Oscar Directors: Pontecorvo, Gillo (Italian Nominee)–Background, Career, Awards, Filmography (Strangers in Paradise; Foreigners in Hollywood, Jewish)

Research in Progress: September 12, 2020

Gillo Pontecorvo Career Summation

Occupational Inheritance: No

Nationality: Italian (Pisa)

Social Class: Upper-middle; wealthy secular Italian Jewish family, father  businessman



Formal Education: chemistry, University of Pisa,


Influencers: Rossellini’s Paisà, 1946; aged 27

First Film: 1959.first feature

Breakthrough: The Battle of Algiers, 1966; aged 47

First Oscar Nomination: The Battle of Algiers, aged 47

Gap between First Film and First Nom:

Other Oscars:

Other Oscar Nominations:

Oscar Awards:

Nominations Span:

Genre (specialties):


Last Film: 2003; docu


Career Length: five decades, 1953-2003

Career Output: small output (about 5 features; rest are documentaries)



Death: 2006, aged 86

Gillo Pontecorvo (Italian: November  19, 1919–October 12, 2006) was an Italian filmmaker, who worked as film director for more than a decade for what became his best known film, La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966).

The movie won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1966 and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar; the winner was A Man and A Woman.

His other films include Kapò (1960), which takes place in a World War II concentration camp,

Burn! (Queimada, 1969), starring Marlon Brando, was about the machinations of colonial powers in small countries.

Ogro (1979) reconstructs the murder of Luis Carrero Blanco by ETA. In 2000, he received the Pietro Bianchi Award at the Venice Film Festival. He was also a screenwriter and composer of film scores, and a close friend of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Pontecorvo, born in Pisa, was the son of a wealthy secular Italian Jewish family. His father was a businessman. Gillo’s siblings included brothers Bruno Pontecorvo, acclaimed nuclear physicist and one of the so-called Via Panisperna boys, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1950; Guido Pontecorvo, a geneticist; and Polì [Paul] Pontecorvo, an engineer who worked on radar after World War II; and David Maraoni; and sisters Giuliana (m. Talbet); Laura (m. Coppa); and Anna (m. Newton).

Pontecorvo studied chemistry at the University of Pisa, but dropped out after passing two exams. While there, he became aware of opposition political forces, coming into contact for the first time with leftist students and professors.

In 1938, faced with growing anti-Semitism, he followed his elder brother Bruno to Paris, and worked in journalism and as  tennis instructor.

In Paris Pontecorvo became involved in film, and began by making a short documentaries. He became an assistant to Joris Ivens, a Dutch documentarian and well-known Marxist, whose films include Regen and The Bridge.

He also assisted Yves Allégret, a French director known for his work in the film noir genre, whose films include Une si jolie petite plage and Les Orgueilleux.

Pontecorvo began meeting influential people, among them artist Pablo Picasso, composer Igor Stravinsky and political thinker Jean-Paul Sartre.

During this time Pontecorvo developed his political ideals. Many of his friends in Paris chose to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1941 Pontecorvo joined the Italian Communist Party. He traveled to northern Italy to help organize Anti-Fascist partisans. Going by the pseudonym Barnaba, he became a leader of the Resistance in Milan from 1943 until 1945.

Pontecorvo broke ties with the Communist party in 1956 after the Soviet intervention to suppress the Hungarian Revolution. He did not, however, renounce his dedication to Marxism.

In a 1983 interview with the UK’s The Guardian: “I am not an out-and-out revolutionary. I am merely a man of the Left, like a lot of Italian Jews.”

After World War II and his return to Italy, Pontecorvo he left journalism for filmmaking. The catalyst was his seeing Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (1946).

He bought a 16mm camera and shot several documentaries, mostly self-funded, beginning with Missione Timiriazev in 1953. He directed Giovanna, which was one episode of La rosa dei venti (1957), a film made of episodes by several directors.

In 1957 he directed his first feature, La grande strada azzurra (The Wide Blue Road), which foreshadowed his style of later films. It explores the life of a fisherman and his family on a small island in the Adriatic. The scarcity of fish in nearby waters, forces the fisherman Squarciò to sail out to the open sea, where he fishes illegally with bombs.

The film won a prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Fest.

Pontecorvo spent months, and years, researching material for his films in order to accurately represent their social situations.

In the next two years, Pontecorvo directed Kapò (1960), a drama set in a Nazi death camp, about an escape attempt from a concentration camp by a young Jewish girl.

In 1961, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. In this same year, the film won two awards: the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists awarded Didi Perego a Silver Ribbon for best supporting actress, and the Mar del Plata Film Festival awarded Susan Strasberg for best actress.

Battle of Algiers

Pontecorvo is best known for his 1966 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri). It is widely viewed as one of the finest films of its genre: a neorealistic film. Its portrayal of the Algerian resistance during the Algerian War uses the neorealist style pioneered by fellow Italian film directors de Santis and Rossellini. He used newsreel-style footage and non-professional actors. He focused primarily on the native Algerians, a disenfranchised population who were seldom featured in the general media. Though very much Italian neorealist in style, Pontecorvo co-produced with an Algerian film company. The script was written with intention that actual Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) leaders would act in it.

Te character Djafar was played by an FLN leader, Yacef Saadi.) Pontecorvo’s theme was clearly anti-imperalist. He later described the film as a “hymn … in homage to the people who must struggle for their independence, not only in Algeria, but everywhere in the third world” and said, “the birth of a nation happens with pain on both sides, although one side has cause and the other not.”

The Battle of Algiers achieved great success and was influential. It was widely screened in the US, where Pontecorvo received a number of awards. He was nominated for two Oscars, for direction and screenplay (a collaboration).

The film has been used as a training video by government strategists for dealing with guerrilla resistance, as well as by revolutionary groups. It has been and remains extremely popular in Algeria, providing a popular memory of the struggle for independence from France.

The semi-documentary style and use of an almost entirely non-professional cast (only one trained actor appears in the film) was a great influence on a number of future filmmakers and films. Its influence can be seen in the few surviving works of West German filmmaker Teod Richter, made from the late 1960s up to his disappearance, and presumed death, in 1986. In addition, more recent commercial American films, such as the Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and others draw from these techniques for less lofty purposes.

Pontecorvo’s next major work, Queimada! (Burn! 1969), is also anti-colonial, this time set in the Antilles. This film (starring Marlon Brando) depicts an attempted revolution of the oppressed.

Pontecorvo continued his political films with Ogro (1979), about Basque terrorism at the end of Franco’s regime in Spain.

He continued making short films into the early 1990s and directed a follow-up documentary to The Battle of Algiers entitled Ritorno ad Algeri (Return to Algiers, 1992).

Director of the Venice Film Fest

In 1992, Pontecorvo replaced Guglielmo Biraghi as the director of the Venice Film Fest and was responsible for the 1992, 1993 and 1994 editions.

In 1991, he was a member of the jury at the 41st Berlin Film Festival.

Pontecorvo directed films, with 8 or 9 years gap in between. In a 1991 interview, asked why he had directed so few movies, his response was that he could only make a movie with which he is totally in love.

He had rejected many other movies. Pontecorvo was a director who only made movies in which he was going to give it his all.

In 2006, he died from congestive heart failure in Rome, age 86.

Selected bibliography

Bignardi, Irene (1999). Memorie estorte a uno smemorato. Vita di Gillo Pontecorvo. Feltrinelli.

Celli, Carlo (2005). Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Fanon, Frantz (2001). Pour la revolution africaine: Essais politiques. Paris: La Decouverte.

Mellen, Joan; Pontecorvo, Gillo (Autumn 1972). “An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo”. Film Quarterly. 26 (1): 2–10. doi:10.

Mellen, Joan (1973). Filmguide to The Battle of Algiers’. Indiana University Publications.

Said, Edward W. (2000). “The Quest for Gillo Pontecorvo.” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 282–292.

Solinas, Franco (1973). Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers’. New York: Scribner’s.

Filmography as Director

Missione Timiriazev (1953, documentary)
Porta Portese (1954, documentary)
Festa a Castelluccio (1954, documentary)
Uomini del marmo (1955, documentary)
Giovanna (1955, short)
Cani dietro le sbarre (1955, documentary)
Die Windrose (1957, segment “Giovanna”)
La grande strada azzurra (The Wide Blue Road, 1957)
Pane e zolfo (1959, documentary)

Kapò (1959)

Gli uomini del lago (1959, documentary)
Paras (1963, documentary)

La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966)

Queimada (Burn!, 1969)

Operación Ogro (Operation Ogre, 1979)

Addio a Enrico Berliguer (1984, documentary)

12 registi per 12 città (1989, segment “Udine”)

Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers (1992, docu)

Danza della fata confetto (1996, short)

Nostalgia di protezione (1997, short, featured in I corti italiani)

Un altro mondo è possibile (2001, documentary)

Firenze, il nostro domani (2003, documentary)