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Rabu, 09 Maret 2011

La Grande strada azzurra AKA The Wide Blue Road (1957) - Gillo Pontecorvo

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After 44 years, Gillo Pontecorvo's debut feature, The Wide Blue Road (also known by its Italian title, La Grande Strada Azzurra, 1957), is being distributed for the first time in the United States. Pontecorvo, an Italian director who is best known for The Battle of Algiers (1965), a fiery, impassioned account of the Algerian guerilla struggle against the French (1954 -1957), has stated that the title refers to the "image of a boat, in late afternoon, drawing a line in the sea, a trail." The story, which could be interpreted as a political allegory, follows a renegade fisherman named Squarcio (Yves Montand) who resorts to illegal tactics in order to provide for his family. While the other fishermen from his economically depressed village use nets to catch their fish, Squarcio succeeds in bringing in larger catches through the use of dynamite. Surprisingly, the other fishermen don't resent Squarcio's methods; instead they admire him for his daring. However, the Coast Guard feel otherwise and vow to punish Squarcio for his open defiance of them.

The Wide Blue Road is heavily influenced by the Italian neorealism movement, particularly the films of Roberto Rossellini, but it also predates the French New Wave of the late fifties in its stylistic approach to the social and political issues of its story. On the surface, the film is a beautifully photographed melodrama about conflicts within a peasant fishing village, but underneath is another scenario that pits capitalist ingenuity against Communist collectivism. Regardless of his intentions, Pontecorvo reportedly was very disappointed with his first feature, saying in a New York Times interview with Bill Desowitz, "I was so sad that it didn't turn out the way I wanted. I wanted to shoot it in black and white, and I felt Alida (Valli) was too exquisite to play the wife of a fisherman, and I felt it had too much melodrama. But Rossellini told me: 'Don't be stupid! This is only your first film. It's not that bad. There will be more.'" Pontecorvo would go on to make such controversial films as Kapo (1960), which was set in a Polish concentration camp; the internationally acclaimed The Battle of Algiers; and Burn! (1969), starring Marlon Brando as a diplomat trying to suppress a slave revolt on a Portuguese-controlled Caribbean island. Yet, despite Pontecorvo's reservations about The Wide Blue Road, the film has recently developed some passionate supporters, among them director Jonathan Demme, who said, "the use of locations and the acting is extraordinary. This is no curio; this is a great, great tragic story. It brought me to tears. And what can you say about Yves? He was such an ultra-testosterone romantic male. I just couldn't believe it when I heard that the film had never been distributed in the U.S."

For anyone unfamiliar with French actor/singer Yves Montand, The Wide Blue Road is a great introduction to this magnetic screen presence. While deservedly famous for his macho portrayal of a dynamite-carrying truck driver in The Wages of Fear (1953), Pontecorvo's film is an even better showcase for Montand's talents. Interestingly enough, the actor's own background is very close to the outsider character he plays in The Wide Blue Road: the son of Italian immigrants living in France, Montand grew up in poverty and supported himself with a variety of occupations - busboy, bartender, factory laborer - before gaining fame as a chansonnier in Paris under the "sponsorship" of internationally renown singer Edith Piaf.

Pontecorvo recalls that during the filming of The Wide Blue Road, "Yves was such a showman. He was not only very patient with me, but he served as my assistant. He would do anything you asked. He couldn't swim and was afraid at first, but we attached a rope to him and he made it look so easy with that graceful body of his." Graceful might not be the best word to describe Montand's famous dog-paddling scene but everything else he does in the film looks effortless, and inspired New York Times critic Stephen Holden to write that Montand gives "a star performance radiant with macho glamour." In addition to Montand and the beautiful Alida Valli, as his wife, Rosetta, The Wide Blue Road also features an early performance by Mario Girotti who would later change his name to Terence Hill and become an international star, thanks to his appearances in such popular spaghetti Westerns as They Call Me Trinity (1970) and My Name Is Nobody (1973).

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