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His films touch the soul of Sicily, transcending the ordinary, the conventional, the stereotypical.
Giuseppe Tornatore was born and raised in Bagheria (outside Palermo). He
started working very young as a photographer, publishing in various photographic
magazines. At the age of sixteen he staged two plays by Pirandello and De
Filippo. For the cinema he has made various documentaries, including Il Carretto, highly acclaimed at several regional and national film festivals in Italy.
In 1979 be began a long collaboration with RAI (Italy's national television network), for which he directed several programs. From 1978 to 1985, he was
chairman of the CLCT Cooperative, which produced Giuseppe Ferrara's film
100 Days in Palermo, with Lino Ventura. Tornatore also co-wrote the
screenplay and directed the second unit. In 1986 he made his debut in feature films with Il Cammorrista ("The Gangster"), starring Ben Gazzara. Freely adapted from
the book by Giuseppe Marrazzo, this singular motion picture won Tornatore
a Golden Globe for best new director.
Rural life is a hallmark of Tornatore's "Sicilian" movies. Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, which took place in small-town Sicily, was the film that put Tornatore on the map with international audiences. It won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1990. The Star Maker, set in post-war Sicily, was released in 1995, followed
by Malèna in 2000. The social statements of Malèna, an emotional story which takes place in a fictional Sicilian town during the war, are powerfully thought-provoking.
Americans as well as Italians have found Sicily fertile cinematic territory. The eccentric Milanese director Roberta Torre comes to mind. It's difficult to overlook the fact that Tornatore's movies, compared to Francis Ford Coppola's Mafia tales (The Godfather) and Michael Cimino's stories (The Sicilian), depict the real Sicily and real Sicilians.
Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster (based on
the di Lampedusa novel), was directed exceptionally well. But Tornatore,
a younger director, is not afraid to confront, in a serious way, difficult historical and social issues that most Sicilians themselves rarely discuss --including Fascism and the Second World War-- through the eyes of individual characters and situations. With time, he is earning respect as that rarest of cinematic talents --a "Director's Director."
He rarely gives interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Artistically, that's a solid position. Giuseppe Tornatore's work speaks well of its creator.
Tornatore has never been timid about casting inexperienced actors or
even non-professional ones. Here's what he had to say about the subject
when The Star Maker (filmed in places like old Poggioreale) opened to rave reviews:
"Deciding to cast a non-professional, or worse still, someone who
you don't even know if and where you'll find him or her, is like asking
the first person you come across to hold onto your savings. You never know
if you'll ever get your money back. The search for non-professional actors
has no rule. It can be a question of feeling, or simply luck. It can be
fun or excruciating. During the shooting of The Star Maker, one morning
we were stuck because an actress hadn't turned up on the set. We thought
something had happened to her and that she was delayed but would eventually
arrive. We didn't have an alternative shooting schedule. We were in a tiny
town in the middle of nowhere and it was impossible to find another actress
that could take her place. The missing actress finally called. In tears,
she told us that she had unexpectedly been called by the Education Ministry for a teaching job --I don't know where-- and if she missed the interview, she would
lose the opportunity of a permanent position. She was terribly sorry
but, between taking part in a Tornatore film and a 'stable job' she had no doubt which one to choose!"
About the Author: Michele Parisi, who presently resides in Rome, has written for various magazines and newspapers in Italy, France and the United Kingdom.