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Sunday, May 23, 2021

One of a Kind Ugo Tognazzi

He gained renown during the commedia all’italiana years but his captivating performances kept him working through five decades until his untimely death in 1990.

Born in 1922 in Cremona, Ugo Tognazzi’s first acting experiences go back to his childhood when he participated in local theater productions. In 1945, he won a competition for amateurs and was then officially hired by theater company which led to a nationwide tour.  A few years later, he landed his first film roles and in the next decade, made a whopping 28 films. However, for all the films he made in the ‘50s, it was the ‘60s and ‘70s when his films were hits also outside Italy, giving him much-deserved international recognition for his lead roles. 


Tognazzi had a uniquely self-effacing and multidimensional style. There’s no such thing as a typical Tognazzi character because they were all so completely different. Losing himself in each role, he gifted them with their own identities. Perhaps there’s a consistent dose of pessimism, but that quality was shared by many in his generation of actors. There’s also an air of indifference that makes Tognazzi’s comic timing impeccable, allowing him to deliver the punchline at just the right moment. Thanks to streaming platforms, many of his acclaimed films are available stateside.


Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1964 comedy “Il magnifico cornuto” (The Magnificent Cuckhold) was adapted from Fernand Crommelynck’s book by the same name. Starring Tognazzi as Andrea Artusi, a successful hat salesman married to a beautiful young woman Maria Grazia (Claudia Cardinale), the film explores the consequences of infidelity. After he gives into the advances of a colleagues wife, Andrea begins to question his own wife’s loyalty to the point of becoming obsessed with her having an affair. All through his suspicions and questioning, she remains patient and above all, innocent. Then one night, he lets his imagination get the best of him and it puts them both over the edge. Tognazzi’s strong silences, shrewd smile and conniving glances give voice to his paranoia and suspenseful, controlled reactions. He knew when to be light-hearted and when to go in for the kill. 

Watch a clip from the opening scene of the film...

Tognazzi had a small but pivotal role in Pietrangeli’s 1965 follow up, “Io la conoscevo bene” (I Knew Her Well). Starring Stefania Sandrelli, the film follows Adriana Astarelli, a free-spirited starlet trying to make it in Rome’s unforgiving movie business. Tognazzi plays the role of Gigi Baggini, an out of work aging actor desperate for work. There is an intense dance scene in which Gigi gives an impromptu audition for an exploitative producer (Nino Manfredi). The scene serves as a perfect example of Tognazzi’s total immersion. Gigi is so physically and emotionally invested in this audition, the scene is just exhausting to watch. 


Another small part worth mentioning came in the 1968 Dino De Laurentiis production of “Barbarella.” Adapted from Jean-Claude Forest’s best seller of the same name and directed by Roger Vadim, the science fiction film stars Jane Fonda as a futuristic peacekeeping space traveler whose mission is to save humanity. Tognazzi interprets the role of Mark Hand, the “catchman” who assists Barbarella on her journey, seducing her along the way. Tognazzi’s voice was dubbed, so you’re not getting the essence of his complete performance, but not having to follow subtitles gives you freedom to admire him in the prime of his career. The film was made at Cinecittà studios and boasts some pretty zany costumes and set design. 

Tognazzi made string of dark comedies in the 1970s that include Elio Petri’s 1973 “La proprietà non è più un furto” (Property Is No Longer a Theft). Known as political filmmaker, Petri’s films often served as commentary on the decline of society and this film is no different with its emphasis on the role that money and power play in corrupting people. A petty thief who calls himself a Mandrakian Marxist, meaning that he only steals what he needs, has a target on Tognazzi’s character, a greedy, morally depraved butcher. “The Butcher” as he is called throughout the film, is truly despicable character who never really learns his lesson.
Click here to watch the film on MUBI for a limited time. Click here to watch it on Criterion Channel.


Tognazzi created another grotesque character that year in Marco Ferreri’s “La Grande Bouffe,” a dark comedy about four middle-aged friends, masterfully portrayed by Tognazzi and Marcello Mastroianni along with French actors Philippe Noiret and Andréa Ferréol. The group plans a decadent weekend getaway at a mansion with one goal-  to commit suicide by gorging themselves to death. Equipped with voracious appetites, one by one, the group reaches its goal through carnal and culinary indulgence. Tognazzi plays Ugo, an Italian chef living in Paris who is the designated cook for the weekend. He passionately and articulately creates every meal as if it was his last and the last was indeed his greatest accomplishment. The film has become a cult classic but is not for the faint of heart. Click here to watch the film on iTunes and here to watch it for free on Tubi.

Based on the stage play by Jean Poiret, Édouard Molinaro’s 1978 “La Cage aux Folles” provided Tognazzi the opportunity to create one of his most memorable characters, the gay cabaret owner Renato Baldi. The proprietor of a popular nightclub known for its drag shows, Renato must temporarily straighten out at the request of his son Laurent (Rémi Laurent) who was conceived 20 years ago during a one-night stand with a young actress. This request comes on the heels of Laurent’s engagement to a woman whose politician father is in the middle of a scandal and uses the engagement as an excuse to get out of town and meet the parents. Renato’s longtime partner, the highly emotional Albin (Michel Serrault) does not take the request lightly. What follows is a hilarious lesson on the perils of pretending to be someone you’re not. In 1996, Mike Nichols remade the film, titled “The Bird Cage,” with Robin Williams in the role of Renato Baldi. Williams channeled Tognazzi’s creation and gave a moving performance. 


Tognazzi passed away in 1990 after suffering a brain hemorrhage. In addition to his films, his legacy includes his children Ricky, Maria Sole, Gianmarco and Thomas Robsahm who are all successful contemporary filmmakers. 

Click on the images below to stream Tognazzi's films on Amazon..



Tuesday, May 11, 2021

In Conversation with Director Cecilia Pignocchi

Filmmakers Arthur Couvat and Cecilia Pignocchi
It’s unusual for a first-time filmmaker to be recognized by a high-profile, international film festival but such is the case with Cecilia Pignocchi and Arthur Couvat’s debut work, “Grottaroli.” The 14-minute film is in the official lineup of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival’s Shorts Program.

Set along the Adriatic Coast, the film follows a group of veteran fishermen as they reflect on their way of life becoming obsolete. Told from the point-of-view of the four fishermen and as Pignocchi’s describes her fifth character, the sea, the film offers total immersion into this culture that few outside the area know exists. 


I spoke with Pignocchi about the making of the short and her journey to premiering a first film on such a respected international platform. 


What inspired you and Arthur Couvat to tell the story of men in this fishing village?

Arthur and I were inspired by the strong relationship that these men have with the sea and we were curious about their way of living in this unique landscape. I grew up a five-minute walk from the marine caves that have been carved by generations of fishermen, locally known as the Grottaroli. I only realized how unique this place was when I moved away. Living far from the sea and from my culture allowed me to see my hometown in a different light. Every time I would return home, I would see the caves as a movie set. After doing some research and site visits with my father, I involved my longtime friend and cinematographer Arthur Couvat. I showed him pictures of the caves and their inhabitants and he immediately loved the idea of making a short about this place. From then on we started our journey of producing this short film together. It has been a true labor of love, the project has been completely self-funded by us, the directors, with very little budget.


Tell me about Grottaroli.. Is it as its name suggests and made up of grottoes?

Grottaroli are the people who carved the caves. The term comes from “grotta” which means “cave” in Italian. So literally Grottaroli means “Cave people”. These marine caves are the extraordinary result of the work of man guided by fishing needs. Along the coast of Ancona, many caves have been dug over the centuries by the farmers who lived on the upper part of the cliff. First carved to store boats and fishing tools, the caves later became a gathering place. Nowadays, the new generation of cave owners go to the caves only in summer.


What can you tell me about the protagonists of the film?

We wanted to portray the real Grottaroli, the old generation, the men who come here all year round, no matter what the weather conditions are. So we looked for our cast in the winter, the season during which most of the caves are closed. 

The trailer is beautiful. The music and sound of the waves really stood out to me. 

We really wanted to use the beautiful Italian music from the ‘60s, which embraced perfectly the mood and story of our film. “Mare Incantato” by Fausto Papetti, which translates to “The Enchanted Sea,” was the perfect song to portray our 5th character: the sea. The sea is in fact the reason why the caves exist and it’s the thread that connects our four characters.


Did you study filmmaking? Tell me about your path as a visual artist and filmmaker.. I'm also curious about your English because it's great! Did you spend time living abroad?

I didn’t study filmmaking, I studied design which gave me a broad spectrum of skills without focusing on just one expertise. I have always loved cinema and I have always been curious about the world around me. After high school, I remember I wanted to become a photojournalist and travel the world. Then I went to study design and started working as an art director. Over the years I have experimented with different media, but with this project, I realized how interested I am in film-making. In particular, documentary film-making is a beautiful form of art to express your view on the world. Arthur and I had a wonderful experience collaborating together and we are already working on our next project.

Learning English was a long process that started in middle school. I have always been bad at it and I hated it so much. I believe in learning by doing, so when I was 17, I decided to spend one year in Australia to finally learn English. Then during my university studies in Italy, I spent a semester at a university in Bristol and 3 months in NYC for an internship. After I graduated, I moved to Amsterdam where I started working 6 years ago. Now I can finally speak English!!


Which filmmakers have influenced you along the way?

Arthur and I love Werner Herzog. He represents a huge inspiration for both of us. I also love the style of old Italian short documentaries, where it was very much a poetic representation of reality with usually a deep male voice narrating and the people filmed were never interviewed. The shorts by Vittorio de Seta, Cecilia Mangini and Luigi di Gianni all did this on a diverse range of topics. I love when reality is portrayed as poetry. I think poetry can be found everywhere all around us.


Now having this first filmmaking experience under your belt, is there any part of the filmmaking process that you prefer? 

I have to say I loved every part of it. The research is very compelling because it allows you to learn so many new things. Preparing a treatment is also something I love to do because that’s when the idea starts taking some sort of shape. Shooting is probably the most beautiful part but also stressful, because there is not too much time to think. It's definitely something you craft with experience, so I have a long way to go. I really like editing, being able to decide the rhythm and find the most interesting way to connect the pieces together, as well as thinking about what music can let the images say something hidden.


“Grottaroli” will be available to stream June 16 and 17. Click here to learn more about it and to purchase tickets. Click here to watch the trailer.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Marco Pontecorvo's "Fatima" Now in Theaters and Streaming

Marco Pontecorvo’s “Fatima” opened today in theaters across the US.

Based on the true story of the 1917 Marian apparitions reported by three children at the Cova da Iria, in Fátima, Portugal, Pontecorvo’s film offers an adaption for new audiences with modern technology. “The cinemascope format can give back to the audience a much stronger emotion and can make people enjoy the stunning cinematography by Vincenzo Carpineta, as it was intended,” says Pontecorvo. 

The director got involved with the project after producers saw his 2009 feature film,  "Pa-ra-da," that addresses the homeless children issue in post-Ceausescu Romania. The producers were impressed by his direction of the children and suggested he direct “Fatima.” He felt the story was perhaps too religious but had some very appealing narrative angles. “I proposed to them to veer the narrative towards a film that instead of being dogmatic, could have been opened and put the focus on the relevance of this story for the believers and the doubters as well. The doubt element is crucial in this narration. It is a dialectic doubt that is a sign and an occasion of growth for both the different points of view,” he explained.


Pontecorvo offers insight into the performances and storyline of veteran actors Harvey Keitel and Sönia Braga and how it convinced the producers to trust their instincts and bring him onboard. “In the exchange between Harvey Keitel’s character and Sönia Braga’s, they never change their minds but they both grow. To exercise doubt makes you grow wiser. So, I told the producers of the movie that if they were interested in this point of view, I would have been on board. They were because they really wanted this movie to speak to everyone and respect all of the different points of view and perspectives, including mine. I am someone who believes that nature in its grandiose beauty is a representation of God and the divine. That’s why it is so important in this movie.”

“Fatima” is currently playing at AMC theatres nationwide. Click here to purchase tickets. If it’s not playing at a theater near you, click on the image below to stream it on Amazon.

A Word on Contemporary Basilicata

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