The Subject Is Rosi

Francesco Rosi is one of the few indispensable filmmakers of our time. From complex political dazzlers like Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and Hands Over the City (1963) to poetic inquiries into Country vs. City like Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) and Three Brothers (1980), he's confronted the contradictions of modern life head-on, with robust style and passionate conviction. Along the way, he's made the essential movie about bullfighting, The Moment of Truth (1965), and arguably the supreme opera film, Bizet's Carmen (1984). Movie directors so often get frozen into their early specialties that for a man like Rosi to expand his talent and be able to articulate his evolution is, to borrow one of his movie titles, more than a miracle. (That 1967 film exemplifies his versatility: It's a luxurious, magically droll fairy tale, aptly called Cinderella -- Italian Style in Britain, with the romantic team of Omar Sharif as a medieval prince and Sophia Loren as a peasant woman.)

Although the propulsive immediacy of Rosi's cinematic broadsides startled filmmakers worldwide and made his '60s work a beacon for political auteurs in Europe, he's not even as well-known in America as his mentor, Luchino Visconti, who started him out as an assistant on the neorealist epic La Terra Trema (1948). Perhaps that's because subjects like those of Salvatore Giuliano (a bandit who fell in and out of league with Sicilian separatists and Mafiosi) and Hands Over the City (corrupt city development in Naples) are superficially "local" while his treatment of them is cosmopolitan and multifaceted. In Salvatore Giuliano, the title character is seen either as a distant guerrilla leader in a dashing white raincoat, or a corpse; the chapters of his career emerge in jagged flashbacks between the identification of his bullet-marked body and the trial of his henchmen. Hands Over the City, an expose of the circumstances behind a building collapse, seems to encompass every sleazy financial and election deal and moral compromise that can undermine a capitalist democracy.

When these films and Lucky Luciano (1974) play as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival's tribute to Rosi, highlighted by his acceptance of the Akira Kurosawa Award on Friday, May 2, audiences may be taken aback by their up-to-the-minute impact. The '90s have only deepened the resonance of Rosi's examinations of what Norman Mailer called "the paradoxes of a society of crime" in Lucky Luciano; of bipartisan "consensus" at all costs in Hands Over the City; of the partnership of Mafia, bandits, and police in Salvatore Giuliano. The prints that Cinecitta International has struck for the touring tribute to Rosi will make even die-hard Rosi fans feel as if these literal blasts from the past, filled with cataclysms and explosions, are also blasts of pure aesthetic oxygen.

During his 1982 visit to L.A. to promote Three Brothers, I interviewed Rosi in person and found his English muscular and vivid. But he recently said he was intimidated by the prospect of doing a phone interview in English before his San Francisco appearance. The solution was simple: I faxed him 10 questions; he wrote out the answers and had an associate, Silvia Bizio, the West Coast correspondent for La Repubblica, translate them. He writes the way he talks, and the way he makes movies: precisely, and with force.

Sragow: The first Kurosawa Award was given to Kurosawa himself. On the night of the ceremony the festival showed his 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well, which, like your own Hands Over the City, is about corrupt government housing. Have you ever seen it?

Rosi: I am sorry, but I have never seen this movie of the great Kurosawa. Unfortunately, many of his movies have never been distributed in Italy. I wouldn't see clear connections between his work and mine, at least judging from the works of his that I know, were it not for a common epic emphasis in certain movies. The multiple points of view of Rashomon create an "obscurity" that relates to the soul while the "obscurity" of Salvatore Giuliano or The Mattei Affair relates to facts. But I do believe that great movies like Rashomon establish a communication, if probably only unconscious, among filmmakers.

Sragow: Reportedly, you feel like a brother to the American director Elia Kazan. Did his On the Waterfront move you to cast Rod Steiger in Hands Over the City and Lucky Luciano? How did you communicate with Steiger? (Did the Method get in the way?) And is Kazan as controversial in Italy as in the United States?

Rosi: To be precise, it was Kazan who said he regarded me as a younger brother. This was for me a cause for pleasure, since I've always admired his work. My choice of Rod Steiger for Hands Over the City was determined by the impression he made interpreting his roles in Kazan's On the Waterfront and Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife. With Steiger and me, there was always great understanding based on reciprocal esteem. And we became friends. He adapted with flexibility and intelligence to acting with the partners I'd chosen for him, among people who had never acted before, even in the leading roles. Carlo Fermariello, his antagonist in the film [Hands Over the City], was a city councilor, and secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in Naples. I communicated with Rod in my body English, in Italian, in Neapolitan, with gestures and with silence beyond any acting "method." Kazan's work continues to be admired in Europe.

Sragow: What compelled you to make Hands Over the City? Does the story refer to a specific disaster in Naples?

Rosi: One needed the political willingness to denounce what was happening in cities like Naples throughout Italy and Europe, right under everybody's eyes. The leftist press was doing it in a way, but a movie was the most wide-reaching and forthright means to make urban problems dramatically known to the greatest number of people in Italy and the world. I decided to create a film that would clarify how a city unraveled by chaotic and illegal planning would have to risk to change not just its face, but its soul. With the writer Raffaele La Capria, my friend and fellow Neapolitan, I placed the film's dramatic core inside the City Council, where they make the political and administrative decisions related to the life and the future of the city and its citizens. What was the right-wing developer, Nottola (played by Steiger), saying on the screen to his party colleagues? "I have to be in charge of building because I don't trust anybody. I have to become the head of city planning because I have to take over the building contracts. Since I am the person responsible for the administration of these contracts, I have to bring them to fruition myself as the contractor." It's an obvious example of collusion among politics, business, and crime (here, the Camorra). The film anticipated the phenomenon that emerged as a scandal in Italy 30 years later -- Tangentopoli, or Tangent-gate. Tangenti are kickbacks that people in the government were getting to issue contracts. Nottola was taking care of his own business; so were the members of his political party, who took advantage of it with the kickbacks. The narrative structure of the film followed the lines of the demonstration of a theorem: How can a square meter of farmland -- at the borders of the suburbs of a great city -- multiply uncontrollably in value -- in the interest of a group of unscrupulous speculators -- at the expense of the public -- through a political and administrative decision taken in the City Council?

Sragow: I think Hands Over the City is important and exciting for Americans to see today, because it touches on the dangers of treating bipartisan decision-making as an end in itself. In your movie, responsibility for the profit-taking and negligence in city planning falls as much on the politicians in the center, who drift between the left and the right according to public opinion, as it does on Steiger. Aren't you calling for honesty even more than for a reform ideology?

Rosi: The doctor who belongs to the center group dissociates himself from it when it supports the right-wing builder -- Steiger's character, Nottola. The doctor does this for moral reasons and in the interest of all the citizens. He wants it to be possible to reconcile the dictates of ethics with those of politics. That was the spirit of the movie, born in a moment when, at a national level, the left was inserting itself into the government, accompanied by many hopes.

Sragow: At the end of Hands Over the City, Nottola is still pulling the strings. And the last line of Lucky Luciano is, "Everyone will find themselves back at the same goddamn place where we started." Isn't one of your points that things don't change?

Rosi: Despite doubts as to how and when things will change, one needs to continue to be vigilant and act to have them change, and in the best way for the lives of the country and its citizens. That should be the purpose of politics, justice, and science.

Sragow: There's also a positive sense in which things don't change in your movies -- when they link up with the eternal. That happens most strongly in Christ Stopped at Eboli and Three Brothers, but also in Salvatore Giuliano, when the splendor of the timeless landscape mocks the ugliness of the political squabbles. Was this combination of classical and modern ambience -- of Euripides and Brecht -- part of what drew you to make Salvatore Giuliano?

Rosi: In Salvatore Giuliano, I testified to the dirty agreements between corrupt powers (the Mafia, the bandits, the police) and tied them to the first political mass assassination in Italy -- the massacre of the Communists at Portella delle Ginestre -- which is still one of Italy's unsolved mysteries. But great natural landscapes and certain immobile environments carry with them centuries of history; they often manage to offer a breath of "greatness" to events that, because of human violence, would otherwise only provoke horror.

Sragow: Anglo-Saxon critics often treated Salvatore Giuliano as a "puzzle" film. That's partly because they were unfamiliar with what you were dramatizing, like the way the code of silence (omerta) extends even to the bandits in the prisoners' dock. Didn't Italian audiences respond more directly? Is it true that the release of the film instigated an inquiry into the Mafia by Palermo's Regional Government?

Rosi: I was convinced that the only way in which I could have put together cause and effects was to structure Salvatore Giuliano as an investigation. For European audiences, the tiny percentage of obscurity deriving from this decision increased their fascination for the story. When it came out in Italy, the film was a great success, as it was immediately in France. The film did provoke the decision to constitute a parliamentary commission of investigation into the phenomenon of the Mafia in Sicily with the law dated Dec. 20, 1962, one that had been delayed many times.

Sragow: In Italy and France in the '60s, there was a movement among you and Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras and others to bring a "you are there" feeling to movies, combining documentary and feature-film techniques. You once told me that in Salvatore Giuliano, you wanted to provoke "psychodrama" by staging the actions in actual locations, with many of the real inhabitants. When the wives and mothers of arrested men scream "Assassins!" at the militia, or Giuliano's mother cries over his corpse, the scenes have a newsreel's rawness, but also an emotionalism that newsreels don't have. How did you achieve this new style?

Rosi: You must remember that Salvatore Giuliano was the first of these movies, in 1962; Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers was 1966, and Costa-Gavras' Z, 1969. In Salvatore Giuliano I combined the style of a document to that of interpretation and the construction of fiction without ever losing the sense of truth which that film needed. That is why I decided to shoot in the real places where those events took place little more than 10 years before. That is why I put together very few professional actors with many improvised actors chosen in the streets and houses of those places. That is why I spoke of a kind of "psychodrama." The women screaming "Assassins!" were the same who had screamed that in the same streets of Montelepre a decade before. And so, to interpret the role of the mother of Giuliano, I chose a farmer, mother of 10 sons, one of whom had been killed under similar circumstances to those in which Giuliano was killed.

Sragow: How important was it for you to have Charles Siragusa, the U.S. narcotics investigator who dogged Lucky Luciano, play himself in your movie? How much of a challenge is it to go between a nonprofessional in a pivotal part and actors like Gian-Maria Volonte?

Rosi: Actually, the use of a nonprofessional actor can bring a level of emotion and truth that very often excites and stimulates the professional actor. Charles Siragusa was the agent who had really chased Lucky Luciano for years. And in the movie he represented what he had been in life: the honest Sicilian against the degenerate and criminal Sicilian, who was interpreted with great talent by the great Volonte.

Sragow: Lucky Luciano is more of a character study than your other portraits of hidden political power -- Volonte plays the capo as a quietly bitter emperor in exile. Was this always your intention, or did it grow out of his performance?

Rosi: Both.

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