Arguing along the Po River

Written by  Vittorio Emiliani

The acerbic moods of a great admirer of the Ferrara area: Mario Soldati

The memory of Mario Soldati, writer, director, author of unforgettable television reports is linked in a special way to the Po river and the majestic, crowded marshes that terminate in the Ferrara and Polesine delta.

He actually filmed an unforgettable documentary on the search for genuine food and wine along the river for Rai (Italian broadcasting corporation). The Journey through the Marshes of the Po River Valley was shot in 1957 by this perceptive narrator, with elaborate, painstaking attention. However, Mario Soldati had already been familiar with Ferrara and the marshes of Comaccio and the Delta since the early ‘50s. He had filmed La donna del fiume (The River Girl) in 1953 for Carlo Ponti which came out in 1954 featuring the twenty-year old Sophia Loren.

The Ferrara writer, Giorgio Gassani, still finding his feet, featured among the numerous screenwriters as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini. Another Ferrara man who was still at the fledgling stage was the co-director Florestano Vancini who had already authored other well-received documentaries. He kept a lively account of those few weeks of work. “Soldati, who was only familiar with the Turin Po, basically a city river, really had to immerse himself into the rural, naturalistic Po valley,” writes Florestano. “Having chosen Lauren as the leading lady, he considered the movie “gastronomically interesting” and his theatrical side you could say was brought out every day on the set”. He was always playing practical jokes, like sliding eels into various bags and then shouting at the serpent. And he wanted jokes played on him too. Otherwise, he went into a bad mood, or at least pretended to go into a bad mood. “One day, however, Soldati didn’t want any jokes or distractions,” continues Vancini. “He took off on his own with the cameraman, and filmed the key episode of the film, a real cinematic jewel involving the accidental death of the leading character’s child”. A memorable piece according to the critics.

As usual, Soldati found the key to understanding the area in the local food. Recently an anthology of writings on our area by Mario Soldati was published by Minerva Publishers of Bologna, with an introduction by me. It is called Viaggio in Emilia Romagna (Journey through Emilia Romagna) edited by Anna Cardini Soldati. Various topics are dealt with in the stories: the great Piazzas built to host markets, the Po valley pumpkins grown to fill tortelli and tortelloni, the colours of modern Italian painting taken from the great Ferrara painting tradition.

Further on there are pages from his diary. The entry for 7 March 1965 is quite an intriguing piece of news that we hadn’t heard before where he reports on an argument he had with Giorgio Bassani regarding another great Ferrara man, Michelangelo Antonioni. Bassani reports: “And by the way, I met Antonioni yesterday. He says that you are a great piece of ……”. The reply as quick as lightening: “Exactly what I thought of him”. Not because he rejects all his work, but that Antonioni represents, as far as he can see, an unresolved contradiction between the supreme, refined, and perfect beauty of image, enhanced by editing that brings out its best, and dialogue that is “sluggish, stupid, casual, coarsely transferred from life, as if Antonioni doesn’t attach any importance to it, as if it were not an element that he considers, that he despises”…

Bassani’s reply is perceptive and he agrees and disagrees with him at the same time: “The dialogue that you say is ugly and sluggish, really is ugly and sluggish. But Antonioni does realise this – that’s where you’re wrong. He actually wants it like that. Elegant dialogue would annoy him”. Soldati doesn’t let him get away with it, he interrupts, argiung with Bassani, the author of Cinque storie ferraresi (Five Stories from Ferrara) who protests: “Let me finish, you’re always interrupting me”. At the end they agree on the fact that Antonioni uses ugly, trite language to “emphasise the beauty of the other elements even more”. Only for Soldati it doesn’t work; Bassani thinks it does, and the dialogue-argument is over, even though it could actually have gone on for ever. It is 1965. Two years afterwards Antonioni’s masterpiece “Blow up” is released, where, even Soldati, I would imagine would have admitted, that the strength, poetry, and rhythm of the images of swinging London do not actually need words.