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Celebrating the Earth: The Films of Franco Piavoli

Franco Piavoli’s films, praised by greats such as Bertolucci, Brakage and Tarkovsky are unique, falling somewhere between Italian Neo-Realism and extreme formalism. Virtually free of dialogue, and sans subtitles, Piavoli draws the viewer into his world with images of nature-turned-abstract through his experimental editing techniques and eye for the fantastic. Humans are merely a cameo in Piavoli’s universe, and his perception of the earth is bountiful with details most never see, magnifying them and taking them to another realm. Though all very different, Blue Planet, Nostos: The Return, Voices Through Time and At The First Breath of Wind are all unmistakably marked with Piavoli’s triumphant style.

Il Planeta Azzurro/Blue Planet [1982]

Blue Planet, Piavoli’s first feature, rhythmically carries the viewer through the cycle of a day and through the four seasons. After a ten minute closeup shot of water bubbles moving slowly under the ice, I began to wonder if this would be a glorified Nature Channel special. As the film progressed, I relaxed to the soothing sounds of the bubbles and witnessed the earth coming to life under Piavoli’s lens. A surge of adrenaline rushed through me as the water broke free and began flowing over brightly lit rocks, forming patterns in the sunlight similar to Japanese script. In sequences of cross-cutting, we see an extreme close up of a frog, then a grasshopper, and then an unlucky dragonfly caught in a spider’s web. Tense music plays as the spider inches across the web towards its prey. The action-packed sequence of torture while the spider violently spins the dragonfly in its web, was almost comparable to The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke gets hurled in the dungeon with that awful creature, only minus the happy ending. Piavoli throws in a few classic insect-screwing shots which foreshadow a couple fooling around in a field; the camera stays so close that only their lips touching, hands, and parts of skin are seen, and your close attention will be rewarded with a moment of insertion. The loud noises of a farmer’s machines are viewed through the perspective of a rabbit trying to escape its blades, followed by the dark silhouettes of several workers moving in unison as they turn the gears of a dam. A family is shown from afar, the camera remaining in long shot as they eat, their sounds not so different from the hum of the machines and the flow of water. Piavoli is able to portray humans as merely a speck in comparison to the vastness of the earth.

Nostos: Il Ritorno/Nostos: The Return [1989]

Watching Nostos: The Return, which is set in the seas and islands of ancient Greece, I found myself fluctuating between mocking the lead actor to picking up my jaw off the floor in reaction to the beautiful, abstract shots of water in the moonlight. Nostos is returning from battle on his small ship accompanied by several other soldiers, who all vanish in a shipwreck. Nostos (Greek translation: homecoming) lives up to his name as he searches for closure. How do we know this? By the ongoing and perhaps too-obvious sequence of a child chasing after a metal circle throughout the film. Dialogue is scarce, though not as scarce as in Blue Planet, yet there are no subtitles. After a while I found it impossible not to invent my own hilarious dialogue for Nostos.

After the crew exits one island (following a love fest with the local witches amidst a strange, purple fog) their boat is wiped out by a storm and Nostos washes up on another island miraculously still wearing his burlap underwear. Nostos (Luigi Mezzanotte) consistently maintains a strange expression, which I later dubbed as the Blue Steel of ancient Greece; his lips a bit puckered and eyes desperately trying to emanate something, yet failing. He wanders about stroking the trees and rocks and gawking at the peacocks as if he’s about to have a bad trip, but isn’t quite sure yet. At this point I realized that Nostos, despite its sometimes-breathtaking sequences, would have been a stellar candidate for Mystery Science Theater 3000. Especially after Nostos discovers, to his delight, a nude woman swimming in crystal clear water, her porcelain skin glowing in the sunlight. Shortly thereafter he is going down on her in a field, followed by a shot of a bee sucking the nectar out of a flower, moving to escalating shots of birds flapping their wings, and, of course, a shot of a rushing, bubbling waterfall. As if that weren’t enough, while the pair lays post-coital in the field, there’s a shot of a peacock’s feathers retracting. Then the two begin gallivanting in their matching burlap outfits, (his was so short I kept expecting full mystical Greek scrotal display) and drinking side by side from a stream. Without warning, Nostos hightails it out of there on a makeshift raft he hastily assembles with no goodbye to his lady friend. Why the rush? Did she ask him to meet her parents? Obviously a soldier such as himself is skilled in the craft of raft building, which only further supports my suspicion of his use of hallucinogens. In the middle of the night, as Nostos foolishly sleeps, his raft falls apart in the middle of the ocean and sounds of horses are heard overlapping the sounds of strange chanting and seagulls. I wondered, were those all phobias of Piavoli’s Nostos? Though full of unintentional humor, also contains some on the most incredible, fluid, and abstract visual sequences I’ve ever seen.

Voci Nel Tiempo/Voices Through Time [1996]

Set in a small village in Italy, Voices Through Time is a journey through four stages of human life, beginning with a cooing baby and concluding with the elderly. The sweet awkwardness of being a horny teenager was perfectly and poetically displayed, and as a bonus most of the guys sported some sort of mullet or rat-tail. Perhaps the most memorable scene showed five girls sitting atop a concrete structure in the center of a courtyard, several boys circling them on their mopeds like sharks around prey. Although people dominated much of the screen, you never got the impression they were actors. Voices Through Time isn’t about anybody—it’s about everybody, about humans, and their alike-ness. As in all of these films, the people together make up an organism; they are components of something larger.

Al Primo Soffio Di Vento/At the First Breath of Wind [2002]

Focusing on six family members, At the First Breath of Wind successfully brings the viewer into each of their worlds, worlds so different it’s hard to believe they are related. Some scenes drag or become redundant, such as the daughter’s melodramatic fifteen minute piano solo accompanied by shots of the inevitable water, and her mother’s jarring voice-over, but for the most part Piavoli continues to experiment with light, media and camera angles resulting in a visually unique living fantasy, mostly dialogue-free but captivating. Noteworthy is the father channel surfing between an auto race and a lingerie show, the camera fixed in extreme close up on the screen, his eyes changing at the different images as he dozes off and dreams. His dream slowly morphs into a realistic (as dream sequences go) nightmare beginning in a library lit all blue, then to stalls of dirty pigs squealing to cow corpses hanging in a meat locker.

After immersing in Piavoli I asked myself which is better, consistency or extremes? It’s the artist’s eternal conundrum, but in Piavoli’s case, the extremes work. What doesn’t work never really doesn’t work, because there’s no dialogue, no conflict. It just is, people just are. I suppose what I didn’t like I actually did like. Even Nostos kind of grew on me, regardless of whether my desire to see more of him is related to the unintentional humor. The bottom line is, I have never seen nature filmed in this way.


Mary Hanlon


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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