Historians tend to depict postwar European film as a series of stylistic schools and national movements, parricidal revolutions and degree-zero cultural rebirths, each urged on by sympathetic house journals like Cahiers du Cinema and Filmkritik, and by calls to arms like 1962‘s Oberhausen Manifesto, which imagined a New German Cinema. Thus, we think of an orderly progression from Neorealism as it rose from the ruins of defeated Italy, through late-classical French cinema of the 1950s, the upstart French and British new waves of the ’60s, the Prague Spring Czechs (and their comrades in liberal Hungary, like Miklos Jansco, and at Poland‘s Lodz Film School), and culminating with the last great European national cinema revival in the Germany of Willy Brandt and Ulrike Meinhof.
But this version permits certain talents to fall through posterity’s cracks if their work is deemed sui generis. As history moves on past the next bend in the river, such figures can vanish from our memories for no better reason than the lack of a suitable pigeonhole. This seems to be what happened to the Italian director Valerio Zurlini, who died in 1982. You can flay the history books and find no mention of his name, perhaps because, born in 1926, he was too young to be a Neorealist alongside Rossellini and De Sica, yet in the ‘60s he seemed a little too quiet and modest to register alongside Antonioni’s generation — Francesco Rosi, midperiod Fellini, late-sumptuous Visconti, pagan Pasolini. Given the diversity and density of Italian film production between 1948 and 1970, perhaps it‘s not surprising that a less strident, more interiorized stylist might get lost in the shuffle — even though his films are populated with the heavyweight likes of Marcello Mastroianni (Family Diary, generally considered Zurlini’s masterpiece), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Violent Summer), Claudia Cardinale (The Girl With a Suitcase), Alain Delon (The Professor), and Philippe Noiret and Max von Sydow (The Desert of the Tartars).
Now UCLA‘s Film and Television Archive is giving Angelenos the opportunity to assess Zurlini’s work as a whole by presenting all eight of the features he made between 1954 and 1978. Make the most of it, because Zurlini has a considerable gift for somber, contemplative moods allied to a fierce political awareness and a sense of existential pessimism about the fleeting nature of happiness. A scion of Bologna‘s bourgeoisie, Zurlini spent the last 18 months of the war as a teenage anti-fascist partisan while Italy was convulsed by the overthrow of Mussolini, the German retreat and fratricidal political infighting. Thus, the half of his oeuvre that deals with war is hugely enriched by his awareness of the many compromises and moments of ugly moral pragmatism that are necessary for survival in times of privation and bereavement. In Le Soldatesse, for example, a convoy delivers to Italian soldiers stationed in Greece enlisted Greek prostitutes, women who have volunteered for this degrading service simply because they’re starving.
Conversely, his peacetime melodramas, such as The Girl With a Suitcase, distill small moments of cruelty and betrayal, loss and regret, into a sense that somehow all of life is conducted on a quasi-wartime footing. His protagonists are the same thoughtful loners — existentially inclined urban-bourgeois liberals using communism or Catholicism to keep their despair at bay — familiar to us from Antonioni and early Bertolucci, and the novels of Primo Levi and Jorge Semprum. Zurlini, who trained as an art historian and was friends with many artists, always locates his central figures within a beautifully controlled, painterly mise en scene. Though his war films (Le Soldatesse and Violent Summer) inevitably recall neorealism, the depiction of characters in landscapes has more in common with Antonioni‘s habit, in ’50s works such as Il Grido, of making a character‘s surroundings reflect and amplify his or her interior emotional topography. But what really sets Zurlini apart is his humanism, his feel for the importance of small moments, of glances exchanged and seismic emotional shifts caught in the slightest gestures. Zurlini’s sympathy extends to his villains as well as his heroes. Everyone has his reasons, he has learned from Renoir, and no one is condemned before his motives are outlined and understood.