FRANCO CRISTALDI produced some of the most memorable Italian movies of the last 40 years. When he arrived in the Italian film industry from documentaries, it was in its second flush of fame, moving from the art houses when Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice, 1948) found a wide audience because of its erotic content - but without betraying the so-called 'neo-realist' movement which had attracted attention to the Italian cinema in the first place.
Born in Turin and a lawyer by training, Cristaldi was admirably equipped to deal with lackadaisical or excitable Southern directors (and they were sometimes both), as well as the myriad screenwriters seemingly required for even the simplest project. His first international success was Visconti's stage-bound version of a Dostoesky story Le Notti Bianche (White Nights, 1957), with Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell, and he was teamed with this director again on Vaghe Stella dell'Orsa (Of a Thousand Delights), with Claudia Cardinale (whom Cristaldi married) and Michael Craig, which won the Grand Prix in Venice in 1965. Its operatic excesses however, brought it poor notices in other countries.
Cristaldi's strength lay not in making movies with important and often gifted directors such as Visconti - as he proved again with Fellini, whose autobiographical Amarcord (1973) is one of the most self-indulgent entertainments ever offered. Cristaldi's genius was in encouraging promising new talents and controlling them (together with their scores of scriptwriters). Thus he produced two of the most enduring movie comedies outside Billy Wilder - and by saying that I mean that they are of 'world' cinema quality and that they have Wilder's sense of acrid satire: Mario Monicelli's I Soliti Ignoti (Persons Unknown, 1958; in the US, Big Deal on Madonna Street) and Pietro Germi's Divorzio All'Italiana (Divorce Italian-Style, 1961). The first is about a gang of assorted bunglers who attempt a heist; the second concerns an impoverished Sicilian count (Mastroianni) scheming to push his wife into infidelity so that he can wed his younger and prettier cousin. Both are inventive; both reflect the attitudes of Italy, where competence often comes a poor second to charm. Hence, like all the best comedies (Wilder, Preston Sturges, Ealing, even Keaton) both are rooted in local colour, yet have a universal appeal.
Around the same time Cristaldi produced two excellent dramas, both with Mastroianni, Elio Petri's L'Assassino (1961), a tale of misplaced justice, and Monicelli's I Compagni (1963), which examines the formation of trade unions in Turin in the 1890s. Germi attempted a second comedy for Cristaldi satirising Sicilian mores, Sedotta e Abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned, 1964), but it flailed in all directions - and as much might be said of most of the later films of these three directors, denied Cristaldi's guiding hand. They had become too successful to need that. Instead, Cristaldi worked with other striking young directors - Gillo Pontecorvo, on Kapo (1960), and Marco Bellochio on La Cina e Vicina (China is Near, 1967) and Nel Nome del Padre (In the Name of the Father, 1973). Pontecorvo, alas, chose to direct only intermittently thereafter, while - following precedent - Bellochio's films deteriorated badly away from Cristaldi's influence.
Perhaps Cristaldi's most rewarding partnership was with Francesco Rosi. Cristaldi produced his first film, La Sfida (The Challenge, 1958), a middling drama of corruption in Naples, but he was also responsible for three of Rosi's best films: Salvatore Giuliano (1962); Il Caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, 1972), his powerful attack on the international oil companies; and Cristo si e Fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979), based on Carlo Levi's autobiographical account of his 'exile' under the Fascists in the 1930s.
Overall, Cristaldi's credits are as impressive as any European producer of his period. He was much less interested in international co-productions than such contemporaries as Carlo Ponti and Dino de Laurentiis - and no more successful than they on the few occasions that he tried. Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference, 1964), a version of Moravia with Rod Steiger and Paulette Goddard, was hardly seen abroad, while the Anglo-Italian Lady Caroline Lamb (1972) had few virtues (one was Laurence Olivier's portrait of the Duke of Wellington). The Italo-Russian The Red Tent (1971) made little impact, despite the presence of Sean Connery and Peter Finch, but The Name of the Rose (1986), also with Connery, was a success in Europe - if not in the US, where Cristaldi and his co-producers hoped to recoup its huge cost.
However, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso, 1988) became one of the most successful Italian films ever in the world market. This again was an example of Cristaldi putting his faith in a new talent - Giuseppe Tornatore. After an indifferent initial release in Italy, Cristaldi persuaded Tornatore to cut it by 40 minutes. There remained wit and sentiment in this tale of a grizzled cinema projectionist (Philippe Noiret) and the little boy (Salvatore Cascio) who helps him - against a changing Sicily. Indeed, the cinema of the title did much to facilitate those changes, as audiences increasingly ignored the Church's pronouncements on what they might or might not see. By winning an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film and enjoying a wide popularity, it did remind many how much Italy has contributed to our cinema-going through the years.