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.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit