Three decades ago, Francesco Rosi set the film world on its ear with ”Salvatore Giuliano,” a haunting investigation on the death of the Sicilian political separatist and bandit. It became the paradigm for the modern political thriller as practiced by the likes of Costa-Gavras (”Z”), Pontecorvo (”Battle of Algiers”) and a generation of South American filmmakers.
The Rosi canon is receiving its due via a touring program organized by Cinecitta and currently unspooling at UCLA. Last week he received a career achievement award at the San Francisco Film Festival, and next week he’ll compete at Cannes with ”The Truce” (Miramax has U.S. rights), based on the book by Primo Levi, and the recent winner of Italy’s top film prize, the David di Donatello.
A former Palme d’Or winner with 1973’s ”The Mattei Affair,” Rosi said he was happy to be back in competition. ”I’m very proud of the film,” said the director. ”But I tell myself that presenting it for awards is not so much for me as it is for the co-producers and for John Turturro (who plays Levi). He is a unique actor, because he has that rare ability to see with an innocent eye.”
”The Truce” chronicles Levi’s liberation from a concentration camp, his re-socialization, and the trip back home. Rosi calls it ”a journey back to life.”
A law student and journalist prior to entering the film industry as a writer and assistant to directors Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni, Rosi received immediate acclaim with his 1958 debut film, ”The Challenge,” which received the special jury prize in Venice. His 1963 tale of political corruption, ”Hands Over the City,” earned him director’s honors at Berlin, and he received earlier Davids for both ”Three Brothers” (1981) and ”Bizet’s Carmen” (1984). But despite his international acclaim, few of Rosi’s films have received distribution in the States.
”Five films, I think,” said Rosi. ”I understand that there is a limited audience for non-English films, and that Americans do not like subtitles. It puts you into a vise. I’ve worked many times in English or with English actors, and my new film was shot with the characters speaking (English) in a variety of accents to convey the international nature of the story and setting.”
At several points in his career the filmmaker has developed American projects, including ”The Billion-Dollar Sure Thing,” about stock and currency manipulation. However, in retrospect he’s uncertain he could make a satisfying film set in the United States. He said that shooting a month in New York on ”Lucky Luciano” was awkward for him, because he didn’t feel he had a sure grasp of the physical setting.
The sense of place is an important component for Rosi that crystallized with ”Salvatore Giuliano.” He chose to shoot on as many of the actual locations where the story occurred as possible. That meant most of his extras remembered the incidents of the prior decade vividly, and many provided stories that were incorporated into the script.
”It was a very emotional film to make,” he recalled. ”There’s a scene where a crowd is fired upon, and you immediately felt that they were responding to the real event. The irony for me was that despite all this passion, I was only able to make the film by maintaining a very cool head and never moving away from the logic of the story. I have to understand each film’s rationale, and only then do I feel free to go to other places. I cannot hide my intent, which can be good and bad for a director.”
For ”Moment of Truth,” a saga of bullfighting, he cast the famous matador Miguel Miguelin for the lead, and many thought it a documentary. However, everything in the story and filming was orchestrated as much as possible. Rosi said that each of the encounters in the arena was actually composed of four to five real contests cut together to provide the dramatic illusion. The material, he maintained, dictates the style.
That said, he was rather surprised to find himself working in an entirely different way when he filmed his Cannes entry. Levi’s tale is a ”road movie,” and the idea of physical and emotional momentum fused with the material. He was also able to shoot the film in roughly chronological order and found the experience exhilarating.
”We’ve seen many films about the Holocaust, but not so many about the aftermath,” noted Rosi. ”This begins where ‘Schindler’s List’ stops, and what struck me about Levi’s book was this idea about how someone regains his smile. It is so much about how human beings can simultaneously embrace differing emotions. The story has so much exuberance and humor, and yet is informed by anger. It’s something we all recognize and struggle to understand.”