A distinctive force in European cinema for over 35 years, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani achieved from their first films an eloquent stylistic bridge between Rossellinian stringency and Fellinian braggadocio. Their movies are often framed like friezes, but the chaos of human whim always muddies the compositions. Appropriately, the Tavianis began as political barnburners, fashioning absurdist parables and sometimes cosmic commedia from Italy’s lunatic flirtations with extreme movements. No European filmmaker has ever been as dedicated to their nation’s peasant legacy, and no one on the continent since the ’70s has made such potent and revealing use of their native landscape. Still, if the Tavianis’ penchant for old-fashioned narrative folkiness has grown tedious over the last decade or two, there’s still 1982’s “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” their premier achievement, and arguably the best Italian film of the ’80s.
Right off the bat, with its framing device of a fantastical war story told by a mother to a sleepy child as the stars fall in the sky outside the bedroom window, the movie has the cut-to-the-point grip of a grim fairy tale. The narrative is an extrapolation of a real incident, retold as history in the Tavianis’ first short, “San Miniato, Luglio ’44” (1954), in which the villagers of the eponymous town obeyed the Nazis, took shelter from their supposedly bomb-rigged homes in the village’s church and then were collectively massacred. In the brothers’ re-imagining, a small mob of the peasants, following a laconic patriarch (Omero Antonutti), disobey the Germans and set out on foot in the middle of the night in search of the American forces.
Of course, the eyes through which we witness this anti-Odyssean journey belong to the narrator, who in 1944 was an impetuous six-year-old prankster in a print dress. And so the story itself is imbued with a child-like lyricism and irreverence death comes and goes without much ado, hiding in the forest with 30 adults feels like nothing so much as a great game, and every disruption of the ordinary is a bolt of magical living. The Tavianis’ details accumulate like special knowledge: the villagers shielding their ears against the pleading barks of their own dogs, left behind; the way the procession walks, arm in arm and chatting and free in the sunshine, the next morning; a dying girl’s daydream of meeting Sicilian soldiers from Brooklyn; the way the villagers all sleep jumbled in a bomb crater, like mass grave victims waking up and stretching. This poetry crests in the film’s climactic passage a great, ironic battle of guns and pitchforks with Black Shirts in a vast wheat field, where no one knows who precisely the enemy is until they meet on their knees, nose to nose. “Even true stories can end well,” someone says, despite heavy tragedy and scores of corpses, and so the Tavianis make their case, with an unimpeachable observational style and sense of the gritty absurd. “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” defying genre but embracing comedy as well as horror, remains one of those rare movies that can inspire faith in living and history.
The legacy of Italian cinema is the primary axe being ground in “Diva Dolorosa” (1999), making its long overdue appearance on DVD almost a decade after it dazzled authentic cinephiles at film festivals all over. Even so, it’s a Dutch film, a found-footage assemblage constructed by professional archive plunderer Peter Delpeut (“Lyrical Nitrate,” “The Forbidden Quest”) out of footage from a particular genre of Italian silent films: the Black Romantic melodramas of the 1910s, in which tragically willful, independent fin-de-siÃ¨cle aristocratic women self-destructed, dramatically and hyper-tragically, in the name of love. The genre, which pervaded other mediums as well, might be the first and last word on the communion between sex and death, and the clips Delpeut uses are chockablock with swoony melancholy and suicidal ardor. Despite their age, many of them look remarkably accomplished as pieces of cinema; perhaps the archives will eventually DVD-up complete editions of “La Donna Nuda” (1914) and “Rapsodia Satanica” (1915) (both of which star the Black Romantic Garbo, Lyda Borelli). But Delpeut is crafting a found-object poem here, with a rhapsodic orchestral score and a sure sense of how so much weepy, proto-campy mega-sadness can collect in your head as a statement about its own culture, and also as a palpably beautiful, tragic spectacle despite the odor of antique cheese. But of course, “Diva Dolorosa” is really about cinema itself, and therefore about lost time, and therein lies in deepest and loveliest sorrow.
[Photos: “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” United Artists Classics, 1982; “Diva Dolorosa,” Zeitgeist, 1999]
“The Night of the Shooting Stars” (Koch Lorber) and “Diva Dolorosa” (Zeitgeist) are now available on DVD.