A distinctive and restless force in European cinema for more than 35 years, the Taviani brothers mastered an eloquent stylistic bridge between Rossellini’s stringency and Fellini’s braggadocio. Their movies are often framed like friezes, but the chaos of human whim always muddies the compositions. Appropriately, the Tavianis began as political barnburners, fashioning absurdist parables and sometimes cosmic commedia from Italy’s lunatic flirtations with extreme movements. No other major European filmmakers have ever been as dedicated to their nations’ peasant legacy, and no one on the continent since the ’70s has made such potent and revealing use of native landscape. (Their signature flourish—tracking through doors and windows, from inside ill-lit rooms to an even more mysterious domain outside—plays like a call to the soil.) Now both over 70, the Tavianis have detoured toward the gentler, aboriginal ironies of Pirandello, Goethe, and Tolstoy in the last few decades (they’ve always enjoyed the simple pleasure of tales told within tales), but the sober ratio of humanist warmth and amused distance remains.
The brothers’ circular yarning can be predictable and operatic—perhaps because of their cooperative career, the films often seem compromised by democracy, never attaining the full-on lyrical flights one or the other brother might have achieved alone. The exception, 1982’s The Night of the Shooting Stars, remains their premier achievement, and arguably the best Italian film of the ’80s. The dominant entry in MOMA’s complete Taviani retro, Shooting Stars has a propulsive, anti-Odyssean plot unique to Taviani movies. Fantastic and episodic, this saga of Italian villagers roaming the Nazi-upended countryside searching for the liberating armies commingles doom and magic and absurdism with spectacular confidence. Many of the Tavianis’ films evoke the simplistic voice of folklore, but this mid-career masterpiece (told as mythopoetic flashback by its six-year-old protagonist, now grown into parenthood) is a traumatic oral history seen from the inside out.
The brothers got their start codirecting with Valentino Orsini, and didn’t quite hit their stride until The Subversives (1967), a portmanteau portrait of Italian political schisms culminating in the funeral of beloved post-Gramsci Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, and the scalding St. Michael Had a Rooster (1971), a bitter, Tolstoy-derived farce centering on an over-earnest anarchist (Giulio Brogi in an uproarious performance) whose “armed expeditions” land him in prison and outside the current of political viability. An even more sardonic launch at anarchism, Allonsanfan (1973) has self-absorbed nobleman-turned-insurrectionist Marcello Mastroianni waffling his way around post-Napoleonic Italy and failing to evade his ties with the rebels who haven’t yet been extinguished by the restored aristocracy.
1977’s Padre Padrone was the film that put the Tavianis on the international map, but today its visually indelible portrait of Sardinian farm life seems schematic—down to the bestiality gag shots. Based on the memoir by reformed peasant-abuse survivor Gavino Ledda, Padrone is a rough ride, but already the Tavianis were inching away from their analysis of radical philosophy toward a more sun-drenched dalliance with culture. Hence their Pirandello epic Kaos (1984) and Il Sole Anche di Notte (Night Sun, 1990), a dull but image-rich version of Tolstoy’s Father Sergius made duller still by star Julian Sands. It was the success of The Night of the Shooting Stars that brought the pair to Hollywood, resulting in the fascinating boondoggle of Good Morning, Babylon (1987), a lovely homage to early moviemaking and the Italian craftsmen who worked for D.W. Griffith on Intolerance. What at first seems so entrancing—those white plaster elephants standing in the forest—collapses into convenient, WWI-battlefield synchronism, brother tragically fighting brother across the front lines. Still, the elegiac first act remains one of the oddest and most inspired passages to emerge from an American studio film in the ’80s.
The Tavianis have been content in a lower key since, having fun with a shaggy-dog generational tale about greed and happenstance in Fiorile (1993); transplanting Goethe to Tuscany for Le Affinità Elettive (1996) in dubbed-international-cast fashion (Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Hugues Anglade provide the faces for the Tavianis’ only treatment of aristocratic dysfunction); and returning to Pirandello with Tu Ridi (1998), a multistoried thesis on fate that finds deliverance in the storytelling process itself. One of the vignettes again involves armed anarchists—the social combat of the 19th century still matters to the Tavianis, if to few others. A new film, based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection, will have its stateside debut at MOMA as well, encouraging one to wonder if the Tavianis might have all along been the perfect men to take on—that is, unspectacularize and repoliticize—War and Peace.