Born in 1933 in Carpi near Modena, Liliana Cavani burst onto the filmmaking scene in the 1970s along with fellow Emilia Romagna natives Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marco Bellocchio.
Raised in a household that embraced the arts, Cavani went to art museums with her father, an architect, and to the movies with her mother, a film aficionado. She studied literature and philosophy at Bologna University in 1960, but decided a year later to head south to Rome to study filmmaking at the renowned Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Success rapidly followed. Before her studies were finished, Cavani was was hired there as the director of historical documentaries at RAI television. From there, she transitioned into feature films.
Cavani's filmmaking style is fierce, unflinching and no-holds barred. Working with future stars Charlotte Rampling, Helena Bonham Carter and Mickey Rourke early in their careers, she was able to evoke a depth of emotion from her actors that was truly exceptional. Her films are like symphonies that feature exquisite sets, rich cinematography and classical music that almost feels like and additional character.
She rose to international prominence with the 1974 release of "Il portiere di notte"
(The Night Porter). A dark erotic thriller, the film stars Charlotte Rampling as Lucia, a concentration camp survivor who checks in to a Vienna hotel with her husband, an American conductor. There, she comes fact to face with her former captor and lover, Max, who now works as the hotel's night porter.
After spending a sleepless night haunted by her flashbacks of life in the camp and her relationship with the former Nazi SS officer, played by British actor Dirk Bogarde, she tells her husband to continue on his and she stays behind at the hotel. When Max confronts her, paranoid that she has searched him out to turn him into the police for war crimes, the two have an explosive encounter that ends with the realization that they still love each other. What follows is the pain and pleasure of a tortured, doomed love.
Cavani’s balance of tenderness and violence, death and despair, is expressed through the extraordinary performances of her actors. The scenes in the concentration camp brilliantly highlight the human desire for the beautiful things in life like culture and closeness against the grey, corrupt and brutal backdrop of the Holocaust. Cavani’s camera moves smoothly in time with the classical music soundtrack, contrasting the extravagance of the Vienna hotel with the cold reality outside its doors, as if the hotel is a sanctuary, and once the couple leaves, they must fend for themselves.
Cavani’s 2002 film, "Ripley's Game" is based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, of the same name. It stars John Malkovich as a vengeful former hitman who tries to retire to a mansion in northern Italy. When a neighbor insults him around the same time that an old colleague tries to drag him out of retirement, he orchestrates some serious payback. Malkovich is brilliant as a cerebral murderer with no conscience whose last job finally gets the better of him. The film premiered out of competition at the 2002 Venice Film Festival.
Starring Mickey Rourke and Helena Bonham Carter, Cavani’s 1989 "Francesco" tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi told from the point-of-view of his followers. Tapping into her early years at RAI, the film takes a documentary approach as it reveals key aspects of the saint’s personality, including his humility, generosity, love of animals and his early inner conflict about abandoning his father's wealth to immerse himself in the world of the desperately poor.
This wasn't the first time Cavani worked on a project about Saint Frances. In 1966, she directed a made-for-tv movie about the saint that aired on RAI. Starring Lou Castell, known for his role in Marco Bellocchio’s "Fists in the Pockets," Cavani’s television version is described on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) as “The life of Saint Francis of Assisi retold from the sixties political radical point of view.” It's interesting to note that RAI was also listed in the credits as one of the producers of the 1989 film version.
At 88-years-old, Cavani has another film in production that is still untitled but slated for a 2021 release. We'll keep you posted.
In the meantime, all the above films are available to stream on Amazon. Click on the images below to stream them.