Widely-known and respected both in Italy and abroad, Francesco Rosi has continued for half a century to practise an intensely-charged, politically-engaged and socially-committed cinema which has quite justly earned him the title of Italy’s cinematic “poet of civic courage”. (1)
Born in Naples in 1922, the year of Fascism’s ascent to power, Rosi grew up in a comfortable middle-class household. He was introduced to cinema quite early by his father who worked for a shipping company but was also a film enthusiast who shot super-8 films in his spare time (some of them which featured the young Francesco). Rosi thus grew up as an avid film-watcher and reader of film magazines and long nurtured hopes of studying at the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia in Rome. When the time came, however, he bowed to his father’s advice to secure his future by studying law at university. The war interrupted his studies and in 1943 he was conscripted and sent to Tuscany. A year later he was back in Naples and had resumed his legal studies but as the war ended he was spending most of his time doing theatre and radio. He was still preparing himself to apply to the Centro sperimentale in 1948 when, by a happy coincidence, he was hired as general assistant, and soon after as assistant director, to Luchino Visconti, then shooting La terra trema in Sicily. Rosi always maintained this experience managed to teach him volumes about all the practical aspects of filmmaking. In 1949 he supervised the production of the “Italian” version of Visconti’s film. La terra trema—perhaps the most audacious and thoroughgoing experiment in neorealism—had been shot so realistically that the genuine Sicilian dialect spoken by the fishermen in the original film proved to be incomprehensible to most Italian audiences and Visconti was thus forced to produce a soundtrack more accessible to the general public. This was the task that was devolved to Rosi, who accomplished it with great competence and success.
This formative experience with Visconti was followed by a more extended apprenticeship in all aspects of film production while working in succeeding years with a number of other established filmmakers: Matarazzo, Emmer, Antonioni, Monicelli, Alessandrini (for whom he finished directing Camicie rosse [Red Shirts] in 1952) as well as with Visconti again on Bellissima (1951) and Senso (1956). By 1957 Rosi was ready for his directorial debut and with the backing of producer Franco Cristaldi, was able to finally make his first solo film, La sfida (The Challenge).
The benefits of Rosi’s extensive apprenticeship in the industry are clearly evident in the very controlled and self-assured direction of this first film. La sfida tells the story of Vito Polara, a young and enterprising Neapolitan hood who attempts to muscle his way into the lucrative supply of fruit and vegetables to Naples’ Central market, a trade already firmly under the control of an established underground syndicate. Clearly indebted to both American social and crime films on the one hand and to Italian neorealism on the other, the film nevertheless displays what is already an extremely original style and presents in nuce the central concerns that will characterise practically all of Rosi’s subsequent films: the “Southern Question” i.e. the retarded socio-economic development of the Italian South that has continued to make it an “other country” to the rest of Italy, and the intricate networks through which power, legal and illegal, is continually negotiated and exercised. One of the distinctive features of Rosi’s style here, as in subsequent films, is a tendency toward ellipsis, simply leaving out “filler” sequences that would make for narrative smoothness in order to focus attention, often abruptly, on intense moments of violent confrontation between Vito and the other more powerful members of the syndicate.
In Rosi’s next film I magliari (The Weavers, sometimes known as The Swindlers, 1959) the Southern Problem is articulated through the theme of emigration. The film is, in fact, both set and shot entirely in Germany where a motley group of Italian immigrants try to make their fortune by engaging in a series of organised scams that appear to revolve around the sale of poor quality textiles to Germans at inflated prices. Although the latter part of the film develops into something of a love story between the rather good-hearted young Tuscan emigrant, Mario (Renato Salvatore), and Paola (Belinda Lee), the wife of the German boss, much of the film focuses on male groups exercising, challenging and negotiating power in a desperate effort to secure spoils and territory.
While these were undoubtedly interesting films and established Rosi as one of the up-and-coming young directors of what he himself would later call the “second phase of neorealism”, it was with Salvatore Giuliano (1961) that Rosi really joined the ranks of great directors. Both in Italy and abroad Giuliano was immediately recognised as something of a milestone in cinema history. The French Encyclopédie du cinéma, edited by Roger Boussinot in 1967, went so far as to declare that: “Quelque chose a changé dans le cinema avec Salvatore Giuliano…” (2)
The eponymous subject of Rosi’s film was a small-time black marketeer who, in 1943, had killed a policeman in order to avoid being arrested. Taking refuge on the mountain of Montelepre in Western Sicily, he had subsequently gathered a faithful gang around him and had achieved legendary status as a sort of local Robin Hood figure. Given the influence he wielded over the area, he had been accosted and then enlisted by the radical Sicilian Separatist Movement and been made a colonel in its illegal Volunteer Army for Sicilian Independence. When the movement eventually collapsed, Giuliano came under the influence of a reactionary grouping of local monarchists, landowners and, possibly, the Mafia who feared what they saw as the rise of the Left in Sicily. This led to the Giuliano gang firing on the local May Day celebrations in 1947, killing 11 people and injuring 27. An all-out effort was then launched on the part of the authorities and in 1950 Giuliano himself was killed in circumstances that remained shrouded in mystery. The official version provided by the authorities was that Giuliano had been killed in a shoot-out with police but this didn’t tally with local residents who claimed to have heard only three shots. Some time later Giuliano’s cousin and lieutenant, Gaspare Pisciotta, declared in court that he had shot Giuliano while the bandit was asleep as part of a secret deal with the police. Soon after, however, Pisciotta had been poisoned in his high security cell and so the matter remained a mystery.
Ten years later Rosi’s film set out to investigate the mystery and to query the official version. Salvatore Giuliano thus became the first of Rosi’s “cine-inchieste”, what he characterised as not “documentary” but documented films. (3) These were, in Millicent Marcus’s words, “cinematic investigations into cases involving power relationships between charismatic individuals, corporations, criminal organisations and the state.” (4)
Rosi’s highly original strategy in this landmark film is to aim at neither an “objective” journalistic documentary nor a fictional recreation but to employ as wide a range of disparate formal and stylistic elements as necessary to conduct a committed search for the truth that becomes, in a sense, its own narrative. The film begins with a staged recreation of the official photograph of Giuliano’s death and a functionary reading out what had been recorded as the official version of the finding of the body. From then on the film employs a series of non-linear flashbacks, often connected thematically rather than chronologically, to suggest a range of possible connections and complicities between different individuals and groups, although these are never forced together into one single “truth”. Rosi himself was later to say that this difficulty of getting at the truth, and perhaps the impossibility of arriving at any one single truth regarding such complex situations and events, was part of what the film attempted to dramatise in its own structure. The viewer is indeed left with more questions than answers but this is exactly what Rosi’s investigative cinema is trying to foster:
To be effective, the questions the films ask must continue to live in the viewer even after the film is over. After my first few films, in fact, I stopped putting the words “the End” at the conclusion because I think films should not end but should continue to grow inside us. (5)
Both the critical and commercial success of Giuliano confirmed Rosi’s faith in the possibility of a civic cinema that could actively intervene in the social process. His next film Mani sulla città (Hands Over the City, 1963) thus sought to tackle the burning contemporary issue of the rampant building speculation which had already devastated many of Italy’s urban centres in the wake of the so-called “economic miracle”. After the titles which appear over a wide helicopter view of wall-to-wall high-rise buildings characterising the Naples of the “economic miracle”, the film begins with what seems to be documentary footage of the catastrophic collapse of a multi-storey building. An official inquest into responsibility for the collapse and the ensuing deaths, which seems to lie clearly at the feet of right-wing politician and entrepreneur, Edoardo Nottola (played with an extraordinary intensity by Rod Steiger), is soon blocked as a result of the complex political machinations and the ferocious power struggle which is going on in the city Council on the eve of an election. As the film proceeds, the Council chamber comes to resemble a Roman arena as the political factions, hungry for power, tear into each other, with Rosi’s camera documenting their heaving bodies and contorted faces with unflinching accuracy. Spectacular as these scenes are, however, the real genius of the film lies less in its pitiless critical realism than in the way it documents and uncovers the more subtle negotiations of power that eventually lead not only to Nottola’s complete exoneration but to his being handed the Council Housing portfolio on a platter! The film closes with the greater Sack of Naples about to commence.
Rosi would make several more films in the 1960s. Il momento della verità (The Moment of Truth, 1964), which tells the story of Miguel, a young farmer who abandons his village and fields in order to try his fortune in the big city, is an interesting attempt to explore the Italian Southern Question in a Spanish context. Unable to find other work (and finding himself, as always, caught up in the ploys of those who already have power and influence) Miguel works his way up to become a bullfighter but, after having tasted success and fame in the corrida, also finds his death there. It’s certainly a powerful story told movingly, and with a remarkable documentary feel to it, not least in the many disconcertingly-realistic sequences featuring bulls and bull-fighting. However, and despite the usual stunning cinematography by old Rosi faithful, Gianni di Venanzo – this time in colour- the film ends up being rather uneven and not quite at the level of Rosi’s previous films. Even more disappointing is C’era una volta (Once Upon a Time), a Southern Italian fairytale made by Rosi in 1967, which has all the signs of a project forced on him by producer Carlo Ponti, who wanted something light to showcase the talents of his wife, Sophia Loren, and Omar Shariff for the American market.
It was to be the 1970s, however—the decade that in Italy would remembered as “the years of lead”, years characterised by social insecurity, political conflict and armed terrorism—which would provide Rosi with the opportunity to make what are undoubtedly several of his greatest films.
One might expect the author of Mani sulla città to have sought to confront more directly the momentous social upheaval resulting from the student protests of 1968, but with Uomini contro (1970), an adaptation of a passionate anti-war novel by Emilio Lussu, Rosi chose to go back to the time of the First World War. If the novel’s underlying raison d’être was a denunciation of the insanity of the First World War, and especially of Italy’s participation in it, Rosi’s own interest in the film seems inevitably to be drawn to the possibilities it provides for a further analysis of power relationships within male groups, in this case, of course, the military. With the men in the trenches demoralised and ready to give up, a struggle ensues among the officers, between the old hardliners, led by General Leone (Alain Cuny), who would continue to fight to the last man, and others led by two young lieutenants, who find themselves the “uomini contro” (”men against”) of the title. As the logic of power plays itself out, the two younger officers are both eliminated, one dying in a final futile military assault and the other by firing squad.
Then, in quick succession, Rosi made three films that are generally considered among his very best: Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, 1972), Lucky Luciano (1973) and Cadaveri eccellenti (Illustrious Corpses, 1976), all three, in interestingly different ways, reactivating the investigative cinematic style that Rosi had forged in Giuliano.
Like the bandit Giuliano, Enrico Mattei had been a powerful and charismatic public figure in Italy in the immediate postwar era. Appointed to wind up the Italian Petroleum Agency, he had instead expanded it and used the new company, ENI, to both explore new sources of energy for Italy and to create a personal power base within the Italian political scene. Machiavellian and idealistic at the same time, Mattei openly used the company’s funds to bribe politicians of all persuasions to support its ventures. An energetic and astute entrepreneur, Mattei resented the big American companies’ control over oil prices and so initiated direct discussions with Russia and with a number of Arab countries in order to procure cheaper oil for Italy and, in the process, a better deal for the producing countries. Thus, by the early 1960s, Mattei had become a thorn in the side of both the American oil companies and the American government and his political machinations had also created a number of powerful enemies at home. Then, in 1962, at the very height of his power and influence, Mattei was killed when his private plane crashed just outside Milan. The official version held that the plane had simply gone down in bad weather but this ignored the testimony of a number of eyewitnesses who claimed that the plane had exploded in mid-air before plunging to earth.
As he had done in Giuliano, in Il caso Mattei Rosi employs a non-linear investigative mode which allows him to bring together, often paratactically or in juxtaposition, a range of disparate materials, both real and fictionally recreated, in an attempt to get closer to the truth. As in Giuliano, Rosi’s strategy prompts the viewer to notice a number of possible connections and motivated complicities but without supplying any exclusive or definitive interpretation. Significantly, at one point in the film the investigation of Mattei’s death ten years earlier comes to be intertwined with the contemporary investigation of the disappearance of a journalist who was working with Rosi on the film at the Sicilian end, exploring the possible involvement of the Mafia. The journalist, De Mauro, in fact was never seen again, so that the film, quite literally, created more questions than it answered.
The title of Rosi’s next film, Lucky Luciano, would have suggested a gangster film and indeed, given Rosi’s enduring interest in exploring the interconnection between legal and illegal power networks, the model of the gangster film and the crime thriller had never been far from the surface of many of the previous films. Nevertheless Lucky Luciano is a “cine-inchiesta” more than a fictional biography of the great crime boss although the recreation of the character of Lucky Luciano through the great acting talents of Gian Maria Volontè certainly manages to present something of a psychological portrait of this dark and enigmatic figure. All the same, as in Salvatore Giuliano and Il caso Mattei, Rosi’s interest is not so much in exploring the charismatic individual per se but more in attempting to uncover the social, political, legal and illegal networks within which these individuals both exercise their power and within which they are, in a sense, imprisoned and by which they are, ultimately, crushed. As Rosi was later to put it, in Lucky Luciano he had made a choice:
…above all to look behind these characters and events and ask myself and the audience to reflect on the ambiguity of these connections. […] That accounts for the pessimism which permeates the film. The film’s ambiguities intended to reflect the ambiguities about the complicities amongst those people who actually held state power in their hands. (6)
Rosi’s next film Cadaveri eccellenti, ostensibly an adaptation of a novel by socially-committed Sicilian writer and intellectual Leonardo Sciascia, focused even more on the complicities among those who held state power in their hands. Rosi’s usual non-linear investigative style here takes on the more familiar form of a conventional political thriller although discontinuities and lacunae still abound, suggesting hidden complicities and secret alliances even amongst those who exercise legitimate state power. Inspector Rogas, an honest and dedicated detective, is called to investigate the death of a judge in Southern Italy. As he follows clues that appear to lead to an eccentric pharmacist, wrongly convicted by the judge and thus resentful, other judges are also killed. The enveloping climate of fierce political contestation, which in every way resembles what was actually happening on the street in Italy at the time, leads Rogas to suspect darker political intrigues which remain unfathomable until the point where Rogas comes to be convinced that a right-wing coup d’état is imminent, supported, and possibly even planned, by some of the highest political and military authorities themselves. Beginning to now feel himself at risk because of what he thinks he has discovered, Rogas works through intermediaries to set up a meeting with the leader of the political opposition, transparently the Italian Communist Party. As the two meet secretly in the depths of an archaeological museum, shots ring out and both are killed. The film ends with the official version broadcast by the Minister for the Interior: Rogas, in a fit of madness had killed the leader of the opposition and then had turned the gun on himself. In an Italy wracked by political terrorism and the ever-present danger of reactionary authoritarian countermeasures, the political references of Rosi’s film appeared reasonably transparent and the film appeared to be reflecting the social reality.
Only two years later, in 1978, ex-prime minister and chief powerbroker Aldo Moro would be kidnapped, summarily tried and then executed by the left-wing terrorists of the Red Brigades. Yet, as regularly happened in Italy in the postwar period, much of the so-called Moro affair remained (and remains) shrouded in mystery and, in the circumstances, one might have expected Rosi to attempt to investigate the Moro affair through another “cine-inchiesta”. Instead his next film would be an elegant and evocative adaptation of Carlo Levi’s classic Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979), a novelised account of the anti-fascist author’s period of internal exile in the southern Italian village of Gagliano, and a project that Rosi had long held dear. Moving and remarkably faithful to the spirit of Levi’s original text, the film (made originally for television and later edited for the cinema) is both Rosi’s most thoroughgoing engagement with the Southern Question and an homage to, and a lament for, the passing of Italian peasant culture.
Rosi’s next film, similarly lyrical and moving, attempted a sort of stocktake of Italy’s parlous condition in the 1980s. Abandoning the non-linear investigative style of the earlier films, Tre fratelli (Three Brothers, 1981) tells the story of three estranged brothers—one a judge who now lives in Rome, the second a left-wing militant worker who lives in Turin and the third a teacher in Naples—who return to their native village in Southern Italy for their mother’s funeral. As they re-encounter themselves in their paternal household, their memories of the past and their desires for the future are undermined by a dark sense of foreboding for the present, a pessimism that is only mitigated at the end of the film by the strong bond that is established between the brothers’ aged father, Donato (played with extraordinary dignity by Charles Vanel), and his granddaughter Marta. Achieving moments of lyrical beauty seldom before attempted, much less reached, in his earlier films, Rosi here appears to be moving beyond a politically-inspired cinema and more towards an investigation of private spheres of experience. (7)
Unfortunately, Rosi’s subsequent productions in the 1980s seemed to lack the intelligence and social commitment of his earlier films. Carmen (1984) was a sprightly and enjoyable filmic version of Bizet’s opera, but distinguished only by its colour and energy and Cronaca di una morte annumciata (Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1987) was a competent but otherwise unimpressive rendition of the Marquez novel. Dimenticare Palermo (To Forget Palermo), made in 1990 and co-scripted by Gore Vidal, re-presents some of the elements of Rosi’s earlier films as it attempts to suggest hidden complicities between legal and illegal networks of power but is ultimately unconvincing and disappointing in its superficiality. Its critical and commercial failure was probably responsible for Rosi’s retreat into the more personal reflection carried out in his highly-personalised homage to his native city, Diario napoletano (Neapolitan Diary) in 1992. After a period of silence, Rosi returned to the cinema in the mid-1990s, with his adaptation of Primo Levi’s Holocaust-survivor memoir, La Tregua (The Truce). Interesting enough and with a number of powerful moments, the film nevertheless fails to reach the level of Rosi’s great films.
Yet, in spite of the reservations that one might have about these later missed opportunities, there can be no doubt that in a career spanning half a decade Rosi produced some of the most politically-courageous, socially-committed and formally-innovative films in the Italian canon. In an Italy forever divided by political and social conflict and continually shadowed by innumerable unsolved mysteries, Rosi wielded the camera like a moral instrument in an unflinching search for truth. As a striking fulfilment of Gramsci’s dictum of a pessimism of the intelligence sustained by an optimism of the will, Rosi’s practice of an intelligent and committed civic cinema did much to restore a modicum of human dignity to Italians still living under a byzantine system of political intrigue.
And, as Rosi was to say in one of his later interviews:
I believe that through an engaged cinema (a label which, by the way, I do not like very much), through a cinema that attempts as much as possible to rub shoulders with the truth and with the real values of life, one can succeed in conveying the urgency of respecting human dignity. Many times the respect for human dignity is even more important than the respect for human life itself. (8)
Camicie rosse (Red Shirts) (1952) Rosi finished directing the film after G. Alessandrini had abandoned the project.
Kean (1956) co-directed with Vittorio Gassman
La sfida (The Challenge) (1958)
I magliari (The Weavers) (1959)
Salvatore Giuliano (1961)
Le mani sulla città (Hands Over the City) (1963)
Il momento della verità (The Moment of Truth) (1964)
C’era una volta (Once Upon a Time) (1967)
Uomini contro (1970)
Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair) (1972)
Lucky Luciano (1973)
Cadaveri eccellenti (Illustrious Corpses) (1976)
Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) (1979)
Tre fratelli (Three Brothers) (1981)
Cronaca di una morte annumciata (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) (1987)
Dimenticare Palermo (To Forget Palermo) (1990)
Diario napoletano (Neapolitan Diary) (1992)
La tregua (The Truce) (1996)
F. Bolzoni, I film di Francesco Rosi, Rome, Gremese, 1986
G. Crowdus, “Francesco Rosi: Italy’s Postmodern Realist”, Cineaste, vol. 20, no. 4, 1994
D. Georgakas and L. Rubenstein (eds.), “Francesco Rosi: The audience should not be just passive spectators” in Art, Politics, Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews, London, Pluto Press, 1985
S. Klawans, “Illustrious Rosi”, Film Comment, January–February 1995
M. Marcus, “Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli: A tale of two Italies” in Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986
J.J. Michalczyk, “Francesco Rosi: The Dialectical Cinema” in The Italian Political Filmmakers, London and Toronto, Associated University Presses, 1986
C. Testa (ed.), Poet of Civic Courage: The Films of Francesco Rosi, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, Flicks Books, 1996
17 Annual SFJFF
A profile on Rosi and his film The Truce at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Also includes an interview.
Christ Stopped at Eboli
Contains background information on the film.
Gaurdian Unlimited Film
An article on Salvatore Giuliano.
Click here to search for Francesco Rosi DVDs, videos and books at
- The title of the best book-length study of Rosi’s cinema in English: Carlo Testa (ed.), Poet of Civic Courage: The Films of Francesco Rosi, Wiltshire, England, Flicks Books, 1996.
- Quoted in Tullio Kesich and Sebastiano Gesù, Salvatore Giuliano: Incontri con il cinema, Catania, Acicatena, 1991, p. 19, n. 1.
- “It’s not a documentary way of making films but a documented way, because I believe that the truth very often contains much more imagination than fiction.” From Rosi’s interview with Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas reprinted in Dan Georgakas and Lenny Rubenstein (eds.), Art, Politics, Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews, London, Pluto Press, 1985, p. 129.
- Millicent Marcus, “Beyond cinema politico: family as political allegory in Three Brothers” in Poet of Civic Courage, p. 116
- Gary Crowdus, “Investigating the Relationship between Causes and Effects: An Interview with Francesco Rosi”, Cineaste, vol 20, no. 4, 1994, p. 26
- From Rosi’s interview with Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas reprinted in Art, Politics, Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews, p. 122.
- Convincingly argued by Millicent Marcus in her “Beyond cinema politico: family as political allegory in Three Brothers“, art. cit.
- Carlo Testa, “Interview with Francesco Rosi”, in Poet of Civic Courage, p. 152