Cesare Zavattini: Sequences from a Cinematic Life
Cesare Zavattini’s name is not immediately familiar in the way of the director Vittorio de Sica’s. Yet together they created many of the neorealist films that defined Italian postwar cinema, among them Sciuscià (Shoeshine), Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) and Umberto D. His work prior to the end of World War II was largely forgettable, though he had a hand in the writing of I Nostri Sogni (Our Dreams), a 1943 film in which de Sica both starred and received a writing credit. The following year, Zavattini was part of a team of writers behind I Bambini ci Guardano (The Children Are Watching Us), the first time he contributed writing to a film de Sica directed. Two years later came Shoeshine, and The Bicycle Thief two years after that. He observed once that “Cinema is that phenomenon of collaboration where each tries to erase all the traces of the work of the others,” but he was speaking only of the work which appears on screen. Without question an abiding fondness and loyalty marked his relationship with De Sica. In fact the only meaningful record we have of Zavattini’s life in English, a volume culled from his journals and entitled Cesare Zavattini: Sequences from a Cinematic Life, opens fittingly, with a dedication, “To Vittorio De Sica.”
This is not to suggest, however, that he was dependent on De Sica for his ideas, or to Zavattini has been described as “the central theoretician of neorealism,” and his remarks in a 1953 Sight and Sound interview make it clear why. His view of the medium contains nothing romantic. If anything, it’s baldly practical, but it demonstrates his commitment to presenting audiences with uncomfortable truths, even if that meant wrapping those truths in a veneer of narrative:
The most important characteristic, and the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism, it seems to me, is to have realised that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts.
Keep in mind that this still seems to have been a concession on Zavattini’s part. He was a keen observer, a newspaper man before his work writing films, and the everyday, the unscripted, held endless appeal for him. It’s easy to imagine him today, roaming the streets and shooting documentaries on a shoestring budget and coming away with remarkable results, but fictional narrative was king then, even more so than today. Sequences from a Cinematic Life, a condensed volume of his journals, opens with this sketch of “A Film I’d Like to Make”:
My Home Town. A cameraman, an electrician, a grip, the assistant director, and me – we’d live there for four or five months, and it would cost very little, just the film. The plot? The action? I haven’t any, everything seems dust and ashes compared to these three or four months in my town, surrounded by about fifty children to whom I could say in dialect “ver la boca da peu (open your mouth wider).”
This is not to suggest that he recorded only fanciful ideas for potentially dull films. His eye for detail, for the heartbreaking tableau, is on full display. Of a conversation with a friend, he remembers, “I tried to console him. He’s bald, and last night at the Fiamma Theater he realized that directly behind him his mistress of twenty years before was sitting. She surely did nothing but stare at his bald head and his wrinkles.” Or this picture of a widow on the day her husband’s coffin is prepared:
There was a corpse, about two years ago, and the solderer was soldering the zinc coffin in the entrance hall two hours before the funeral. That noise barely broke the death-silence and the summer-silence weighing on the house in Luzzara; all of a sudden somebody was heard coming down the steps with a tinny click-clack, slamming, and sighing; it was the widow with a little kettle over her arm. Removing it she said, in a faint voice: “While you’re about it, put a drop of lead over this hole.”
It’s hard to overstate the sheer amount of life recorded here, sometimes in striking arrangement thanks to the choices by editor William Weaver. For instance, the coffin scene immediately gives way to this:
With [silent film actress] Francesca Bertini at the Grand Hotel. I say that she is still a great actress and a beautiful woman; she stands up and slowly runs her hands down over her hips, starting with the ribs and coming down to the hips themselves, with her head in profile. Then she sits down and we look at each other, smiling.
What writer couldn’t stand to learn from his restraint and implication here, his confidence that a few well-chosen details will convey all?
In his memoir Burning the Days, the writer James Salter writes of meeting Zavattini in Italy. This was likely the late ’60s, when Salter was in the country directing Three and writing The Appointment for Sidney Lumet. By the time Salter met him, Zavattini had been writing films for more than three decades. Salter knew his work and was “prepared to greatly admire him,” but Zavattini didn’t cut the expected figure. “He was bald, and wore a baggy blue suit of the kind that has buttons on the fly,” Salter recalls. “He was disheartened. ‘The cinema has failed,’ he said.” A debatable statement, given all that we’ve seen since, but no doubt Zavattini had his reasons for reaching such a conclusion. He had racked up dozens of screen credits as a writer by that time, and a total of more than one-hundred by the time of his death. That failure may simply have been a matter of the industry moving in a different direction from what he preferred, placing more emphasis on artifice and downplaying what he called “living social facts,” but he knew what he felt. Nonetheless, Salter viewed his work as vital, and Truman Capote called him “the single original literary figure for which films can assume credit.” Whether Capote’s is an accurate assessment or an exaggeration, Zavattini offered much for viewers to savor. His journals are a feast in their own right. They are admittedly uneven at times, as such documents tend to be. This is especially true when Zavattini’s politics take center stage. Still, the balance tips far toward Zavattini the writer, the man with the sharp eye for the singular detail. There is no finer argument for seeking out the volume than Zavattini’s retelling of how he met his wife:
I took shelter in a doorway, from the house opposite came the notes of a waltz, the rain stopped and on the balcony of that house a young girl appeared dressed in yellow. I couldn’t see her clearly up there, perhaps it was the odor of the dust raised by the downpour, perhaps the glistening of the drainpipes as the sun reappeared (we are followed on tiptoe by someone who makes the clouds, causes noises in the streets only so that they will drive us where it suits him, but in such a way that we blame the clouds and the noises). The girl on the balcony dropped a handkerchief, I ran to pick it up, then rushed through the door, up the steps. At the top of them the girl was waiting. “Thank you,” she said. “What’s your name?” I asked, out of breath. “Anna,” she answered, and vanished. I wrote her a letter of a kind I’ve never written again in my life; a year later we were married. We are happy; Maria, Anna’s sister, visits us often, they love each other and are very similar; even their faces are alike. One day, we talked about that summer afternoon, about how Anna and I met. “I was on the balcony,” Maria said, “and all of a sudden I dropped my handkerchief. Anna was playing the piano. I said to her, ‘I dropped my handkerchief, a man is bringing it up.’ She was less shy than I was, she went to the door and met you. I remember as if it were yesterday, we were both wearing yellow dresses.
Glorious. The book is out of print – the director’s name lives on, and the actors’, far longer than the writer’s – but easy enough to find and well worth the very modest price. It’s a dusty, forgotten little gem, the likes of which we see too rarely.
– John McIntyre
All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.