It’s no spoiler to say that Luigi Pirandello dies nine minutes into “Leonora addio.” This alternately playful and lugubrious work of reflection isn’t really about the controversial Italian writer’s life at all, but rather his legacy, and in a less literal yet ineluctable sense, that of film directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.
Over the course of half a century, the two cinematic siblings made movies together — including 1985’s “Kaos,” an omnibus-style collection of five Pirandello stories — bookending their career together by winning top prizes at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals (for “Padre Padrone” and “Caesar Must Die,” respectively). And then, in 2018, Vittorio died.
“Leonora addio” marks Paolo’s first solo feature. There’s almost no way not to read the film as a farewell by one sibling to another, or an even larger-aperture reflection on what becomes of an artist and his art after his passing — more relevant now than ever, with monuments being toppled and celebrated figures “canceled” in their own lifetimes (not that Taviani directly addresses either phenomenon). Even before Pirandello expires on screen, Paolo dedicates the film to Vittorio, right after the words “Leonora addio” appear — but even the title is a kind of ghost, referencing scenes from a Pirandello novella that Paolo planned to include but ultimately left on the cutting room floor.
Instead, the film is composed of two parts. The first, which occupies the meandering first hour, is told in black and white, focusing primarily on the fate of the author’s ashes. There follows a full-color adaptation of his last story, “The Nail,” which seems to have very little to do with what has come before, unless one views the entire movie as a loose epilogue to “Kaos” and/or the Taviani brothers’ career — and why view it as anything else?
Sadly, “Leonora addio” is not an especially strong movie, and it seems unlikely to attract much interest beyond Italy, despite the lingering power of the Taviani name. It has landed in competition at the Berlin Film Festival almost certainly out of respect, although “Caesar Must Die” won under a different regime. Film festivals, like authoritarian countries, experience abrupt identity shifts when their leadership changes, and yet, they nearly all find it preferable to showcase the work of old white men than to gamble on new voices, who most need their support.
That doesn’t mean such a film is unwelcome in the world, but merely that it’s out of place in competition at the Berlinale — a fitting paradox, considering that the complicated politics of how artists are treated, in life and in death, is very much on Taviani’s mind in making “Leonora addio.” From Wikipedia, we learn that Pirandello donated his Nobel Prize to Italy’s then-Fascist government in 1935, so that the gold might be melted down for the greater good. The movie doesn’t mention this point, and instead shows Mussolini ordering that the writer be buried in a black shirt and the medal put on public display.
Next, we hear Pirandello’s own wishes: “Let my death pass in silence,” he wrote, requesting that his ashes be scattered and no trace of him left behind. Should that not be possible, he asked, “may the urn be taken to Sicily and be walled within a rough stone in the countryside where I was born.” Instead, he was buried in a Roman cemetery for 10 years — an infamous decade in Italian history, represented here with a damning three-minute montage wherein clips from Italian neo-realist films (e.g., Rossellini’s “Paisan”) blend with newsreel footage from the time. Taviani will continue to sample from other sources throughout the movie, which inadvertently serves to expose the lack of authenticity in its scripted scenes.
Just over a week before the premiere of “Leonora addio,” the world lost actor Monica Vitti (seen briefly in a clip from “L’Avventura” here), and I found myself wondering why contemporary Italian cinema is such a meager shadow of its former glory. The Taviani brothers arrived on the tail end of that wave, keeping the neo-realist tradition alive for a time, and yet, the acting here is transparently phony, the entire exercise false. See how unconvincing Fabrizio Ferracane, as the delegate tasked with transporting Pirandello’s ashes to Sicily, appears when the crate disappears aboard a train, or how lamely the extras pantomime their reactions.
Not every film requires high stakes, a ticking clock or compelling characters, but in their absence, “Leonora addio” offers little more than a sequence of absurd, slightly amusing micro-dramas that Pirandello himself could not have written concerning what became of his own remains. What any of this has to do with “The Nail” — about the seemingly senseless murder of a redheaded American girl by an Italian boy in Brooklyn — is anybody’s guess. Taviani’s film may not be terribly engaging, but it does contain the wisdom of his years, including the wry observation that a master storyteller such as Pirandello should spend his life dictating what becomes of others’ fates, only to lose control of his own at a certain point.