Paolo Taviani, Half of a Famed Italian Filmmaking Duo, Dies at 92


Paolo Taviani, who with his brother Vittorio made some of Italy’s most acclaimed films of the last half century — including “Padre Padrone,” which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977 — died on Feb. 29 in Rome. He was 92.

His son, Ermanno Taviani, said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was pulmonary edema.

The Taviani brothers emerged in the late 1950s as part of a generation of Italian filmmakers — including Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Gillo Pontecorvo — who were inspired by the country’s Neorealist movement but determined to push beyond it. (Vittorio Taviani died in 2018.)

Though the brothers came from an urbane, intellectual family — their father was a lawyer, their mother a teacher — their work celebrated traditional life in the Italian countryside, where they were raised. “Padre Padrone,” for example, tells the story of a boy’s struggle between the demands of his overbearing father, who wants him to be a farmer, and his own dreams of becoming a linguist.

They injected their films with a sense of spectacle that set them apart from the austerity of Neorealist predecessors like their idol, Roberto Rossellini, who in turn championed their work and, as the president of the Cannes jury in 1977, helped ensure that “Padre Padrone” won the festival’s coveted Palme D’or prize. It was a surprise victory in a field that included another Italian film, “A Special Day.”

“Rossellini allowed us to understand our own experiences, to truly comprehend what we had lived,” Paolo Taviani told The International Herald Tribune in 1993. “To comprehend it in a way which would have been impossible had we not seen his films. And we felt that if film had this sort of power, we wanted to master film.”

The brothers were born two years apart and were inseparable for most of their lives. They both studied for a time at the University of Pisa, they went into filmmaking together, and they even lived near each other in Rome. Every morning they would walk their dogs together, discussing ideas for new films or the progress of current projects.

The brothers wrote most of their screenplays together, but they took a different approach on set. They took turns as director, scene by scene, with one brother in charge and the other watching on a video monitor.

“The crew that knows us asks, ‘Who’s the first today?’” Paolo Taviani told The New York Times in 2013. “And while that person is at the helm the crew has to answer only to the director in charge at that moment. They can’t go ask Paolo something they want to do. When it’s finished, I come and look at the video.”

Their work often drew on historical and literary sources; among their favorite writers was Luigi Pirandello, whose lyrical absurdism fit with their own sense of storytelling. Their film “Kaos” (1984) is an adaptation of four of his short stories.

Among their best-known late-career films was “Cesare Deve Morire,” or “Caesar Must Die” (2012), about the staging of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in a prison near Rome.

The film’s premise is not as odd as it may seem — Italy has about 100 prison theater troupes — but the brothers’ approach was still unique. Most of the actors were inmates, and the movie was shot in a real prison. The Tavianis, working on a shoestring budget, even had to negotiate access with the unofficial leaders of the inmates, said to be dangerous members of the Mafia.

“We shot the film in 21 days, with very little money, just like when we were very young,” Paolo Taviani said. “There was no time or need to reflect on anything, this or that, to the producer. We were free. This really helped the film.”

Paolo Taviani was born on Nov. 8, 1931, in San Miniato, a village in Tuscany. His parents, Ermanno and Jolanda (Brogi) Taviani, were antifascists in the 1930s and ’40s under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.

They rarely saw films as children; instead, as a treat, their father would take them to nearby Pisa to see opera. But after a German attack near their village forced the family to relocate to Pisa during World War II, the boys had better access to movie theaters.

They both recalled walking by a theater one day, soon after the war, as a crowd of people was exiting. The film was terrible, the audience told them. Their curiosity piqued, they went inside, where they found Mr. Rossellini’s “Paisan” (1946) still playing on the screen. They were hooked.

“Seeing it made us realize that through art we can gain an understanding of our experiences that’s greater than what we derive from living them directly,” Paolo Taviani told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “By the time we left the theater, we’d decided to dedicate our lives to making movies.”

The brothers briefly attended the University of Pisa but left before graduating. After a few years as journalists, they began working as film assistants, including for Mr. Rossellini, before setting off on their own.

Paolo Taviani married Lina Nerli in 1957. Along with their son, she survives him, as do their daughter, Valentina Taviani; his brother, Franco; his sisters, Maria Grazia and Giovanna; and four grandchildren.

The Taviani brothers made a series of well-received documentaries, mostly about subjects around Tuscany, before filming their first feature, “Un Uomo da Bruciare” (“A Man for Burning”), in 1962. It tells the story of a union organizer who goes up against the Mafia and is eventually murdered.

Many of their films were made for television and supported by RAI, Italy’s public broadcasting company, a relationship that insulated them from some of the pressures of commercial filmmaking while giving them the freedom to explore.

After “Padre Padrone” took the top honor at Cannes in 1977, the brothers returned to win the festival’s grand jury prize in 1982 with their film “La Notte di San Lorenzo,” known in the United States as “The Night of the Shooting Stars.” It was also Italy’s official entry as best foreign film for the Academy Awards, though it did not receive a nomination.

Paolo Taviani made just one film after his brother’s death in 2018: “Leonora Addio,” or “Leonora, Goodbye,” released in 2022.

“Making movies has allowed us to go to strange places we would never otherwise have seen and encounter so many new people — including ourselves — who keep changing all the time,” Paolo Taviani told The Times in 1986. ”It’s a wonderful calling, and after all these years, it hasn’t let us down yet.”


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