Issue 10: Winter 2012

Grifi Worked With Zavattini: The Film Project

David Brancaleone

This is the second 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.

In January 1963 Alberto Grifi and his friend Giorgio Maulini called on the screenwriter, journalist, novelist and broadcaster Cesare Zavattini, one of the father figures of Italian Neorealism, at his home in Via Merici in Rome, hoping he'd finance a film project. Za came up with an alternative: the documentary film Why?. The plan was to make a dossier film collaboratively which would result from interviews with people of the same generation as Maulini and Grifi about their relation to the older generation of their fathers, of people like Za. It was never produced, but Grifi, Maulini, and some other youngsters collaborated to produce a script, working collectively with Zavattini. Excerpts from this script appear below accompanied by excerpts from Zavattini's diary (published only a few days later, in the Communist magazine Rinascita where Za had a regular column entitled 'Zavattini's Diary' (Diario di Zavattini).

Grifi & Zavattini

Alberto Grifi & Cesare Zavattini

21 January 1963. The day before, I spoke to two youngsters who are about twenty-three years old and looking for money to make a short of around 700 metres about housing problems. They had some pretty sharp ideas on the modern trend for all kinds of phenomena I am not in a position to elaborate on. I observed them; they seemed one big question mark. At one point, I said: "Let's make a film called Why? With you and some others, all about twenty to twenty-five." The inspiration (what else could I call it?) came to me from their eyes; from how they were judging me. There are so many dossiers on young people and so few on the old; on the older generation seen from the point of view of the young. The way they see us, how they listen to us, how they interpret us. But we are afraid of getting to know how they judge us, out of fear. The world is in our hands, we run it. But why do we govern it in such a way? With the tone of ministers speaking into a mic, just after getting off a plane? Why have we let the world get to the edge of the void? Why? Why? Why? Worn out whys, but they are new ones if they come from the new generation and I would beware of suggesting even a single one. We won't give them a single metre of film until they have collected sack loads of 'whys' among their peers and have emptied them out in front of us. We will listen, alternating despair with the sudden pleasure a real discovery brings, even when it hits us with its violence. It could even be that by the end of the process, they will grow old and we young. I would like to get thirty or so of them together in a large room and eavesdrop on them. (If I were in their midst to hear their conversations, the conversations would change).

With a pencil we tried to do some calculations. Maulini and Grifi were saying: "We'll eat in any old place, we'll sleep in the fields." But you need eight or nine million liras. Maybe we will succeed and beat the record for the lowest budget film. Is there a madman willing to take the risk? The two had just left when A.T. turned up. I mentioned the pressing questions; outspoken, tantamount to a trial; an assault which I thought would come from these youngsters. Less than two days later Renato Nicolai phones from Bologna (the long chime of long distance calls has been done away with. So you are spared the emotional turmoil). Nicolai amazes me: "I've heard from A.T. yesterday in Rome of the plan for the film Why?" Nicolai is in the midst of a film organization started in Porretta Terme, in the free atmosphere of that festival. [...] So Nicolai is coming on Thursday and we are going to take a close look at the project. I must confess that the fact that money from Reggio Emilia is going to kick start the project increases my satisfaction. Those two youngsters have become five already, and while I write they're in a coffee bar talking and blaming us.

Two months later, the scope of the project had grown. Zavattini published a second article in the magazine Rinascita to report on its progress. It is clearly a dossier film, consistent with a film aesthetic which Zavattini had begun to develop since the late 1930s. Why? sought to discover the nature of the gap between generations, specifically within the Italian context of the early 1960s. Was it only down to age difference? How did young people view the war generation? Had it kept faith to its promise of social and political renewal? Could it be held responsible for not having delivered radical change to Italian society after Fascism? This, essentially, was the thinking behind the project, stemming partly from Za's direct contact with the next generation of filmmakers and partly from a quarter of a century of experimental thinking (Za also had to make ‘conventional' films for a living, from the later 1950s on, which makes it difficult to situate him).

Rome, 26 March 1963. I have already published the news in Rinascita about a film some young people are working on, a film which is the outcome of their questions and those of many other young people whom they interviewed in Naples, Milan, and other places. I spent a few evenings happily surrounded by the heat of their questions and making some measure of progress in the harsh discipline of listening to other people. I must remind my readers that these youngsters want to use the film to put on trial the generation of twenty-five year olds and upwards, which they will soon join, and probably have to sacrifice the surprise and indignation that animates them at the moment.

Thus they intend to take advantage of this incandescent moment to throw into the pond their interviews and related questions which are undoubtedly useful because they are genuine. But what emerges is not something - I wish to say this at the outset - quarrelsome and presumptuous, nor the usual finger pointing at the older generation just for the sake of it, or out of intellectual laziness, or transient fury. There is, rather, at bottom, a bitterness, which stems perhaps from feeling that all the mistakes of this era are so vast, so all-embracing, that they grow in size and envelop them at one and the same time that they are in the act of judgment; for which reason, although they began as judges, they are aware of the fact that by the end of the trial, they could be on the opposite side.

But I would not wish to anticipate the ideas of these young people, first of all because, in seeking a specific cinematic form of expression, they will shape it and give it deeper significance; and secondly, because I would risk confusing myself with them, when what I am most interested in, and this is exhilarating, is to shadow them and, if anything, not anticipate their moves but make a note of their experience; and this is possibly the first time in my life when I try not to interfere too much with the autonomous unfolding of other people's lives.

I heard some whys as ancient as mankind and whys linked to the most ephemeral casuistry; some are unrivalled in their naivety and others alarming, poignant. I shall cite a handful (they've collected about a thousand of whys among their peers from all social classes and now they are working through them with a view to select those which, taken as a whole, sum up our era), but since I don't have all the papers to hand, I shan't quote them verbatim, the exact words, the language which is so important. [...] "How can you speak of disarmament in an environment in which there is so much mutual diffidence and such dread dominates?" "Why is it that your education system, both public and private, having pointed out the evil, implicitly or explicitly, tends to educate us in defending that evil and never to struggle to be rid of it?" I could go on for hours.

I've noticed that the theme of cinema is quite rare (but I have yet to work through a pile of papers). I do think though that the concept of cinema no longer developing as a history of cinema, but as a history of culture, is not easy to disseminate (allow me to elaborate: we should not consider problems as new within cinema, only if cinema engages or fails to engage with them, but because they really are a new phenomenon in terms of culture), in as much as it involves far too radical transformations in our customary relation to the sphere of entertainment in general terms, and with its economic and management structures, as has already been pointed out.

In a society in which group collaboration supports all kinds of activities, a group of young people seeks to make a film entitled Perché?. They are in agreement essentially on the themes and their interpretation. A film in which one generation, today's youth, challenges another, the one they issue from, engaging in questions which are either forgotten or buried from view by a historic context which coincides with the events of our century and two world wars. This vital relationship with the real protagonists of human experience, in diverse locations does not wish to form an ill-defined protest or a cold document of casual improvisation; rather, it seeks to capture the contemporary event of the human landscape in Italy, both logically and organically, and intentional in its social, political, cultural and ideological aspects. A dialogue between two generations which coexist, one filtered by independent reflection.

Some of the questions collected in the streets:

Why is so much money spent on publicity? Why do people on trams and buses always take out their frustration on the drivers and the ticket collectors of an inefficient transport system? Why does television dish out nineteenth-century drama and refuse to bring to our attention the most significant works of our time? Why have you never read a book? Why did you do exceptional things during the war but then you returned to the habits of your petty, living death? Why didn't you say to me "it is like this for these reasons", instead of saying: "this is how it is"? Why do you compromise? So the war failed to resolve anything; you speak of war, of death, of fascism, of Resistance, but then you failed to uproot the ills of society. [...] Why, after the tragic experience of the war, and the moral values of the Resistance, the economic recovery, does the Mafia still exist in Sicily, adultery still exist, class divisions, illiteracy, scandals... There is as much censorship as before the war, racism still exists, evictions of the elderly, the sick abandoned to their own devices, stinking housing, the abysmal divide between North and South?

The film will have two sides to it: the first will show the official story of the real; it will be organized cinematically using archive footage, photographs, speeches and so on. The second will clash dramatically with the first, its anatomy the end result of the intervention of significant events. [...] Focusing in on a train in the South and a family of emigrants, we begin a friendly conversation. Why have they left their village? What does it mean to face this journey? They tell us of where they have lived, their luggage; of how people look at them; the ticket collector; the relationship between them and the bigger problems in Italy, the question of war...

An investigation about an investigation. [...] A television crew decides to make an investigative programme about the conflict between private property and the working class, such as for example: the conditions of miners in Sardinia who, in a landscape bleached by the sun and surrounded by luxury homes of the mine's owners, blocked the road with their bodies during the Giro di Sardegna bicycle tour to protest [...] Seeing the crew in action. The criteria for choosing interviewees; the most poignant cuts to filming; how the interviewees behave when they see themselves in the broadcast programme; especially when they realize that part of what they said was edited out, obviously considered compromising. We will film these parts of the dialogues which television censorship will interrupt. We will continue with what television has not done; go deeper into the issues of the working class in its genuine and tragic aspects.

James Devereaux