Suso Cecchi D'Amico: Screenwriter for De Sica and Visconti who also worked with Wyler, Zeffirelli and Jarman

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The Independent Online

Suso Cecchi D'Amico was Italy's most illustrious screenwriter; she contributed to classic films such as Bicycle Thieves and The Leopard, and collaborated with some of Italy's most distinguished directors, among them Antonioni, De Sica and Monicelli. She had a particularly rewarding association with Luchino Visconti, for whom she was a major scriptwriter on almost all his films from Bellissima (1951) to The Innocent (1976).

She also worked on Rocco and his Brothers (1960), and the enduring masterwork The Leopard (1963), a sprawling, sumptuous account of the decline of a Sicilian aristocratic family, starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. The director acknowledged the major creative role that Cecchi D'Amico played in his films and admired her cultural range, sophistication, sense of realism and attention to the text. When adapting books she was careful to avoid too self-consciously literal a tone. "Cinema," she said, "should be written with the eyes."

She also had a practical reason for concise dialogue; many Italian actors were amateurs. "We were very careful not to give them big mouthfuls or long lines, because they froze. They couldn't deliver the lines." Her versatility meant that she ranged from classics of neo-realism to hilarious satire, the latter superbly displayed in Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).

She was born Giovanna Cecchi in Rome in 1914, and raised in Florence. Just after her birth, her father named her Susannah, resulting in the Tus- can nickname Suso. Her mother, Leonetta Pieraccini, was a painter from a theatrical family, while her father, Emilio Cecchi, was a journalist and screenwriter.

After graduating from a French lycee, Cecchi discovered that she could not attend an Italian university as she had not studied classical languages, so she spent time in Britain and Switzerland before her family found her a job in Mussolini's ministry of foreign trade, where she worked for seven years before her marriage in 1938 to music critic Fedele D'Amico, who was the founder of the Movement of Catholic Communists.

During the Second World War her husband was prominent in the resistance and edited a clandestine anti-Fascist newspaper, so had to go underground. At war's end he attended a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis and Cecchi D'Amico, with three children to raise, gave lessons in deportment and helped her father to produce translations of English literature, from Shakespeare to Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road. Her first cinema work was as co-scripter, with her father, on Renato Castellani's Mio figlio professore (Professor, My Son) in 1946. Later the same year, her contribution to Luigi Zampa's Vivere in pace won her a Silver Ribbon, Italy's equivalent of an Oscar; it was the first of nine won during her career.

She collaborated with the writer Enno Flaiano on Roma Citta Libera (Rome Free City, 1946), and had a big commercial success with a comedy, Angelina, Member of Parliament (1947), starring Anna Magnani. Magnani was one of the few actresses to whom she became close.

In 1948 she collaborated with Cesare Zavattini on the screenplay for Vittorio De Sica's masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, a defining piece of neo-realism. For this story of a poor man whose bicycle, which he needs for his work, is stolen, prompting a desperate search, she contributed the moving final scene, in which the man is driven to attempt the theft of a replacement, but is caught by the crowd, watched by his small son. Luigi Bartolini's novel on which the film is based, ends with the father and son returning home defeated. "I suggested the idea of the father in desperation trying to steal a bike himself," recalled Cecchi D'Amici. "After being humiliated in front of the kid, a new bond is born between them."

Also in 1948 she wrote the story for a Jean Gabin vehicle, The Walls of Malapaga, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. She worked with De Sica on another neo-realist triumph, Miracle in Milan, 1951, and the same year she made her first film with Visconti, a satirical look at the film business, Bellisima, starring Magnani; thereafter she wrote or co-wrote all Visconti's films except two (one of them Death in Venice). Cecchi D'Amico, unlike some, was not distracted by the director's frequent changes of mind, and the pair shared a passion for Proust and an unrealised dream to film A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

In 1953 Hollywood called on Cecchi D'Amico and Ennio Flaiano to instill some Italian flavour into Ben Hecht's script for William Wyler's Roman Holiday, and she became good friends with Audrey Hepburn. Her fluency in English brought her several British and US assignments, including Guy Hamilton's anti-war comedy The Best of Enemies (1951) and Zefferelli's television mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. She also helped Derek Jarman shape his Caravaggio (1986).

Between her films with Visconti, Cecchi D'Amico was able to develop her individual style, particularly in the field of social and moral satire, in works by many distinguished directors, including Alessandro Blasetti's Infidelity, 1952, Michelangelo Antonioni's The Girlfriends (1955), Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano (1962), Franco Zeffirelli's lavish The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Luigi Comencini's History (1986).

Her comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street, a hilarious satire on caper movies which made a star of Marcello Mastroianni and had a great international success, was remade (badly) by Hollywood as Crackers, and was even made into a Broadway musical, Big Deal.

Cecchi D'Amico scripted several projects for Monicelli, and their screenplay for his Casanova 70 was nominated for an Oscar in 1965. They also collaborated on the television epic Le Due Vite di Mattia Pascal (1985), which was later condensed into a feature, and Cecchi D'Amico's last work was on a Monicelli film, The Roses of the Desert (2006), a war movie set in Libya.

In 1999 she collaborated with Martin Scorsese on his documentary about Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy. She considered her screenplay for Luigi Zampa's Processo alla Citta (City on Trial, 1952), an expose of racketeering in Naples at the turn of the century, to be her finest work.

In 1995 she was given a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival. Asked in 2006 about the neo-realist era of which she was a part, she replied, "I was part of a little group of friends who wanted to make films and went out in the streets to do so."

Tom Vallance

Giovanna "Suso" Cecchi, screenwriter: born Rome, Italy 21 July 1914; married 1938 Fedele D'Amico (died 1990; one son, two daughters); died Rome 31 July 2010.