In the midst of one of his conversations with fellow director Giuseppe Tornatore, Francesco Rosi interrupts his own argument and says: ‘You should have called this book A life, because it is a life I am narrating’ (p. 83). While book’s editors have not adopted Rosi’s suggestion, one cannot quite remove the impression that the dialogues that form this book serve Rosi to put a signature on his own life. To speak about cinema (or the cinematografo, as Rosi keeps calling it throughout the book) means to sign one’s own life. Until the end of the conversations, Rosi keeps insisting that for him to write a life is to explain the cinema. A life of this kind cannot release itself from the movement that crosses four moments: apprenticeship, beginning, maturity and late style. The book demonstrates however that the order of these four series can constantly change. Apprenticeship is never finished; every film signals a new beginning and late style does not necessarily develop from the fulfillment of maturity. Quite the opposite, this last period often chases the first steps of an artist’s life. 

A life marked by these movements always invokes the question of method. One needs method to live and yet this can be identified and outlined only at the end. A method can emerge only after the fact. It is then that one can say: this is how I have lived, this was my method, but I didn’t know, it was a tentative approach. For Rosi this amounts to saying: my method for living was making films and my method for making films was to bring the cinema ‘where the events had taken place and with the people who had lived through them’ (p. 172). This method identifies the potential of cinema to manifest the ‘force of an emotion’, without this emotion simply ‘becoming a spectacle’ (p. 364).

A question of this kind – what was my method? – can only be asked late in life and one feels in Rosi’s voice a quiet restlessness, but also that tone that Deleuze says belongs to old age and that signals ‘a sovereign freedom, a pure necessity in which one enjoys a moment of grace’ (1). This book contains much grace.

Rosi’s words sign his life as well as offering a portable pantheon of magnificent ghosts. The book becomes the celebration of a life that produces, in turn, a celebration of the history of cinema. While it is customary to pay homage to the singularity of an artist’s achievement by contextualizing his works within a genealogical trajectory, here the movement is reversed. It is Rosi himself to pay tribute: his life becomes a way to promote the realized and unrealized possibilities of cinema. The signature he puts on his life becomes a countersignature that bears witness to thirty years of hardly matched effervescence (in Italy and elsewhere). This history has its proper names and its methods: Visconti, Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, Monicelli, Matarazzo, Leone, Elio Petri, Tonino Guerra, Alberto Sordi, RenatoSalvatori, Gian Maria Volonté, Lino Ventura, Rod Steiger, Irene Papas, Amedeo Nazzari, Gassmann, Suso CecchiD’Amico, Flaiano, La Capria, Carlo Levi, Patroni Griffi, Sergio Amidei, Di Venanzo, Piccioni, DeSantis, MarioSerandrei, Ruggero Mastroianni, Franco Cristaldi, Alberto Grimaldi…

The book is intelligently structured around four periods (Primo TempoSecondo TempoTerzo TempoQuarto Tempo) that shape Rosi’s biography from his childhood in Naples and his father’s passion for photography, to the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement awarded to the director by the Venice Film Festival in 2012 and presented to him by Tornatore.

The first period is mainly occupied by memories of the World War II and by the first explorations of the cinema, first as a spectator and then as an assistant director to Visconti on La Terra Trema/The Earth Trembles (1948). Here Rosirecounts the story of the logbook he kept for Visconti where he would note each frame and camera movement, but also interruptions and mistakes. Reminiscing on Visconti’s precision Rosi notes how he was reprimanded for failing to log the exact point where the mast of the boat used for filming had broken during a sea storm (p. 58-59). Visconti decided to write a telegram to the production office in Rome and stopped filming.

In the second period Rosi discusses his first films: Keane (1956), La Sfida/The Challenge (1958) and I Magliari/TheMagliari (1959). At this point Rosi has already matured the main theme of his cinema – the struggle for power – and the two films clearly anticipate Rosi’s most famous works from the 1960’s. If it is true what Serge Daney says that ‘bad filmmakers have no ideas and good filmmakers have too many, while the greatest have but one’ (2), then Rosi’sinsistence on the riddles of power grants him the right to belong to the third category. Rosi recounts how he realisedthat the script for La Sfida (written together with Suso Cecchi D’Amico) did not stand for the reality it aimed to describe. In Rosi’s own words: ‘once I arrived in Naples to scout for locations I was shocked. I realized that the material we have written was too literary […] The material written in Rome obeyed rules that were not of that reality’ (p. 93). It is through this shock that Rosi starts developing his own method. This becomes evident in the central part of the book where Tornatore and Rosi discuss those films that critics and audiences consider as Rosi’s highest achievements: Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and Le Mani Sulla Città/Hands Over the City (1963). Talking about the first, Rosi says that while no archival footage was used, nonetheless, ‘everything was true. Emotion reconstructed from memory, this is how I proceeded. In that film it mattered at lot’ (p. 172). Regarding the second, Rosi describes the cast, which apart from Rod Steiger, included a number of people taken from the very same environments the film was investigating, small-time crooks, politicians and those who were suffering from the speculation that destroyed the city. To delineate a method though, is not simply to follow an idea. It means to translate this idea within the technical opportunities of the medium. Rosi is particularly attentive to this. Talking about a close up in Salvatore Giuliano he says ‘The 25mm doesn’t distort the image like a wide-angle lens and if you use it for a close-up it doesn’t blur the background […] I wanted to get close to those faces, inspect them, without losing their context’ (p. 177). 

Le Mani Sulla Città/Hands Over the City (1963)

Cadaveri Eccellenti/Illustrious Corpses [1976)

The last part of the book focuses on Rosi’s films from the mid 70’s (Cadaveri Eccellenti/Illustrious Corpses [1976)], Cristo si è Fermato aEboli/Christ Stopped at Eboli [1979]), to LaTregua/The Truce (1997), his last. However, the most interesting pages in this part are dedicated to those films that Rosi never realized. As Rosi says ‘to speak about the films I have done always means recalling those I have never realized’ (p. 359). Rosi’s own filmography of ruins includes a number of very intriguing proposals: a film on Guevara’s last days, which Rosi had started researching in Cuba and which brought him to meet Fidel Castro; a cinematographic version of Brecht’s comedy The Exception and the Rule; a movie on Fabrizio Ruffo, leader of the Sanfedismo movement in southern Italy at the end of the 18th century; an investigation on the death of Italian businessman Raul Gardini and an adaptation of John Reed’s book 10 Days That Shook The World. Tornatore’s favourite is a project that Rosi had planned to set in a farm (Masseria). Locked in a remote countryside region, away from the world, Rosi would be filmed while looking for an idea to narrate contemporary Italy. He would be seen gathering documents, listing events, scrutinizing opinions and characters that could represent the Italian Problem. In Rosi’s words: ‘besides consulting documents and archive images, I would call upon writers, judges, journalists, actors. I would listen to their theories. I would take up a few suggestions, try to turn them into something visual’ (p. 361). As Tornatore insists on a more detailed description of the project, Rosi outlines three episodes, three encounters and three options for a film. One immediately has the impression that the idea could work, that the script is already there. Rosi would know how to make this movie, because this would be nothing else than the presentation of seventy years of research. This last film would be Rosi’s attempt to film his life and his own method. The invisible fabric that has supported his work throughout his career would be transformed into the visible events of the film. As if Rosi was saying: yes, at this stage, to make a movie means to turn the camera around, to point the lens on myself and simply film my own method, my way of living.

Endnotes

  1. Deleuze, G., Guattari F. (1994), What is Philosophy? (trans. H. Tomlinson, G. Burchell)  New York: Columbia University Press, p. 1.
  2. Daney, S. quoted in Andrew, D. (2010), What Cinema Is! Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 1.

About The Author

Daniele Rugo is co-founder of InC – Continental Philosophy Research Group (University of London) and is Lecturer in Film at Brunel University, London. He has published on cinema and philosophy in various journals and is the author of Jean-Luc Nancy and the Thinking of Otherness: Philosophy and Powers of Existence (London & NY: Bloomsbury, 2013).