Cinema and Literature

Written by  Gianni Venturi

Da "tra donne sole/Woman on their own" by Cesare Pavese to "Le amiche/The girlfriends" by Michelangelo Antonioni.

A film, one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s lesser known ones, was adapted from a great story by Cesare Pavese. Everything possible has already been said about Pavese, starting from the suicide that seemed to be a carbon copy of that committed by Rosetta, one of the characters in Tra donne sole from which Antonioni adapted his film Le amiche. The sensation caused by that suicide at the time, in an Italy still unused to the media-fuelled exposés of famous people, was enormous. It was written that Pavese had killed himself because of a failed love affair, an affair with a Hollywood actress, Constance Dowling. She was mediocre as an actress, but certainly beautiful.

This is the woman on whom Pavese threw his complex, tormented life at the beginning of the 1950’s, and her abandonment led him to write those terrible lines at the end of his diary, Il mestier di vivere (”This business of living”) foreboding his suicide. Perhaps the secret behind this death lays in a line by Shakespeare at the beginning of La luna e i falò (”The moon and the bonfires”): “For C”, for Connie-Constance, and “Ripeness is all”. Pavese dedicated and revealed his greatest dream to Constance. This writer had followed the myth of maturity his whole life, in all his works. This man, who

felt like a young adolescent inside, had tried to attain that goal by throwing himself into politics, intellectual work, writing, and more than any other writer of the Italian twentieth century, discovering a morality in living and writing that has made him a modern day classic.

An entire generation regarded the work of Pavese as mythical and took example from it. He was a cult author in the Fifties and Sixties, and a reference point for both workers and most of the youth of those times. Pavese wasn’t an expert on cinema. His love for Constance projected him into an unfamiliar world. He wrote the screenplay for a film Le due sorelle (“The two sisters”) for herself and her sister, with the director Vittorio De Sica in mind for the production. He didn’t choose De Sica by chance. In a radio interview on living authors on 12 May 1950, he said: “For Pavese, the greatest contemporary author is Thomas Mann, and among the Italians, Vittorio De Sica”. A statement that puts novels and films at the same level, almost as if Pavese regarded the director of Ladri di biciclette (“The bicycle thieves”) as the best Italian novelist, instead of being the instigator of the greatest period in the history of Italian cinema.

Five years later, in 1955, Michelangelo Antonioni filmed Le amiche (“The Girlfriends”) based on a story published in a 1949 anthology, La Bella Estate (“The beautiful summer”). In June 1950, La bella estate received the Strega prize. The story is narrated in the first person by the protagonist Clelia, a wellknown designer who returns to her childhood home of Turin from Rome to set up a new fashion salon. At her luxurious hotel in the centre, she comes across a stretcher carrying the body of a girl wearing a blue tulle dress who had tried to commit suicide. The girl is Rosetta. This is an unsettling return to her roots and takes place among the frivolous, death-related games of a middle class that performs its rites in the unreal world of continuous festivity, in the desperate search for that void that Rosetta fell into. In the end she commits suicide with Veronal in the painter’s studio at the window looking out over Superga hill. Clelia’s return to discover her working class root ends in failure. Nobody remembers her as a girl in her old neighbourhood. Only the young labourer, Beccuccio, who works in studio, remembers the strength and hope she had when she was young. She makes love to him one night, but that’s all. Six years after the novel was written, Antonioni made a sumptuous film of the story. Eleonora Rossi Drago starred as Clelia, Valentina Cortese as Momina, Madeleine Fischer as Rosetta, and Gabriele Ferzetti as Lorenzo. Franco Fabrizi is first Nene’s lover, and then Clelia’s. Cesare is Momima’s superficial partner.

Gianni di Venanzo was the director of photography and editing was by Eraldo Da Roma. The Fontana sisters’ had the most famous fashion house at the time and did the costumes. The score was by Giovanni Fusco and played on the piano by Armando Trovajoli. The film won the Leone d’argento at the Venice Film Festival. As can be imagined, there was much controversy about the film. Antonioni was accused of having betrayed the spirit of the story and turning it into a portrait of the middle classes, their ennui, their insecurities and their desperation. He was believed to have confronted the theme of suicide from that perspective, as he already had done in the episode of Tentato suicidio (“When Love Fails”) in the film Amore in citta (“Love in the city”, 1953) made just before Le amiche. By now we know that women and love represent the central themes to this Ferrara native’s work: a kind of love that doesn’t bring joy, has continuous ups and downs, where the characters appear to be insecure and tormented to the point of destroying that feeling, all feelings. In this film, Antonioni was helped by excellent coscreenwriters Suso Cecchi D’Amico, who had worked with Visconti and Fellini, and Alba De Cespedes, a successful writer at the time who took care of the literary section. An “interpretation” was made of the highly intense and rarefied Pavese story, which tried to bring alive a difficult piece of writing, full of psychological anguish and very often carried out through internal monologues. Antonioni was well aware of this. And he defends himself on this point in a series of interviews that show that he hadn’t chosen a story, but the account behind that story. We know that it is very rare for a director to turn a story into a film that preserves the literary merit of the story, apart from whether the film is meritworthy in its own right.

Even negative criticism can reveal the complexity of a director like Antonioni. His ability to understand the meaning of Pavese’s work at a time when Pavese was still considered to be a ‘lefist’ author, and to portray him as a writer recording the existential emptiness of the middle class, just as Pavese’s beloved Thomas Mann had done, just goes to show the acute intelligence of this intellectual who succeeded in recognising Pavese as a classic author of the nineteen hundreds.