Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the radical brothers who electrified Italian cinema | Film

Vittorio Taviani, together with his brother Paolo who now survives him, pursued a vocation of cinema that was deeply bound up with the Italian landscape: the hills of Tuscany where the brothers were born, and those of Sicily and Sardinia. The lush countryside is a vital and sensuous presence in the Tavianis’ work, and yet it is unsentimentally also seen as the site of cruel agricultural labour and even as a kind of prison. In their films, the land is a counterpoint to humanity’s trials, dramas and absurdities, which they often put in ensemble and anthologised form, perhaps to get a larger perspective on individual stories.

It wasn’t just a matter of quietism and contemplation. The brothers were also deeply engaged with Marxist and Brechtian thinking, a sensibility that persisted right up to their award-winning 2012 movie Caesar Must Die. They were looking for radical, challenging ways to present human life; a mode which alternated with more naturalistic and also more dreamlike or symbolic modes of storytelling, often derived from literary adaptations of authors such as Pirandello, Boccaccio and Goethe.

Their creative high-water mark was the masterly Padre Padrone from 1977, an inspired adaptation of a memoir of Sardinian childhood by the scholar Gavino Ledda, who appeared in the film as the narrator, and directed a quasi-sequel called Ybris in 1984. The title (in English: Father and Master) is interestingly Tolstoyan, and the brothers also had a lifelong interest in adapting Tolstoy’s work.

Padre Padrone is an extraordinary film about a Sardinian peasant boy who rebels against his father’s insistence that he should grow up to be nothing more than a shepherd. On turning 20, he is effectively rescued from a life of rural illiteracy and misery by – of all things – national service. In the army he learns about electronics and literature, and on his return he demands to go to university. He has is a painful, angry break with his father in consequence. There is no rosy-hued romanticising of the shepherd’s life here: it is seen as a brutal, soul-crushing confinement, and it is the army (that traditional symbol of conformity and brutality) that provides the young artist’s first means of escape. Brilliantly, the Tavianis turned every cliche on its head.

Night of the Shooting Stars trailer

Ledda achieved a kind of miraculous social and intellectual transcendence, away from the soil, while at the same time preserving a spiritual connection with it, studying and memorialising its language and culture in the academic sense, and so gaining a perspective and understanding not permitted to those left behind. It was also a miraculous kind of transcendence for the Tavianis: a way of responding to the soil, the landscape, the agricultural working class, the struggle, the escape, ideology and analysis – everything fused satisfyingly into one. Padre Padrone was the film that won the brothers the 1977 Palme D’Or at Cannes; juror Pauline Kael reported afterwards that everyone was convinced that it had to win, due largely to the advocacy of jury president Roberto Rossellini, who harangued everyone with such passion that it may have contributed to the heart attack that killed him a few weeks later.

The Tavianis had earlier made their breakthrough with The Subversives in 1967, an anthology-style film with something of Francesco Rosi, about various people’s reaction to the death of communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, whose funeral is shown in genuine news footage. Under the Sign of Scorpio (1969) is a strange, Pirandellian film about a crowd of people evacuated from an island to the mainland after a volcanic eruption and having to renegotiate, on this tabula rasa, the nature of their politics and society. St Michael Had a Rooster (1972) is the Tavianis’ pessimistic and disillusioned adaptation of Tolstoy’s story The Divine and the Human, about an aristocrat revolutionary sentenced to 10 years’ solitary confinement, from which he emerges to find that the radical ideals for which he has sacrificed his freedom and most of his sanity have been mostly forgotten about.

Caesar Must Die trailer

The Tavianis’ later film Night Sun (1990) was another Tolstoy adaptation, transferring his story Father Sergius to an Italian setting, with Julian Sands as a disaffected nobleman who retreats into a priestly hermit existence after his discovering his fiancee is having an affair with the king. The brothers also adapted Tolstoy’s Resurrection for television in 2001. Their 1974 political drama Allonsanfàn is an equally Tolstoyan work, although it isn’t an adaptation. It stars Marcello Mastroianni as an Italian aristocrat turned radical who winds up selling out his comrades, but in a twist of fate endures a kind of chaotic and accidental martyrdom for the cause.

After the triumph of Padre Padrone, the Tavianis enjoyed modest success with their highly cerebral and verbose Tuscan love-triangle The Meadow (1979), with Isabella Rossellini. But audiences and critics were charmed by the more sentimental and even sugary wartime-nostalgist drama The Night of San Lorenzo (or The Night of Shooting Stars), in 1982. It is set in August 1944, with Italy under German occupation. The Nazis are retreating northward before the allies’ advance and have brusquely informed the locals that they are blowing up buildings, but that the cathedral is a safe haven. Instead of sheltering there, a group of people venture south to greet the American liberators, and the film is a slightly whimsical anthology of their quaintly imagined experiences. Here, the Tavianis tapped into a streak of treacly picturesque in Italian cinema, which has traditionally gone over well abroad – comparable to films such as Cinema Paradiso and Life Is Beautiful. It was a prizewinner for them, but perhaps not typical. Kaos (1984), an adaptation of four tales by Pirandello, is probably a more successful example of the same type of flight of fancy.

The brothers had a late and startling flowering with the docudrama Caesar Must Die, a Golden Bear winner at the Berlin film festival in 2012 – a back-to-basics movie about power, politics and ideology. I found it fascinating if flawed at the time, but there is no doubt about its energy and authenticity. It was a fierce return to the passions that first drove them in the 1960s. It could be that Caesar Must Die and Padre Padrone will be their two monuments.

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