Talking With Gillo Pontecorvo
Italy's Gillo Pontecorvo, our modern-day Eisenstein, forged back-to-back revolutionary classics, The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Burn! (1969), which were championed-and even studied for combat strategy-by campus radicals confronting the Vietnam War and by Black Panther cadres fighting the police.
In 1974, Pontecorvo, interviewed for Cineaste magazine, announced an upcoming film on the life of Jesus Christ. The Christ film never rose up, and that was the last that America heard of movies by this fervent, masterful filmmaker. When he came here, it was quietly, to visit a brother who lives outside Boston. But Pontecorvo, residing in Rome, still struggled to put together ambitious film projects. If he was unhappy and disappointed about his less-than-prolific career, it didn't show. In 1993, this smiling, ebullient man with the humor-adoring blue eyes resurfaced at age 72 as the newly appointed Director of the Venice International Film Festival.
The interview below was conducted in two parts, with a two-year break in between. The first part happened at Pontecorvo's hotel when he was on the jury of the 1991 Berlin Film Festival. The second part occurred during a breakfast at the 1993 Istanbul Film Festival, soon after Pontecorvo had taken over at Venice.
I shamelessly asked: Could Pontecorvo find a way to invite me as a journalist guest, even though the festival was low on funds? "Do you see that ashtray over there?" Pontecorvo joked in reply. "That ashtray has a better chance to end up at Venice than you do."
Part 1-Berlin, February 1991
Q- Everyone asks, why have you directed so few movies?
A- It's true I make one film every eight or nine years. I am like an impotent man, who can make love only to a woman who is completely right for him. I can only make a movie in which I am totally in love. If you had the list of films I've refused - The Mission, Bethune, etc., you'd have a telephone book.
When I do a film, they pay me very well. I live modestly, and I can live ten years in Rome on what I am paid for a film. My wife agrees to live with me modestly, but to be very free. We are very close. She teaches music aesthetics at a conservatory, and, if I ever changed professions, I'd push to be a composer. I like music more than movies.
I play piano very badly, but enough to write a score. I wrote the music for all my documentaries, and for Kapo and The Battle of Algiers. In my opinion, a film is a synthesis of form and content, but a synthesis based on a counterpoint of sound and image. It's not always that the visual image is more important than the sound image. In writing my next film, I've changed four scenes because of the music.
Q- Few in America have seen your 1979 feature, Ogro, or The Tunnel.
A- It's the contemporary story of the Basque fight for independence. I don't consider it a good film. I was telling a story of an act of terrorism against Franco as the same time I was strongly against the 1978 terrorist death of Aldo Moro. You can feel it in the film, that I am contradictory.
Because of European stars Gian Maria Volonte and Angelina Molina, Ogro made money in Italy and I won the prize in Italy that year for Best Direction. Critics were divided. In Spain, right-wing people threw things at the screen, so they had to stop showing it.
Q- Could you talk about your brilliant casting in Burn!, using a non-actor as the West Indian guerilla leader, Jose Dolores, opposite Marlon Brando.
A- It was a fight! United Artists wanted me to use Sidney Poitier. I didn't want to, though I like him as an actor, because his face wasn't wild. Then I went looking to off-Broadway for black actors. I didn't find the right one.
In Colombia, during a location scout, we were searching for a forest to burn. We drove very far into the wild in a jeep. Suddenly we saw this peasant man on a horse. This is the face I'd been looking for for four months. But instead of coming to me, he ran away! It was very hot, people around me were furious when I said, 'Sorry, we have to find this man.' We asked the local chief to order the playing of a drum. All the people came out, including this man, Evaristo Marquez. He'd never seen a movie but he understood money. He said, "OK."
I called Marlon on his island. He said, "If you believe he's right, don't worry about me." We saw that Marquez was very good photographically, but then, God help us! At first during the shooting, Brando was very generous. But after many days with Marquez, he was frustrated and tired. One scene required 41 takes. Brando was so furious that phlegm was coming out of his nose.
Q- What happened to Marquez?
A- He made two films later on, and he was very bad in them. But he came home as a rich peasant and bought a lot of cows.
Q- What are your thoughts now on Brando, who once said to Life magazine about you, "I would like to kill him"?
A- I like Brando very much, even if I fought strongly against him, and he strongly against me, making Burn! We finished the film without a handshake. But two years later, I decided he was a profound, sympathetic man, so my wife and I sent a postcard saying, "Merry Christmas." He didn't answer, so I thought, "I don't like this man any more."
Yet five years late, he recommended to Columbia Pictures that we make a film together, with Brando playing a lawyer for the Indians. I went to LA and said to Brando, "You are crazier than I think. If we go on the set, we'll fight again." He said. "No, no, you are the right person to make this movie."
It was a very strong story, written by Abby Mann, and I worked to adapt it. I had the marvelous experience to live in a hut for twenty days on an Oglaga Sioux reservation in South Dakota, near Wounded Knee. I liked these people, who were so very attentive to political problems. They were also so very poor. Yet when I went away, they gave me a present covered over with paper. On the plane, I opened it and found a new blanket I recognized from one of the beds. It was very moving.
Q- why wasn't the picture made?
A- It's a supposition of mine that Brando signed over his control of this film property to the Indians! (Laughs.) If you have a genius like Brando, if you choose a genius like Brando, you have to give him space for creativity... though not when it goes outside the lines of the script. Still, he remains for me the greatest actor ever to play in movies. Also, he's a very deep and nice person. Just a little crazy. (Laughs.) Write that!
Q- Would you talk about the film you have been writing?
A- It's a love story set in the North of Italy during World War I about a priest for the military who falls in love with a girl, and fights against feeling this love. The film is terribly against war. In the script, there's a line, "Incest once was allowed and then became taboo. Why, in the future, won't war become a taboo?" The man who says this is a sympathetic anarchist.
This film would be extremely costly, so my producer suggests I choose stars. The actor I prefer is De Niro, but I don't think he is right for the role. My idea is to contact Kevin Costner and Julia Roberts. Costner has a very clean face - I've seen him in Field of Dreams, Dancing with Wolves, and The Untouchables - so he's right for the priest.
Seeing Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, I thought she's not right. But she impressed me very much in Flatliners. She's incredible: all those changes! The young girl in my story is dying, with three months to live. She's passing from laughing to crying, she's very fragile. A very good role for a woman.
So I'm coming to the States for the casting. These actors I want are young. Perhaps they don't know my films, especially not Julia Roberts.
Part 2 - Istanbul, April 1993
Q- What's the progress on your anti-war World War I movie, tentatively entitled The Sin?
A- I'm not sure I'll be able to make it. It's a very expensive film, including a battle scene at Capureto involving 1,000 people. We need a great star, not a half-star, but someone like Costner or Pacino. No, I haven't talked to Julia Roberts. I did get the script to two great male stars. If they do it, we do it, but I don't consider it probable. So I'm writing a different script, Signals, a very unusual interior kind of story. It's about a man who feels these signs more and more often that indicate "the nostalgia for protection." I have very, very quick flashes to the only period when he feels really protected: at age one, three, four. . .
Q- Just who is this man?
A- That's not important. It's someone not very intellectual... a "normal" man. The only thing I know is that it is connected very much with the kind of music I've been composing now. I'll have something in six months to show. But as you realize, I make a film very seldom.
Q- But you did make a TV documentary last year revisiting the people and locales of The Battle of Algiers.
A- It was not exactly a documentary. It was my on-camera return 25 years later to Algeria but to a completely different situation there. I made a one-hour short, shot in six days. My lead actor, Yacef Saadi, was still there. We spoke, he gave me advice, and he showed me the situation in the Casbah. It was useful for the filming to have such a friend.
The program was on prime time in Italy. It proved a great curiosity since few had ever seen the Casbah from the inside. Because of the film 25 years earlier, the Algerians let me go wherever I wanted. They were very kind to let me film in prison. We even shot inside a mosque and at a Muslim burial. When I went to the university, I argued strongly with a young fundamentalist student, and some people there were for, others were against. There was nearly a fight.
My son, Marco, was the cameraman. He was 26, but had been in the city of Algiers before, in my wife's belly. Nevertheless, he'd seen it...
Q- Through a veil.
A- (Laughs.) Yes!
Q- Did you reach a political conclusion for your documentary about the current situation in Algeria?
A- I was not sure of my impression, because in six days you can only be superficial. I spoke with the president of Algeria - it's in the film - and he said something very impressive. Because a month later, he was killed, we don't know by whom. He said, "I don't know if I'm able to finish the job, to bring Algeria in the right way. But even if I don't do it, the people of Algeria and the youth," - he underlined very much "youth" - "will have the strength to pass through."
Q- So what he said is very much like your message in The Battle of Algiers and Burn!
A- Yes, the same idea.
Q- Would you consider a version for the English-speaking market?
A- It would be very hard to subtitle, because the characters speak French and Arabic. The program was dubbed and synchronized at Cannes, and I hate this kind of mechanical dubbing. When you do something that looks like stolen reality, you have to prepare a thousand times more. If I don't put the right sound, the right noise, in the right moment, it gives me a stomach pain.
But I do know there's interest. A thousand journalists asked for interviews when it played Italy.
Q- Probably the biggest change in your life since the last time we talked is that you recently became the Director of the Venice Film Festival. Why would you assume such a position?
A- A lot of us felt that, as film "authors," our work was losing fascination and going, year after year, downward. Each time that we met - Italians, French, Americans, etc. - we'd think sadly about these things, how, with 99% of film as entertainment and/or communication, we have less and less space in which to operate. Having the chance to direct Venice, I told myself, "We have to stop this useless melancholy, We have to give a new face to the Festival as an open space for film artists... if possible, "the capitol of authors."
Last year at Venice we had a preparatory meeting of Authors which was very crowded. Nine Oscar winners, including Bruce Beresford and Volker Schlondorff, nine Venice Golden Lion winners, seven Cannes' prize winners, and a Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's not that I'm a good organizer - I'm a very bad organizer! - but the idea was very important: how to return to Cinema with a capital C, with protection of the rights of Authors, and with open space for art movies, works like Breathless and Paisan which enrich humanity.
Q- As Venice director, how do you deal with mainstream film?
A- There is a degradation of entertainment movies. They have become childish, with quick, obsessive editing, and many special effects. They don't tell us anything. At Venice, we have to fight against this standardization. We try to find, even among the big productions, the ones that are more personal.
I began now, in April, and the first film I chose was Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Also, Scorsese told me of The Age of Innocence, "I'll give you this film." I said, "Very good. As soon as you finish, send it to me."
Q- Didn't you just take it?
A- No, I'll never take a film without seeing it, even if it was made by Jesus Christ. And I like Scorsese very, very much. I consider him near to Jesus Christ! (Laughs.)
Q- And what of recent Italian cinema?
A- Until about three years ago, our cinema was every year getting worse, worse, worse, from the highest moment of neorealism. But we are beginning to have an Italian cinema to defend. I really liked Stolen Children. I think of Ricci Tognazzi, Marco Rissi, perhaps Salvatores. They are parents of a new way of realism. They open, at last, the eyes of reality and find the poetry.
Of course, we still have the great ones like the Tavianis, Bertolucci, Rosi, Scola, and old ones like me. But the sign is that something is finally rising again. I am much more optimistic.
Q- Will you stay one at Venice forever?
A- No, no, no, no. Not even if they cut off my balls.