Tonino Guerra: Screenwriter who worked with Fellini, Rosi, Antonioni and Tarkovsky


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tonino Guerra worked with many of the major Italian directors, helping the industry move from neo-realism to embrace figures as different as the coolly modernist Antonioni and the extravagantly baroque Fellini. Outside Italy he was a close associate of Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, and was nominated for an Oscar three times.

Antonio Guerra was born near Rimini to a fisherman and his illiterate wife – the young Tonino taught her to read and write. He became a teacher but in 1943 was taken to Troisdorf concentration camp, where he wrote poetry in his native Romagnole dialect. In 1946 he published his first collection, I Scarabocc ["Scribblings"]. Of his move into cinema he said: "my poems were an essence of images; they had the cinema inside them before I started working for it."

After studying dialect poetry at the University of Urbino, he returned to teaching, moved to Rome and, through the screenwriter Elio Petri, began to mix in film circles. His first credit was with Petri in the team that wrote De Santis' Men and Wolves (1956) though their mountain research trip had only managed to confirm that wolf-hunters no longer existed. Guerra later scripted four of Petri's films including the fantasy-horror A Quiet Place in the Country (1968).

In 1960 L'Avventura, written with Elio Bartolini, the first in a series of mournful modernist disquisitions on alienation, began a 10-film collaboration with Antonioni, which the director described as filled with "long and violent arguments" interspersed with periods of reflection. The next two years brought La Notte and L'Elisse, with Red Desert appearing in 1964.

The same year Vittorio De Sica's phenomenally popular comedy Marriage – Italian Style was released, and several distributors hopped on the bandwagon. The 1965 comedy-horror Questi Fantasmi ["These Ghosts"] was released in the US as Ghosts – Italian Style. In 1967 Guerra's first film for Francesco Rosi, C'era una volta... ["Once Upon a Time"], a romantic comedy about a fiery Neapolitan peasant (Sophia Loren) and a boorish Spanish prince (Omar Sharif), appeared as Cinderella – Italian Style. Altogether he scripted 10 Rosi films, including some of his best-known: Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), Carmen (1984) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1987). He also wrote four for the Taviani Brothers, including the wartime fantasy The Night of St Lorenzo (1982) and the Pirandello adaptation Kaos (1984).

In 1965 Guerra received his first Oscar nomination but Casanova 70, a team-written effort, lost to another story of modern sex, Darling, scripted by Frederic Raphael. His second nomination was for Antonioni's first English-language film, Blow Up (1966), in which a trendy fashion photographer is caught up in a murder mystery, allowing an enquiry into the nature of reality and perception. The hallucinogenic follow-up Zabriskie Point (1970) is a hollowed-out and disillusioned review of 1960s radicalism.

In 1973 Amarcord (in dialect, "I Remember") was the first of three films with Fellini and one of his most personal, drawing on the two men's memories of their Rimini youths. It brought a third Oscar nomination, though he lost to Dog Day Afternoon. The novelisation appeared under both their names but seems mostly to have been Guerra's work. After Casanova in 1976 Fellini wanted Guerra to write City of Woman but he was wooing a Russian woman at the time and felt it would be impossible as he commuted between Rome and Moscow. But he later returned to work with Fellini on the parable And the Ship Sails On (1983) and the amusing if lightweight Ginger and Fred (1986).

Guerra met Andrei Tarkovsky at the 1962 Venice Film Festival, and his invitation allowed the director to return to make a the mournful Nostalgia (1983), about a Russian academic alone in Italy. Guerra made the accompanying TV documentary Voyage in Time and wrote another one, Andrei Tarkovsky.

Guerra wrote all Theo Angelopoulos's contemplations of exile, loss and alienation after 1984 and the director described him as his psychoanalyst. Voyage to Cythera, about a Communist's disillusioning return home,won the screenplay award at Cannes; The Beekeeper (1986) followed thehero's pursuit of his migrating charges, while Landscape in the Mist (1988) sees two children travel to Germany to find their father.

After this "Trilogy of Silence" came the Balkan-set "Trilogy of Borders":The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) about a TV reporter, Ulysses' Gaze (1995) about a film archivist, and Eternity and a Day (1998) about a dying writer. A modern Greek history trilogy was uncompleted, though Guerra did write The Weeping Meadow (2004) and The Dust of Time (2008), Angelopoulos's last completed work, about a Greek-American film-maker.

Guerra also returned to Antonioni's obsessive investigations into the nature of femininity. After adapting Cocteau's The Eagle with Two Heads as The Mystery of Oberwald (1981), he wrote The Identification of a Woman (1982) and Beyond the Clouds (1995), co-directed with Wim Wenders. The Dangerous Thread of Things (2004), one third of an erotic portmanteau, coupled to films by Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai, was a disappointing end to Antonioni's career.

Guerra had written always fiction but in later life he returned to dialect poetry as well as taking up painting, sculpture and ceramics. A forthcoming documentary, 3XTonino, includes his observation that "Death isn't that awful. After all, it comes only once."

Antonio Guerra, screenwriter, novelist and poet: born Santarcangelo di Roma 16 March 1920; married twice (one son); died Santarcangelo di Roma 21 March 2012.