La Viaccia - Piero Piccioni
Among the three films which Mauro Bolognini had directed with the then still very young and aspiring Italian actress Claudia Cardinale between 1960 and 1962 and which form kind of a triptych, La viaccia from 1961 occupies the central part. Like Il bell’ Antonio (1960) and Senilità (1962), the film was adapted from an Italian novel -in this case a naturalistic story by Mario Pratesi, a Tuscan writer of the 19th century-, and there are also some other thematic links between these three works: In all of them the leading men are portrayed as weak, inept or wounded by destiny, whereas the female characters portrayed by Cardinale are always the superior ones, passionate, determined and strong-minded women. The emotional tension which arises from this conflict in the relationship between man and woman almost always results in tragedy.
Bolognini has often been praised for his stylish compositions and for his exquisite visual portrayals of Italian cities and landscapes. La viaccia is a prime example of this as it was the director’s first precise vision of the past, and particular care was taken in reproducing the details and customs of the late 19th century period. A large part of the movie is set in Bolognini’s native town Florence so that the beauty of the location itself was quite certainly a great source of inspiration for the director.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, who co-stars beside Claudia Cardinale, had already established himself in 1961 as one of France’s leading young male stars through the films of the Nouvelle Vague directors Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol where he had appeared as an unconventional, rebellious young antihero. La viaccia was only his second Italian film after Vittorio De Sica’s La ciociara (1960) and here he was cast in a role which contradicted his typical image: He is the naive, almost shy and taciturn country boy Amerigo -in the film he is also called “Ghigo” by his family- who gets obesessed by his passion for a heartless prostitute played by Cardinale. Mention must also be made of such excellent character actors as Pietro Germi (as Amerigo’s father Stefano), Romolo Valli (the anarchist Dante) and Paul Frankeur (Amerigo’s uncle Ferdinando) who made important contributions to the picture.
The setting at the opening of the film is Tuscany in 1885: La viaccia, which is the name of the farm near Florence run for many years by the Casamonti family, passes into the hands of the younger generation. Although the wish of the dying grandfather is to leave the farm to his son Stefano (Germi) and his grandson Amerigo (Belmondo), Stefano’s brother Ferdinando (Frankeur), who is old and childless, but also a wine dealer in Florence, is neeeded to buy out the rest of the family. It is also decided that after Ferdinando’s death the farm will become the property of the children and that in the meantime Amerigo will work in his uncle’s wine shop.
In Florence Amerigo promptly falls in love with the prostitute Bianca (Cardinale), who works in the local brothel. She is mistrustful, stifles her feelings and does not really believe in love. Amerigo steals money from his uncle to be able to see and support her in the manner in which she is accustomed, but he is detected as a thief, thrown out and publicly beaten by his father. Finally, he leaves the farm and his family again to become a bouncer in the brothel where Bianca works in order to be near to her. Heavily wounded in a knife fight with another patron of Bianca at a carnival ball, he limps back to La viaccia and without being seen by anyone collapses in the doorway.
The musical commentary for all those three Claudia Cardinale films directed by Bolognini was provided by Piero Piccioni, who since the mid 50s had established himself as one of the most important younger Italian film composers. With his emphasis on jazz elements on the one hand and his impressionistic colourings on the other hand he had already opened the doors to new soundscapes within traditional Italian film music. As to classical music, Piccioni had been very much influenced by the French impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, and for La viaccia he even used the opportunity to adapt the Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra which had been composed by Debussy in 1908. Talking about his admiration for the French impressionist school of composers, Piccioni himself had told me in an interview I had made with him in 2003: “This kind of music is very effective to characterize the feelings of the characters in a film.” So it was a labour of love for him to use excerpts of the Debussy Rhapsody in La viaccia which give the film its inimitable flavour, an autumnal mood conjured by the mourning and haunting symphonic music. Above all the slow beginning of the Rhapsody with its mysterious and shimmering strings and then the ensuing saxophone solo part gets often repeated in the film to illuminate the fatal attraction Bianca exerts on Amerigo.
As the entire Debussy piece with a duration of about 11 minutes had been recorded at the 1961 recording sessions, conducted by the brilliant Franco Ferrara, we have decided to put this symphonic poem into the bonus section of the CD as one individual track instead of presenting more than a dozen of short passages from it with only one or two minutes or even less which without the scenes of the film would not make much sense. We have only included those passages of the Rhapsody in the main program where some kind of adaptation with slightly different instrumentation, several added bars or a completely different editing had taken place. This concerns the tracks 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 18 and 19 in the main program.
Although Piccioni is only credited as “musical supervisor” in the Main Title of the film, he also composed his own tracks quite independently of the Debussy piece which constitute about 50% of the music heard in the movie. The melancholy phrase played by an unaccompanied English horn when we see Amerigo for the first time outside the farm (Tr. 1) -it will reappear later on when he is alone in Florence (Tr. 8)- is very reminiscent of the famous shepherd’s lament at the beginning of the third act of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. It was probably meant as an homage to Wagner, but in this way Piccioni also immediately points out the doomed fate of the male protagonist.
The death of the patriarch (Tr. 2) is underscored with sombre dissonances and long sustained chords in the lower registers with only a faint light of hope when a high flute phrase shows up for a short time, this is music full of unresolved tension quite similar to Piccioni’s score for Salvatore Giuiliano which was also composed in 1961. On the other hand, foreshadowings of his later Senilità score can be heard for example in Bianca’s confession (Tr. 10) where his subtle and delicate melodic lines in a characteristic setting for solo saxophone and strings arouse sympathy for the cynical Bianca when she tells Amerigo how as a young inexperienced girl she had become a whore. The same musical phrase will appear again when Amerigo gets hurt in the knife fight sequence (Tr. 17) and an orchestral outcry resonates with compassion for the suffering characters.
The third group of tracks in the score consists of various source music cues which are mainly heard during the scenes in the brothel as background music or during the masked ball scenes. These were also composed by Piccioni and with their carefree and charming nature stand in total contrast to the doom-laden atmosphere of the dramatic underscoring. Particularly the lovely and spirited Valzer di mai (Tr. 16) played by mandolin and pianino (there exist also some unused alternative versions on the master tapes which can be heard in the bonus section of the CD) has become one of the most well-known pieces from La viaccia and was released -together with the Piccola marcia antica (Tr. 14)- on a top-rare 45rpm single on the Titanus label.
All other tracks from the original master tapes of the mono recording sessions have never been made available before and are presented on this disc for the first time ever. This CD is therefore a testimony to the versatile talent and exceptional artistry of Piero Piccioni.