The Valerio Zurlini Box Set: The Early Masterpieces Review
Highly regarded in the 1960s as one of the great Italian cinema directors - a period when Italian cinema was probably the best in the world - the films of Valerio Zurlini have unfortunately since fallen into obscurity and are scarcely known outside of Italy and France (and even in France, recognition has only just been restored with a theatrical re-release of Girl With A Suitcase last year). Part of the problem is that, through troubles with producers, studios and changing tastes and fashions, Zurlini was only able to make eight or nine films in his career. The other factor is possibly that, faced with the wealth of auterist cinema from this period - from the likes of Fellini, Antonioni and Visconti - Zurlini’s rather more apparently straightforward and commercially appealing cinema would appear to have less to offer. Thanks to NoShame’s fine edition of the two early films that secured the reputation of Valerio Zulini (along with that the reputations of a young Jean-Louis Trintignant and Claudia Cardinale in early leading roles), we have the opportunity to re-evaluate those works and find that, on the contrary, they show clear evidence of a talent worthy of rediscovery and reappraisal.
Violent Summer (1959)
Although he had already made one full-length feature film in 1954, the comedy The Girls Of San Frediano, it would be five years before Valerio Zurlini made his second feature and consequently, he would come to regard Violent Summer in 1959 as his true first film. Violent Summer plays out a tragic romance between a young man and a war widow set against the backdrop of the turbulent Italian summer of 1943, just as the war had taken a decisive turn against Mussolini’s Fascist party.
Carlo Caremoli (Jean-Louis Trintignant) returns to the coastal town of Riccione, having been away for most of the war years to keep out of military service. Meeting up with a party of friends, their reunion is spoilt when a German fighter plane swoops down over the beach, causing panic and chaos among the bathers. Helping a young child in trouble, Carlo meets Roberta (Eleonora Rossi Drago), the widow of a naval captain who has died bravely in the war while saving his crew. Despite their differences in age and social status, and the disapproval of their respective friends and family, they nevertheless fall in love. Carlo is judged by the actions of his father, a prominent Fascist official who has pulled strings to keep him out of the war, while Roberta is constrained in her behaviour by being expected to play the part of the widow of a war-hero and uphold the respected family name.
What sounds like a typical wartime romance is actually something rather more powerful in Valerio Zurlini’s film and it is some measure of the intensity and transgressive nature of the characters’ relationship that is reflected so dramatically in the wartime situation. Each time the war makes its presence felt, it has tremendous significance for the course of Carlo and Roberta’s affair and is defined by three remarkable and immensely powerful scenes. Their meeting takes place on a beach in the breathtaking aforementioned sequence where a low-flying German plane has just terrorised bathers. The scene where they admit their love for each other takes place in another astonishing scene where Roberta, Carlo and his friends dance, the song ‘Temptation’ playing in the background, as flares of an overhead battle light up the night-time sky of Riccione. The unbelievable final scene, the outcome of which I won’t reveal, I think speaks for itself in its dramatic and emotional intensity.
Potentially highly melodramatic material, Violent Summer is nevertheless played with such understated intensity by Trintignant and Rossi Drago that it comes over rather as a romantic tragedy, where each of the characters seem to be fatalistically aware that they are heading towards the only destiny that their impossible wartime affair can lead.
Girl With A Suitcase (1961)
Zurlini’s next film is yet another example of an unlikely pairing between a young man and an older lady, with similar differences in social status. Aida Zapponi (Claudia Cardinale) has been somewhat unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend – who takes advantage of a garage stop to abandon her on the way to Parma, leaving her at the roadside with nothing but a suitcase. As he went under the assumed name of Marchiori, Aida has difficulty tracking him down and consequently when she meets and gains the assistance of a young 16 year old boy Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin) at the mansion of the Fainardi family in Parma, she is unaware that he is actually “Marchiori”s brother.
Ashamed of how his brother Marcello has treated Aida, Lorenzo wants to do whatever is in his power to help her out of her current circumstances. But the affairs of an experienced older woman are rather more complicated than the innocent young boy can imagine. A singer, Aida had run away from her musician boyfriend Piero when the opportunity of Lorenzo’s brother presented itself. Now, dumped and penniless (or lire-less) she needs to find someone else to take care of her. Although he belongs to a wealthy family and has fallen in love with Aida along the way, there is only so much the young boy can do.
Coming himself from a well-off family, but having Leftist leanings and wanting to fit in with the rather more bohemian artistic community of Italian filmmakers, the differences between the two worlds in Girl With A Suitcase is a situation that Zurlini surely understood very well, and it’s the accuracy of these observations that make the film such a success. Aida has little more than the clothes on her back, struggling to make a living the only way she can as a showgirl, out of a suitcase, living off the favours of men and dealing with the setbacks she receives along the way. Lorenzo comes from a rich, privileged family, but is not proud of how they have behaved to others less fortunate than themselves and his conscience is stirred by the mistreatment Aida consequently receives from his brother.
Again however, as with Violent Summer, Zurlini mixes a love story and a socially-conscious backdrop to stunning effect, each one adding intensity of feeling to the other – but to much more subtle and mutual effect than the bombastic flash of the previous film. Here the characterisation is more restrained, but no less masterful. Aida’s mistrust of men is evident in subtle details such as the way she locks her door and how she constantly demands Lorenzo to swear by everything he says. For Lorenzo’s part, the difference in age and social status here combines the acute melancholic ache of first-love with the disappointment of youthful idealism being awakened to the harsh realities and injustice of the world, and the effect is beautifully and poignantly realised.
The Valerio Zurlini Box Set: The Early Masterpeices is released in the US by NoShame Films. A two-disc set in NTSC format, neither of the discs are region encoded. The set also includes a fabulous booklet, with unpretentious, highly informative, readable liner notes and biographies by Richard Harland Smith.
The transfer on both films in the set can be described most simply and accurately as just stunning. Violent Summer, transferred at the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is the slightly darker of the two prints, with a stronger contrast, but this is much more appropriate and in tune with the dramatic dynamic of the film itself and emphasises the beautiful luminosity of the vivid cinematography. The image moreover is crystal clear, sharp and detailed. Some grain is visible in scenes, usually only in skies, which gives rise to some minor dot crawl. That is about as much as you could find fault with in the transfer however, and it is very little indeed.
The restored print of Girl With A Suitcase, presented anamorphically at 1.85:1, similarly impresses with an almost flawless transfer. Perfect clarity and a remarkable range of greyscale tones show off superb sharpness and detail. Grain is only evident in a few night-time scenes, which – as Florestano Vancini confirms in one of the interviews included in the set – would be expected, since Italian filmmakers preferred to shoot at night rather than shoot day-for-night. The only noticeable problem is a slight pop between edit transitions and a few movements and camera pans that are not entirely smooth. Nonetheless, these are very minor issues when taken in the context of just how breathtakingly good this film can look here.
Both audio tracks, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, have also doubtless been fully restored, since there are few problems to note. All you need to do is listen to the musical pieces on Violent Summer, particularly during the ‘Temptation’ scene, to hear just how clear, warm and vibrant the soundtrack is. The only issue that could be identified is a very low level of background hiss that would be only noticeable if listened out for.
There isn’t even that on the original Italian soundtrack to Girl With A Suitcase, which is otherwise clear and strong in its Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. There is a little more roughness and sibilance audible on occasion, but again, this is not something that is obviously apparent. An English Dolby Digital 2.0 dub is also provided and is obviously not the ideal way to listen to the film. From the few samples I made of this, it appears to be the original ’61 dub and is actually not bad The actor voicing Perrin however sounds too old, and the English voicing of Cardinale doesn’t seem to be at the same emotional level (although Cardinale, a native French speaker, is also dubbed in the original Italian version). The English dub doesn’t have the same restoration as the Italian mix, but is nonetheless quite acceptable.
Both films come with optional English subtitles. On Violent Summer they are white, while on Girl With A Suitcase they are, for some unknown reason, yellow. I’m not sure why these differ. White is obviously preferable, particularly for black and white films, since it will not do so much damage to the monochrome compositions, but the yellow on Girl With A Suitcase is at least not too bright and appropriately sized. Most importantly, considering the importance of music in both films, Italian song lyrics are also translated into subtitles where appropriate. French subtitles are also included for Girl With A Suitcase but not for Violent Summer.
Each of the films comes with a fine selection of excellent and informative interviews with people who worked with Zurlini on both films.
Violent Summer contains an Interview with Assistant Director Florestano Vancini (35:39) (who also provides the brief introduction to the film). He explains his role as assistant to Zurlini and provides a valuable insight into the director’s working methods. The Interview with Lyricist Riccardo Pazzaglia (21:31), writer of the theme song for the film, explains (amid a lot of digression) the importance of having a hit song in films of this period, and reflects also on the period the film is set. Actress Eleonora Giorgi (6:32) also contributes a few anecdotes about how she came to know the director and talks about his character. Director Giuliano Montaldo (20:02) describes Zurlini as being elegant, well-off, having a passion for art and being a perfectionist, as well as making some observations about his character and his work as a director. Also included are the film’s Original Theatrical Trailer (4:10), which contains a couple of scenes and dialogue cut from the final film. The Poster and Still Gallery (1:13) presents a slideshow of images from the Titanus studio archives, again including scenes (such as the racy one used for the film’s poster) that do not appear in the film.
Girl With A Suitcase contains an superbly insightful Interview with Assistant Director Piero Schivazappa (19:51), who talks about how be became involved in the film, his impressions of Zurlini, as well as putting the film into context and explaining what he feels are its qualities. As well as explaining how the script was written and developed in the Interview with Piero de Bernardi (17:06), the screenwriter also talks about how he started working with Zurlini on his first film The Girls Of San Frediano, providing a few anecdotes about that and about the director’s many affairs with women. A different, but superbly informative perspective on the director’s work is provided in the Interview with Bruno Torri (17:03), president of the SNCCI - Italian Film Critics Guild. As well as autobiographical information, Torri also looks at the themes and techniques in Zurlini’s work and examines it in the context of critical reception and other films of the period. Producer Mario Gallo (17:08), as a long-standing friend of Zurlini, talks about his professional and personal relationship with the director through some relevant anecdotes, and also has some thoughts on the decline of Italian cinema from the 1970s. The Restoration of Girl With A Suitcase (3:25) is not particularly useful since it merely compares the restored High-Definition master taken from the original negative with an old cropped and dubbed VHS-sourced copy of the film. Some other distributors are prepared to release DVDs of this quality, so it does at least serve to help appreciate what NoShame have given us here. A Poster & Still Gallery (1:22) gives a slideshow presentation of b&w stills and colour poster images from the film.
Clearly, considering the quality of the restoration the two films here have received and the labour of love that has gone into obtaining and presenting the interviews and extra features on this set, there are a lot of people out there who think that the films of Valerio Zurlini have been overlooked and are deserving of rediscovery and re-evaluation. Circumstances unfortunately prevented the director from making very many films, but otherwise, considering the quality and talent evident in the two films presented here, he would almost certainly now be spoken of as part of the pantheon of Italian masters that includes Fellini, Antonioni, de Sica, Rossellini and Visconti. NoShame should be highly commended for their endeavours - not only with their fine efforts here and in their earlier release of Zurlini’s final film Desert of the Tartars (which I haven't seen, but will be purchasing forthwith), but for the work that has gone into delivering fine releases of other lesser-known and overlooked classics of Italian cinema. If the treasures uncovered here are anything to go by, it must be hoped that they are able to continue with their fine work with more Zurlini films, and others of similar value.