SYRFILM honors Baldi: The Bach of filmmakers

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/01/09More articles
(Italian film producer and director Gian Vittorio Baldi, center, talks with Point of Contact’s Pedro Cuperman last Friday before the 6th Syracuse International Film Festival’s opening night screening at Eastwood’s Palace Theater. On Baldi’s left is Maria Krunic, his translator and production assistant. Photo by Laura Brazak, courtesy of SYRFILM.)

It’s a thread that runs through all his work, which finally he agreed one might call “respect” during a conversation one afternoon last week that began in the café and ended in the lounge at the Renaissance Hotel. The evening before, in talking with film students about producing films, Baldi had said, “One of my most rigid principles – and I follow this as the president of my university too – is never to interfere in the creative work of a director.” And the next evening, Baldi said again – it’s a term he’s used for years – that he aims in his own films to create “detachment” in audiences that allows them the space to think. Since 1953, when he set down his manifesto, Baldi has held that cinema is not yet an art form and that getting there requires filmmaking free itself from the bells and whistles we so often take for granted.

Gian Vittorio Baldi is the Italian film producer, director, writer, and university film teacher whom the Syracuse International Film Festival honors on May 2 with this year's Lifetime Achievement Award. Although he is not yet well known in the US and he complains that journalists abroad have sometimes even gotten his home city and date of birth wrong, Baldi will tell you he has produced 28 films by others and made some 200 shorts, documentaries and experimental films. He considers himself Roberto Rossellini’s spiritual disciple, and says of his own feature films, “I have written and directed eight films, which I still love.” In October, a week or so before his 79th birthday, there will be a full retrospective of Baldi’s cinema career in São Paolo, Brazil, conveniently more or less in the neighborhood of his next film, “Il cielo sopra di me/The Sky above Me,” which he’ll shoot this coming year at Atacama, Chile, home of the high altitude desert space observatory.

Baldi arrived in town early last week and has met extensively with Syracuse University film students to critique their work and discuss his own before the film festival began. Primarily for their benefit, last Tuesday night he talked about film producing at a screening of Pasolini’s “Porcile/Pigsty” (1969). Baldi produced some of Europe's most important films in the 1960s and 70s. Besides Pasolini’s “Porcile” and “Notes Toward an African Orestes” (1970), these include Robert Bresson's “Four Nights of a Dreamer” (1971), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's “Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” (1968), Godard's “Wind from the East” (1969) and Nelo Risi’s “Diary of a Schizophrenic Girl” (1968).

Baldi offered recollections about a number of directors, especially Pasolini. For example, that "friendship" might be too big a word for Pasolini though "what sprang up between us was a brotherly relationship based on intentions," or that Pasolini was the only director who prepared budget and stuck to it. Baldi talked at length about Pasolini's transition from literature to the language of cinema, about the difficulties in making "Porcile," the first Italian feature to address homosexuality, and the intricacies of financing film production.

Last Thursday night Baldi talked about his own directing at a screening of his film about the 1993 siege of Sarajevo, “Nevrijeme – Il Temporale/ The Storm” (1999). (“Il Temporale” was the first feature shot by Stefano Coletto, a visiting artist this semester in SU’s film studies program.) "Il Temporale" tells the story of Pascia Sveto, a money-lender to whom all parties come during the seige and the disputed death by drowning of a 13-year-old Jewish girl who lives next door, secretly his daughter, after the collapse of a love affair with a young soldier.

This week, on Monday night at the Everson Museum, the film festival showed Baldi’s allegorical feature about the 1968 student revolts, “Fuoco!/Fire!” (1969), a film much admired abroad but, like "Il Temporarle," not yet available here. Baldi says that "Fuoco!" is the most accurate depiction on screen of that period, in the form of an overnight seige by an out-of-work laborer who shoots a religious statue during a village procession and then most of his family before giving up to the patient policeman who keeps speaking to him from below.

On Monday night Baldi also handed out a carton's worth of Roberto Chiesi's just published book about his filmwork, also titled "Fuoco!" The Chiesi book, which is not translated from the Italian, is worth the photos alone. And there are copies in English floating around Syracuse now of a 2007 Chiesi interview with Baldi about his long association with filmmaker Roberto Rossellini (“Rome: Open City”), during which both men visited filmmakers in as far flung places as Canada and Brazil and Prague to promote a cleaner, more straight-forward cinema with live sound and natural lighting. Baldi shoots now as he did from the beginning, very quickly, in the same order as the film’s narration, without editing and eschewing musical scores.

The Everson screening wasn’t listed in the festival catalogue, but a crowd came anyway, alerted by word of mouth from the campus screenings and by a tiny scrap of notice in that morning's “Post-Standard.” Many were students. They have repaid the attention of this man – who held Italy’s first formal university Chair of Film Studies, created Italy’s first network of “cine-clubs,” and in 1999 founded the Hypermedia University for media studies, which he still heads – by packing his gatherings here, in spite of end-of-semester deadlines that keep them away from many other film festival offerings, not to mention sleep and food.

Baldi is the first to say that what happens in one of his films is “the opposite of what happens” in mainstream cinema, completely counter to what we expect in the dark before the silver screen. Last Thursday, he elaborated his notion of “detachment” during the Q&A after the “Il Temporale” screening, “Normally in the first ten minutes the spectator must identify with the main character to have a successful movie. But I want you to remain seated, to observe the action as though through a window. Why? Out of respect for the spectator. The audience must be given a chance to think.”

The afternoon before, Baldi spoke at length in the Renaissance. Here is part of that conversation, with Baldi’s words translated by Declan McLoughlin.

NKR: I’m very much interested, first of all, that you have spent so much time with students here. Could you tell me your impression of American film students?

Baldi: The contact I’ve had with them was all too brief, all too rapid, so I’ve not had the opportunity to form a precise judgment, but what I can say is that they seem to be very enthusiastic and very interested in ideas which are perhaps different from what they’ve been hearing before. This school in Syracuse – unlike the one in New York City – seems to me to very close to the principles on which I base my own school.

NKR: I wonder how students these days seem to differ from those when you first began your Hypermedia University?

Baldi: They’re very similar in fact. They’re very different from the students of 30 or 40 years ago. My feeling is that they tend increasingly toward a minimalistic type of specialization. They’re farther away from the world around them. They tend to isolate themselves and to stay just with their circle of friends.

NKR: I wonder if that is the downside of technology that makes filmmaking easier?

Baldi: Yes this is one of the downsides. But it’s not the only one. It’s also a question of the teachers and the school. My impression is that in the universities, at least those that I am familiar with – and I’ve given lectures in both Canada and France, and Italy of course – my impression is that the universities are enclosed within traditional, conservative boxes. And that in a certain sense, the academic world is devouring itself. The world has changed so rapidly that, in very many cases, the academic world has not managed to keep up with the pace. My European experience leads me to believe that in many cases the teachers teach things which are in fact completely out of date. There’s no point in teaching a cinema which no longer exists. It would be much more appropriate to concentrate on the history of cinema. Not to express judgments. To give some idea of developing technologies, but not to prepare young people to ride on horseback when there are other means of locomotion available.

NKR: The Hypermedia University is not the first instance of your teaching.

Baldi: In the 1960s I won the film chair at the state university of Bologna, so I taught filmology to the total student body of about 600.

NKR: And also you started the “cineclubs” before that and you had begun the organization for documentary.

Baldi: Yes it’s true that I founded the international association of documentary together with certain filmmakers whose fame is so great that I’m almost ashamed to mention …

NKR: I’m curious – we’re told that your visit here is a way for us to be introduced to your work, but we have not gotten a documentary to show.

Baldi: Because Owen [Shapiro, the festival's artistic director] specified that he couldn’t screen anything unless it had the subtitles. For “Fuoco!,” for example, the English subtitles had only just been completed. And for “Temporale,” the subtitling was done by my colleague Maria Krunic. We didn’t have time to get that copy and so we’re using an old copy. We haven’t had permission from the Italian Ministry of Culture to use the new copy yet, so we have to use the old copy for tonight’s screening.

NKR: I wonder – there’s such a rich history that you have from many years of work, and we’re a country that in many ways doesn’t know your work. So I’m wondering how you would like to be known here.

Baldi: What a question – a difficult question.

NKR: Perhaps it’s new for you, as much as it’s new for us.

Baldi: I see myself as an artisan, a craftsman. So my work has mainly been research. And the researcher is not searching for success, but he’s searching for the results of his search. Which of course never arrive. Because the profundity of the research lies in the path that the research follows.

NKR: We have your feature about the 1968 student revolts, “Fuoco!” Is it the first feature?

Baldi: No, number one was “Luciano.” That’s a film that Fellini got me to make. Fellini at a certain point decided to be a producer and he wanted to launch three young directors. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vittorio de Seta, and Gian Vittorio Baldi. None of the three actually ended up making a film with Fellini. Because Fellini at a certain point said bye-bye, I’m leaving. He pulled out. So we made the films by ourselves. But then before “Fuoco!” I also made other full-length films. In co-production with Canada, I worked together with Michel Breault and others.

NKR: So, French-speaking Canada? Very different from English-speaking Canadian cinema. There’s such a span – there’s 30 years between “Fuoco!” and “Il Temporale” and stylistically they look very different. I’m wondering what binds the two films together.

Baldi: I don’t know – I’ve never thought about it.

NKR: Other than that in each film there’s the principle of detachment.

Baldi: I see. There’s the hand-held camera. There’s the complete lack of any musical commentary. There is sound but there’s no musical score. In “Temporale” there is one great innovation. The innovation there is the construction in terms of time – how the story is told. Instead of the story proceeding in a straightforward manner or with flashbacks backward and forward, there are actually four different episodes which proceed parallel. And they’re all happening at the same time. For example, it can happen that in one episode, the character is already dead, and in the other episode they are not. This exists in literature but it had never been used in the cinema.

NKR: It’s very – what was astonishing to me was that it was so easy to follow.

Baldi: As you saw, it’s the story of a 13-year-old girl who was drowned.

NKR: Blanka.

Baldi: The four episodes – apart from the initial introduction – are contemporaneous. But I’d like to talk a little about “Fuoco!” “Fuoco!” was made in the wake of events of 1968. Bearing in mind that the events of 1968 actually originated before ’68. The first student revolts took place in America, two years before. So I felt I could perceive the smell of this revolution, which wanted to overturn the world.

NKR: It reverberated everywhere.

Baldi: It aimed at overturning the world and starting off from zero – to destroy everything, to start all over. So “Fuoco!” means to destroy religion – he shoots the Madonna. It means to destroy power – the Carabiniere – but it also destroys the family, the concept of the family. He kills everybody – he saves just one child. So it’s a film about 1968. I worked for years preparing that film, but it was made in a very short time. I filmed it in the same way that an artist might paint a picture without ever interrupting the flow of the brush. I will clarify that. Imagine that it was all written in my head. In fact it was written down. I directed it like an orchestral conductor who’s conducting the music that’s already written down without ever interrupting it, in the order in which the music was written. So what I tried to create was a concert – a concerto. There are no second thoughts, there is no editing. Do you see what I’m getting at? I didn’t do any editing. There was no editing. I shot the scenes in the order of the narration.

NKR: One of the things that I remember from the interview clip with you on the DVD extras is that there were tracks on the ceilings for the cameras so the cinematographer could follow people like a periscope. And in watching that, there’s a sense of that.

Baldi: Yes, I put these rails on the ceiling and I put the camera on the rails so the cameraman was following people exactly like somebody using a periscope in a submarine.

NKR: That creates a serenity in the film that’s I think very striking. Many films on such a subject would be done with a camera more obviously hand-held - very jerky. This creates a very different experience.

Baldi: I’d like to tell you a secret now about the construction of my films. It’s part of the profession of a musician or a painter. The whole film - it’s like all my films - this film is divided into numbers. Like a piece of music. And it’s all divided by four. As Bach used to do with his music. This is not something crazy. This is what determines the rhythm of the film.

NKR: And it’s what allows the viewer to be at home in it. If I’ve never heard a piece of music by Bach before, there’s something in the order of the music that allows me to anticipate what will come next.

Baldi: Yeah. Everything is divided into four, every sequence into four shots and so on. You don’t realize this at the time – as when you’re listening to music. But it’s what gives the film – like the music – its rhythm. So how can you teach these things to students? It’s impossible. Unless the student is already open-minded and prepared to assimilate this kind of information. It sounds ridiculous.

NKR: If they had not learned the history of cinema.

Baldi: Bach wrote music using the letters – B, A, C – of his name. Do, re, me, fa, so – if you try to explain this, well, people say, the guy must have been crazy.

NKR: Intervals.

Baldi: You have to try to understand. You have to have sufficient culture and respect to understand.

NKR: I’d like to ask if you think the uprisings of ’68 were inarticulate – I’m interested in Mario as an allegory for the uprising. Because he and his wife Lidia say nothing. Well, except Lidia at one point says to him, “Don’t go!” and she weeps and comforts their little girl Cinza. Was that revolt inarticulate – without ideas, other than destruction?

Baldi: Yes, at that time it was. Yes, there was a great desire to overturn everything and start off again, without really knowing where they were going. Then there were further developments of the Red Brigades and so on. That all came later.

NKR: It’s almost more upsetting to have the Madonna statue shot in the first scene than it would be to have a person shot. It’s deeply violent. And I’m thinking back about my own – well, I was in high school and just beginning college in ’66 and ’68. And I’m wondering if many people who participated in those years think of it as inarticulate and without thought.

Baldi: I don’t know – it’s a difficult thing to answer. Only history can tell us.

NKR: It’s still a very valuable film to look at those years now.

Baldi: The film was shown at the Venice Festival in 1968, together with two other films that I produced –

NKR: “Diary of a Schizophrenic,” yes, and –

Baldi: “Diary of a Schizophrenic” and “Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach.” I’ll tell you another thing. One of my researches which I carried out in “Fuoco!” and in some of my other films but not all, was not to take the actors – and by that I don’t mean not taking professional actors. I mean taking models which took part in the play – the game – of the film. Be patient – I’ll explain. This is a difficult concept. Who is the protagonist of the film?

NKR: Mario.

Baldi: And who’s Mario?

NKR: He’s an unemployed brick-layer.

Baldi: He’s the camera man who shot the film. And who’s Damiani, the Carabiniere? He’s my assistant director. And who is Mario's wife? My secretary, who was the cameraman's wife. And the other Carabiniere are real Carabiniere. I’d never even seen the location before. I told my production director, I need a house that’s going to be like this and like this and like this, and in the middle of a town. He found it. I never even went to see it. I went there to start filming. Because the strength of this research was in directing the music, in conducting the music. And the notes were already inside me. So to take one actor or another or another or another didn’t make any difference. More or less.

NKR: And Lidia Biondi who plays Lidia was also the voice of the journalist who calls to Mario from outside.

Baldi: Very good [laughs]!You’ve done your homework. The voice of the journalist – she was my secretary. Mario’s wife and the voice of the journalist.

NKR: Let me ask if the sound – it seems to me that you used the sounds in “Fuoco!” – the sounds of the radio, the news people, the calls of the police below – in place of a musical score.

Baldi: If you read my 1953 “Manifesto,” I maintain that there must be no musical commentary in the film. No background music. None of my films have background music.

NKR: But there is sound. Just as the music in “Il Temporale” is – none of it is scored – it’s music that people in the film sing, such as the choir in the bombed out church.

Baldi: There is a musical architecture.

NKR: Choir at the beginning and choir at the end. The Jewish songs of mourning. The Gypsy song that Sveto's Gypsy servant girl Djula and Blanka sing together, “Soske, Soske.”

Baldi: In “Fuoco!” there are voices in the beginning and voices at the end like the covers of a book. But inside the film there’s nothing.

NKR: The songs that particular people sing in “Il Temporale” seem to me that they function like the sound of radio news in “Fuoco!”

Baldi: No.

NKR: I can’t be right about everything.

Baldi: But you’ve done well. I’d like to tell you something even a little more light-hearted. This film established some records that have never been beaten since in Italy. The absolutely lowest cost film ever. The film shot in the least amount of time – 14 days. The first professional film made in Italy in 16 mil. And that’s why the distributors took me to court. Took me to court because I was overturning a traditional concept of cinema. They considered me a technological thief.

NKR: Ah yeah. Giving away your work.

Baldi: “Temporale” was shot, I think, in about 27 days.

NKR: What does “Nevrijeme” mean?

Baldi: Temporale. It’s the same word – storm. ”Temporale” means “the storm.” And in Bosnian it’s “Nevrijeme.”

NKR: If I may ask, how did you come to make this film?

Baldi: I don’t know of I can tell you that. It’s something rather tough. In the “Corriere della Sera,” which is the most wide-spread newspaper in Italy, there was an article one day, which told the story of how a NATO general – who was unfortunately a general of Canadian origin – was living in the Sophia Hotel and he was procuring, he was getting the Serbian allies to procure 12 and 13 year old girls.

NKR: Just what Pascia Sveto wouldn’t do.

Baldi: Yes. The general raped these girls, he handed them back to the Serbs, who went on raping them, and then they killed them by throwing them in the river. That’s the story. There are four interpretations in the film. Suicide, Blanka fell by mistake into the river, Blanka was murdered. In the film, Blanka and Djula really are 13 years old. No longer – but when we made the film they were 13 years old. That’s the origin of the film.

NKR: Are there any plans for either of these films to be distributed in this country at this point?

Baldi: How can I? I don’t know how this could take place. I’m not familiar with the mechanisms here. The only way that I can think of is that it would have to take place through historical cinema archives. My films are at the Cinethéque – the film archive in Paris, in Brussels and in Rome. And in Bologna. And now after recent retrospectives, there are copies of these also in Finland and in China.

NKR: So there would have to be a project to do subtitles, to begin with.

Baldi: Yes.

NKR: We’re looking at Maria as though she’s going to do it. [all laugh] I wonder if you could also tell me a little bit about the new film which will be shot in Chile.

Baldi: Yes, I’d be happy to. A good friend of mine is Margarita Hack, who’s a very famous scientist and astronomer – a candidate for the Nobel Prize – and in reading scientific magazines and speaking with her, I discovered that there is a meteorite which will pass close to the earth in 2029, without any problems. But in April of 2036, it will pass very close to the earth with a high probability of impact. If it touches the earth it will be an enormous disaster, even though the meteorite is very small. So there are scientists – astronomers – who, without making too much publicity about it, so as not to frighten people, are looking into the possibility of changing the trajectory of this meteorite. And the scientists are working mainly at Atacama, in Chile. Atacama is the most accurate observatory in the world because of its climatic conditions. It’s a desert at a 2,500 meter altitude. Which gives absolutely perfect observation conditions. And there are four scientists in particular from four different countries who are working on this problem. The film is called “The Sky above Me.” It’s the story of an astronomer – the last 20 years of his life. His meetings, his love affairs, and the things that have given him the greatest emotion during his life. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example. In the background there is this research – this scientific problem, about the world, which has an uncertain future. So in a sense the film is the opposite of “Fuoco!” In other words, you men who are fighting and struggling and killing each other, do you realize that there is something which, from one moment to the next, could destroy the whole planet? The sky above me.

NKR: It’s also visually very different. The perspective of Mario looking between the slats in the window shutters and only seeing a tiny bit.

Baldi: In this film the astronomer lives in his house in the middle of a forest and he studies these things on a computer, as astronomers do. Because they’re all linked to each other via computer. There is a moment where he goes to Atacama, you see. And it’s a film that’s a part of the thread of my production research right up to now. It’s a film that should cost only about 400,000 Euros. That’s about $550,000. Which is a very low cost.

NKR: In the beginning when we talked you said that the school here was somewhat consistent with your principles. I wonder if you could talk about what those threads are.

Baldi: Very simple. The New York City film school is based on the teaching of technology. So it’s mainly – they graduate as technicians. Here in Syracuse they learn technology but at the same time, they also try – the program also tries to make the most of each individual’s character. And that’s what I believe.

NKR: So whether it’s the camera respecting what’s there, or respecting the filmmaker whose work you’re producing – the thread is always respect.

Baldi: Yes.

NKR: We should stop soon. I wonder if there’s anything I have not asked that you wish I had.

Baldi: I always say to my students, that they absolutely must look for a maestro, a master – a teacher. They have to believe in this teacher, absorb his theories, become fully familiar with his theories – master them – and then, deny him. In other words, they must overtake him. That’s the most important thing in my teaching. You must have a teacher in whom you believe – not a number of different teachers, but one teacher – who must be a real teacher. Believe in him, love him, and then – deny him, surpass him. Kill the father. Now you need a great teacher.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the April 30, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse “City Eagle” weekly on page 1. For a separate review of Baldi’s films, “Fuoco!” and “Nevrijeme – Il Temporale,” see Nancy covers the arts and writes the film column “Make it Snappy.” She is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at Special thanks to Owen Shapiro for providing advance access to “Fuoco!” and “Nevrijeme – Il Temporale” for interview preparation, to Christine Fawcett-Shapiro for photos, and to Declan McLoughlin and Maria Krunic for translation during Gian Vittorio Baldi’s stay in Syracuse.

TAGS: SYRFILM, Gian Vittorio Baldi, Fuoco!, Nevrijeme - Il Temporale, Italian cinema
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 2.4/5 (14 votes cast)

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