The controversial yet brilliant Italian-born director Gillo Pontecorvo is perhaps best known for a series of historically-themed dramas, including The Battle of Algiers and Burn!, that successfully
combined docudrama techniques with striking photography, to revolutionary effect.
Born in Pisa, Italy, on November 19, 1919, to a Jewish family (with nine brothers and sisters and an industrialist father), young Gillo cut against the grain of familial tradition; the rest of the children followed the prompting of their parents, who sought an education in the sciences for their sons and a literary education for their daughters. Initially, Gillo followed suit, attending the University of Pisa as a chemistry student, but inner dissatisfaction reigned. In the long term, he felt this ennui tempered somewhat by two factors: the technical insights gained from scientific studies, which became indispensable to his filmmaking activities later on, and the university environment, where Pontecorvo's professors and fellow students engendered in him a staunch anti-Fascist stance. Pontecorvo planned to build a career in journalism after graduation and moved to Paris, where he served as a correspondent for the Paese Sera and Repubblica newspapers, but during an assignment reporting on a mining strike, he suddenly understood that images delivered greater emotional impact than words ever could, and drifted in the direction of photojournalism.
By this time, the war was afoot. An intense barrage of military and political activities followed in Pontecorvo's life, including official "party" enlistment in 1941, contributions to the Garibaldi Brigade, and extensive resistance operations in Northern Italy, under the pseudonym "Barnaba." He ultimately became a full-time member of the Communist Party, working heavily in its newsreel archives. With the concurrent rise of neorealism at the hands of such directors as De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini, Pontecorvo began to grasp the political possibilities of filmmaking and accepted a position as third assistant director on Aldo Vergano's Il Sole Sorge Ancora (aka Outcry, 1947), doubling up as an actor with a bit part in the film. Numerous assistantships followed, for such directors as Yves Allégret, Mario Monicelli, Gian Carlo Menotti, and others. Pontecorvo imbibed many of his aesthetic tendencies through extensive reading of the theorists Georg Lukacs and Umberto Barbaro, and acquired the preponderance of his technical know-how from Monicelli.
Starting in his early thirties (1950-1955), Pontecorvo purchased a 16 mm camera and began shooting documentaries aggressively and tirelessly, cranking out one after another, the social concerns and aesthetic principles of neorealism evident throughout. These include Missione Timiriazev (The Timiriazev Mission, 1953), about a flood in the Polesine region of Italy; Cani Dietro le Sbarre (Dogs Behind Bars), about a municipal dog pound; Uomini del Marmo (Men of Marble, 1955), about the workers on the Alpi Apuane; and between 12 and 17 others (the exact number is undocumented). He debuted as a fiction director in 1956, with the film-a-sketch The Windrose. Made under the aegis of Joris Ivens and financially backed by the Women's International Democratic Federation, this film depicts the social problems that women experience in multiple cultures. Pontecorvo's episode, "Giovanna," dramatizes the plight of a young female textile worker torn in half between her desire to strike in her factory, and loyalty to her husband, who discourages her from participation. French journalists at the 1956 Venice Film Festival hailed "Giovanna" as one of the more unadulterated examples of neorealist theory and technique.
Pontecorvo followed this up with The Wide Blue Road (aka La Grande Strada Azzurra, 1957). Adapted from Franco Solinas' novel Squarcio, the picture dramatizes the burgeoning political awareness of a bunch of fishermen from Sardinia. Unfortunately, the production was laden with one compromise after another, from the externally imposed requirement of shooting in color to the studio's insistence of using the glossy celebrity actors Yves Montand and Alida Valli. Pontecorvo understandably all but dismissed the final product, but he won Best Director at Karlovy Vary for it.
The internationally co-produced feature Kapo followed three years later, which Pontecorvo scripted with Solinas -- the belletrist who would become his lifelong collaborator. The picture stars Susan Strasberg (daughter of Lee and Paula) as Nicole, a Jew imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps who sells herself out by denying her own Jewish heritage, feigning an identity as a political prisoner, and -- ultimately -- torturing her fellow prisoners. She falls in love with a Soviet prisoner, then finds redemption (limited redemption) by assisting with a Russian prisoner escape, and is promptly shot by the SS. Pontecorvo's finest contribution to this work was undoubtedly the use of patchy, grainy, newsreel-like black-and-white to create a unique aesthetic. Critics espoused mixed reactions, many complaining of the romance as an added contrivance, but it swept awards and received an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Film (losing to The Virgin Spring).
After Kapo, Pontecorvo spent one of his typically long periods of inactivity, looking into the option of doing at least 33 different projects but ultimately settling on The Battle of Algiers, again co-scripted with Solinas. The project began with Yacef Saadi, the head producer of Casbah Films, who had served as commander in the Algerian War and traveled to Italy around 1964 to recruit a director to helm a picture about his experiences. Pontecorvo accepted, but only with the stipulation of limitless artistic freedom, including black-and-white filming and location shoots; Saadi complied. A half-year of research into the Algerian War followed; what emerged was one of cinema's undisputed masterpieces and the crowning achievement of Pontecorvo's career.
Burn! (Queimada!, 1969) followed. Produced by United Artists and co-scripted by Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio, and starring screen giant Marlon Brando, the picture tells the story of Sir William Walker, pro-colonial agent with Machiavellian tendencies who manipulatively incites a slave uprising on an island in the Antilles to defeat the Portuguese, then sets up a British puppet government. Studio interference more or less sank this film when the Spanish government put massive pressure on United Artists to recut it drastically. Perhaps as a result, it opened to uneven reviews but has since been hailed by many, in retrospect, as a classic, even in its truncated form (if not one on par with Algiers). Pauline Kael rhapsodized, "As Pontecorvo demonstrated in The Battle of Algiers, he has a true gift for epic filmmaking: he can keep masses of people in movement so we care about them. And here [in Burn!], in his feeling for crowds and battles, for color and images, and for visual rhythms, he's a sensuous, intoxicating director."
Pontecorvo only produced one additional film during his lifetime, the 1979 Operazione Ogro (The Tunnel). This Spanish-French-Italian joint production was scripted by Giorgio Arlorio and Ugo Pirro, and dramatizes Spanish prime minister Carrero Blano's 1973 assassination at the hands of ETA Basque separatists. The sensitive nature of the material for a time suggested that it would never be seen publicly, but it was indeed issued (albeit in limited distribution) to mixed reviews. Pontecorvo reputedly tried to develop a number of projects throughout his final two decades that never came to fruition. These included a picture called I Tempi Della Fine (Time of the World's End), that works out the story of Jesus Christ as a Marxist revolutionary, and a drama about the Nicaraguan sociopolitical conflicts.
After years of inactivity, Gillo Pontecorvo died of unspecified causes, in Rome, on October 12, 2006.