Franco Piavoli’s odes to Earth

Filming the world from his native Lombardy over the past six decades, Franco Piavoli has forged a body of work both pastoral and political, lyrical and critical.

Voices Through Time (1996)Courtesy of Zefirofilm

▶︎ Franco Piavoli’s At the First Breath of Wind and Voices Through Time, and The Blue Planet and Nostos: The Return, are available along with his short films on DVD from Potemkine.

In meticulous, impeccable compositions that are both plain and poetic, the cinema of Franco Piavoli conceptually explores the natural world in pensive, profound footage – life captured between land and sea, fiction and nonfiction. Though Piavoli’s career indeed developed in parallel to certain contemporaries and compatriots (notably Ermanno Olmi and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani) and his films do indeed share select characteristics with neorealist postwar filmmakers, Piavoli’s more minimalist, non-narrative representations of rural life remain unmistakably his own.

Piavoli is by now a cult figure in Italian cinema, one who is considered as much an artisan as an auteur. Fortunately, through creative collaboration between festival Cinéma du Réel, institution Fondazione Cineteca Italiana and boutique DVD label Potemkine, his mysterious, magnetic body work is newly reissued and ready for rediscovery.

Franco Piavoli

Born in the surrounding northern region of Lombardy in 1933, Piavoli began his artistic career in painting and photography before turning to film in 1954. The small-scale production of his highly personal projects, made with partner Neria, son Mario and an assortment of neighbours, has been mostly confined to the area around his home in Brescia, an industrial city 100km east of Milan; yet his method, at once macro- and microscopic, sees Piavoli travel to the figurative ends of the earth. His uniquely aestheticised and abstract variations on the still life, landscape and portrait modes do so by magnification and protraction, by depicting what is most familiar before dazzlingly defamiliarising it.

In a prizewinning suite of four formative shorts – shot between 1961 and 1964 and later collected and released together as Poems in 8mm – Piavoli produced two straightforwardly neorealist, vérité documentaries (Emigranti and Evasi, available to watch here and here) and a pair of stranger, more singular moving image miniatures (Le stagioni, Domenica sera). It is this latter pair that we can now see as early prototypes, experimental work that signal a switch to Piavoli’s subsequent mature style, and early expressions of what would be revealed and refined in the four masterful features Piavoli would patiently produce over the next three decades.

Above: Le Stagioni (1961)

Above: Domenica Sera (1962)

After a prolonged pause (it feels relevant to mention that Piavoli’s son, Mario, was born in 1970), the filmmaker’s long-gestating first, and perhaps best-known, feature The Blue Planet (Il pianeta azzurro) was invited to the Venice Film Festival in 1982. Piavoli drew acclaim from contemporaries at the festival – praise from anthropologist/ethnographer Jean Rouch, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and even jury member Andrei Tarkovsky, who described the film as: “a poem, concert, journey into the universe, nature, life… truly a different vision.”

Paying close attention to natural phenomena, The Blue Planet puts man’s place and proportion in this ecosystem in modest perspective relative to the rest of Piavoli’s work, illustrating a pre-Anthropocene world that for now includes but is not (yet) defined and imperilled by mankind and modernity.

The Blue Planet (1982)

Swapping Poems in 8mm’s Paillard Bolex for the 35mm Arriflex, The Blue Planet captures and sequences serene scenes of life in full flourish and natural decline. In this livelier kind of slow cinema, Piavoli asks his viewer to immerse in the film’s contemplative drift, before eliciting a rare, restorative romanticism – a viewing experience transfixing and intoxicating. Yet the fast-paced film lives and breathes, and with subject matter so wide-ranging it necessarily never quite stays in one place for too long. Many montages depict water as it expands, contracts, sublimates and cycles through its very physical states, with Piavoli’s camera always remaining still to allow this slow motion to occur in moving tableaux.

Where elsewhere Piavoli’s films follow structural metaphors – the eternal return-repeat of the hours of the day (At the First Breath of Wind), the seasons of the year (The Blue Planet), the years in a life (Voices Through Time) – it is the filmmaker’s second and perhaps most ambitious film, Nostos: the Return (Nostos: Il ritorno, 1989), that appears as a comparative outlier.

Nostos: The Return (1989)Courtesy of Zefirofilm

Following a more typical or traditional dramatic trajectory, the film explicitly reinterprets one of the most foundational and ubiquitous narratives of the Western canon: Odysseus’s return to Ithaca. Carried by the continuous cycle of tides, the seafaring Odysseus is a preeminent figure who is nonetheless diminished, Nostos: Il Ritorno subverting The Blue Planet’s sublime sense of wonder. Here Piavoli’s style works to different ends – in problematising the former film’s feeling of awe into something perhaps more profound, the film surrealistically decentres its human protagonist by placing him amidst a dangerous, unforgiving and unfathomable force of nature.

Piavoli turns away from landscape and towards human psychology in his subsequent features: two anxious individual and collective portraits on life and death, films that question man’s relationship to his environment, and convey man’s modesty to the metaphysical mystery that exists beyond the natural world’s apparent magnitude and magnificence.

Voices Through Time (1996)Courtesy of Zefirofilm

In Voices Through Time (1996) and At the First Breath of Wind (Al primo soffio di vento, 2002) human figures are rendered as objects, as bodies that live out the whole of their irreversibly linear, not-so-cyclical lives to the backdrop of the film’s structural schema: from birth to death (in Voices Through Time) or from morning to night (in At the First Breath of Wind). In both films, dialogue is distorted into unintelligible onomatopoeia, voices become commensurate with chirping birdsong or summertime crickets and cicadas, and all languages dissolve into a larger polyphony.

Though these group portraits are panoramic, splitting perspective among people of a town or members of a family, Piavoli’s person-to-person approach is able to catch the simultaneous co-existence of generations young and old. Seeing change as constant but not always cyclical, Voices Through Time proceeds one rite of passage at a time: a wide-eyed brand-new baby at the film’s beginning is eventually supplanted by moribund individual tragedies in the film’s sleepier second half. The collective condition, however, is not so bleak. Though not one of endless renewal, reproduction is represented as its own kind of chronological repetition, the broader narrative of greater humanity still an expression of nature.

More specifically, Piavoli’s most recent feature At the First Breath of Wind presents itself as something like a synthesis of the two alternating approaches in his cinema, a full-circle return to The Blue Planet. Semi-autobiographical, and set on a bucolic August afternoon in Brescia, the film compresses the entirety of each of its protagonists’ subjective experiences of time into a single day in a single town. At the First Breath of Wind, perhaps Piavoli’s most nuanced, intricately sequenced and sustained effort at actual characterisation, quite simply juxtaposes each of its protagonist’s time spent together and apart. Expanding into a diptych, it pairs moments of solitude and intimacy, atmospheres joyous and wistful.

At the First Breath of Wind (2002)Courtesy of Zefirofilm

Though this kind of questioning cinema may be considered conceptual or metaphysical, Piavoli’s is still the scientific method. Still, without instructive commentary or non-diegetic clarification, Piavoli’s particular scientific method is one that absolutely, and rightly, resists any attempt at conclusive exposition.

In an essay written ahead of a 2016 retrospective of Piavoli’s work at the Centre Pompidou’s Cinema du reel, La Roche-sur-Yon director Paolo Moretti elaborates, contextualising the filmmaker by means of noting his most prominent influences: the early Renaissance painters (Giotto di Bondone, Piero Della Francesca, Vittore Capaccio), Impressionists and Cubists, the musical definitions of time that structure Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1930 film Earth.

It is the poetic approach of yet another influence, the philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, that is especially enlightening a mode of inquiry, between lyrical and critical” we might find traces of in more recent contemporary Italian cinema, in the politicised pastoral cinema of filmmakers such as Michelangelo Frammartino (Le quattro volte), Pietro Marcello (Bella e perduta) and Alice Rohrwacher (Lazzaro Felice).

Piavoli’s poetic, pensive body of work is still (miraculously) more appreciative than apprehensive, even-handedly setting two temporalities side by side: that of the splendorous and secretive natural world and that of the more modest, more impermanent and eternally uncertain man.

—With thanks to Silvano Agosti, Maria Bonsanti, Laura Davis, Mario Piavoli, and Licia Punzo.