Issue 10: Winter 2012

Alberto Grifi and Cesare Zavattini’s Neorealist Legacy for Documentary

David Brancaleone

This is the first in a series of articles by David Brancaleone looking at the surprisingly little-known work and writings of legendary Italian screenwriter and theorist Cesare Zavattini. Experimental Conversations will carry two pieces devoted to this project in this and subsequent issues.

On 20 May 2012 Alberto Grifi's and Massimo Sarchielli's ground-breaking Anna (1971-1972) was shown at the Tate Modern as part of the Alighiero Boetti Game Plan, having only just been restored by the Italian Cineteca Nazionale in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna. It was experimental, long considered a classic, and, for some (namely, veteran film critic Adriano Aprà), even a work of art. Nowadays, to make such a film would not be as remarkable as it was at the beginning of the 1970s, based as it was on three months' of life and interviews in Sarchielli's flat in Rome with a sixteen-year old pregnant girl, a drug addict called Anna whom the two had met in Piazza Navona (1). But what is key from the point of view of experimental film history was filming eleven hours of cheap ¼ inch Akea video, something virtually impossible until then, given the prohibitive cost of film stock. Three years later, the two transferred four and a half hours of video tape onto film, using a vidigrafo, a machine invented by Grifi (2).


Alberto Grifi at work

The edited film was shown in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim and then at Cannes. Aprà saw it as the next step, after the lessons of cinéma vérité documentary filming had been absorbed by filmmakers; firstly, because it used the cheaper video camera, which let you film under no pressure of cost or time (hence the 11 hours of filming). And, secondly, and more importantly, because exploiting the technological shift provided the ideal conditions to engage with the subject in documentary filmmaking, having removed what was left of the physical barriers to spontaneity and immediacy that the industry's larger film cameras presented. This was an amazing feat, given the circumstances. To give a sense of the scale of their contribution, Roberto Silvestri, opinion column journalist and author, writing in 2006, has no doubts that Grifi and Sarchielli made a "dynamite film" against the spectacle of Hollywood and the spectacle of European auteur documentaries, rescuing the real from the world of fantasy, and did so with no model of film-form to guide them. As for Silvestri's swipe at high profile directors like Jean-Luc Godard or Chris Marker, their work doesn't really fit so neatly into the idea of a commercial 'spectacle' nor was it in those years an integral part of Hollywood, since at that time they were making very unspectacular work indeed, each of them having formed film collectives to make revolutionary films just before and in the years after 1968.

But his main point is to signal their importance within an Italian and international film context, with the only parallels being in Japanese and German counter-culture film practice (he names Shinsuke Ogawa, Gerd Conradt, Klaus Rath, Werner Nitzsche or Holger Meins). But even then, he qualifies; such influence would only be of an improbable telepathic kind (3). Finally, there is no mention here of Cesare Zavattini. The point is that, as recently as 2006, even in Italy, Zavattini's legacy for film-form and his substantive and sustained critique of mainstream Hollywood cinema, is still suppressed, ignored, or limited to the early postwar years of Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, Vittorio De Sica, 1948) or Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952) fame.

In an interview, Aprà claims that it was Sarchielli's and Grifi's merit alone in Italy to understand the revolutionary potential of videotape and that Grifi's starting point was the counterculture and underground film culture. Aprà is keen to create a divide between cinéma-vérité and underground cinema, which latter he had championed at the time. But Grifi and Sarchielli's work emerges from a different mileu, only partly influenced by the American underground (it is true that Living Theatre and other groups were passing through in those years, for example). Yet Aprà is categorical:

"That film represents a first, not only in Italy - where radical documentary had never taken root - but also in the context of cinéma vérité or direct cinema, of which it is the head stone as it were or the definitive master work. Grifi - even though he calls himself a follower of Zavattini - certainly only of the theorist who imagined an empathetic involvement of the filmmaker towards the subject, and certainly not of Zavattini the weak filmmaker - is the son of Rouch, of the Canadians, of the Maysles brothers, but he embodies their most radical streak, exasperating it and making himself a saboteur of the film form and of the traditional documentary genre. He needs video both to overcome 16mm, except when he needs it for distribution, and to open up his own personal, unexplored path into the beyond of cinema." (4)

However, though Za is cropped out of the picture by the authoritative or authoritarian Aprà, Grifi himself has acknowledged Zavattini's legacy, for example, in this revealing statement, made in a speech in Perugia in 2000:

"Then (since you grow up), at one point I felt the need to leave the family cottage industry and take a look around. Everyone was saying it: you need to go and see Zavattini! This was the A&E of Italian cinema! Political conscientization! So, I became a habitual visitor to his open house. At the same time I was pursuing American film stars on my Vespa down Via Veneto - because I was working now as a paparazzo, now as a photographer for painters, or for fashion or aeronautics - that is when I discovered that this profession might even become a means to seeing more clearly what others didn't want to look at; having being numbed by the atom bomb and immobilised by poverty during the 1960s boom years, when there was a fridge in every home, but empty, since no one had any money to spare to buy food... this was the time when the Celere police squads shot at workers who protested in the street asking for bread and a job... Well, it was worthwhile carrying on with this job with one proviso, that: 'the cinema is capable of changing life with courage, with impassioned struggle, because it is life we have to build'".

"That was a sentence, almost a rallying cry, that the Great Old Man kept repeating obsessively, springing up and down on the divan and disturbing the neighbours. It was a kind of warning for me, a forewarning as harsh as truth: so much so that it was only years later in the nick that I understood certain fundamental truths, things they'd never dream of teaching in film schools..." (5)

What is lacking, therefore, is a serious recognition of Zavattini's legacy, including his working relationship with Grifi, a point which was first made by the editor of Zavattini's unpublished film scripts and treatments, Roberta Mazzoni. There seems to have been a break between the postwar theorist and filmmaker's campaigning for a responsible and participative cinema and the experimental but a-political formalism of the Italian avant-garde of the time (Gruppo 63 to which Umberto Eco belonged and to which also Pier Paolo Pasolini was opposed), between the Italian counter-information movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the international influence of European and American underground counter-culture.

The fact is that Grifi was more than a regular visitor to Zavattini's place in Via Merici. To be specific, in 1963 (together with Francesco Aluffi, Roberto Capanna, Giorgio Maulini, Umberto Monaci, Pier Luigi Murgia, Andrea Ranieri, Vittorio Armentano, and Marcello Bollero), Grifi had collaborated with Zavattini on the collective project directed by Zavattini himself, the dossier-film Perché? (Why?). That script, moreover, was first published in 1979 (and re-issued on Za's centenary, in 2002).

James Devereaux