Tonino Guerra: 1920-2012

"Death isn't that boring. After all, it comes only once." (Tonino Guerra)

His name, having been a regular fixture in the rolling credits of Italian movies for the past 60 years, may be familiar even to the occasional moviegoer. Tonino Guerra, poet and screenwriter, died yesterday in his native Sant'Arcangelo di Romagna as the country was about to celebrate the National Day of Poetry. Born in 1920, he died on the first day of spring after having recently moved back to his birthplace.

Tonino Guerra was born to a family of illiterate peasants; he has always thanked his mother, to whom he had taught how to write, for the education he received. In 1943, while working as a primary school teacher, he was deported to Germany in a concentration camp in Troisdorf. There, fellow prisoners from the same region of Italy asked him every night to recite dialectal verses, which he soon after started composing. After the war, in the early 1950s Guerra moved to Rome where he started working as a screenwriter without interrupting his poetic activities. There he met Michelangelo Antonioni with whom he worked on L'Avventura giving birth to a professional and human partnership that saw him working with the director of Blow Up on all his films (with the exception for The Passenger). In films such as La Notte and L'Eclisse as well as the aforementioned L'Avventura the duo explored with an elegant yet pitiless look the inner corrosion of bourgeois values, their fetishist persistence, convincingly framing the elusive essence of impending social diseases. The sense of decline and dilated estrangement the films captured was doubtlessly due to Antonioni's aesthetic awareness but it was Guerra who wrote these rarefied stories of sentimental immobility and detachment.

While steering through the existential aridity marking the affluence of the "economic miracle" Italian style, he continued writing in his dialect delivering vernacular poetry from its parochial burden. With Amarcord (Oscar for Best Foreign Film and Original Screenplay in 1975) Guerra embarked on a very personal journey into memory and the oneiric geographies of his and Fellini's native region, Romagna. Testament to their artistic affinity, the film is an immaculate rendition of childhood memories and impressionistic visions told in the mellifluous parlance both director and screenwriter shared. Equally brilliant when screenwriting social commentary for Francesco Rosi, science fiction in The 10th Victim for Elio Petri or tales of resistance for the Taviani Brothers, Guerra often worked abroad. He worked with Theo Angelopolous (assiduously), Andrey Tarkovskiy, Wim Wenders, taught screenwriting at the university of Moscow and continued writing and publishing his poems.

"It is not always true that one plus one equals zero. A drop plus another drop of water, makes one big drop of water," he once remarked; his pen may have run out of ink, but the worlds he created will always be there.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Moss Side Public Laundry, 1979

A new poem by Pippa Little.

Childless I arrive with a rucksack,
own no Silver Cross steered topple-high
by the bare-legged women in check coats
and bulging shoes who load and unload
ropes of wet sheets, wring them out
to rams’ horns while heat-slap of steam
dries to tinsel in our hair, frizzles our lips
gritty with Daz sherbert dabs and the mangle,
wide as a room-size remnant, never stops groaning
one slip and you’re done for…

In the boom and echo of it, their calls swoop
over Cross-your-Hearts, Man. City socks,
crimplene pinks and snagged underskirts,
Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out! blasts
from across the park, whole streets
get knocked out like teeth,
in a back alley on the way a man
jumped me, shocked as I was
by the fuck off! I didn’t know was in me

but which I try out now to make them laugh, these women
who scrub blood and beer and come
with red-brick soap, quick-starch a party dress
while dryers flop and roar
before their kids fly out of school,
flock outside for a smoke’s sweet rest
from the future bearing down of four walls and one man.

Pippa Little’s collection Overwintering (Carcanet) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Award. Her new book, Twist, was published in March by Arc. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder