In a piece I wrote about Gianni Amelio’s 1998 Così ridevano I noted that Italy makes the world’s best movies about brothers. Perhaps the finest one, and certainly the most famous, is Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), but another of the films I mentioned is the most widely distributed work by Bolognese filmmaker Valerio Zurlini, Cronaca familiare (Family Diary; literally, Family Chronicle), which shared at Venice the Golden Lion of St. Mark, the top prize, with Andrei Tarkovsky’s lyrical Soviet film about war’s blighting childhood, Ivan’s Childhood. (The jury cited the Zurlini film’s “delicious, powerful evocation of feelings filtered by memory.”) Against a broad though largely implicit canvas of national history, Zurlini’s film follows Enrico and Lorenzo Corsi (called Dino by his adoptive parents), whose fraternal relationship goes through a series of vast changes attuned to this history. In subtle and flexible ways, the relationship comes to suggest aspects of this history, although Zurlini everywhere emphasizes the sensitive, universal emotions involved: in particular, the elder brother’s contemplation of the eternal mystery, for him, of his younger brother’s nature—a mystery ultimately sealed in the latter’s youthful death from an ailment itself so mysterious that it comes to seem a projection of Enrico’s limited capacity to fathom Lorenzo.
Cronaca familiare is a deeply affecting work. One reason that the film for better or worse “tells a story” is that the Florentine author who wrote the 1947 autobiographical novel on which the film is based, Vasco Pratolini, collaborated with Zurlini and Mario Missiroli on the screenplay. This doubtless contributes to the film’s literary air; but the fault—one characteristic of Zurlini’s work—almost seems irrelevant given the powerful humanistic experience that the film provides. (In the novel, incidentally, Enrico’s name is that of the author, Vasco, and his brother’s birth name is Ferruccio, not Lorenzo, and Ferruccio’s adoptive name is Dante, not Dino.) We seem to be looking in on actual scenes from the, first, mutually estranged and, later, intertwined lives of the two brothers. What we look in on and overhear strikes us as a very personal account. The voiceover narration, ostensibly drawn from Enrico’s journal, even comes to seem etched memories of our own circling in our brain. The highly specific nature of the book yields, then, to the universal impulses behind Zurlini’s artistic intent.
Zurlini has fashioned a distressed, enormously painful tour of the human heart, and he did so, not so coincidentally, perhaps, at a nearly identical time in his life as when Pratolini wrote the book. Both men were in their early to mid-thirties, though of course more than twenty years apart. Both, like Dante in The Divine Comedy, were at the midpoint of their mortal lives.
The film opens in 1945, in a newsroom in Rome, where the impoverished Enrico, a struggling journalist, is informed that a piece of his will be published. Ordinarily, this would be an occasion worthy of celebration. For at least four reasons this time it is not. The atmosphere reeks of the defeat that the American occupation following Italy’s defeat in the Second World War encapsulates. To be sure, Enrico, like Zurlini a Marxist, had been anti-Fascist, but this political distinction is incapable of immunizing him from the national depression that defeat, not to mention the sheer exhaustion brought about by war, has wrought. Enrico is visibly disdainful of the scattering of flat, arrogant American voices in his midst. They are an intrusion. Moreover, he is anxious besides because of the telephone call he awaits. It comes; it is from Florence. The party on the other end has been trying for a day to get through, but the American occupiers, indifferent to Italian lives, have been officiously hogging the phone lines. The news, though expected, is dreadful: Lorenzo, Enrico’s younger brother, in his twenties, died yesterday. Their separation thus is another cause of Enrico’s unhappiness. The fourth is that the different circumstances of their lives, consigning Lorenzo to relative wealth but Enrico to squalor and poverty, has long since robbed Enrico of his health. Tubercular, why isn’t he the one to have died? It speaks to the depth of his sense of spiritual kinship that Enrico experiences the death of Lorenzo as yet another stroke of unfairness in his own life. His brother is the one with whom Enrico would have first shared the news of his publication. But, more than that, between the two of them it is Lorenzo who should have lived. Outdoors, slowly moving down a street, in long-shot, against a continuous backdrop of immense buildings on both sides, Enrico seems himself like the narrowly entombed walking dead.
When he returns to his meager accommodations, Enrico is like a ghost haunting the spare, dimly lit space, books stacked against the walls. Zurlini underscores this by slipping into use of a subjective camera. The emptiness of what Enrico sees (an empty chair, an unpopulated desk), which we see through the free-floating camera, reflects the vacant feeling of his soul. Enrico is separated forever from the treasure of his brother’s company and love. Thus he has finally caught up completely with Italy’s national mood of bereavement, exhaustion and defeat.
A painting on the wall triggers his recollections of the past. He and we are in an instant transported to Florence in 1918. A series of static shots of roads and countryside, with trees quietly awash in a subtle breeze, introduces the shift in space and time, Enrico’s withdrawal into memory. It is memory itself that these shots exquisitely portray, as do shots in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Another war has just ended, and the two boys, Enrico, who is 8, and Lorenzo, who was born shy of a month earlier, are about to be separated, seemingly forever, for the first time. It is this past that will come to a kind of fruition, then, 27 years later. It is a past that contains the present as much as the present contains the past. So it is with human memory: past, present, each enrobing the other, with immediacy yielding instantaneously to distance, and distance yielding instantaneously to the immediacy of perpetual heartache.
Zurlini’s masterful series of static shots, the bridge between present and past, comes measuredly alive when an elderly woman, holding the hand of a child, walks down a country road. The woman is the boys’ grandmother; the child is Enrico, whose care she has taken up owing to the death of the boys’ mother three days after Lorenzo’s birth. Grandmother and grandson are en route to visiting Lorenzo, who has been taken in by Salocchi, the butler of a wealthy English baron one of whose tenants had been nursing the infant. The boys’ father is not in the picture; he is a patient in an Army hospital. His wife, too, was a casualty of the war insofar that her death was partly the result of a non-native disease—Spanish influenza, compounded by meningitis. Enrico tells us, however, he did not hate Lorenzo for their mother’s death from complications of childbirth—the sort of statement that reveals a residue of the very feeling that is being denied. Enrico gives an odd reason for not having hated Lorenzo: because of their separation, Enrico came to feel that his brother had died along with their mother.
The grandmother reluctantly submits to Salocchi’s demand that she never mention Lorenzo’s mother to the boy Salocchi and his wife have “adopted.” This makes access to Lorenzo at least possible, although her visits, accompanied by Enrico, remain unwelcome. Eventually, when his brother is in his early teens, Enrico goes his separate way. Lorenzo remains cocooned in a bourgeois world; Enrico is battered by the poverty that results in his tuberculosis. (Enrico’s chain-smoking despite this condition comes to imply a romance with death that harkens back to the loss of his mother.) Lorenzo grows up hedonistic; Enrico, serious. Lorenzo is an indifferent student; Enrico, a writer, an intellectual, a perpetual researcher and student. Lorenzo is, thoughtlessly, a Fascist in Mussolini’s Italy; Enrico, a dedicated anti-Fascist. When their lives recross in 1935, they are a study in contrasts. Rather than eight years, a whole world separates them.
The “meeting” happens quite by chance. Enrico, threadbare, enters a public recreation center in Florence to sit against a radiator in order to capture some benefit of heat. Dapperly suited and wearing a tie, Lorenzo is absorbed in a ping-pong match. (The sounds of the paddled ball seem to be a mocking version of the clock’s ticking, aurally magnified, that assaulted Enrico when he returned to his apartment after learning of Lorenzo’s death.) Zurlini’s cutting between Enrico and Lorenzo, from one brother to the brother the other one sees, stresses their separation. This is emphasized in a series of shots back and forth (like a ping-pong ball in play) when the two—Lorenzo, standing; Enrico, seated—face one another up close, each recognizing but having nothing to say to the other. When they do appear in a two-shot, they are still apart, with Enrico facing Lorenzo’s back, and Lorenzo, equally silent and uncomfortable, turning his head to stare at his brother. There will be no more ping-pong today. Discombobulated, Lorenzo puts on another layer of warmth and protection, an overcoat, and leaves, telling his playmates that his brother is waiting and pointing to Enrico when they ask where his brother is. (The moment stuns because across the length of the room Lorenzo is pointing at the camera—seemingly at us.) Lorenzo is abandoning the brother he doubtless feels has abandoned him, and when Lorenzo’s playmates ask Enrico if he is really Lorenzo’s brother Enrico returns Lorenzo’s harsh slight, even though Lorenzo has already left, by denying fraternity. Two months later it is still winter, and Lorenzo, now estranged from his adoptive father, turns up to share Enrico’s meager, damp, unheated apartment, at least for the night. How did he know where Enrico lives? From the phone book, he tells Enrico. It is night and, absent the electricity that Enrico cannot afford, the space is exceedingly, and somehow, for the sake of their reunion, comfortingly dark. It is Lorenzo who has unexpectedly reentered his brother’s life—Enrico’s dark space. Lorenzo is still well dressed, but in the same exact outfit as when he played ping-pong; this collapses the two scenes, adding a hint that Lorenzo’s financial situation has dropped a bit, and thus suggesting a greater closeness in the brothers’ situations. Lorenzo tells Enrico that, since the Baron’s death, Salocchi no longer lives in the same place; now they all, like Enrico, rent a furnished apartment. This, too, has the effect of reducing the difference between the brothers. Salocchi has also quarreled with his “son” over the latter’s choice of a girlfriend—a fact Lorenzo discloses only after considerable prodding from his brother. The girl is the landlady’s daughter; the former butler, Salocchi, as servants of the titled rich often are, is a snob. Enrico apologizes for having earlier denied fraternity—this, his first (lightly given) acknowledgement of the potential for some profound bond between them. Lorenzo confesses: He and the girl aren’t really boyfriend and girlfriend, but he couldn’t resist taunting his papa with the fiction—a small teenage rebellion. Enrico listens and chuckles. This is the thaw—the precise moment when the two relax into their souls. They go out to buy a candle and to eat; Lorenzo pays. With terrible dignity Enrico admits that a bill for them both would be too steep for him to pay. His brother has come to Enrico for help, and Enrico is accepting help from his brother. At the restaurant, both seated at a table, they occupy a two-shot; we take in the shared relaxation, recalling one having been seated while the other stood, or both having been up on their feet. Back in Enrico’s apartment, Lorenzo shyly undresses for bed—there is only one bed—while Enrico sits at the desk to finish some work, made possible by the just-bought candle. This corresponds to a snag of fresh contention that crops up; the boys are “separate” again. Why did you put Grandmother into a state home for the poor? Lorenzo asks Enrico. People say you are “nasty” to have done this. “What people?” Enrico calmly replies, answering a series of Lorenzo’s questions with questions intended to help his brother, the “so-so” student, to think for himself. When he needed help, Enrico reminds him, Lorenzo came to him, not to these “people,” whoever they are. On his meager earnings as a typesetter, he further explains, he couldn’t afford to support both himself and Grandma; he could scarcely support himself. Lorenzo asks for a cigarette; Enrico lights and gives Lorenzo his last cigarette. They discuss Grandma, who believes Enrico is in Rome. Enrico has not gone to see her because he can’t bear the thought of her knowing how poor, how sick he is; Lorenzo visited her earlier that very day. He had begun visiting her after Enrico’s behavior at the recreation center misled him to believe that Enrico wanted nothing to do with him. “There was only Grandma left then,” Lorenzo explains. Indeed, Lorenzo will reunite them, grandma and elder grandson. In the meantime, Enrico reunites Lorenzo with their mother by showing him a photograph of her. Before Enrico’s tubercular coughing aborts their exchange, the intimacy they will now develop is telegraphed by the sight of both grown boys in the dark sharing Enrico’s one bed and engaged in hushed conversation about their mother. (“What was she like?” “She was very beautiful.” “How can I see her for myself if no one talks to me about her?” “She liked oranges . . . She was a superb seamstress.”) Spatially, Zurlini has collapsed the difference between the brothers in anticipation of the spiritual destiny the two will come to share: a visual artist’s gift for thinking through his eye.
Enrico and Lorenzo visit Grandma at the Church-run poor house; Enrico thoroughly relaxes into his lifelong dear love for her, but Lorenzo, marked by his bourgeois upbringing, and only recently reunited with her, is, although no less loving, also polite, formal, a bit stiff. (Zurlini keeps Lorenzo’s checkered socks out of these frames to omit irrelevant satire.) Grandma is happy that, as she incorrectly believes, Lorenzo’s future, unlike Enrico’s, is assured, thanks to Salocchi; she has nothing to complain about regarding her living situation, she assures Enrico, and the three plan on Easter dinner together. Each boy kisses Grandma on both cheeks before she begins to take her leave of the home’s guest area. She turns at the door and rejoins her grandsons, touching a cheek of each as the three huddle in a mesmerizing three-shot. This seals the brothers’ shared destiny, for Zurlini follows the scene with a series of two-shots of the boys. Symbolically, psychologically, Grandma restores the connection of the identical womb that both boys at different times shared. Ridiculously, someone introducing the film on television misidentified the boys as twins—and not so ridiculously. In some sense, the boys unconsciously challenge the vast differences between them to become “twins” born eight years apart. At the very least, Lorenzo has belatedly become what childhood wouldn’t permit him to be: a younger brother trailing his older brother and idol. Zurlini’s steady advance to the two-shot constitutes one of cinema’s most poignant progressions of visual data. It’s precisely such visual attentiveness, coupled with the humanity of the performances, that most helps Cronaca familiare to transcend its literary air.
Dramatically, the film follows a similar course. At his invitation, Enrico, accompanied by his brother, visits Salocchi to discuss Lorenzo’s future. Here, Enrico and Lorenzo appear in the same frame at the door, but once the two are inside the visual coordinates convey the contentiousness of the scene. Salocchi exhibits his disdain for the financially unsuccessful Enrico before threatening to cut Lorenzo loose if he doesn’t reject his current lifestyle, including his poolroom and ping-pong companions. He has made so many sacrifices for Lorenzo, he insists, but he can do no more for him if the boy chooses to remain incorrigible. During these cold words, Lorenzo does his mental best to absent himself from the shaming event. Salocchi delivers to Enrico, but really through him to both brothers, the capping stroke of contempt: “Lack of ambition runs in your family, it seems to me.” In this painful confrontation, Enrico and Lorenzo do not occupy a two-shot but dramatically are nevertheless united vis-à-vis Salocchi. In his way, Salocchi further cements the boys’ blossoming fraternity. Before leaving, Enrico tells Salocchi that Lorenzo can visit him any time he wants. It is with some irony, then, that in a long-shot the two brothers appear in the same frame only as Enrico is about to leave, having deposited his brother at home. Facing Salocchi, Lorenzo, standing, crosses his legs. This is one of Zurlini’s most striking visual coups. The checkered socks that earlier had made Lorenzo seem faintly ridiculous now appear to be the boy’s affront to papa, making Salocchi look ridiculous. Those crossed checkered ankles are tantamount to Lorenzo’s giving Salocchi the finger as behind their brandishment the boy reasserts his pride. Lorenzo is now more Enrico’s brother and less Salocchi’s adoptive son. This impression is fortified in the next scene: Enrico, Lorenzo and Grandma, at table, finishing their meal. The long-shot underscores the family unity, as does the absence of other seated diners. (Another fine detail: at long last, Lorenzo’s full-length trousers—brilliant underscoring, given the juxtaposition of this scene and its immediate predecessor.) Grandma’s remark that they have eaten like royalty surely is one of cinema’s most radiant instances of the humble joys that only the poor can experience: the grace of heart lightening the affliction of their lives. However, it is the political disclosures exchanged between Lorenzo and Grandma, particularly as the latter recalls her husband, who died ten years earlier and whom Lorenzo doesn’t remember, that are most momentous. Enrico is silent; there isn’t any need for him to speak as Grandma takes up the burden of responding, from the heart rather than from a political tract, to Lorenzo’s passing disclosure that he is a member of the Young Fascists. It occurs to me: Cronaca familiare includes extraordinarily rich, entirely believable family conversations.
The intimacy of the farewell between Enrico and Grandma, unfolding at dusk, outdoors, against the aural backdrop of church bells, is perhaps the single most moving moment in a film full of such moments. The pure feeling, especially following the verbal density of the scene immediately preceding it, is overwhelming. With Enrico’s head in her upstretched hands, Grandma beseeches her elder grandson: “Promise not to abandon Lorenzo. You are all he has.” This is a sterling soul’s last will and testament. In retrospect we think, it is she, not Salocchio, who sacrificed for Lorenzo—and uncomplainingly, without any thought to the toll for her exacted by that sacrifice. We also wonder at her shrewdness, her silent understanding that, more than he himself grasps, Enrico needs Lorenzo no less than Lorenzo needs him. Grandma: love, wisdom, incomparable humanity. Cronaca familiare: love, wisdom, incomparable humanity.
Life intervenes, and Enrico eventually leaves Lorenzo to go to Rome for a job as a journalist. The war also intervenes. Lorenzo marries, falls ill, and is already close to death when Enrico visits him for the last time, extending to him every possible care, moving him from one hospital to another. This is his brother. Their last scenes together are heartrending.
Why does Lorenzo die? Why not Enrico? Is it the weakness imposed on Lorenzo by the combination of his mother’s and biological father’s absence from his life? The absence of his brother at a critical time? The want of independence fostered by his bourgeois upbringing? Fascism’s usurpation of his individual will? All of these possibilities suggest themselves, and in concert they create a portrait of doomed European youth. Enrico perhaps survives in order to bear the burden of his inconsolable loss: Italy itself, after the war. The elegiac tone of Zurlini’s film encompasses both personal and national history.
Written in 1945 and published two years later, Pratolini’s book is a work of Italian neorealism. In 1962, the film may be something else: an exploration of the ghosts lurking behind Italy’s political and economic recovery.
Zurlini’s color cinematographer is the great Giuseppe Rotunno, whose work here was honored both at Venice and by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. In his staggering career, perhaps only his color work for Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon (1969) surpasses his work for Cronaca familiare. Its palate of ochres and pale blue and green is drawn from the works, mostly still lifes, landscapes and urban scenes, of one of Zurlini’s favorite painters, Giorgio Morandi. Several scenes of profound darkness contribute to the film’s sense of mortal shadow and of Enrico’s—and Italy’s—long, dark night of the soul.
The acting in this film is immense. It is perhaps the case that Marcello Mastroianni has given more great performances than any other film actor ever; it also may be the case that Enrico is his crowning achievement. Sylvie’s portrait of the boys’ grandmother is bettered in her long career by nothing else. She and Mastroianni both are to the bone here. Jacques Perrin, as Lorenzo, is the younger brother none of us wants to let go of. (This actor-producer, who was in his twenties when he won an Oscar for co-producing Constantinos Costa-Gavras’s 1969 Z, is still very much at work.) Salvo Randone is everything he needs to be as Salocchi.
Cronaca familiare is at times a frankly sentimental film; Lorenzo’s protracted scenes of dying, with Enrico at his bedside, tear the heart to tatters, threatening to unbalance the film’s calm. Certainly Zurlini is incapable of the unsparing vision of family loss that distinguishes Nanni Moretti’s harsh (though beautiful) comedy The Son’s Room (2001). Perhaps nothing so much emphasizes the Zurlini film’s sentimental streak as the unnecessary music by Goffredo Petrassi that rather too conveniently swells up on a dime—a typical Italian bugaboo. No one can sanely declare Cronaca familiare a perfect piece of work. But I must at least protest that the actual film that I saw at the Northwest Film Center here in Portland, Oregon, is fifty times more wonderful than the doctored version that M-G-M released in the States in the mid-’60s and which Turner Classic Movies has broadcast at least once. Afflicting this lesser incarnation is a third-person English narration that contradicts the actual film’s pivotal role of memory. It would appear that as late as a quarter-century after his demise the ghastly spirit of Irving Thalberg still dictated M-G-M’s practices. Throughout the industry, it is past time to put that spirit to rest.
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