Where to begin with the Taviani brothers

Ahead of a major season of the work of Palme d’Or winners Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, we take a beginner’s path through their cinema of magical realism, politics and the land.

The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982)

Why this might not seem so easy

As youngsters, brothers Paolo (b. 1931) and Vittorio Taviani (1929 to 2018) – like so many aspiring filmmakers of their generation, both in Italy and abroad – were struck by the raw, unadorned neorealist cinema of Roberto Rossellini, director of films such as Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948).

“I find that whatever is astonishing, unusual and moving in men,” Rossellini told Cahiers du Cinéma in 1954, “it is precisely that great actions and great deeds come about in the same way, with the same resonance as normal everyday occurrences. I try to relate both with the same humility.” The Tavianis took on Rossellini’s lesson, but not without adapting it to their own sensibilities. “When Paolo and I are asked about post-war Italian cinema,” Vittorio Taviani told me in a March 2013 interview for Sight and Sound, “we always use the metaphor of the tree: the roots deep underground are Rossellini, Visconti and De Sica while the branches above are directors like us, Bertolucci, Ferreri, Scola and others.”

The Tavianis’ joint feature film career spans more than 55 years. It’s an incredibly rich and varied filmography which takes in large-scale, multi-character historical epics as well as more intimate contemporary tales. In their work, documentary frequently rubs shoulders with fiction. There are adaptations (Boccaccio, Goethe, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Pirandello, Fenoglio, Ledda, Arslan) and original screenplays. International stars (Gian Maria Volonté, Ugo Tognazzi, Marcello Mastroianni, Annie Girardot, Isabelle Huppert) share the screen with expertly cast non-professionals. For the Tavianis, landscape – the natural world – is rarely just a straightforward backdrop for the action; it carries a powerful, complex emotional charge – inviting on the one hand, foreboding on the other.

“In our films, one basic question often arises”, Paolo Taviani told Aldo Tassone in 1979, “why does everything turn out differently to what we imagine?” It’s a question that ties in with some of the Tavianis’ other thematic preoccupations, such as their engagement with political issues or their explorations of the act of storytelling and myth-making.

The best place to start – Padre Padrone

Look up the 1977 Cannes Film Festival and you’ll find some typically colourful images: a pumped-up Arnold Schwarzenegger in Speedos flexing his muscles in front of the ladies from the Folies Bergère; Brazilian footballing legend Pelé partying with Anthony Quinn; and Roger Moore and Barbara Bach publicising latest Bond romp The Spy Who Loved Me. But which picture ended up with the festival’s top prize, the coveted Palme d’Or? Which film triumphed over new work by Wim Wenders, Theo Angelopoulos and Robert Altman? The answer: a story of filial rebellion set in post-war rural Sardinia, shot on 16mm for Italian state broadcaster Rai.

Padre Padrone (1977)

A simple plot synopsis of the Tavianis’ Padre Padrone might make it seem like a forbidding entry point into their filmography. It opens with a scene in which Gavino (Fabrizio Forte), a six-year-old boy, is unceremoniously hauled out of school by his farmer father (Taviani regular Omero Antonutti) and put to work on the land. The boy does not learn to read or write until he turns 18. What’s extraordinary is that not only does the young man educate himself, but he eventually becomes a prominent linguist.

Based on the memoirs of Gavino Ledda, who appears in the film’s opening and closing scenes to powerful, poignant effect, Padre Padrone was the Tavianis’ international breakthrough some 15 years into their feature film career. It saw the brothers engage with familiar neorealist aesthetics – location shooting, non-professional actors working alongside established professionals – but in a more critical, experimental way, especially in its use of sound.

What to watch next

Kaos (1984)

Like Padre Padrone, The Night of Shooting Stars (1982) and Kaos (1984) are crucial entries in the Tavianis’ filmography. The first is set in the brothers’ native Tuscany during the final, chaotic, blood-soaked months of the Second World War, with much of the – often harrowing – events viewed through the wide-eyed innocence of a young child. Kaos is an epic anthology film in which the Tavianis adapt stories by the acclaimed Sicilian writer and dramatist Luigi Pirandello. In both these works, visions of soaring beauty exist alongside episodes of devastating tragedy.

Released some 35 years after Padre Padrone, 2012’s Caesar Must Die won another major European film prize, the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear. The Tavianis again showcase their innovative approach to adaptation by having inmates in a Roman prison perform Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

As in many other points in their career, the filmmakers do not shirk from confronting difficult moral and ethical issues. “When we shot Caesar’s murder scene,” Vittorio told me in 2013, “there was a lot of tension on set, both among the prisoners and the crew. Once we had blocked the sequence, we asked our actors to stand still and to concentrate. We asked them to gather their thoughts and to think about what could lead to someone taking someone else’s life. Then, Paolo and I suddenly stopped and looked at each other: ‘What are we saying? Who are we to tell these men about the realities of violence and murder?’ […] As the production went on, we developed a real fondness and affection for our actors. At the same time, it goes without saying that we abhorred the terrible crimes they had committed. It’s a contradiction I don’t think we’ll ever really resolve.”

Caesar Must Die (2012)

Where not to start

From their very early features, the Tavianis’ work has been remarkably consistent, but, as with most filmmakers, there are some titles that are perhaps best saved for a deeper dive. 1967’s political drama The Subversives, the first feature the brothers made as a duo without their early collaborator Valentino Orsini, is a striking, restless ensemble piece centring on a group of friends who attend the funeral of Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti in 1964 while each going through significant changes in their private lives. The film is notable for featuring 24-year-old Lucio Dalla in one of his earliest acting roles. At the time, Bologna-born Dalla was on his way to becoming one of Italy’s most celebrated singer-songwriters, and would reach international stardom in the 1980s with his hit ‘Caruso’.

Magical Realism: The Film Fables of the Taviani Brothers runs at BFI Southbank in February and March 2024.