Paolo and Vittorio Taviani directed films together from the early 1950s until Vittorio died in 2018, leaving his now 90-year-old brother to carry on alone. Leonora Addio, the second film Paolo has made without Vittorio, is not only dedicated to him but picks up many of the themes that ran through their earlier work, including their enthusiasm for theater in general and the writings of Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello in particular. The Berlin Film Festival competition entry looks and sounds sumptuous, but its two stories — both of which raise questions about what the living owe the dead — are disappointingly slight.
Pirandello wrote novels and poetry, but he was most famous as a playwright fond of theatrical trickery; today, his best-known play is Six Characters in Search of an Author. Accordingly, Leonora Addio (the title is taken from one of his stories, about a woman who dies while singing) is filmed and performed with an operatic sense of artificiality.
It begins in Pirandello’s final sick room, a vast white room with his bed in the center and books lined up on a far-off wall; we could be on the stage of La Scala. This is the first of many cavernous spaces, shot in monochrome and lit for high contrast, in which the story of his death and its aftermath will be told.
Pirandello died in 1936 as a declared supporter of Benito Mussolini’s government. Taviani shows some bumptious men in uniform declaring that he must have a Fascist funeral, but Pirandello himself left instructions that there should be no ceremony; he wanted his body cremated in a plain box and the ashes thrown to the four winds in Sicily, where he was born.
He was indeed cremated, controversially, but — officialdom being what it is — the ashes finished up in an urn immured somewhere in Rome. Much of the film is dedicated to what Taviani describes in a narrative voice-over as “a trip home that wasn’t easy.” It would take 10 years before the writer’s remains were decanted into a Grecian urn to be taken to Sicily. It would then take another 15 years for a selected sculptor to complete a suitably rusticated monument as the maestro’s final resting place. A long trip home, indeed.
Taviani extracts some melancholy comedy from this muddle. A Roman public servant (Fabrizio Ferracane) charged with delivering the exhumed ashes to Sicily, firstly by plane — which doesn’t work, because the other passengers refuse to fly with a corpse, even one burnt to cinders — and then on a nightmare train journey. His story is mingled with footage from contemporary neo-realist films and with news footage showing crowds of the defeated; these glimpses of a recognizable past, both in cinema and real life, go some way to propping up the thin artifice of the central story.
A sudden change from period black and white to color takes us into the film’s second story: an adaptation of a Pirandello story called The Nail, about an Italian boy forced to emigrate to New York who inexplicably murders a little girl, after which he vows to visit the girl’s grave every year once he is released from prison. The Nail is constructed as a melodrama, with exaggerated camera angles, aggressively fake backgrounds and dialogue as clunky as a clog dance. The contrast with the snippets included in the first story of films such as L’Avventura makes one wince.
The Tavianis adapted several Pirandello stories for their film Chaos in 1984. Why this story has been chosen to back-end the story of the maestro’s ashes — which the brothers had planned to film when they made Chaos, but didn’t — is mysterious. A shared elegiac mood? A simple tribute to Luigi Pirandello’s vast oeuvre? A promise by Paolo Taviani to remember his own lost maestro? Whatever his reasons, the vagueness of their connection has the unintended effect of making both stories feel inconsequential. It is a pity that such a handsome film is ultimately merely a curio: a souvenir of the Taviani brothers’ long and illustrious career.
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