Mafioso: Conversation with Italian Director Lattuada

Italian filmmaker Lattuada's classic “Mafioso,” starring the great actor Alberto Sordi, was recently resored by Rialto and will be theatrically shown in several cities in the U.S.

Q: Your work as a director is linked with your interests as a film critic, film collector and cinephile. Are there other reasons that explain your career choice

Lattuada: There are undoubtedly deep-rooted origins of my interest in movies. When my father, Felice, a musician, worked at La Scala in Milan, I was able to move around backstage, watching them put together this miracle of painted cardboard and lights–in other words, things created from nothingthat from the stage became spectacle, entertainment, illusion. I was still just a kid, so for me it was my first glimpse of what it could mean to use these tools to move and win over an audience: it was the miracle of mise-en-scne. So as a child Id already assimilated, through opera, a great
passion for the performing arts. And as opera became more and more a pastime for the elite, many years later I spontaneously came upon cinema as the most appropriate means to express myself, to entertain the audience. So Id say my roots are basically in the theater.

Q: Opera may have given you the idea, but your later models were essentially cinematic.

L: Without a doubt. First there was my collecting of old films, hunting, with my Milanese friends, for films headed for the dustbin. And then, a little later, I began to work as a film critic. While the activities of what after the war became the Cineteca Italiana were expanding, Henri Langlois (co-founder of the Cinemathque Francaise) was sending us from Paris, in diplomatic pouches, the films of Vigo, Renoir, Clair, Lang. I saw hundreds and hundreds of movies. I soaked up American cinema (Hawks, Walsh, Ford) and at the same time learned to appreciate the closer to home European cinema headed by the French (Renoir, Clair, Vigo) and Germans (Pabst, Lang, Murnau), not to mention my unbridled admiration for Erich von Stroheim.

Q: What about Neorealism

L: Ive always had a strong tendency to make a constructed cinema, entirely fictitious.

Q: You place the publics approval before that of the critics.

L: I instinctively feel the need for the broadest possible contact with the public, to be accepted and understood. Sometimes Ive deliberately eliminated experimenting with style and preciousness because I believe in a popular cinema. Ive always tried to be. As Carmine Coppola did for his son Francis, Felice Lattuada (1882-1962) wrote scores for several Lattuada movies, including Il Cappotto, Il Bandito and Variety Lights. Lattuada was, with Luigi Comencini and Mario Ferrari, one of the founders of the Cineteca Italiana, Italys oldest film archive; clear, simple, acceptable, and not trapped in a formula of difficult experimentation. I think experimental films are fantastic, but theyre also incomplete expressions of film since they never reach the general public. But experimentation is indispensable for the ongoing transformation of cinematic language, for its enrichment.

Q: In your latest films your language is particularly concise, free-flowing,
heedless of a classical approach to film editing.

L: Id say that directors are still too pedantic about editing. We listen too much to the objections of the old producer who, watching the editor cut and shorten from the other side of the Moviola, worries that the audience wont understand certain scenes. I find its better to always shoot short scenesand in this I imitate both the classic film comedies and silent film directors. Short scenes give you greater freedom in the cutting room. They allow you to fix any uneven bits that might come up. Cutting, abbreviating and shortening has become second nature to me.

Q: Do you take liberties with the screenplay when youre shooting

L: There should always be a certain amount of freedom, because spontaneous changes are often needed due the topography of the scene, the attitude of the actors, or shooting conditions. When you discover that a line delivered by an actor doesnt have the desired effect, you have to make changes. The ability to make on-the-spot script changes is almost impossible in the American system.

Q: Your method of working on a screenplay

L: In general, I start working with one screenwriter, and then the work is completed by another, and then I revise or completely rewrite it. For example, for Venga a prendere il caff da noi, I had two complete drafts by two different writers. I took something from each of these two scripts, but I rewrote them from the start, imagining a completely different film. Once it was shot, it was transformed once again on the Moviola. A screenplay is an ongoing process of writing and rewriting that only ends with the final print.

Q: Mafioso givea the impression that it was shot from a very detailed and
exact screenplay.

L: You have to envision the final cut; otherwise you might be in for some nasty surprises. That was true for Mafioso, though the American episode was entirely improvised in New York over the space of a few hours. A skeleton Italian crew arrived in New York, not realizing that permits were required. They got around this by stealing street shots very early in the morning.

Q: The editing

L: For me its even more important than the screenplay. Early in my career I cut my films myself, frame by frame. Not today. Now I sit next to the editor, give him some notes, put the material through the Moviola again and again, then I leave him alone. I come back after a while, this time as a critic, and Im often pleasantly surprised.

Q: Work with actors

L: You have to delve into their personalities and then guide them affectionately. I always try to use diplomacy to get the reaction Im looking for. I encourage their vices and virtues and become their friend, their confidante, their accomplice. Im never violent, authoritarian, or bullying. I try to speak to them by backing them up, dining with them, agreeing on things that have nothing to do with movies. I camouflage myself and change my behavior depending on the actor.

Q: In the 1950s and 60s, you were thought of as an eclectic director, hard to classify.

L: Im delighted to be considered eclectic. The search of a subject to develop corresponds to my needs of the moment, my desire to weigh in on current issues. I dont mind at all that my impulses are varied and unclassifiable. But if you look carefully at my films, youll always discover something recurrent, something of me–maybe the solitude of many of my characters, or the search for female beauty, mystery, youth, and so on.

Q: Your films have recently been rediscovered by the younger generation, especially cinema studies people interested in older cinema.

L: My rediscovery, especially by younger critics, makes me extremely happy, because today they dont have the same political blinders that so many Italian critics wore in the 1950s and 60s. And then the French, who are always so generous, are carrying out a very attentive review of our cinema with great critical authority.

Q: Youve had good relations with producers, but also some rejected projects.

L: There are some very intelligent producers that love cinema. Others have changed from cinema lovers into bankers. Theyre interested only in business, predicting the box office, measuring with a chronometer the laughter that a movie has to provoke. There are very few producers nowadays who are active collaborators on the film.

*Provided by the film's publicist, this Interview Is from the book Alberto Lattuada by Claudio Camerini (1982), translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore