Wednesday, June 25, 2008

La Notte di San Lorenzo: Film or Theater?

I recently revisited La Notte di San Lorenzo (Night of the Shooting Stars), which is probably Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s most celebrated film. It’s certainly one of their best, but it’s not a lonely eminence: the Tavianis, little talked about today, have made artistically daring and successful films throughout their long career, though they didn’t draw much international attention until 1977’s Padre Padrone, and then fell off the critical radar after 1987’s Good Morning, Babylon.

The first shot of La Notte di San Lorenzo is an artificially lit view of a domestic interior, dominated by a window that opens onto a painting of the night sky. Under a voiceover, the camera tracks into the window; at the end of the voiceover, a fake meteor streaks across the fake sky, and the title of the movie is suddenly printed on screen, synchronized with a music cue. As I watched, I thought to myself: this already feels completely like a Taviani Brothers film, and we’ve barely even seen any photography. The surprise of the title text, unleashed on the heels of the meteor and amplified with music, was enough to inscribe the Tavianis’ signature. The Taviani experience is a series of dramatic coups that do not grow from story, but rather disrupt it to create a direct communication from the filmmakers to the audience.

After watching ten minutes of the movie, I came to the conclusion that the Tavianis are really theater directors! Not an insult, to my mind…but theirs is not a very pure form of cinema.

Here’s an example. Fairly early in the film, the gentle patriarch Galvano (Omero Antonutti) stands on a crate in a shelter and announces to the gathered townspeople that he is going to flee the German-occupied village by night, inviting everyone to join him. The scene is done in a single camera setup: a low-angle of Galvano, isolated in the frame. Near the end of the speech, a dog in the room barks, and a shadow passes over Galvano’s face; he interpolates into the set of rules he is laying down, "And no dogs. They make noise." The Tavianis choose to keep the focus on the man’s pain rather than his message, on his gentleness rather than his leadership qualities: he adds, with a sad little smile, "I hadn’t thought it through."

We see in this moving scene many of the Tavianis’ human qualities: their exclusive interest in the personal view of large events, their swoops into subjectivity, their tendency to show the unexpected and the contradictory sides of people, their willingness to court the ridiculous. If, however, we consider the scene from a formal perspective, everything exciting and distinctive in it – Galvano’s isolation, the unexpected bark of the dog that changes his demeanor, the odd accumulation of sorrow at the end of the speech – is a coup de théâtre, a sudden, surprising gesture that changes the scene’s emotive qualities.

Imagine the same scene staged for the theater. Galvano stands alone on his crate, illuminated against a dark background. All other actors deliver their dialogue off stage; the dog is a sound effect. After Galvano falters and says, "I hadn’t thought it through," the lights fade and the scene ends.

My opinion is that we lose nothing in passing from the cinematic to the theatrical version. Every emotion, every surprise, is preserved in the translation. The use of space and the realism of the photographic record do not seem to be important to the scene’s effect.

Is it cinema? Yes and no, I suppose. Consider another powerful scene: after the exodus from the village, the townspeople camp on a hillside and wait to hear the explosions that will destroy their homes. A young woman who has previously expressed indifference to the loss of her childhood house is suddenly overtaken with sadness: she wonders aloud how she could possibly have wished for the destruction of her past. The Tavianis plunge into her thoughts with a fast tracking shot through the imagined house, ending on a presumed childhood memory: the girl, as a child, dances on a table in the living room with her family cheering her. Two more childhood memories appear: the girl sits on a sofa in the house with a young man; then, she stands in front of a bedroom mirror in her nightdress, pulling it up and staring at her own sex. After this daring (and typical for the Tavianis) psychic journey, the camera returns to the present.

In a sense, this example is not qualitatively different from the earlier scene: its power is due to a sudden and dramatic juxtaposition of different perspectives, a creative bravado that I would say is theatrical in essence. The movie images have beauty and kinesis, but their impact is dramatic, not textural. With some effort, we can imagine an expensive theater production in which a rotating stage brings the girl’s memories before our eyes: once again the film and theater implementations of the idea would be comparable in their emotional effect. But the film version looks better and is less labored.

Some scenes in the film could never be staged in a theater, and yet have elements in common with the above examples. For instance: as the villagers huddle in the shelter, a teenaged girl goes to a dark, abandoned room to urinate. The Tavianis cut from a long shot of the girl to closeups of a number of young boys who have apparently followed her: they watch avidly, and one of them masturbates. A closeup of the girl at the end of the sequence reveals that she is aware of the voyeurs and not displeased. The scene is too dependent upon silence and closeups to be called theatrical; and yet it is predicated on a series of coups, surprising revelations. Like the earlier scenes cited, it plays nearly as well in the imagination as in the moment of watching it.

If the Tavianis are really theater directors in sheep’s clothing, if their style is indeed an exploration of the cinema’s ability to express the theatrical impulse in new ways, this seems to me a perfectly worthy and productive endeavor. And tagging them with the label “theater” is certainly not the last word in describing their complicated, audacious artistic personality.

In addition to La Notte di San Lorenzo, I’d nominate Il Prato (The Meadow) (1979), Kaos (1984), and Le Affinità elettive (Elective Affinities) (1996) as the Tavianis’ peak achievements. But they’ve turned out impressive work at least as early as 1973’s Allonsanfan and as late as 2001’s Resurrezione (Resurrection).


Unknown said...

Actually, this helps explain a lot of why I mostly found this film engaging, and not really interesting: a lot of cute little revelations, presented prettily, but (deliberately) not convincingly--the idea is to communicate the idea, rather than a mood. (Reminding me a bit of Wes Anderson in description). But then the battle scenes blew me away, as about the best I've seen; there's so much inherent tension to the battle, that the Tavianis' deadpan revelations of space (killers to all side) become terrifyingly disorienting. Everyone is at the mercy of their space--including the camera, which never has a good grasp of what's going on--while staying alive becomes a matter of being lucky enough to see what's going on around. The deadpan comedy becomes total fatalism: people dying casually in a field for no good reason, even while they logically obey their initiatives. I haven't seen any other of their films, but the Taviani brothers seem to be gently mocking people for following simple motivations throughout (a classic comedy approach), and being the sum of their reasons; here it becomes horrific.

Makes me really want to see more of their films.

Anonymous said...

I have seen this one recently and its pretty interesting and would love to watch such ones in future david said

Dan Sallitt said...

David. ANR – there was a good (not comprehensive) Tavianis retro at MOMA in 2001. The selection of their films available on DVD in the US isn't bad.

It doesn’t seem to me that the Tavianis present a thinned-out experience, any more than, say, theater in general does. Their personalities are dark and complicated, and their ideas come out of left field in interesting ways. This is ostensibly a film about the oppression of the Italian poor under the German occupation in World War II…and yet the brothers continuously dive into personal, even uncomfortable emotional material that is perpendicular to the story idea.

So I don’t think of them as cute – but I think I know what you mean when you say it, just as I know what people mean about Anderson. It has something to do with a broad acting style, and with wrapping up style ideas in well-labeled packages before handing them to the audience: a kind of quantum approach to style. Even though there really isn’t much comedy in San Lorenzo, the style of acting and cutting resembles that of comedies.

The battle scenes are indeed frightening: given that the Tavianis spend so much time in the subjective worlds of these people, it’s surprising that they are willing to kill them off so casually, with no impulse to mourn. Subjectivity doesn’t seem to mean emotional investment for them: there’s something abstract about all those human moments. And death is a big part of their universe, in a cheery, pantheistic way.

There’s definitely a sense of space in those battle scenes, but maybe it’s mostly a matter of configuration of elements in the frame? The images don’t often conjure up a usable space, seems to me.