angeles wrote of Mangiamele: “When the world produces an artist who is capable of transferring to the screen a new conception in photography, the least the film industry can do is render him some recognition.”
Mangiamele, who had suffered from motor-neuron disease, is survived by his wife, Rosemary.