At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Gillo Pontecorvo - film director

Most famous film was banned in France


Gillo Pontecorvo was a journalist before being inspired to make a career as a film director
Gillo Pontecorvo was a journalist before being inspired
to make a career as a film director
The film director Gillo Pontecorvo, whose best known film, La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1966 and was nominated for three Academy Awards, died on this day in 2006 in Rome, aged 86.

A former journalist who had been an Italian Resistance volunteer and a member of the Italian Communist Party, Pontecorvo had been in declining health for some years, although he continued to make documentary films and commercials until shortly before his death.

Although it was made a decade or so after the peak years of the movement, La battaglia di Algeri is in the tradition of Italian neorealism, with newsreel style footage and mainly non-professional actors.

Pontecorvo also won acclaim for his 1960 film Kapò, set in a Second World War concentration camp, and Burn! (1969) - titled Queimada in Italy - which was about the creation of a so-called banana republic on the fictitious Caribbean island of Queimada, starring Marlon Brando and loosely based on the failed slave revolution in Guadeloupe.

A poster for the US release of the film La battaglia di algeri
A poster for the US release of the
film La battaglia di algeri
Kapò, which was also was nominated for an Oscar, won a Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon award for Didi Perego as best supporting actress, and the Mar del Plata Film Festival award for Susan Strasberg for best actress.

La battaglia di Algeri, which focussed on the Algerian War of Independence against the occupying French, caused great controversy in France, where it was banned for five years after the government objected to its sympathetic treatment of the Algerian rebels. Its co-star and joint producer, Saadi Yacef, was one of the leaders of the Algerian Liberation Front.

Pontecorvo was born in November 1919, in Pisa, into a high-achieving family. His father, Massimo, owned three textile factories employing more than 1,000 people. His eldest brother among seven siblings, Guido, later became an eminent geneticist, his second brother, Paolo, an engineer who worked on radar during the Second World War II and his third brother, Bruno, a renowned nuclear physicist.

Gillo enrolled at the University of Pisa to study chemistry but dropped out, taking the decision when Mussolini’s race laws came into force in 1938 to follow Bruno in fleeing to Paris, where he found work as a journalist.

When the German Army closed in on Paris, in June 1940, Pontecorvo and Bruno, along with their cousin Emilio Sereni, their friend, the future Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Salvador Luria, and Pontecorvo’s future wife, Henrietta, fled the city on bicycles.

Marlon Brando played the lead character in Pontecorvo's film Burn!
Marlon Brando played the lead character
in Pontecorvo's film Burn!
Pontecorvo reached St Tropez, where he earned money by drawing on his talent as a tennis player, providing lessons for rich residents.

By 1941, he had secretly joined the Italian Communist Party, and began to make regular trips to Italy to help organize anti-Fascist partisans.  Going by the pseudonym Barnaba, he spent the summer of 1943 working for his party’s underground newspaper, L'Unità, in Milan. From there he moved to Turin, where he began to organise factory workers.

After the war, he returned to Paris as the representative of Italy in the Youth World Federation and the Communist-backed World Federation of Democratic Youth.  Although his political philosophy remained Marxist, he broke his ties with the Communist party in 1956 after the Soviet intervention to suppress the Hungarian Revolution.

By then, his career as a filmmaker was established.  Although for many years an enthusiast for the cinema, it was after seeing Roberto Rossellini’s film, Paisà, that he gave up journalism and, using his own money and a 16mm camera, began to shoot political documentaries.

In 1957 he directed his first full-length film, La grande strada azzurra (The Wide Blue Road), which explored the life of a fisherman and his family facing hard times on a small island off the Dalmatian coast of Italy. The film won a prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Pontecorvo was director of the Venice Film Festival
Pontecorvo was director of
the Venice Film Festival 
Pontecorvo’s output was relatively small, largely because he spent months and sometimes years in research as he sought to produce authentic portrayals of events.

His last full-length feature film was Ogro (1979), which was inspired by the car bomb murder by ETA terrorists of Carrerro Blanco, the prime minister of Spain under Franco in 1973.  The film brought Pontecorvo his second David di Donatello award for Best Director, which he had also won for Burn! (Queimada).

Director of the Venice Film Festival from 1992 to 1994, Pontecorvo was married twice. His second wife, Teresa Ricci, bore him three sons - Ludovico, Marco and Simone.  Marco Pontecorvo followed his father’s footstep and became a filmmaker.

The Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa, with the baptistery in the foreground and the Leaning Tower beyond the cathedral
The Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa, with the baptistery in the
foreground and the Leaning Tower beyond the cathedral
Travel tip:

Pisa used to be one of Italy’s major maritime powers, rivalling Genoa and Venice, until silt deposits from the Arno river gradually changed the landscape and ultimately cut the city off from the sea in the 15th century. Nowadays, almost 15km (9 miles) inland, it is a university city renowned for its art and architectural treasures with a 10.5km (7 miles) circuit of 12th century walls. The Campo dei Miracoli, formerly known as Piazza del Duomo, located at the northwestern end of the city, contains the cathedral (Duomo), baptistery and famously the tilting campanile known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, all built in black and white marble between the 11th and 14th centuries.

Giorgio Vasari's Palazzo della Carovana used to be the headquarters of a Medici military order
Giorgio Vasari's Palazzo della Carovana used to be the
headquarters of a Medici military order
Travel tip:

In the centre of Pisa, the elegant Piazza dei Cavalieri is dominated by Palazzo della Carovana, built and lavishly decorated by Giorgio Vasari between 1562 and 1564. Originally the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen, a Roman Catholic dynastic military order founded in 1561 by Cosimo I de' Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany, it is now the main building of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, one of three universities in Pisa, the others being the University of Pisa and the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna.

More reading:

How Roberto Rossellini changed Italian cinema

Francesco Rosi - master of neorealism

The brilliance of Oscar-winner Vittorio de Sica

Also on this day:

1492: The death of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca

1935: The birth of tenor Luciano Pavarotti


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