Paolo Taviani obituary: younger of the Palme d’Or winning Taviani brothers

Along with his late brother Vittorio, Paolo Taviani, who has died aged 92, made acclaimed films mixing earthy naturalism, touches of magic realism and a vivid feeling for Italian landscapes.

6 March 2024

By Pasquale Iannone

Paolo Taviani at the Berlin Film Festival in 2022 © Elena Ternovaja

At the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, three sets of famous filmmaking brothers were invited to a special screening of Lumiere!, Thierry Frémaux’s documentary on the original sibling cineastes, Louis and Antoine. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Joel and Ethan Coen had all previously won the festival’s top prize – the Palme d’Or – and all six directors faced the usual (inevitable) questions: “How do you manage to work together?”, “Who does what?” The Tavianis always used to joke that even their own mother was amazed that her two eldest sons could work together so closely for so long, given how different they were in temperament (according to Lina Nerli Taviani, the brothers’ long-time costume designer – and Paolo’s wife – Vittorio was usually the calmer one on set while Paolo could be more quick-tempered).

Born in the Tuscan town of San Miniato in 1931, Paolo Taviani was two years younger than Vittorio, but the brothers developed their passion for cinema very much in tandem. Their encounter with the neorealist cinema of Roberto Rossellini – and especially works such as Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948) – was undoubtedly formative. These were films which – although fiction – allowed them to better understand the full extent of the suffering of the war years. “I shouldn’t really say this,” Paolo admitted in a 2018 interview with Famiglia Cristiana’s Eugenio Arcidiacono, “but the war was probably the most exciting time of my life […] more than anything, it was the sense of empathy and understanding that we developed for our father [an anti-fascist lawyer]. Up to that point, he had always seemed to be a figure of authority, somewhat distant. We were happy to help him, to follow in his adventures.” This child’s eye view of war, this sense of excitement felt by children too young to fully comprehend its horror, was something that the brothers would evoke in their semi-autobiographical 1982 film The Night of the Shooting Stars.

A Man for Burning (1962)

In the early 1950s, the Tavianis began collaborating with Valentino Orsini, a former partisan and member of the PCI (Italian Communist Party). The trio staged neorealist-style plays in the Tuscan provinces, but it wasn’t long before they ventured into filmmaking with San Miniato July 1944, a documentary on a wartime massacre in the brothers’ hometown. Orsini and the Tavianis were mentored in this first foray into filmmaking by screenwriter and theorist Cesare Zavattini, best known for his collaboration with director Vittorio De Sica on key neorealist works such as Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952). Shortly afterwards, the trio moved south to Rome where they initially found it difficult to get projects off the ground. Although these years – the mid to late 1950s – were a struggle, Orsini and the Tavianis were convinced that Rome was the place to be if they wanted to make films. Along with Zavattini, another important encounter for the trio during this period was with the veteran Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens. They joined him as co-directors of the 1960 oil-industry film Italy Is Not a Poor Country, but the experience – while fruitful – served only to reaffirm their predilection for fiction over documentary filmmaking.

The trio were finally able to make their first feature in 1962. A Man for Burning was based on the true story of trade union leader Salvatore Carnevale who had been assassinated by the Mafia just seven years earlier and featured Gian Maria Volontè in his first major film role. Their second feature Outlaws of Love (1963) – an episode film exploring the lack of a divorce law in Italy which starred Ugo Tognazzi and Annie Girardot – was the final collaboration between Orsini and the Tavianis. The brothers’ first feature as a duo was 1967’s The Subversives, a Godardian ensemble drama about the crisis of the Left after the death of PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti. 

These first three contemporary-set films were followed by a trilogy of idiosyncratic historical pictures – Under the Sign of Scorpio (1969), St Michael Had a Rooster (1972) and Allonsanfàn (1974). During this time, the brothers felt very much part of a broader trend in both Italian and world cinema that sought to disrupt, to question and to provoke. However, as Vittorio told Peter Brunette in a 1982 Film Quarterly interview: “We want there to be the maximum violence inside, but to make it all concrete in images and stylistic structures which are the most classical possible.”

The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982)
© Cinecittà

1977 was a key year for the Tavianis. They released Padre Padrone, a picture based on the true story of Gavino Ledda, a prominent Sardinian linguist who, as a six year old, was unceremoniously taken out of school by his father and made to work on the family’s land. Combining rugged neorealist aesthetics with Brechtian elements, flashes of fantasy and even a touch of scatological humour, the film was awarded the Palme d’Or by a Cannes jury headed by none other than Roberto Rossellini. Two years later, Rossellini’s daughter Isabella starred in the brothers’ eighth feature The Meadow (1979), a Tuscan-set romantic drama which – in keeping with much of the brothers’ other films – makes extraordinarily evocative use of landscape. 

Consistent and thoughtful literary adapters, the Tavianis turned to giants such as Tolstoy for The Sun Also Shines at Night (1990) and TV series Resurrection (2001), Dumas for Luisa Sanfelice (2004), Goethe for The Elective Affinities (1996) and – perhaps most innovatively – Shakespeare for 2012’s Golden Bear-winning Caesar Must Die. 

The author they returned to most frequently was Luigi Pirandello – in Kaos (1984) and You Laugh (1998) as well as 2022’s Leonora addio. The latter was the first and last feature Paolo Taviani would make on his own after the death of Vittorio in 2018. It adapts two stories by the Sicilian novelist and playwright and does so with the Tavianis’ characteristic inventiveness and lightly-worn reflexivity.

  • Paolo Taviani, 8 November 1931 to 29 February 2024