Francesco Rosi: Director the best of whose work engaged with Italy’s turbulent political landscape of the 1960s and 1970s

His big breakthrough came in 1962 with 'Salvatore Guiliano'

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The Independent Online

“All characters and events narrated in this film are fictitious, but the social reality that created them is authentic.” So read the unusual disclaimer opening the 1963 film Hands Over the City by the Italian director Francesco Rosi. It cherishes and illustrates the very essence of Rosi’s cinema, a fictional exposé of what official reality often conceals; a cinema of civic and moral courage that the Neapolitan director practised with rigour and passion without ever sounding too didactic or condescending. “I was so addicted to the movies,” explained the director, “that I would spend whole afternoons watching the same film over and over.”

At a very young age Rosi almost landed in Hollywood after winning a contest as the best lookalike of Jackie Coogan (Chaplin’s actor in The Kid), but his mother disapproved. His debut behind the camera was as the assistant director of Luchino Visconti in Bellissima, a film about beauty pageants for children.

His big breakthrough came in 1962 with Salvatore Giuliano, a fictional ethnographic investigation into the titular bandit and his connections with the state and the church, then busy fighting together the communist threat in Sicily. Though obviously influenced by neorealism, Rosi’s own take on cinematic verisimilitude did away with naturalism and temporal linearity to disclose the complexities and grey areas that make up reality. The spectacle of cinematographic fiction in his films was always accompanied by a journalistic accuracy often missing from official records.

His next film, Hands Over the City, remains a monumental achievement in the field of investigative fiction, the stuff of which television series like The Wire are made of. Starring Rod Steiger in the role of an unscrupulous land developer, the film draws the map of Naples’ civilian landscape  devastated by greed and political interests.

Never afraid of his unpopular views, Rosi left no stone unturned. His 1970 film Many Wars Ago, about a mutiny during the First World War, did not go down well with the Italian military authorities. It also began the collaboration between Rosi and the acting virtuoso, Gian Maria Volonte, a familiar face of 1960s and ’70s Italian cinema as well as a committed political activist.

Their second collaboration, The Mattei Affair, won the Palme D’Or at the 1972 Cannes Festival. The film tells the story of one of postwar Italy’s crucial figures, Enrico Mattei, former freedom fighter against the Nazis, then head of ENI, the state-owned oil company.

In the middle of the Cold War Mattei dared to move away from the American sphere of influence and began to sign deals with Arab countries (he was rumoured to have covertly financed the Algerian war of independence against France) and even went to Moscow on an official trip. Mattei would die in still mysterious circumstances in a plane crash on his way back from a Sicilian village where he had promised he would open an oil plant to give work to the local population.

With Lucky Luciano, starring again Volonte, Rosi returned to deal with the Mafia, a subject he always approached from a socio-economic perspective while avoiding folkloric spectacularisation. As in Salvatore Giuliano, the Sicilian-American Mafia boss Lucky Luciano is framed within the larger economic context that after the Second World War bound Italy and the US together, not always in clear and honest ways.

The ambiguous and censored history of his native country was always at the artistic and ethical centre of Rosi’s films. In Illustrious Corpses he explored the darkest and still untold contours of what would come to be known as “The Strategy of Tension”, a series of bloody attacks carried out by right-wing extremists and the secret services which would be blamed on leftist hardliners in order to create polarisation and reinforce the ruling Christian Democrat Party, which at the time was forging an historical alliance with the Communist Party.

The political fervour that traversed Italy in the 1970s is also the backdrop to Three Brothers (1981), in which Rosi sketches with remarkable lucidity the social and interpersonal consequences of that political season, which the British historian Paul Ginsborg described as a mixture of creativity and militarism. Brought together by their mother’s death, three brothers – a judge, a religious social worker and a leftist hardliner – constitute a painful and unresolved allegory of a country in which the prospect of social(ist) revolution is slowly giving way to disenchantment and fear.

It is significant that Rosi’s cinema began to lose its cogency as the political determination which had animated the ’60s and ’70s ebbed away, along with his films’ social role. “The work of the director requires great energy, which I no longer have,” he confessed recently. “I know for a fact that it is very difficult to make movies in Italy today. The social reality of this country keeps degenerating at such a speed that cinema can hardly keep up. I risk filming a country that no longer exist.”

Francesco Rosi, film director: born Naples 15 November 1922; married Giancarla Mandelli (died 2010; one daughter); died Rome 10 January 2015.

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