Cinema, literature and history have often been intertwined in the films of the Taviani brothers, as they are again in Leonora Addio, the first solo work by Paolo Taviani following the death in 2018 of his lifelong collaborator. The opening credits’ simple dedication, “To my brother, Vittorio,” echoes lovingly throughout the action in this alternately solemn and playful chronicle of the winding journey from Rome to Sicily from the ashes of ten-year-old Luigi Pirandello. after the death of the famous writer. in 1936.
Fittingly for a film about the meta-theatrical maestro of the play within a play, Taviani constructs the main story as a series of vignettes that frequently clash with Pirandello’s style – from ironic realism to teasing questions about the truth of the objective narration, often flirting with the unreal and the absurd. When that plot – and the ashes – are put to rest an hour into the runtime, Taviani then devotes the final half hour to a dramatization of Pirandello’s latest short story, The nailbowing again to the director’s brother in his bittersweet example of enduring artistry.
A moving farewell.
For lovers of the golden age of Italian cinema, one of the keenest pleasures of Leonora Addio will be his clever incorporation of clips from Rossellini, Antonioni, Lattuada and others to evoke the World War II years so vividly commemorated in the classics of neorealism. The Taviani’s own 1984 film, chaos, adapted from five short stories by Pirandello, is also sampled. Vintage newsreels also play an important role in period recreation, opening with images of Pirandello accepting the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature.
“I have never felt so alone and so sad,” says the writer in voiceover. “The sweetness of fame cannot compensate for the bitterness of all it has cost.” This quote would seem to presage a mournful reflection on death and the sacrifices of art, but sparks of illumination, irreverence, tragicomedy and even joy continually sprinkle the material.
Taviani and set designer Emita Frigato draw inspiration from the influential playwright in some of the highly theatrical sound sets, notably Pirandello’s dying bedroom with its surreal perspective. The playwright wonders how his life could be ending already, then watches as his three children enter the room, first at a very young age, then morphing via a soft fade into adults as they approach the bed, finally becoming white- hairy and aged once they get closer.
Front-page headlines of Pirandello’s death are reproduced, as officials of Mussolini’s fascist government prepare for a state funeral. But that doesn’t fit with the writer’s explicit desire to have no public service. (The crematorium is the only use of color in the otherwise black-and-white first hour.) Pirandello left instructions for his ashes to be taken to Agrigento, Sicily, and “encased in rough stone in the countryside where I was born .” Instead, they sit in a Rome columbarium during the turbulent decade of World War II, until an Agrigento official (Fabrizio Ferracane) can be sent to retrieve them.
The councilman expresses his naïve belief that the US command forces will treat the task of transporting Pirandello’s ashes with the dignity it deserves because “they admire and respect success.” But that notion is amusingly debunked by a soldier speeding in a jeep carrying the ashes to an airfield where a special flight to Sicily has been arranged. Unexpectedly, other passengers board the plane and when they realize they are traveling with a dead man, superstition prompts them to disembark. Even the American pilot is sensitive to it.
Thus, the remains of the playwright travel by train, his traveling companions offering a vivid portrait of Italian life after the Second World War. Young couples dance to the accompaniment of a pianist; a young loner devours the pirate adventures of The Corsaro Nero; a man brings back the German bride he met while a prisoner of war on his native island of Salina; and a group of card players innocently commandeer the crate containing the ashes as a table for a few rounds of Dead Man’s Hand, causing the manager of Agrigento to panic.
When the shipment finally arrives in Sicily, the hiccups continue as a bishop (Claudio Bigagli) balks at blessing the cremated remains carried in a Greek urn. An ecclesiastical colleague proposes the solution of placing the urn in a Christian coffin. But a recent flu outbreak has left coffins in short supply so only a child’s coffin can be found, creating confusion during the ceremonial parade through the streets of Agrigento.
Given the sculptor’s lack of urgency to carve out a suitable place in rough stone, per Pirandello’s instructions, it was not until 15 years after the writer’s death that he was finally laid to rest. It’s all captured by Taviani with idiosyncratic flair and a healthy dose of sly humor, shifting from black and white to color as some remains are scattered in the sea.
Some audiences may want a smoother connection with The nail, but the short story, written shortly before Pirandello’s death, continues the themes of the main narrative about finding peace for the deceased. Moved from the original setting of Harlem to Brooklyn, it is about an immigrant child (Matteo Pittiruti) traumatically separated from his Sicilian mother to accompany his father to America. Years later, while watching two girls fight like wild animals, he picks up a nail that fell from a passing cart and uses it as the murder weapon on one of them, offering no explanation to his actions. But he vows to visit his burial site every year once released from prison, a promise kept in haunting footage.
The Taviani conceived the story from the ashes as their own version of a short story by Pirandello at the time of chaos, but the project was put on hold due to funding issues. Resurrected decades later, it serves as a tender way for Paolo to bid farewell to his brother, while saluting one of their great literary heroes, whose work they also adapted in 1998. Tu Ridi (you laugh). The title of the new movie, Leonora Addio, comes from an unrelated Pirandello story that was part of the original screenplay. Taviani cut that section but retained the title.
Editor Robert Perpignano does a neat job threading the extensive archival material into both the main frame and the extended coda, while DPs Paola Carnera and Simone Zampagni deftly integrate new and existing footage. Nicola Piovani’s delicate string score with choral elements offers moving melancholic undertones. The film is a strange and seductive curiosity that shows an artist who ends the seventh decade of his career with sadness and nostalgia but also with a resilient spirit.