Of all the noteworthy Italian directors who made debut features in the 1950s—Ermanno Olmi, Francesco Rosi, Dino Risi, and Marco Ferreri—the least known in this country is Valerio Zurlini. One of the most literate and sensitive European directors of his time, he turned out eight features before his untimely death in 1982. Only four were released theatrically in the United States—and two of these were disfigured by cuts. A post-neorealist, Zurlini was a master of intimist dramas who came of age creatively before the radical New Italian Cinema of the ’60s. He became something of a lost generation unto himself—he’s not even mentioned in several putative histories of Italian cinema. The Reade’s nearly complete retro of his oeuvre should clinch his reputation in these parts.
Born in Bologna in 1926, Zurlini was marked for life by war and art. In 1943, he enlisted in the Italian Liberation Corps and spent two years fighting the Germans in the Resistance movement—the war would later take center stage in two of his major features, Violent Summer and La Soldatesse. Like many of his peers, he joined the Communist Party while remaining a practicing Catholic. A passionate devotee of painting and student of art history, he became a close friend of two noted artists: the great still-life painter Giorgio Morandi, and Ottone Rosai, whose views of Florence would influence the look of Zurlini’s masterpiece, Family Diary. He entered cinema with a series of shorts and docs, making his feature debut with The Girls of San Frediano (1954), a pleasant comedy—his only lightweight work, although it’s tinged with melancholy.
Violent Summer (1959) was one of the rare films to broach a long-standing taboo in Italian cinema: the depiction of the dramatic year of 1943, which saw the fall of Mussolini and the beginning of the civil war between Fascists and anti-Fascists. Like most of Zurlini’s major films, it concerns a doomed love affair—here between a naval hero’s widow (Eleonora Rossi Drago), who breaks the rules of her patrician milieu, and a younger man (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the draft-dodging adolescent son of a Fascist bigwig. Their romance is developed with great conviction, but the film’s most striking passages involve group scenes of gilded youth, lolling on Adriatic beaches and dancing to American big-band music while the Allies have landed in Sicily and the regime is about to topple.
Zurlini returns to the young-man-older-woman theme in The Girl With the Suitcase (1961). Here, the protagonist is a timid virginal adolescent from a bourgeois family in Parma. He loses his heart to a singer, single mother, and part-time whore who has been dumped by his playboy brother. Jacques Perrin and Claudia Cardinale (both are dubbed—they had dubbers in those days!) achieve a beautiful rapport as two loners from different worlds who are drawn to each other. Zurlini’s poignant film made Cardinale a star. This would seem to be the local premiere of the director’s cut—Girl‘s American release version was trimmed by nearly half an hour.
Perrin appears with Marcello Mastroianni in Family Diary (1962), based on Vasco Pratolini’s autobiographical novel about the death of his younger brother (and the classiest “male weepie” ever filmed). Mastroianni’s restrained portrayal of the harried elder brother is one of the outstanding performances of his long career. Ace cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard, Amarcord) does wonders with shots of bare piazzas and empty streets inspired by Rosai; the film glows with an autumnal sadness. But in its ethereal inwardness, the solemnity of its rhythm, and the contemplative qualities of its narrative, this elegiac film is closer in spirit to the world of Ozu than to that of Fellini or Visconti. The final meeting of the brothers with their grandmother (Sylvie, the veteran French actress who is the prioress in Bresson’s Les Anges du Péché), reduced to its gestural essentials, is heartbreaking.
One of the revelations of the series should be the New York premiere of La Prima Notte di Quiete, Zurlini’s 1972 film starring Alain Delon. Its critical rep in Europe is excellent. But even if it disappoints, this series makes plain as a pikestaff that those books on Italian cinema must be revised.