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Obituary: Mario Soldati

Ian Thomson
Tuesday 22 June 1999 00:02 BST

IN HIS later years Mario Soldati, the Italian novelist and film director, suffered from a language disorder called nominal aphasia. For a writer, this is the cruellest affliction. Periods of lucidity were sabotaged when Soldati was unable to remember the right word. This linguistic incompetence could bring him to tears. Soldati swiped at objects with his walking stick (tea cups, plates: anything that broke easily) until his secretary, the long-suffering Gina, intervened. "Calm down, Mario!"

Born, in 1906, and educated in Turin, by Jesuits, Mario Soldati had French blood. His father was born in Lyons to a long line of silk merchants, though the Soldatis were mercenary soldiers ("soldats") originally. Mario Soldati himself had the air of a patrician Piedmontese; he was rarely without his dog-tooth tweed jacket and Toscano cigar. The Toscano was Soldati's signature; like Castro and his Havana, the two were inseparable.

Soldati was a trencherman and he relished the rich red wines of his native Piedmont. He was a great friend of Graham Greene; they smoked opium together in Sierra Leone in 1967 and visited brothels on Capri. Greene liked Soldati because he was raffish and unconventional. In a letter to his mother, Greene described Soldati as "that nice but hysterical Italian film director". They were at odds politically (Soldati was wary of Greene's admiration for Castro's Cuba); but they did collaborate on one memorable, now sadly forgotten, film.

I found out about this film in 1993 on a visit to Soldati at his home in Tellaro on the bay of Lerici (where the poet Shelley had drowned). Soldati cut a forlorn figure, unshaven and unpredictable. His wife was in hospital with a broken hip; Soldati brightened at my mention of Greene. "I once made a film with Graham. In Venice! What was it called? Help me, Gina!" Soldati's secretary replied with crisp efficiency: "The film was called Lo Mano dello Straniero. Mr Greene wrote the treatment and agreed to act as your associate producer." She added: "It came out in 1954."

Soldati waved his walking stick in the air, "Gina, you are a genius!" The Stranger's Hand, as it was called in English, was the legendary suspense thriller that starred Trevor Howard and the sublime Alida Valli from The Third Man. Directed by Soldati himself, this Venetian film was Greene's first appearance on screen. Or rather, his hand's: it appears in close- up undoing the knot of a fireboat on the Grand Canal.

Soldati regarded The Stranger's Hand as his best film. Certainly it did not lack for distinguished help. Music was composed by the great Nino Rota (who would later provide the scores for Federico Fellini); and the novelist Giorgio Bassani (author of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) was hired for advice on Venetian dialect. The film was enthusiastically reviewed in London by Dilys Powell. But it sank without trace.

Soldati made over 30 films. Some are indifferent costume dramas, others verge on the brilliant. Piccolo Mondo Antico (1941, Old-Fashioned World) was set against the background of Risorgimento Italy during the 1850s and starred Valli at her brooding, baleful best. Le Miserie del Signor Travet (1946, His Young Wife) was a spirited version of a Piedmontese novel about ministerial bureaucracy and perhaps was Soldati's finest hour.

Soldati was curiously neglected as a film-maker. He was never credited for the stylish battle scenes in King Vidor's War and Peace (1955), though he directed them all. Neither is there any entry for Soldati in David Thomson's otherwise exhaustive biographical dictionary of the cinema. Yet Soldati worked with Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Margaret Rutherford, Anna Magnani and others.

Soldati began his career in cinema when he was asked to rewrite Luigi Pirandello's script for a jingoistic docu-drama about Umbrian steel works. Acciaio (1933) was directed by none other than Walter Ruttmann, author of the classic documentary Berlin, Symphony of a Great City. Cinema dictionaries still attribute the steel works script to Pirandello.

Soldati graduated from Turin University in 1927. Two years later, the Lateran accords were signed between Mussolini and the Vatican. Like many liberals, Soldati feared that Fascism would now last for ever. Fortunately, he was awarded a fellowship to Columbia University. He arrived in New York during the Stock Exchange slump; it was a city of speak-easies, Al Capone, mass unemployment. Soldati fell in love with it and, in 1931, he married Marion Rieckelman, a student at Columbia. Prior to this marriage there had been homosexual flirtations; Soldati later claimed that it was Marion who took his virginity, blaming his late start on a Jesuit education. By the time Soldati married again, in 1941, to Jucci Kellermann, he had the reputation of a lady-killer.

Soldati's five years in the United States provided material for his first great piece of reportage. The book, America primo amore ("America, First Love", 1935), did not carry a specific political message. Yet publication proved almost impossible because Soldati had described his friendship with American Jews. Racial persecution under Mussolini began three years later in 1938; but anti-Semitism in Italy was already evident as Soldati was dropped by his publishers. Only the Jewish publishing house Bemporad was willing to risk the book: a first edition of 5,000 copies sold out instantly. The cover was designed by Soldati's old friend the author Carlo Levi; Levi was later arrested by Mussolini's secret police and confined to a remote area of southern Italy.

Soldati's first novel, La Verita sul caso Motta ("The Truth About the Motta Case", 1941), a surrealistic thriller, was followed by A Cena col Commendatore (1950, Dinner with the Commendatore), a collection of three long stories. Soldati was master of the novella; La Finestra ("The Window", 1950), a hypnotic mystery set in London, was admired by V.S. Naipaul. "Am I right to think that there is an understated element of irony and humour right through that makes the work strange and memorable?" he wrote to Soldati in 1992.

Soldati's best-known novel is Le Lettere di Capri (1954, The Capri Letters). One of the first best-sellers in post-war Italy, this fine fiction owes something to the Italian novels of Henry James and it established Soldati abroad. The book was translated into English by Archibald Colquhoun - "Archy" - a colourful Scotsman who became Soldati's close friend.

Among his other novels are La Confessione (1955, The Confession), his account of a Jesuit novice's spiritual crisis, and Le due citta (1964, The Malacca Cane), an autobiographical tale set against the film industries in Turin and Rome.

As a Turinese, Soldati was typically wary of Rome. He had lived there for some 30 years, yet he disliked the cumbersome concentration of governance and bureaucracy. Soldati was irritated, too, by its privileged car number plates. "Milan is MI, Turin is TO: what's so special about Rome that it has to be ROMA instead of RO?" Turin, not Rome, used to be the capital of Italy; the Piedmontese have never forgotten this.

Mario Soldati, writer and film director: born Turin, Italy 17 November 1906; married (three sons); died Tellaro, Italy 19 June 1999.

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