Thursday, September 1, 2011

Do You Know What It Means to Lose Ettore Scola?

First things first: No, he’s not dead. Rather, the great Italian writer-director Ettore Scola, who gave us We All Loved Each Other So Much, Le Bal, La Terrazza, La Nuit de Varennes, The Family, Brutti, sporchi e cattivi (aka Down and Dirty)Passione d’Amore, and the little-seen but wonderfully-titled -- and just plain wonderful -- Will Our Heroes Be Able to Find Their Friend Who Has Mysteriously Disappeared in Africa?, just announced his retirement, at the age of 80. (He’s 80?? But then, that would make me….rgahaaaaggh…) 

I felt a little chill up my spine upon reading the announcement, because, I shit you not, I had just the previous night finally caught up with his long-hard-to-find 1964 directorial debut, the portmanteau comedy Let’s Talk About Women, and halfway through watching it I had the strange premonition that I was going to wake up to the news that Scola (about whom I had not thought for some time, admittedly) had died. Instead I woke up to the news that he’s finally retired, citing “production and distribution requirements [he] can no longer identify with.” ("I didn't want to become one of those old ladies who wear high heels and lipstick just to keep youthful company,” as he put it.) I guess that’s not as bad. But still. Waaah.

I'm sure plenty of readers are right now wondering, "Who the hell is Ettore Scola?" It's an understandable question, I guess; like I said, I myself hadn't been thinking about him in recent years. And for that we can probably blame the fact that no U.S. distributor has shown serious interest in any of his films since the 1980s. Not to mention the fact that those films of his which were once released in the U.S. (and even, for a little while at least, available on VHS) have not re-appeared on DVD on our side of the pond. And forget about any retros. This is, needless to say, unfortunate. Scola’s work was one of my gateway drugs into cinephilia. But don't take my word for it. His films have been nominated for numerous Oscars, he was for many years a mainstay at Cannes, and his influence is by no means negligible: His lovely 1982 melodrama Passione d’Amore was the basis for Stephen Sondheim’s Passion. Of course, Scola was known mostly as a comedy director, and that’s probably why his films never quite caught fire abroad the way lesser work by other, more “serious” filmmakers did. (Indeed, his greatest successes in the U.S. tended to be his more dramatic works, such as the aforementioned Passione d’Amore and the tightly focused WWII chamber piece A Special Day.)

Passione d'Amore

But even those who know of his work sometimes peg him inaccurately. Mira Liehm, in her otherwise quite thorough history Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, spends relatively little time on Scola, praising him (somewhat begrudgingly) thus:
In his best films, Scola makes good use of his two primary skills: his writing ability, which enables him to endow his characters with psychological credibility, and his ability to create a believable socio-historical background.
Well, sure, and Visconti had a thing for costumes. Scola was certainly good at these things (and these are indeed important things for a filmmaker to be good at), but Liehm (and others) apparently didn’t notice that Scola was also one of the most limber filmmakers of the Italian cinema, astutely switching visual and narrative styles not just between films but even within films. Take, for example, his masterpiece, the astounding We All Loved Each Other So Much – an expansive socio-political history of post-war Italy told through the friendship of three former Partisans and their collective fondness for a beautiful aspiring actress (played by the exquisite Stefania Sandrelli). Narratively, it makes a surprisingly coherent whole out of Marxist activism, political disillusionment, professional ambition, rabid cinephilia, the mid-century game show craze, the moral swamp of the Italian construction industry, the mundane deceptions of family life, and a rather beautiful rondelay of romantic regret, all within the confines of a bourgeois comedy of manners that forays occasionally into absurdist satire.

It’s also the kind of film that, immediately after two of its characters take in a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, actually adopts the style of the play, incorporating self-conscious pauses in all onscreen action during which characters offer soliloquys and directly address each other with their most intimate thoughts (and sometimes even get responses back). It’s really a marvel to behold -- fleet of foot, confident, never self-important but also never frivolous -- and Scola packs so much into it you walk away from the 2-hour-and-4-minute long movie thinking you’ve just been through an entire season of a rather bizarre but wonderful TV show (a terrible comparison, perhaps, but, well, there you go).

We All Loved Each Other So Much

Even when his ostensible narrative ambitions are more limited, Scola has a way of infusing his work with historical scale and a unique kind of emotional sweep. The aforementioned A Special Day takes place over the course of a single day, and it concerns an extended, chance encounter between a devoted, overworked, pro-fascist housewife (Sophia Loren) and a suicidal homosexual radio broadcaster (Marcello Mastroianni) who get together over the course of a single day in 1938 – May 6th, to be exact, the day Hitler came to Italy to formalize his alliance with Mussolini. (The woman’s husband and children are off at the rally.) It’s a not-entirely-original concept (Vincent Canby called it “pure theatrical contrivance,” and it bears more than a passing resemblance to contemporaneous films such as Nikita Mikhalkov’s Without Witnesses and Istvan Szabo’s Confidence) but within the space of this simple little film we can find, if we look closely enough, an entire history of the second half of the Twentieth Century.

For all his writing prowess, and his expertise with dialogue and clear character delineation, however, Scola also had a marvelous way with the unseen, unspoken, suggested thought – ideal, perhaps, for a director whose characters so often inhabit the fuzzy border between bad faith and the true self. In one of the episodes of Let’s Talk About Women, Vittorio Gassman (who stars in each vignette – really, the movie should have been called Let’s Talk About Vittorio Gassman) plays a delirious prankster, the kind of guy who has a ready quip and a hand-buzzer for everybody he meets over the course of his workday, be they co-workers, street vendors, or traffic cops. On and on he goes, feverishly jesting and joshing, until he finally gets home to his long-suffering wife and son, and immediately adopts the manner of a serious, glum, and very tired patriarch, who just wants to sit and read his paper before dinner. He chastises the boy for joking around, before sighing, “I can’t wait until I retire.” The vignette pretty much ends right there, with our hero reading his paper on the couch while wifey gets his meal ready.

Seems like a simple, shallow (albeit funny) sketch -- until we begin to think about what is actually going on here. Are we looking at a prankster at heart who has to assume the mantle of a dour family man because that’s what is expected of him, or are we looking at a broken soul who has to joke around to get through his ultimately very sad life? Is this a drama of domestic despair or a grand cosmic joke? Teasingly, Scola never quite tells us, letting the question hang in the air for those willing to ask it.

This is a voice I will be sad to see go. And you should, too.

We All Loved Each Other So Much

(Hat tip: Movie City News)


  1. A stunning piece of writing!

  2. Beautifully said. I fell in love with "We All Loved Each Other So Much" in college and have followed Scola ever since.

  3. Thank you for this! This man's work needs to be more available in the U.S.

  4. Let's mention as well Brutti sporchi e cattivi which won the Prix de la Mise en scène at Cannes, Le Bal which represents fifty years of French history, and the impossible-to-find Macaroni, which I have heard is a remake of Billy Wilder's Avanti, but I don't know why.
    Thanks for this article.

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