‘Pirandello 150,” a week-long series presented by Film Forum, is just one small part of what’s being billed as “a city-wide, year-long festival commemorating the 150th anniversary” of the Nobel Prize–winning Italian playwright and novelist Luigi Pirandello’s birth. His works have inspired more than a hundred films and TV movies over the decades, but Film Forum has wisely chosen to focus on seven key adaptations. In doing so, they’ve emphasized an aspect of the proto-absurdist that many audiences might be unfamiliar with: his gifts as a storyteller of unnerving power, someone who could weave tales that left you in a genuinely troubling place.
Even those who’ve never heard of Pirandello are likely to have some awareness of his immortal 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which a theater producer is suddenly confronted by six figures, characters of the imagination made physically real, who are looking for an author who will turn their dramatic family story into a play. With its meditation on the limitations of theater and performance, Six Characters has become synonymous over the years with po-mo fourth-wall breaking. Yet in Pirandello’s hands characters are there not to undermine the work and deconstruct the idea of authorship, but to assert their own realness. With their tempestuous emotions and scandalous desires, they are a force of inspiration looking for an outlet; Pirandello’s approach isn’t one of intellectual detachment; it’s of full, heated engagement.
That seminal work is represented in this retro by Stacy Keach’s 1976 staging of it for TV, starring John Houseman and Andy Griffith. Keach preserves the sincerity of Pirandello’s original; however, the setting this time is not backstage at a theater but behind-the-scenes at a TV studio, where people fret over ratings and vanity reigns supreme. By the mid-Seventies television had already become a symbol for all the hypocrisies and superficialities of mass media; the change in milieu adds an extra, subtle dose of cynicism.
The centerpiece of the retro has to be Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s immense 1985 film Kaos, screening throughout the week. Based on short stories set in Pirandello’s birthplace of Sicily, Kaos is structured as four distinct episodes, with a brief epilogue featuring Taviani regular Omero Antonutti as Pirandello himself. Each story starts off like a moral fable, with the author’s sense of irony playing off the Tavianis’ feel for landscape and their communitarian spirit. This is a gorgeous film, with the episodes connected by magical shots of a raven flying over the sun-drenched vistas of Sicily over Nicola Piovani’s soaring music. The directors have a very elemental, naturalistic understanding of human behavior: A character’s transformation by the full moon into a howling madman is suggested by a shot of a tree shaking, as he beats himself against it. But the moment feels earthy and experiential — never symbolic or distant.
For all the clarity of the Tavianis’ direction, however, the tales deny us comforting resolutions — they tend toward messiness, raising more questions than they answer, and their endings are often surprisingly abrupt. In the first story, a woman whose two sons departed for America many years ago spends all her time quietly interrogating other travelers, trying to find someone worthy enough to carry a letter to her boys. Another young man, however, seems to be following her, keeping his distance. We learn that he is also her son — but that the circumstances of his conception and birth, as revealed via a harrowing flashback, prevent her from being able to love him. The story ends, as do all of the episodes, in a kind of muted, open-ended despair — an emotional stalemate.
Another Taviani film, 1998’s Tu Ridi (You Laugh), based on two Pirandello stories, proves even more unsettling. In its first part, an accountant whose ambition to sing opera was thwarted by a heart condition discovers he has developed an alarming propensity to laugh maniacally in his sleep. He then learns that this cackling might be rooted in a cruel, recurring dream involving a disabled co-worker. When the co-worker dies, our hero tries to make up for it in the most bizarre way possible — and is suddenly reminded of the man he could have been had he followed his dreams. In the second part, two botched kidnapping plots — one modern-day and tragic, the other historic and somewhat comic — are intercut, with both ending in sudden fashion. Again, there are no easy messages or pat conclusions. We never quite understand why these characters do the things they do. But the Tavianis never lose sight of their humanity. Even the most monstrous figures appear conflicted and pathetic in these films, adrift in a world that seems meaningless.
The Tavianis’ fellow Italian Marco Bellocchio has also proved himself an ideal cinematic interpreter of Pirandello’s work — though his movies tend to foreground psychological acuity rather than humanism, and shadowy interiors rather than sun-dappled landscapes. This retro features his underseen 1999 film The Nanny, in which the head doctor of a mental hospital slowly becomes obsessed with the illiterate, beautiful woman whom he’s hired to take care of his newborn son after his wife suffers from postpartum depression.
But perhaps more significant is Bellocchio’s 1984 adaptation of Pirandello’s infamous play Henry IV. Marcello Mastroianni plays an amnesiac aristocrat who has lived for twenty years pretending to be Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, ensconced in a medieval castle and surrounded by paid vassals. His madness, we’re told, is the result of a horse-riding accident in his youth, seen here in flashbacks. But when Henry is visited by the woman he once loved and her daughter, his shrink decides to try and shock him back to sanity. It turns out, however, that this man may not be entirely unaware of what year it really is, and of the charade he’s been comfortably settled in for decades. Indeed, he may have chosen to live in the 11th century as a way of avoiding entering the modern age.
Henry asserts the Pirandellian theme of the terrifying power of imagination, and of the ability of narrative to shape one’s own reality. And the film’s lush style brings a pleasing solidity to the playwright’s metaphors, helping to anchor his conceits in something that feels like the real world. But Bellocchio takes things a step further: This Henry isn’t so much a man afraid of modernity as he is an artist, a man living in the midst of his own creation. Thus, his madness isn’t a rejection of his times, but a challenge to them. Is that a hint of triumph we sense as the film closes on Henry, defiant in his ongoing pretense? There’s no easy answer. As with all these films, we can only wonder.
January 13–19, Film Forum