A lopsided diptych that welds an intimate travelogue through Italian cinema and history to a rather shaky bit of literary adaptation, Paolo Taviani’s “Leonora Addio” is, in theory, a valentine to Sicilian poet and dramaturge Luigi Pirandello, and in practice an extended homage to the filmmaker’s brother, Vittorio. But then, given the brothers’ seven-decade partnership, which brought them a Palme d’Or, a Golden Bear, and a lifetime achievement Lion in Venice (among several other glories), and only came to a close upon Vittorio’s death in 2018, how can the 90-year-old Paolo Taviani’s first solo effort be anything else?
And so, well after his opening dedication “To my brother Vittorio,” Taviani never stops finding new ways to evoke his loss, just as the film proper never stops reinventing itself. A travelogue not only across land but also through moods and styles and diverse film forms, “Leonora Addio” finds more success in some registers than in others, offering an experience at different points deeply moving and quite baffling, though thankfully the former outshines the latter.
Uniting the disparate threads is the spirit of Luigi Pirandello, the trailblazing author who died in 1936, two years after winning the Nobel Prize in literature. The film begins with archival footage of that ceremony, with the author’s own words read in voiceover by actor Roberto Herlitzka, before cutting to an old man, bedridden in a familiar white room. Three children enter the scene, but they don’t stay kids for long, leapfrogging from young adulthood to middle age to figures old and gray themselves by the time they reach the man in bed.
Just who is this older gentleman? Does he represent Pirandello, Taviani, or the astronaut Dave Bowman? While the ongoing voiceover calls to mind the dedication, “To my children, young today, old tomorrow” that Pirandello used to open one of his books and that Taviani reuses as dialogue later in the film, the scene’s visual composition (and slipperiness with time) clearly calls to mind the bed-chamber finale of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “Leonora Addio” is not shy to make references.
The answer, of course, is both none and all of the above, because the narrative track that then ensues — which follows Pirandello’s remains over a period of twenty years — comes expressly filtered through lenses of memory and film history.
After Pirandello’s death, the Fascist government ordered the body incinerated and stored in an unassuming Roman mausoleum. The ashes were retrieved after the war and returned to the author’s native Agrigento, where he was given a traditional funeral and an eventual internment in a statue that took another decade to complete. Those are the hard facts of history and the beats Taviani follows, but the filmmaker isn’t playing at straight docudrama. Instead he uses that through-line the call back the moods and scents of Italy, Year Zero.
While Taviani tracks the passage of time between Pirandello’s first and second burials using clips from the iconic films of that era, including Rosellini’s “Paisan,” the filmmaker doesn’t ape the neo-realist style. His interest is too sensual, his framing too blocky. Like wandering memories, the film flits between the various stewards of Pirandello’s remains, pausing the little vignettes to remember the newspapers an impoverished public would wrap around their bodies to keep them warm, or the difference in taste between Italian and American cigarettes, or the songs one might hear returning soldiers sing, all evoked in wistful black and white.
The film reaches its high watermark when it follows an unnamed Councilman (Fabrizio Ferracane) asked to accompany the ashes from Rome to Agrigento. After an unsuccessful attempt by air, the councilman and his charge take a train down the coast. Filled with the young soldiers eager to start life anew and old dregs riding the train for lack of anything better to do, the boxcar becomes a microcosm for the Italy of 1946 while the Councilman, marked by unwavering devotion to his silent co-passenger, feel like an analogue for the filmmaker himself.
Taviani’s light and allusive touches doesn’t falter as leads us into the next sequence as well. As the local clergy plan a new funeral for the poet, Taviani allows the absurdity of this ten-years-too-late pomp and ceremony to harmoniously coexist with the dignity of this return to self-determination.
Unfortunately, that touch does falter for the film’s final third, which leaves Pirandello in his final resting place and moves from black and white to color and from Italian to English in order to adapt the author’s final short story, “The Nail.” Written just weeks before the author died, the story follows Bastianeddu (Matteo Pittiruti), a prepubescent Sicilian immigrant now living in Brooklyn. Why does the boy decide one day to murder an even younger girl with a nail? “On purpose,” is the only answer he or the film gives.
Bringing back many of the same actors from the film’s first story (many of whom make little attempt to hide thick Italian accents when speaking in English) and using characters and clips from the brothers’ 1984 film “Kaos,” in which the adapted four other Pirandello stories, “The Nail” makes most sense as a bridge between the then and the now — as a way to bring footage shot by Vittorio into a film made in his honor and memory. That makes for a moving idea, but not for an especially interesting standalone piece. What a shame that a film so rich and soulful should begin with a coffin and end with a nail.
“Leonora Addio” premiered at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival.