Les États généraux du film documentaire 2005 Gian Vittorio Baldi

Gian Vittorio Baldi

De Seta and Baldi: beyond the sound barrier
In the world of the documentary film, the contumacious and little known works of Vittorio de Seta and Gian Vittorio Baldi compete with mayor Neorealistic fiction films. They were, unfortunately, buried under a plethora of short films that were broadly supported by the State in the second half of the fifties, without any regard for quality. Their works represent the hidden side of Italian Realism and reveal a radical documentary vision strongly influenced by experiments with images and sound. De Seta was born in Palermo in 1923. From 1954 to 1959, the self-taught filmmaker made ten short films, among them Parabola d’oro that received an award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. A subtle balance between formal elegance and ethnographic precision characterizes all ten films. From 1958 to 1961, Baldi, born in Bologna in 1930, made nine films: a mixture of rigorous description and film as poetry. Out of the nine, Il Pianto delle zitelle (1958) and La Casa delle tredici vedove (1960) received Golden Lions for best short film at the Venice Film Festival. One can easily point out the differences between their works, starting with the subjects. In the one case the filmmaker is from the South, the subjects are farmers, fishermen and mountaineers. In the other, the filmmaker is from the North, the subjects are the people of Rome and Turin. While the villagers in de Seta’s work still had a harmonious although thankless relationship with their environment, the urban subjects in Baldi’s work clearly had a more painful relationship with the world. The latter were more profoundly affected by social ills and the wounds of History. These differences, however, do not conceal their very evident similarities: the desire to film popular culture as a personal experience, re-created from the inside out – the objective was not to simply film it, but to make the audience feel it. Also, both men have the same penchant for light films and see their craft as solitary and handmade; they have the same obsession with colour – Baldi went as far as to wash out with water the print of Ritratto di Pina (1960), frame by frame, by hand, so as to attenuate the hues in an effort to get them closer to black and white. The area where both filmmakers can be seen as avant-garde or pioneers – for a long time they were alone in a world of traditional post-synchronized Italian cinema – is their experiments with the multitude of possibilities afforded by sound on film: the noises of the world in the almost dialogue-less films of Vittorio De Seta; and post synchronization and words incarnated in the very bodies of the men and women speaking them in the works of Baldi (author, as early as 1953, of a manifesto in defense of sound on film). In both cases, the idea was to open Italian cinema to what it was most cruelly lacking: a genuine sound culture. Having created the link between the original form of Neorealism – the modernity of Rossellini, rather than that of De Santis or De Sica – and the advent of new forms of film in the sixties, De Seta, and then Baldi, were subsequently able to experiment with feature films through three works of fiction influenced by the documentary: Banditi a Orgosolo (De Seta, 1961), Luciano – Una vita bruciata (Baldi, 1961), and Fuoco ! (Baldi, 1968). These works marked a decade in Italy where filming the people always went hand in hand with a desire for revolution.

Gian Vittorio Baldi
Gian Vittorio Baldi learned his craft at the Experimental center of cinematography at Roma, where in 1958 he first received recognition for his series on contemporary Italian history. He emerges, with his very first short films, as the master Italian filmmaker when it comes to words and sound. Synchronized sound, words on film, is what for Baldi literally makes film remarkable. The dialogues are extemporaneous, of course, but not necessarily spontaneous; they are re-created, repeated for the camera as if they were a new form of the aside in theatre: the words are transformed by the relationships that develop early on, before production, among the people who become familiar presences rather than subjects in a documentary, from whence emerges the profound empathy that the audience feels, in an almost palpable manner, the moment they enter these tiny bits of lives, recorded when they were at the limits of the law, on the edge of death and on the verge of exile, and in a place that is slowly shared by everyone, enabling the person filming, the person filmed and the audience to have the impression of being one with the film.

Baldi is also an independent producer, (The Chronical of Anna Magdalena Bach, Pigsty, Notes Towards an African Orestes, Diary of a Schizophrenic Girl, Four Nights of a Dreamer, and the first films made by Jean-Claude Biette). He co-founded the ephemeral Documentary Filmmakers’ International. He went on to direct Luciano – Una vita bruciata and then Fuoco !, two feature-length films that were even more influenced by fiction. Fuoco ! (1968) was deliberately made to be unacceptable, except to moviegoers, because he calls on their [the audience’s] experience and not on their expertise. The film is a tale of carnage without motive, illustrated without any explanation; a homicidal rampage triggered by a fit of madness that alludes to the impasses of a society that has globally lost its mind. Fuoco ! was shot in fourteen days, in chronological order (one could almost say in a single sitting), in 16 mm, using sound on film, and with as little technical intervention as possible. The film is excessive, but its excess is commensurate with Baldi’s faith in cinema. Fuoco ! is without concessions, it is about revolt seen as the burning of energy and the explosive loss of control. The work first brings in to play cinema as a medium, white hot from splicing, called to order by the camera’s methodical and insistent movements, obsessional because of their repetition; all of which brings the viewer in to play: his habits are shaken; he is personally affected; he becomes aware of his own threshold of image tolerance; and is forced to think about what “to watch” means. Because, contrary to what they try to make us believe, without success, to watch means commitment.

“I would like to help cinema die; I would like to accelerate the process. It seems to me that the only way to continue to have ideals is to start over and rebuild everything as soon as possible”. Baldi, 1967, in Rinascita. I do not know what has become of this cinematographic project. We will find out together, at Lussas, through a handful of films that have never been shown in France. Among them are Nevrijeme – Il Temporale and Zen, that Adriano Apra, former director of the Cinematheque in Rome, claims are much better, or worse, depending on one’s point of view or way of viewing things. We could even use the words of Fernand Deligny: depending on the points of viewing.

Patrick Leboutte

Guests : Avec la participation du Centre national expérimental de la cinématographie – Cinémathèque nationale de Rome