The Taviani brothers, Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Raagam, Pauline Kael and the persistence of movie memories

Baradwaj Rangan

Apr 30, 2018 16:44:19 IST

When Vittorio Taviani died, on 15 April, there was no great swell of sorrow beyond the usual obituaries – and perhaps this isn’t much of a surprise. Some art film makers become brand names. I recall how the Internet exploded with tributes when Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died on the same day: 30 July, 2007. (Had the former died today, we’d have certainly seen memes around this line from The Seventh Seal: “I met Death today. We are playing chess.”) Even if you haven’t seen much by Bergman or Antonioni, you’d most certainly have heard their names in the context of a certain kind of cinema. But the Taviani brothers (Paolo was the younger sibling) were more low-profile, despite a run of well-regarded films in the 1960s and 70s, topped by a Palme d’Or win at Cannes for Padre Padrone (1977).

The Taviani brothers, Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Raagam, Pauline Kael and the persistence of movie memories

A still from The Night of San Lorenzo. YouTube

There are two reasons I know of the Taviani brothers. The first is a scene from Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Raagam (1986), in which we see a dramatic poster of The Night of San Lorenzo (sometimes called The Night of the Shooting Stars) on the wall of a room where some anarchists are plotting their next move. This movie – directed by the Taviani brothers – was released in 1982, and it won the Grand Prix (the second-most prestigious prize, after the Palme d’Or) at Cannes. I was fascinated by the poster (see screen capture above), which is reminiscent of the king’s death in Kurosawa’s Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood (see clip below) – only, the arrows are replaced by spears. Why would anyone in a story set during the last days of World War II be impaled with spears?

Because this is how the story’s narrator, Cecilia, “saw” it. Shooting Stars is framed as a bedtime story that opens on a night-time sky, as seen through a bedroom window. A grown-up Cecilia is narrating these events to a child, though we get the sense the narration is more for her own sake (and the sake of the audience). For one, the child is too young to be listening to stories. (Besides, the child is asleep.) And two, the technique establishes Cecilia as the classic unreliable narrator: a wartime story transforms into a bedtime tale. Cecilia was six when these events took place. As Pauline Kael said in her New Yorker review: “And for the grown woman Cecilia the adventures that she took part in have acquired the brilliance and vitality of legend.”

Kael’s review is the second reason I know about the Taviani brothers. It runs some 2800 words, and is reproduced in her collection, Taking It All In. Kael’s compilations often have sexually suggestive titles – When the Lights Go Down, or I Lost It at the Movies – but Taking It All In sounds just right: she saw a movie and really took it all in. The scene with the spears occurs in a field, which is the latest stop of a group of Italians that decides to go looking for American soldiers to save them from the Germans. But all hell breaks loose, and Cecilia sees a man shooting people at random. And... in front of her eyes, Roman soldiers – as in, soldiers from ancient Rome, dressed in golden armours and helmets and carrying gleaming shields – spear down the gunman.

See how Kael describes it: “The film’s greatest sequence is hair-raisingly casual – a series of skirmishes in a wheat field... The villagers come to a wheat field and meet up with a group of Resistance fighters who need help with the harvest (or the Fascists will get it), and the villagers lend a hand. And suddenly all the ideological factions that have been fighting in the country are crawling around in the tall wheat. There’s a civil war taking place in the fields, with men who all know each other, who in some cases are brothers or cousins, going at each other with clubs and guns and pitchforks... It’s a pure sick joke, like something Godard would have tried in Les Carabiniers if he’d thought of it. In Shooting Stars, you’re never reminded of a filmmaker who isn’t a master.”

And this is how Kael evokes the movie’s mood: “[It] encompasses a vision of the world. Comedy, tragedy, vaudeville, melodrama – they’re all here, and inseparable... This setting is magical, like a Shakespearean forest; it exists in the memory of Cecilia... I think you could say that Shooting Stars is about how an individual’s memories go to form communal folklore, and vice versa, so that we ‘recall’ what we’ve heard from others as readily as what we’ve actually seen or heard. And the myth becomes our memory – the story we tell.” This is why critics do what they do. Not only do they engage with the film in their own time, they leave behind a way for future generations to access the film, so it’s not forgotten. The title of the review, aptly, is “Memory.”

A Guardian piece from 2013 called the Taviani brothers “the last Titans of classic Italian cinema. They came of age in the era of Rossellini and Pasolini; they count Bertolucci among their contemporaries; they have been a nurturing influence on younger countrymen such as Nanni Moretti.” Like we have heard of so many sibling filmmakers, the Tavianis were known for being scarily in sync. Marcello Mastroianni, who worked with them in Allonsanfàn (1974), was asked what it was like to take direction from two people. He winked: “There were two of them?” (He referred to them as “Paolovittorio.”) Vittorio said, “We have different characters but the same nature. Our choices in life and art are the same.” He added: “Though we do have different wives.”

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

Updated Date: Apr 30, 2018 16:44:19 IST