Pasquale Iannone programmer of a new season of films by Valerio Zurlini gives a beginner's guide to the little known director.
In one of his last-ever interviews, Italian director Valerio Zurlini discussed his life-long passion for Leo Tolstoy. 'What I find extraordinary in his work,' Zurlini observed, 'is the remarkable fusion between public and private history'. Zurlini never managed to adapt Tolstoy. In the light of his filmography, it remains as tantalising an unmade project as Luchino Visconti's Proust.
Born in 1926, Zurlini's career in the cinema began in the late 1940s when he found himself, by chance, at the helm of a publicity short being filmed in Bologna. Once behind the camera, Zurlini recalled, 'I felt I knew exactly what to do even though I had had no formal training.' In 1954, Zurlini was given the chance to direct his first feature, The Girls of San Frediano, a deceptively light, picaresque tale set in Florence charting the adventures of a local lothario.
Zurlini's second film, Violent Summer (1959), came after a five-year period of relative inactivity (rumours had begun to spread that the director was 'difficult'). Set during the fateful summer of 1943 and starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, the film is the first in which Zurlini, in the spirit of Tolstoy, fuses public and private history.
The late 1950s to early 1960s became Zurlini's most prolific period: The Girl With the Suitcase (1961) was followed up by Family Diary (1962). The latter film was the first feature in which Zurlini's love of painting came to the fore, his framing and composition inspired by the work of Ottone Rosai.
The Camp Followers (1965) and Black Jesus (1968) were followed by his two final films. Deeply existential in tone with an acute awareness of the importance of landscape, they both recall Antonioni at his best. The Professor (1972) features Alain Delon and Giancarlo Giannini whilst The Desert of the Tartars (1976) assembles a stellar European cast for an adaptation of the acclaimed 1937 novel by Dino Buzzati.
Generally misunderstood by Italian critics, it would take more than 20 years for Zurlini to be reappraised, his body of work to be admired as more than deserving of comparison with that of Antonioni or Visconti.
Valerio Zurlini season, Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Mon 3 Nov. GFT, Glasgow from Sun 9 Nov.