The hour of the birth of death

June 26, 1998

Pontecorvo's long silence and the demise of political film-making

The Battle of Algiers (1966), Gillo Pontecorvo's masterly account of the suppression of the liberation movement in Algeria's capital from 1954 to 1957, was shot with hand-held cameras, at medium length, in black and white, on special stock. It so resembled newsreel that its American distributors felt obliged to add an ambiguous disclaimer: "This dramatic re-enactment of the Battle of Algiers contains not one foot of newsreel or documentary film." It was condemned by Jimmy Breslin and praised by the Black Panthers for the same reason: Algiers showed a marginalized people using violence against the violence of the State. The Algerians were not simply victims or saints. The French were not mere villains. Left-wing critics in France accused Pontecorvo of eliciting sympathy for the French para-troop commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Philippe Mathieu. Algiers was banned in France and, for a time, in Britain. French fascists bombed cinemas showing the film elsewhere in Europe. In America, it was co-opted to support 1960s black urban violence. The prosecution in one trial in New York presented the film as evidence against thirteen Black Panthers on the grounds they had used it as a training manual in guerrilla tactics. It continues, too, to influence the work of other directors, among them Oliver Stone, Costa-Gavras, Bertolucci and Spielberg.

The producer David Puttnam was captivated by Algiers, but forcibly reminded of the film's commercial limitations while planning an epic based on Edgar Snow's The Long March. Pontecorvo was the only director Puttnam believed capable of dramatizing Mao Tse Tung's wartime procession across China. To persuade studio executives in Los Angeles to back the project, he invited them to a screening of The Battle of Algiers. The lights went down, the projector went on, and the executives fled. There had been similar problems financing Algiers. No studio would touch what Pontecorvo called "a film about Arabs". He had to set up his own company, Igor Films, to make it as he wanted. In the event, Algiers repaid its $800,000 budget within weeks of the Italian premiere, and its success won him a contract with United Artists in Hollywood to direct Burn!

The making of Burn! pitted Hollywood against a political iconoclast. Pontecorvo won the first battle, resisting studio pressure to cast Steve McQueen as the British colonial agent, Sir William Walker, and Sidney Poitier as Jose Delores, leader of a slave revolt on the Spanish island colony of Queimada. Pontecorvo held out for Marlon Brando and a black Colombian peasant farmer, Evaristo Marquez. But Pontecorvo found himself at war with Brando as well. Brando hated the chaotic working habits of the Italian crew, and he nearly came to blows with the cameraman, Marcello Gatti. Pontecorvo insisted that Brando play exactly as directed. In one scene, without forewarning Brando, he cut the actor's dialogue. Musicians played Bach's Cantata 156, while Brando wordlessly conveyed William Walker's sense of futility. The Italian crew were so moved they applauded. But Brando, who hated Colombia, left the set and went back to Los Angeles. He forced Pontecorvo to resume production in the more congenial, and expensive, surroundings of Morocco.

As Burn! went over budget, United Artists demanded concessions. Fearing that the Spanish Government would ban the film and prevent UA from using Spain as a location for other projects, studio executives made Queimada into a Portuguese colony (though Portugal, of course, had no Caribbean colonies). Pontecorvo was given eight weeks to edit the film, leaving him no time to work on the musical score as he had done with Ennio Morricone for Algiers. UA also demanded final edit. For the American release, the studio hired a trailer producer, Andy Kuehn, to cut the film by twenty-five minutes. One reviewer wrote that it "was shortened by the simple expedient of cutting a few minutes from the end of each reel!" Edward Said has called The Battle of Algiers and Burn! "the two greatest political films ever made". The second film expanded the themes of the first; in Queimada, the island's slaves achieve independence, with British assistance, from Portugal. (Britain moves quickly, however, to deprive them of freedom and return them to work on the plantations supplying sugar to the English.) Pontecorvo was shooting Burn! in Colombia when the American Academy nominated him as Best Director for The Battle of Algiers in 1969. Algiers, for which he co-wrote the script and the music, received two other Oscar nominations, Best Foreign Film and Best Screenplay. Pontecorvo had already won the Golden Lion for Best Picture at Venice. This kind of official recognition meant that he could write his own ticket in Rome and Hollywood. But after Burn! he disappeared, until 1979, when he re-emerged with the low budget Ogro, about Spain's Basque terrorists and the 1973 assassination of General Franco's interior minister, Luis Carrero Blanco. Ogro was released in Italy, but without success. Pontecorvo subsequently told the writer Corinne Lucas: "I hope that I'm not going to wait another ten years before I make my next film." That was nearly twenty years ago.

Pontecorvo has rejected more than sixty screenplays, made plans to direct a dozen films, and arranged finance with producers. His only real directing work has been the occasional television commercial. The rest of the time, he plays tennis and golf. At home in Rome, there is a small plaque in his study which reads: "I've spent most of my life fishing. The rest of it I've just wasted." The mystery of Gillo Pontecorvo's silence haunts his admirers. Edward Said's 1990 documentary for Channel Four, Gillo Ponte-corvo: The dictatorship of truth, attempted to explain why the great film-maker no longer made films. Said speculated that Pontecorvo's trademarks - political themes and non-professional actors - frightened producers. But the director himself told me: "I begin to write a story. I am enthusiastic. After two months of writing, I ask myself a dramatic question, 'Why make this film?' In that moment, it's finished. I've written thirty-five films, and I've abandoned them all." Such inertia, combined with the passing of directors like Rossellini and Visconti, has meant the death in Italy, as in Hollywood, of political film. Why does no one make serious political films any more? "Because", Pontecorvo says, "(our) certainties have failed. And to make an epic film you can be wrong about the idea behind the film, but you must believe it strongly. Then maybe you will communicate. Now, everyone is uncertain."

The certainties that motivated anti-colonial struggles in Algeria and Vietnam have vanished, as have the films they inspired. Our post-colonial reality is of foreign domination and tyranny, as in Algeria, where the ruling party cancelled elections it would have lost. "They stole their victory", Pontecorvo has said of the Algerian Government, with whom he worked closely on Algiers in 1965. "But I hesitate to say whether that's a good or bad thing. It's a choice between plague and cholera. If the FIS (the Islamic fundamentalist party) came to power, that would be very serious. It's cholera. So, it's a sad situation." For Pontecorvo, as for many of his generation, activism - indeed, activity - appears to have given way to self-doubt and introspection.

Born in Pisa in 1919, Gillo Pontecorvo grew up as a Jew in Benito Mussolini's Italy, with its political terror and institutionalized anti-Semitism. The Pontecorvos were a big family: Gillo was the fifth of eight surviving children. His four older brothers were scientists. Gillo wanted to study literature, but read chemistry rather than risk his father's wrath. "After high school, if I had said I wanted to study literature, it would have been almost as bad as saying, 'I want to become a pederast'." When Jews were barred from teaching at universities, the Pontecorvo brothers went abroad: one became a geneticist at Harvard, another a nuclear physicist in Britain. Gillo left for France in the 1930s. In Paris he met Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Igor Stravinsky. He studied music with the composer Rene Liebowitz. If he had had more time and money, he says, he would have become a composer. Instead, he played professional tennis and became a playboy. He also became a Communist, ferrying messages between Italian Communist leaders in France and the underground at home. In 1942, he fought Mussolini's fascist army in the Italian alps. During the German Occupation, he commanded the Third Brigade of partigiani, which liberated Milan. The Italian partisans, of whom more than 50,000 were killed, waged a more impressive and successful struggle than the better-known French Resistance - and it is Pontecorvo's personal experience of clandestine warfare that resonates throughout The Battle of Algiers.

In 1945, he returned to France as a journalist, taking his own photographs. "I found myself less interested in the articles and more in the photos, so much so that my editor told me, 'You are no longer a journalist, you just write photo-captions.'" Then, in Paris he saw Roberto Rossellini's neo-realist Paisa and abandoned journalism for the movies. He worked with the documentary film-maker Joris Ivens, bought a 16mm camera and produced documentaries on flooding in the Po valley and on Sicilian miners. In 1946, he was made assistant director on Aldo Vergano's The Sun Also Rises, in which he also played a partisan. In one scene, the young Pontecorvo smiles as he cleans a pistol and chats to the village priest. He looks much like a photograph in his Rome study. Seventy-four years old when we last met, Pontecorvo pointed at the picture: "This is a souvenir of the Resistance. You see how much hair I had." But as Pontecorvo has aged, shedding his hair and Communist convictions, so he has lost faith in his ability to make films that matter.

As a boy, Pontecorvo admired his brother, Bruno, six years his senior. Gillo was only twenty-one when he followed Bruno into the Communist Party, though he did not share his brother's unquestioning beliefs. "I knew he (Bruno) was a Communist in a way that was almost religious", he says. "He was someone who had a rational profession as a physicist and was able for thirty years to have a religious belief in the future." During the war, Bruno worked on Britain's secret atomic programme. In 1950, he defected to the Soviet Union, accused of being a spy. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Gillo quit the Italian Communist Party. Years later, he told Edward Said, "I really know nothing about politics." Bruno died in September 1993, having lived long enough to witness the ruin of the regime he once served.

Pontecorvo began making feature films in the 1950s with the peasants and fishermen among whom he had fought in the war. He directed Giovanna in 1952 and La Grande Strada Azzurra (The Great Blue Road) in 1957. The second film introduced him to Franco Solinas, who wrote the screenplay based on his own novel Squarcio. Solinas collaborated with him on another four films, though Pontecorvo now admits that The Great Blue Road was "a very bad film" in which he mistakenly agreed to the casting of glamorous actors, Yves Montand and Alida Valli, as Sardinian fishermen. But his next movie, Kapo, was well received on both sides of the Atlantic and earned him his first Academy nomination, for Best Foreign Film. It took its theme from the works of Primo Levi, whom Pontecorvo met after the war. Both were Italian Jews, both had studied chemistry and fought with the partisans. Unlike Pontecorvo, of course, Levi was captured and sent to Auschwitz.

Kapo (1959) was one of the first feature films to tackle the Nazi Holocaust. Its black-and-white images of terrified humanity and near-documentary style have influenced many other movies on the same subject, not least Spielberg's Schindler's List. Unlike Schindler, however, Kapo has no heroes. The protagonist, played by Susan Strasberg (after her Broadway success as Ann Frank), sees her parents murdered by the Nazis. In a concentration camp, she collaborates with her Nazi captors to stay alive. Kapo had a dramatic flaw, however, in the love story between Strasberg and a Russian soldier, played by Laurent Terzieff, which Pontecorvo grafted on to the story in order to make it commercial. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Pontecorvo "achieves a vivid communication of the hideousness of a Nazi camp . . . he hits the viewer in the eye with the torments of death and degradation . . . ." But when the romance between Strasberg and Terzieff takes off, Crowther observed, "Kapo goes . . . kaput."

In Kapo, Pontecorvo discovered that real people en masse are best portrayed by real people, not actors. Other directors before Pontecorvo had proved adept at crowd scenes - Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang and Rossellini among them - but none gave the crowd so pivotal a role: cinematographer Marcello Gatti's depiction of the faces of hundreds of Jews as they march to their deaths is what makes Kapo compelling, not the film's spurious romance. When Pontecorvo turned to The Battle of Algiers, he transformed the crowd into a "choral personage" - a dynamic character, or protagonist.

Algiers was without love story, sentiment, or introspection. There was just one professional actor in the cast, the Frenchman Jean Martin. The "choral personage" reappeared in Burn! Pauline Kael wrote of the director: "He has a true gift for epic filmmaking: he can keep masses of people in movement on the screen so that we care about what happens to them. They're not just crowds of extras . . . . And Burn! is perhaps the least condescending film that has ever dealt with slavery." (It is surely no coincidence that Steven Spielberg's attempts at serious film-making, Schindler's List and Amistad, have taken up the two main themes of Pontecorvo's oeuvre - the Holocaust and slavery.)

Of the sixty scripts Pontecorvo has rejected since Ogro, more than half have been his own. One was called Confino FIAT, after the special section of FIAT, where the Government sent politically suspect workers. This, he claims, was the only film he abandoned for reasons of finance - hardly surprising in Italy in the 1970s. He quit Time of the World's End, a film on the life of Christ, after the American producers insisted that a star play Christ. He researched and abandoned a film on Milan. He conceived the tale of a First World War chaplain who falls in love and has to choose between betraying his vows or continuing to play his part in the war. He planned a film about an Italian anarchist who fell - or was he pushed? - from a police building. (Dario Fo later wrote a play on the same theme, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Giuliano Montaldo, assistant director on Kapo and Battle of Algiers, made the film in 1970.) The project that interested Pontecorvo the most was a life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the populist priest assassinated by a government death squad. In the end, he decided against making it, "because it was too political. When we finally found the money for it, an American film (Romero, with Raul Julia) paid for by the American (Catholic) Church came out." In 1975, Pontecorvo deserted Mister Klein two weeks into shooting, saying Alain Delon was miscast as a persecuted Jew in wartime Paris. Delon was also co-producer, and Joseph Losey completed the film. And for years Pontecorvo has toyed with a film provisionally called Signals, about one man's confrontation with middle age and mortality. In 1969, he was quoted as saying: "It is the hour of the birth of death in a man, when he becomes aware of the fragility and absurdity of life." In 1994, he told me that he had composed the music and written the first fifty or sixty pages of a script. When I asked how it was going, he said, "If I knew how it ended, I'd be happy." But that was four years ago, and Signals has still not gone into production.

Since 1992, Pontecorvo has been president of the Venice Film Festival, where he has caused the organizers a number of difficulties. On accepting the post, Pontecorvo demanded that the Festival be privatized in order to free its administration from political and state bureaucracy. The son of the Festival's founder, Count Giovanni Volpi, told Variety's David Rooney that the organizers "knew they were getting a Communist. They didn't know they were getting an honest man." Pontecorvo has also used the platform to inaugurate his World Authors Association, a society for film "auteurs" that has attracted one Nobel laureate and fourteen Academy Award winners, including Robert Altman, Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese, Ken Loach, Costa-Gavras, Bernard Tavernier and Gabriel Garc!a Marquez. Pontecorvo sees the WAA as a lobby to prevent post-production censorship, colour tinting and other commercial tampering with completed works of art. "To facilitate the liberty of expression", he has said, "is the great goal." To use it, as he may yet have cause to remind himself, is the other.

Charles Glass is a journalist, documentary film-maker, and the author of Tribes with Flags, 1990.

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