Pity the poor classic-film lover. All of the great films have been seen, over and over. The only thrill left is to imagine what it might be like to see Citizen Kane or The Seven Samurai or Children of Paradise for the first time. If that's your wish, you're in for a rare treat. Gillo Pontecorvo's debut feature, The Wide Blue Road (La Grande Strada Azzurra), makes its South Florida premiere at the Bill Cosford Cinema, 44 years after it was produced. While perhaps not a masterpiece, The Wide Blue Road nevertheless is a classic example of Italian cinema and its U.S. debut is decidedly a significant motion-picture event.
Based on a novel by Franco Solinas (who scripted Battle of Algiers, State of Siege and a number of other significant films), The Wide Blue Road is set on a wind-swept Italian island off the Dalmatian coast, where a community of fisher folk struggles to make ends meet. The fishing is poor, the greedy wholesaler keeps prices low, and there's little other work to be had. But veteran fisherman Squarcio (Yves Montand) has his solution: He makes homemade bombs to harvest fish quickly and efficiently and make a tidy profit. His illegal activities are scorned by the other fishermen, including Salvatore, the son of Squarcio's childhood pal, who wants to organize a fisherman's co-op to break the wholesaler's monopoly. Squarcio refuses to join, preferring his own outlaw path. But the relentless pursuit by the Coast Guard drives Squarcio to desperate measures, which increasingly estrange him from the community and his own family.
The result is a very adult film that serves up both engaging characters and complex ideas, as Squarcio's outlaw individualism is pitted against the cooperative dreams of his neighbors. Pontecorvo, an ex-communist and lifelong leftist, certainly has a respect for his working-class characters but doesn't let his own politics get the better of his curiosity; there are plenty of issues in this story but few answers.
Pontecorvo's concern with real people in real political situations stems from his background as a journalist-turned-photographer who was inspired to then turn to filmmaking, after seeing Roberto Rossellini's Paisa. In an interview with Milestone Film & Video, the company that restored and released this movie, Pontecorvo describes this conversion point: "It was a tremendous shock for me. Rossellini had that extraordinary capacity to transform into truth all he portrayed in his films. When I got out of the theatre, I decided to buy a small 16mm camera and start doing films on my own, short documentaries. That's the way I started as a filmmaker."
His success with short documentaries led Pontecorvo to The Wide Blue Road, his first feature, which he wanted to shoot with nonactors in a real fishing village. His Italian producers balked at using amateurs and insisted on stars, but Road manages a hyperrealistic feel anyway. Shot on location, the film features gorgeous seascapes and a thoroughly seductive sense of place and culture. Pontecorvo avoids many closeups, opting to place his characters in midshots and long shots, in a social and spatial context.
Like many a Eurofilm, The Wide Blue Road meanders quite a bit in the early going, opting to establish characters and relationships in the texture and detail that are often missing from quicker-paced American fare. The expansive sea (the wide blue road of the title) and the endless sky dominate the cinematography and gradually draw the viewer in: The best way to enjoy this picture is to surrender to its leisurely, seaside pace. The restored print shows signs of damage and repair, but like many an old Italian building, the film seems more charming because of it, an artifact as well as a work of art.
Road is significant for a number of reasons. The sense of social conflict presages Pontecorvo's 1966 masterpiece, Battle of Algiers. Its "operatic realism" clearly informs the work of Bernardo Bertolucci and the Italian-American masters Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. It's also a poignant look at midcentury Italy, still a traditional society, lurching toward modernity. These characters genuinely respect and understand one another, and the social fabric of their fishing village feels palpable. The family dynamics are especially detailed. Squarcio's relationships with his wife Rosetta and with his teen daughter Diana are lifelike: loving, awkward, unfair by turns. Even the roles of his two young sons, Tonino and Bore, are telling. Whereas most American films would make these characters throwaways, generic moppets, Pontecorvo fashions individuals, often with surprising emotions and motivations -- entire films could be based on either of them.
Montand anchors this film, one of many rock-solid performances in a long, revered career. He is splendid as the rugged outlaw Squarcio, who would rather risk his life daily than abandon his cherished individuality. At first glance the suave Frenchman might seem an odd choice to play the earthy paesano Squarcio. But Montand, who had just come off a star turn in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear, actually was a perfect fit for the role. Born Ivo Livi in northern Italy, the son of a broom maker, Montand fled with his family to France to escape fascism, then eked out a precarious existence in dockside Marseilles. That history helps to explain his truthful, luminous work here. His Italian is flawless, his connection with the material profound.
Road also is blessed with a terrific supporting cast, whose credits range across classic European cinema. Cinephiles may recall Alida Valli (Squarcio's wife) opposite Orson Welles in The Third Man, as well as her work for Bertolucci (The Spider's Strategem and Nonecento), among dozens of other films. Francisco Rabal (Salvatore) has worked with everyone from Antonioni to Visconti to Almodovar. He's still working, knocking out four features last year alone. Film fanatics might also keep an eye peeled for Mario Girotti (Diana's young lover Renato), who as Terence Hill later went on to minor stardom in spaghetti Westerns of the Seventies.
The film was rediscovered and restored by Milestone Film, a ten-year-old arthouse distributor that has made a name by restoring and re-releasing many neglected classics, including works by Visconti (Rocco & His Brothers), Antonioni (Red Desert), Murnau (Tabu), and Teshigahara (Woman of the Dunes). Milestone's dogged quest to bring Road to the U.S. market is a miniepic in itself.
That tale begins in 1999, when American director Jonathan Demme saw the film at a Pontecorvo retrospective at Lincoln Center in New York. Enthralled, Demme borrowed the print and screened it for distributors, hoping to get the film out to the American public. With the help of Scorsese, Demme found Milestone, which agreed to acquire the rights and distribute it. But finding the owner of the American distribution rights was a nearly impossible task. The owner of record, Ziv International (located here in Miami), no longer existed. Its successor, Coral Pictures, could not be found. But Milestone received critical aid from Donald Chauncey of the Miami Beach Public Library, who dug up a phone contact for Coral from an old Miami film-production listing. Eventually Milestone was able to work out an arrangement with Coral. Demme asked Dustin Hoffman to lend his star power to the project, and The Wide Blue Road was released at very long last this summer. Che buona fortuna!
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