Alberto Lattuada

Versatile film-maker who defied his critics
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The Independent Online

The Italian director Alberto Lattuada was a versatile and accomplished film-maker whose remarkably diverse body of work, stretching over five decades, was a source of exasperation to film critics. Unable to categorise him neatly, they eventually branded him "eclectic" and tried their best to ignore him.

Lattuada himself, whose interests outside the world of cinema encompassed literature, poetry, music, photography and politics, remained largely unconcerned and continued to make films which ranged from literary adaptations to neo-realism, from costume dramas to anti-war statements, and from spy films to social satire, the latter often with a strong erotic element.

Born in Milan in 1914, Lattuada was immersed in the arts from an early age. His father, Felice, was a well-known musician and composer who would later write the scores for six of his son's films. Speaking in 1982, Lattuada acknowledged the impact of opera on his own artistic development:

I remember my first emotions at La Scala as I was roaming backstage during the performance of my father's opera, when I realised that, although everything was made of papier-mâché, veils and curtains, mechanical devices, when I sat in the orchestra this complex clockwork of illusions transformed itself into a poetic reality, a hallucinatory and wonderfully fascinating truth. My interest in show business, in this optical and emotional trickery, comes to me from La Scala, and from music.

While still at school, Lattuada joined the staff of Camminare, a fortnightly journal with anti-Fascist views, and later, while studying architecture at the Berchet School in Milan, became art critic of the magazine Corrente, a Fascist-controlled organ which tolerated a certain level of dissent. In 1933, Lattuada began to work in the film industry, first as a set decorator and then as a scriptwriter and assistant for directors such as Ferdinando Maria Poggioli and Mario Soldati. In 1940, he co-founded the Cineteca Italiana in Milan, Italy's first film archive, and, the following year, his own interest in photography resulted in the publication of an album entitled L'occhio quadrato ("The Square Eye").

In 1943, on leave from the army, he completed his début feature film, Giacomo l'idealista (Giacomo the Idealist), an adaptation of a novel by Emilio De Marchi , which led to his identification with a group known as the Calligraphers, film-makers who turned to 19th-century literary sources in order to express social concerns incompatible with the state-approved output of middle-class comedies and thinly disguised historical propaganda.

After the Second World War, he made Il bandito (The Bandit, 1946), about a veteran forced into a life of crime in post-war Turin. The film's cast included Carla Del Poggio, whom Lattuada had married in 1945. Following Il delitto di Giovanni Episcopo (Flesh Will Surrender) in 1947, he directed Del Poggio in Senza pietà (Without Pity, 1948), an unusual blend of neo-realism and Hollywood gangster film which told the tragic story of an Italian woman, trapped in a life of prostitution and crime, who falls in love with a black GI, played by John Kitzmiller.

Lattuada and Del Poggio enjoyed further success with Il mulino del Po (The Mill on the River, 1948), before forming a co-operative with Lattuada's regular scriptwriter Federico Fellini to produce Luci del varietà (Lights of Variety, 1950), based on the latter's picaresque story of a third-rate troupe of travelling actors. Lattuada invited Fellini to share the directing credit, a gesture which, on the film's later release in Britain, encouraged critics completely to ignore Lattuada's contribution (an error nicely exposed by Fellini's frank admission, "To tell the truth, Lattuada did everything, I just looked on").

In 1951, Lattuada made Anna, a ripe and improbable drama starring Silvana Mangano, Raf Vallone and Vittorio Gassman, which became the first Italian film to take more than one billion lire on its domestic release. His next film was the well-received Il cappotto (The Overcoat, 1952), from a story by Gogol, and in 1953 he scored another success with the La spiaggia (The Beach), an exposure of hypocrisy based on a prostitute's story told to Lattuada during a visit to a brothel.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw Lattuada embark on three films concerned with the growing pains of young women, Guendalina (1957), I dolci inganni (1960, a co-production released in Britain under its French title, Les Adolescentes), and Lettere di una novizia (1960), as well as adaptations of Pushkin (La tempesta or Tempest, 1958) and Chekhov (La steppa or The Steppe, 1961). Lattuada's talent for satire meshed well with the emergent commedia all'italiana, and both Mafioso (1962), with Alberto Sordi, and Don Giovanni in Sicilia (Don Juan in Sicily, 1967) proved critically and commercially popular, as did a version of Machiavelli's play La mandragola (The Mandrake, 1965). In 1967, Lattuada made the spy spoof Matchless and, two years later, the epic anti-war film Fräulein Doktor, starring Suzy Kendall.

Few of Lattuada's 1970s films were released in Britain, despite the domestic success of Venga a prendere il caffè . . . da noi (The Man Who Came for Coffee, 1970), the Sophia Loren vehicle Bianco, rosso e . . . (The Sin, 1972) and Così come sei (Stay as You Are, 1978), which starred Marcello Mastroianni as a middle-aged man enjoying an affair with a young girl (Nastassja Kinski) who might or might not be his daughter.

Lattuada began the 1980s with another hit, La cicala (The Cricket, 1980), before making his first foray into television with the Emmy-winning mini-series Christopher Columbus in 1984. His last feature film was the comedy Una spina nel cuore (A Thorn in the Heart), in 1985. Having occasionally taken small roles in his own films, Lattuada made his last appearance before the cameras in 1994 in the film Il toro (The Bull).

Alberto Lattuada's films have aged well, with many of them more highly regarded now than on their initial release. This is due in part to his classical style and profound understanding of the editing process, in part to his solid grasp of narrative technique.

John Exshaw