Pasquale Iannone is Senior Teaching Fellow in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh where he has taught for a number of years. Here he recalls time spent in Rome and the array of second-hand bookstores in which he picked up bargains, and pinpoints two works by Aldo Tassone which still prove immensely valuable in his research and teaching.
In 2000, for my third year of undergraduate study, I worked as a British Council Foreign Language Assistant (FLA) in Rome. My post was at the IPSIA Edmondo De Amicis in Testaccio, a working-class area known as ‘il cuore della vecchia Roma’, or ‘the heart of old Rome’. It was only a couple of subway stops from the city centre but far enough away that it was not overrun with tourists. I had decided to write my final dissertation on Italian film (specifically, the post-neorealist cinema of Antonioni, Ferreri and Bertolucci) and – when I wasn’t teaching – I began spending more and more time on research, scouring the city’s many libraries and bookshops. In and around Rome’s main train station, Roma Termini, were a variety of second-hand bookstalls and shops where I picked up many a cheap paperback as well as several books on film history and theory. In the MEL bookshop on Via Cavour (just a couple of minutes’ walk from Termini), the whole lower ground floor sold books at reduced prices. I was able to pick up several of the chunky lime green Marsilio film books such as Il cinema del riflusso: Film e cineasti italiani or Il neorealismo cinematografico italiano at less than half-price (20,000 lire – this was when the lira was still being widely used despite the introduction of the Euro).
My two best purchases however – and two books that I continue to draw on more than a decade later – were two volumes (almost 800 pages) of Parla il cinema italiano (literally Italian Cinema Speaks) by Italian film critic Aldo Tassone. They’re probably best compared to Faber & Faber’s series of book-length interviews (Scorsese on Scorsese, Lynch on Lynch etc). Originally published in 1979 and 1980, Parla il cinema italiano contains extensive, wide-ranging interviews with 18 Italian filmmakers, from Antonioni and Bertolucci to lesser-known figures such as Franco Brusati, Liliana Cavani, Vittorio De Seta and Elio Petri. Each interview is preceded by a long critical essay by Tassone on the individual director. Volume 1 looks at filmmakers born in the 1910s and 20s, while volume 2 focuses on the younger generation.
I’ve always loved Tassone’s first exchange with Antonioni, which sets the tone for the whole collection:
‘AT: Looking at your films, one would never think that you came to the cinema through documentary. Was that experience helpful? Did it help nurture your prodigious cinematic eye?
MA: Let’s forget about these kind of adjectives. They’re of no use. Making documentaries was extremely helpful. Before, I wasn’t sure I was able to make films. With documentaries, I realised that I could move forward and was no worse than many others in my field.’ (Vol. 1, p.29)
Later in the same volume, we come to Federico Fellini. After his critical essay on il maestro, Tassone calls an abrupt halt:
‘Here we would have liked to have published the interview with Fellini but the director has withdrawn his permission […] We are disappointed […] especially as the interview is more than 30 pages in length.’ (Vol. 1, p.137)
It would have been fascinating to read the Fellini interview (what made him block its publication?) but given that he is probably the most written-about Italian director of them all, its excision certainly doesn’t make the collection any less indispensable for the scholar of Italian film. Far more rare and precious insights come from lesser-known figures. We discover that Mario Monicelli, for instance, was greatly inspired by Charles Dickens:
‘Dickens has always been the dream for me, a real model. Not only did he fight one of the most important battles in literary history in favour of social justice, he also created a vibrant portrait of his time and was a master of humour and comedy’ (Vol. 1, p.196)
In volume 2, Tassone dedicates more than 60 pages to the great political filmmaker Elio Petri (Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion, The Working Class Goes To Heaven) and he starts by asking the director about his relationship with literature:
‘I look back on my adolescence and youth with a great sense of nostalgia because, as well as the real world, I discovered all these other worlds [through literature] which seemed just as real and which helped me understand life. It was like living several lives. Today’s youth don’t read anymore […] But this is a society that has killed both reality and the imagination’ (Vol. 2, p.238)
The bitter resignation of the last sentence – so early in the interview – comes down like an axe. Put into context, however, it is more than understandable – after all, these were the turbulent ‘anni di piombo’ (‘years of lead’) which Petri had strongly critiqued in recent films, especially Todo Modo (1976). He goes on to discuss his body of work with great honesty and rigour in what is probably the best interview of the whole collection – given added poignancy as it was one of the very last interviews Petri ever gave before his death in 1982. It’s certainly the most comprehensive.
Writing about these two well-thumbed volumes has made me want to sit down and re-read them again, so rich are they in scholarly detail. Like every great book, they are a constant source of inspiration and insight and have proved immensely valuable in my research and teaching. The binding may be coming loose and the covers may be frayed, but they certainly haven’t had time to gather dust – I’m just surprised that they’ve never been translated into English…
Pasquale Iannone is Senior Teaching Fellow in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh where he has taught for a number of years. He completed his PhD – ‘Childhood and the Second World War in the European Fiction Film’ – in 2011. He is also a film writer, broadcaster and curator whose work has appeared in Sight & Sound and Senses of Cinema and on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland amongst others. He is also on Twitter.