With Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars, and Kaos, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani devised what could be called “flashback cinema.” These films not only use flashbacks to frame their narratives, but function as interrogations of cinema’s desire to consistently leap into the past, whether literal or symbolic. These inclinations surely derive from a mixture of autobiographical detail and the influence of neorealism, especially in Kaos’s need to make sense of an immediate past in order to rebuild an anonymous present, but the Taviani brothers cannot be resigned to practitioners of a post-neorealist cinema, because much of their visual sensibility derives from centuries of art history and 19th-century literature.
Their use of long shots in particular begs for comparisons to 18th-century landscape paintings, like those of Francesco Guardi or Bernardo Bellotto, though the Tavianis are adamantly pastoral in their depiction of Italian life. In Kaos, these shots are so proliferate as to be commonplace, but the alteration between open pastoral spaces and the tight framing of humans figures, whether through doorways or within enclosed spaces, keeps scenes from feeling stagnant. The closest they come to depicting a city space occurs midway through The Night of the Shooting Stars, as the remaining members of a small town, during the waning days of German occupation in WWII, congregate inside of a church in hopes of escaping capture. The modestly sized church constitutes the largest structure of the film and is meant to offer a place of refuge for the displaced Italians. When it’s eventually blown to bits, the result is devastating, but logical. In times of modern wartime, the sanctuary can instantaneously become the burial ground.
As filmmakers, the Tavianis treat technological progress with suspicion, but herald individual edification away from larger structures of governmental order as the end goal of Western progress. Padre Padrone, which won the 1977 Palme d’Or at Cannes, offers the most direct example of this, as Gavino (Fabrizio Forte) is snatched from the classroom by his rustic father (Omero Antonutti) and made to become a farmer or, as the Tavianis see it, a slave to his father’s will and, thus, the burgeoning fascism of the early 20th century. Padre Padrone doesn’t make such claims explicitly, but once Gavino joins the military and starts to learn about linguistics and electrical science, it’s clear that the further Gavino gets from his father’s grasp, even if it’s still within the confines of an ideological institution, the more autonomous he’ll become.
If Padre Padrone’s foundational sentiment seems a little hoary, the Tavianis counter it with an opening that justifies the film’s later developments, as an adult Gavino, who in voiceover claims to be a real-life figure, enters the frame, and hands a walking cane, which doubles as a baton, to his “father,” who’s at the school to retrieve the young Gavino. The instance challenges the film’s own construction of realistic space since, from its start, events unfold through an impossible chronology. The approach is altered, but comparable, in The Night of the Shooting Stars as opposing soldiers exchange gunshots in a wheat field. As six-year-old Cecilia (Micol Guidelli) imagines it, a few soldiers morph into a Roman army and kill a man with lances instead of bullets. In the latter case, history is prone to imagination and subjective reasoning; in the former, history is subjective, so much so that it affords the practitioner free reign to defy the physics or logistics of real world constraints.
As legend has it, the Taviani brothers saw Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan as teenagers in 1946 and decided immediately after that if they weren’t making films together within the next decade, they would buy a pistol and kill themselves. Such an inciting incident, given the Tavianis’ filmography, seems so perfect as to surely be apocryphal, since it squares with their interest in time as a slipstream of simultaneous precision and illogic.
A flashback, then, isn’t a device for the Tavianis, but a fundamental question of cinematic existence. Because of this, their aesthetic forerunner isn’t so much Rossellini or De Sica, but Ophüls, particularly his Lola Montes, which takes its titular character’s traumatic recollections to be a hollowed, even taxidermical, version of herself. That is, action as filtered through memory automatically kills truth, since the interpretive function necessarily places credibility in the eye of the beholder. The Taviani brothers’ films indirectly critique neorealism for, as André Bazin put it, realism “achieved…through artifice.” The Tavianis aren’t interested in a realism of this sort, or even realism as an end; rather, they’re invested in addressing history as a circular formation, one in which their teenage selves could reemerge in the flesh.
Cohen Media Group has assembled three transfers of varying quality for the Taviani brothers’ North American Blu-ray debut, with The Night of the Shooting Stars faring the best. Especially in close-ups and two shots, sweat gleams on foreheads and grain twinkles in eyes, while color balancing stays consistent throughout. Color is sharp, but not oversaturated, retaining the Tavianis’ preference for a muted mise-en-scène. Close behind is Kaos, in which numerous long shots look stunning with their depth of field and ability to capture minute details within the frame. Padre Padrone, on the other hand, looks curiously murky in spots, as if the restoration efforts forgot to clean up a few sequences here and there. The disparity is rather apparent, as are the hard-coded subtitles that appear when a language other than Italian is spoken, suggesting this transfer comes from a 35mm print that saw a fair degree of circulation. The monaural audio track is serviceable and without flaws, though the entire audio track can sound a bit tinny at times.
The sole extra of substance is a new two-hour interview conducted in 2015 with the Taviani brothers, in which they essentially divulge the entire history of both their life lives and filmography. Their comments are often illuminating and worthwhile, as they discuss their relationship to neorealism and why they were hesitant to make a WWII film with The Night of the Shooting Stars. Their answers are often long-winded and sometimes entirely off-topic, but it’s a necessary watch for fans or students of Italian cinema. Otherwise, each film’s 2015 re-release trailer is included, as are an assortment of trailers for upcoming films to be released by Cohen.
Three films from the Taviani brothers receive a commendable Blu-ray debut on this three-disc set from Cohen Media Group, which also features an essential two-hour interview with the filmmakers themselves.