What’s left of films once they make the transfer from that first small screen: memory? Films like Valerio Zurlini’s Cronaca Familiare (1962), where there is already one character evoking the memory of another, his brother, who has disappeared? And where this conjures up the image of a woman - his mother - whom he has never known? For me, what ‘was left’ of this film which (so loudly and painfully) already asked the question ‘who will be left to try and tell the little that is left of a life’ was only the most olfactory memory (the overpowering smell of faded flowers) of certain funeral shots.
In a flop or a banal film there often remain one or two scenes that stand out as successful and persist in the memory. In a real film like Cronaca Familiare there might very well only remain one or two images. But these images don’t stay in the memory because they would be the ‘best moments’ in a forgettable pre half-forgotten film; they remain because they are like screen memories that stand guard around the personal secrets of a film loved almost in secret. Because, as Frederic (Federico-Mastroianni) could say: you have to protect yourself, after all.
A man waits for the telphone call that will bring him news of his brother’s death. The walls are yellow and oozing moisture (we’re in Naples), the receiver black, the booth peeling. Facing us, the red-eyed, voiceless man waits for the thing to be said, at the other end of the line. But at the moment when it is, as if to discourage the camera ‘closing in’ on him, Mastroianni turns his back and this back takes up the the whole screen. And this back becomes a screen memory; what would be the film’s cipher if the film were a strongbox.
Is this an effect of style intended (obligingly) to signify embarassment? You might think so if it were not that in the following scene a tearful Mastroianni is followed at length (by the camera and the music) through the deserted, insalubrious and never more beautiful streets of Naples. Zurlini does not shun the ‘grand aria’ of suffering, he makes do with showing things twice over: one face on (for the scene) once back-turned (for the camera). He is probably one of the last directors never to have stopped wavering between the aesthetic of the secret and the aesthetic of display, and the very particular music of his film insists, convincingly, that there was no third term for him.
The film tells a love story between two men who are brothers reunited too late in life. The scene where Laurent (Lorenzo-Perrin) takes refuge with his elder brother, who is by now tubercular and virtually down and out, and where with him we see the classic little room of the solitary, is a great cinematic moment (or, at any rate, the scene so cruelly missing from standard gay schlock). The older brother pretends to be working and the younger to be sleeping. Turned now towards the wall and now towards his brother, as if each line of dialogue compelled him to invent a new way of settling. Now, a bed is the very place where turning your back on the other is impossible, because a back speaks volumes.
Cronaca Familiare is a film where love is born from the need felt by the one who faces up to things for the one who has his back to the wall, and vice versa. It is a film about weakness, a subject rarer than would appear. Seen again on television, it gives a valuable insight into a moment in cinema (a few years after Pickpocket or L’Avventura) when it was still possible to tell stories whose characters progress through life, albeit retreating, in other words ‘back-turned’. And for whoever progresses in this way, the only escape routes are those rushing headlong away from the unknown future or the half-glimpsed present towards the retro-vision of the past.
The tele-vision of a film like this also makes us acutely aware of the fact that in the media generally backs have disappeared. ‘Turning your back to the camera’ is more than a discourtesy: it’s a crime. Just as television has accustomed us to a world where ‘artificial daylight’ has reduced the role of shadow, it makes us used to bodies without backs, reduced to the idiotic frontality of a recto without any verso. Synthesized images pirouette with such gay abandon only because they have no reverse. In the cinema everything could turn into a face; in the media everything is a face already. The result of course is that the look is no more, and when one Sunday evening we come across Mastroianni and Perrin, it isn’t just their capacity to weep face on that knocks us out, but the turned back power to envisage the worst.
Serge Daney, 6 December 1988