‘Leonora Addio’: Film Review | Berlin 2022

In his first film since the loss of his late brother and lifelong collaborator, Paolo Taviani gives a poignant account of the great dramatist Luigi Pirandello’s ashes being put to rest in postwar Sicily.

Cinema, literature and history have frequently been intertwined in the films of the Taviani Brothers, as they are once again in Leonora Addio, the first solo work by Paolo Taviani following the death in 2018 of his lifelong collaborator. The simple dedication on the opening credits, “To my brother, Vittorio,” reverberates lovingly throughout the action in this alternately solemn and playful chronicle of the twisty journey from Rome to Sicily of the ashes of Luigi Pirandello, ten years after the celebrated writer’s death in 1936.

Fittingly for a film about the meta-theatrical maestro of the play within a play, Taviani constructs the principal story as a series of vignettes that frequently collide with the style of Pirandello — from wry realism to teasing questions about the truth of objective narration, often flirting with unreality and absurdism. When that plot — and the ashes — are put to rest an hour into the running time, Taviani then dedicates the last half-hour to a dramatization of Pirandello’s final short story, The Nail, again bowing to the director’s brother in its bittersweet example of art enduring.

Leonora Addio

The Bottom Line

A moving farewell.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Fabrizio Ferracane, Matteo Pittiruti, Dania Marino, Dra Becker, Claudio Bigagli
Director-screenwriter: Paolo Taviani

1 hour 32 minutes

For lovers of the golden age of Italian cinema, one of the keenest pleasures of Leonora Addio will be its clever incorporation of clips from Rossellini, Antonioni, Lattuada and others to evoke the World War II years so vividly memorialized in classics of neorealism. The Tavianis’ own 1984 film, Chaos, adapted from five short stories by Pirandello, is also sampled. Vintage newsreels, too, play a large part in the period recreation, opening with footage of Pirandello accepting the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature.

“I’ve never felt so alone and so sad,” the writer says in voiceover. “The sweetness of the glory cannot compensate for the bitterness of how much it cost.” That quote would seem to portend a mournful reflection on death and the sacrifices of art, but sparks of illumination, irreverence, tragicomedy and even joy continually fleck the material.

Taviani and production designer Emita Frigato draw inspiration from the influential dramatist in some of the highly theatrical soundstage sets, most notably the dying Pirandello’s bedroom with its surreal perspective. The playwright wonders to himself how it could be that his life is already ending, then watches his three children enter the room, first at a very young age, then transforming via a gentle fade into adults as they approach the bed, finally becoming white-haired and aged once they get up close.

Front-page headlines of Pirandello’s death are reproduced, as officials of Mussolini’s Fascist government make plans for a state funeral. But this doesn’t fit with the writer’s explicit wish to have no public service. (The crematorium furnace is the sole use of color in the otherwise black-and-white first hour.) Pirandello left instructions for his ashes to be taken to Agrigento, Sicily, and “walled within a rough stone in the countryside where I was born.” Instead, they sit in a Rome columbarium through the turbulent decade of World War II, until an official from Agrigento (Fabrizio Ferracane) can be sent to retrieve them.

The councilman expresses his naïve belief that American command forces will treat the task of transporting Pirandello’s ashes with the dignity it merits 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 organized. Unexpectedly, other passengers board the plane, and when they realize they’re traveling with a dead man, superstition prompts them to disembark. Even the American pilot proves susceptible.

So the playwright’s remains travel by train, with his fellow passengers providing a lively portrait of post-WWII Italian life. Young couples dance to the accompaniment of a pianist; a lone youth devours the pirate adventures of Il Corsaro Nero; a man takes the German bride he met while a prisoner of war back to his island home 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 Agrigento official to panic.

When the cargo finally gets to Sicily, the hitches continue as a bishop (Claudio Bigagli) balks at blessing cremated remains carried in a Greek urn. A fellow clergyman comes up with the solution of placing the urn in a Christian coffin. But a recent flu epidemic has left caskets in short supply, so only a child’s coffin can be found, creating confusion during the ceremonial parade through the Agrigento streets.

Given the sculptor’s lack of urgency about carving a suitable place in a rough stone, per Pirandello’s instructions, it’s not until 15 years after the writer’s death that he’s finally laid to rest. All this is captured by Taviani with idiosyncratic flair and a good deal of wily humor, shifting from B&W to color as some leftover remains are scattered into the sea.

Some audiences will no doubt wish for a more fluid connection to The Nail, but the novella, written shortly before Pirandello died, does continue themes touched on in the main narrative about finding peace for the deceased. Moved from the original Harlem setting to Brooklyn, it concerns an immigrant kid (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 a murder weapon on one of them, providing no explanation for his actions. But he vows to visit her burial site every year once he gets out of prison, a promise maintained in haunting images.

The Tavianis conceived the story of the ashes as their own version of a Pirandello novella around 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 also saluting one of their great literary heroes, whose work they also adapted in 1998’s Tu Ridi (You Laugh). The new film’s title, Leonora Addio, comes from an unrelated Pirandello story that was part of the original script. Taviani cut that section but kept the title.

Editor Robert Perpignano does a polished job of threading the extensive archive 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 provides stirring melancholy undertones. The film is a strange and beguiling curio that shows an artist wrapping up the seventh decade of his career with sadness and nostalgia but also with a resilient spirit.

Full credits

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Stemal Entertainment, RAI Cinema, in association with Luce Cinecittà, Cinemaundici
Cast: Fabrizio Ferracane, Matteo Pittiruti, Dania Marino, Dra Becker, Claudio Bigagli
Director-screenwriter: Paolo Taviani
Producer: Donatella Palermo
Directors of photography: Paolo Carnera, Simone Zampagni
Production designer: Emita Frigato
Costume designer: Lina Nerli Taviani
Music: Nicola Piovani
Editor: Roberto Perpignano
Casting: Simona Barbagallo
Sales: Fandango Internazionale

1 hour 32 minutes