I Have Loved It and Love It Still

Written by  Vittorio Emiliani
An encounter with Florestano Vancini, a countryman from near Ferrara in exile in Rome.
Florestano Vancini has been living in Rome for forty years now, but it's as if he had never really left his native Ferrara. Vancini originally hails from Boara, a country town near Ferrara where the folk knew a thing or two about the world beyond the city walls.
He lived there until the age of thirteen, travelling from home to school and back on his bicycle, even when it snowed. Even his first town residence was outside Porta Mare, on the other side of the walls. Later he moved into a house in the magnificent, airy piazza Ariostea, where he was to set a torrid love scene, with the beautiful Lisa Gastoni, in Amore amaro.

At amost seventy, Vancini is still full of enthusiasm and projects in which Ferrara always has a part to play in one way or another. «The Vancinis all come from Cento»: a pedigree beyond dispute, therefore. «In fact when I came to live in Rome my relationship with Ferrara remained strong, extending well beyond the city into the surrounding district. I was so steeped in the spirit of the countryside of those days that when I was shooting La neve nel bicchiere, which was set in a rural area at the end of the 19th century, I found myself teaching people certain gestures that had fallen into complete disuse».

But when did he realize that the cinema was his vocation? «Late. My family loved the opera, theatre. I can recall going to the Teatro Verdi to listen to Gigli, Schipa, and Caniglia. I don't think my parents ever set foot in a cinema. Then, when the realization came, it was almost like being struck...» By what films? «Two in particular: Stagecoach by John Ford and Grand illusion by Jean Renoir», which he managed to see before it was banned by the Fascist government.
The summer of the year before that Luchino Visconti had shot Ossessione between Ferrara and the river Po. «But - Florestano recalls - local folk found it disappointing. No, that was not the cinema of their dreams. When the war ended I began writing reviews for a student magazine. The Liberation was followed by an authentic outbreak of cinema fever. We created the first Ferrarese cinema circle, whose guiding light was a local literature master by the name of Claudio Varese».

I asked him about Michelangelo Antonioni: «After the documentary Gente del Po he had already made Rome his permanent home».
«In '49 I decided that I would be a director. A crazy decision for someone without family capital behind him. I made the decision along with Antonio Baruffi, who later moved on to other things». And the technical equipment? At that time, Antonio Sturla, a cine operator from the days of silent movies, lived and worked in Ferrara.

Sturla had «a set of lights, a dolly, a track, plus a lot of experience. We made the first documentary, Amanti senza fortuna, in '49. Produced by Florestano Vancini's Este Film». It was a chance for Vancini to get to know Antonioni better and, in Rome, the latter helped him with the montage by passing on some useful tips.
The documentary won a respected prize and Vancini and Baruffi sold it so well that, when they met a wealthy friend at the railway station, they showed him the cheque thus provoking the authoritative response: «Ciò, as fà di bai baiuchìn col cine. [Well well, so you've made a tidy bit of boodle with your films]».

Thus began Vancini's career as a maker of documentaries: almost all of them were devoted to Ferrara and the surrounding district, first in black and white and then in colour. One, made in 1952, has completely disappeared, every copy, everything, «that [documentary] Ferrara di messer Ludovico, which we made then, would now represent a yardstick with which to measure the enormous progress made these last forty years». A leap that young people cannot even imagine.

After thirty-six documentaries and two jobs as assistant director - with Mario Soldati on the set of La donna del flume (for which he worked on the screenplay with Pier Paolo Pasolini) and with his Bolognese contemporary Valerio Zurlini for Una estate violenta - his first director's assignment came along with the most Ferrarese of his films, La lunga notte del '43, based on the short story by Giorgio Bassani. It was a film d'auteur, compact, rich in pathos and powerfully evocative.
And the difference between the Ferrara of yesterday and that of today? «In those days you could still say that it was the "city OF silence" of D'Annunzio's poem: beautiful, but, as it were, empty since that fateful day in 1598 when the Este family had left for Modena thus depriving Ferrara of its capital city status. Centuries and centuries of silence.

Then came a period of undeniable development, which has recently acquired a significant cultural aspect, of paramount importance for the rediscovery of a lost sense of identity and the need to overcome that species of existential idleness that seemed to have become a characteristic of the people of Ferrara.
But we should be careful to avoid transforming the old city into a splendidly beautiful but fortuitous backcloth for exceptional events. Within the walls we need to remedy the misdeeds perpetrated after the war and make everything "sacred", wholly untouchable, an idea that should be extended to the surrounding countryside too».

After two and a half hours of conversation what had emerged amounted to a declaration of love for Ferrara. «I have loved it and love it still», concluded Florestano Vancini, «even though I've been living in Rome since 1952. My life would have been different, very different, if I'd been born anywhere else. Ferrara made me the man I am».