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May 11, 2006

The Valerio Zurlini Box Set: The Early Masterpieces


Violent Summer/Estate Violenta
Valerio Zurlini - 1959
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD


Girl with a Suitcase/La Ragazza con la Valigia
Valerio Zurlini - 1961
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

If there is a reason why Violent Summer and Girl with a Suitcase should be made mandatory viewing for virtually all contemporary filmmakers, it is to study how Valerio Zurlini uses popular music in film. While most films use pop and rock songs as a form of short-hand often indicating artistic laziness, Zurlini seems to have known which is the precise song to both comment on a scene and to add dramatic heft. Girl with a Suitcase uses music constantly, heard from radios, jukeboxes and record players, ranging from Verdi to The Champs, each piece of music adding more than aural wallpaper.

Both films share narratives about a younger man in love with an older woman, crossing various social barriers in the process. Both films also end with the main characters going their separate ways. Violent Summer explores these themes against the backdrop of World War II. Jean-Louis Trintignant, the playboy son of a local Fascist leader falls in love with Eleonora Rossi Drago, the aristocratic widow of a Naval Captain. The film takes place in Riccione, a town along the Adriatic Sea relatively untouched by the war until the summer of 1943. In an early scene, the beach is crowded, a typical summer day, broken by the unexplained appearance of a low flying German fighter plane that causes everyone to panic. In showing Italians who for the most part are living their lives in relative comfort prior to the fall of Mussolini, Violent Summer can be viewed as a companion piece to De Sica's Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Both De Sica and Zurlini conclude their films by showing how no one living in Italy could escape from either the war or Mussolini's policies.

Violent Summer has a perfectly realized scene almost mid-way through the film. During an air raid blackout, Trintignant has invited his friends to his house. Searching for music to dance to, one of the guys finds a copy of the American pop song, Temptation by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. The men and woman form couples, with Trintignant dancing with an insistant Jacqueline Sassard. Drago is dancing with one of Trintignant's friends. Zurlini cuts between the two would-be lovers glancing helplessly at each other, each in the arms of someone else, while the soundtrack underlines their mutual frustration in maintaining something other than a socially correct relationship.

A dance scene is also significant in Girl with a Suitcase. A 16 year old boy from a well-to-do family, Lorenzo, tries to make up for his older brother's mistreatment of a young, itinerant night club performer, Aida. Lorenzo follows Aida, who with a couple of other young women are entertaining three older, professional men. Lorenzo watches the three mature men dancing with their much younger partners. I cannot identify by composer or song title, but the musical themes virtually anticipate what would be heard in a few years in spaghetti westerns. Again, Zurlini films people dancing with music used as a form of counterpoint to emphasize the tension between characters.

Zurlini two films here share a similar visual style. Most of the shots are of two or more people, with characters reacting to each other while sharing the same screen space. Violent Summer has two exceptionally composed scenes, one with Trintignant seen just outside the room overhearing Drago and her mother meeting with a sailor who served with Drago's husband. A later scene following the dance shows Trintignant and Drago kissing with the camera pulling back to show Sassard off to the side, witnessing the lovers. Zurlini rarely cuts between characters, choosing medium and full shots, with the camera tracking in, out and around his players.

Girl with a Suitcase is the better known film. This is mostly due to the stardom of Claudia Cardinale, baby-fat cute at the time, but not quite the beauty she would be in 1963, the year of Eight and a Half, The Leopard and The Pink Panther. (I am hoping that year's Bebo's Girl by Luigi Comencini gets rediscovered.) For me, Violent Summer was the revelation. It was unfortunate that the film was originally released in the U.S. following the one-two punch of La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura, which could not have helped Zurlini establish even a toehold with even the most serious film critics. Both DVDs come with discussions about Zurlini from several professional associates adding some knowledge to Zurlini's working methods and unrealized projects. NoShame's films are pristine, a point reinforced by a brief supplement comparing the opening scene of Girl with a Suitcase in a previous DVD version with NoShame's complete, Italian language version. As the set subtitle is "the early masterpieces", along with their previous release of Desert of the Tarters, I hope this means NoShame will be releasing other Zurlini films in the near future.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 11, 2006 07:53 PM