Born in 1933 in Carpi near Modena, located in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Liliana Cavani forged a name for herself along with her male counterparts Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marco Bellocchio from the region that exploded onto the filmmaking scene in the 1970s.
Raised in a household that embraced the arts, Cavani grew up with her artitect father taking her to art museums and going to the movies with her mother, a film aficionado. She originally studied literature and philology at Bologna University in 1960, but a year later, decided to head south to Rome to study filmmaking at the renowned Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Success came right away. Before her studies were finished, Cavani was noticed by executives at RAI television and was hired there as the director of historical documentaries. Shortly thereafter, she began making documentaries for the network.
Cavani rose to international prominence with her 1974 feature Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter). Her style is fierce and she does not hold back from showing the hard, honest reality of life. Her movies are not for the faint of heart. She’s worked with actors like Charlotte Rampling, Helena Bonham Carter and Micky Rourke when they were in the early years of their careers. The depth of emotion she provokes from her actors is exceptional and deeply moving. The classical music, lush, exquisite sets and rich cinematography create visual symphonies. In fact, the music in her films is influential in the story, almost like separate a protagonist.
Her 1974 breakout film, The Night Porter is a heavy, dramatic story about a concentration camp survivor who comes face to face with her former abuser and lover after many years. When Lucia, played by Charlotte Rampling checks in to a Vienna hotel with her classical musician husband, she and Max, the night porter, played by British actor Dirk Bogarde, recognize each other right away. Lucia spends a sleepless night haunted by her flashbacks of life in the camp. She tells her husband to finish his European tour without her and stays behind at the hotel. When Max confronts her, paranoid that she has searched him out to turn him into the police for war crimes, the two have a passionate confrontation and realize they love each other. What follows is the pain and pleasure of a tortured, doomed love. Cavani’s balance of tenderness, violence, death and darkness is expressed through the extraordinary performances of her actors. The scenes in the concentration camps in particular show the natural human desire for the beautiful things in life like culture, music, dance and closeness but on the grey, corrupt and tragic set of the holocaust. Cavani’s camera moves smoothly in time with the classical music soundtrack, contrasting the extravagance of the Vienna hotel with the cold reality outside its doors as if the hotel is a sanctuary but once the couple leaves, they must fend for themselves.
Based on the novel Ripley's gameby Patricia Highsmith, Calvani’s 2002 film by the same name stars John Malkovich as a vengeful former hitman who attempts to retire to a mansion in northern Italy. When he hears a neighbor insulting him, while at the same time, an old colleague is trying to bring him back from retirement, he orchestrates some serious payback. His neighbor who was once a hardworking family man gets dragged into an underworld of organized crime. This is another dark story but less of a drama and more of a suspenseful thriller. Malkovich is genius in his portrayal of a calm, cool, intellectual murderer with no conscience whose last so-called job is the one that finally gets to him. The film premiered out of competition at the 2002 Venice Film Festival.
Cavani’s 1989 Francesco starring Mickey Rourke and Helena Bonham Carter is the story of St. Francis of Assisi told from the point-of-view of his followers, which gives the film a documentary feel, reflecting Cavani’s beginnings at RAI. The film succeeds in showing key facets of the saint’s personality including his love for animals, his humility, his generosity as well as his initial inner battles with staying in the protected world of his father’s wealth vs. helping the desperately poor, a world that sometimes scared him. My only criticism is the one I also have for Gian Maria Volenté in Christ Stopped at Eboli and perhaps it's a bit superficial but it's something I noticed in both films. The 30-something Mickey Rourke may be too handsome to portray St. Francis. It’s almost distracting. I enjoyed his performance nonetheless.
Francesco wasn't the first time Cavani worked on a project about Saint Frances. In 1966, she directed a made-for-tv movie about the saint that aired on RAI. Starring Lou Castell, known for his role in Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pockets, Cavani’s television version is described on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) as “The life of Saint Francis of Assisi retold from the sixties political radical point of view.” It's interesting to note that RAI was also listed in the credits as one of the producers of the 1989 film version.
At 85-years-old, Cavani has another film in production. Death is for the Living is the story of Angela, an academic who studies death and its rituals. A series of copycat murders leads her to seek the assistance of a world-renowned medium.
By- Jeannine Guilyard
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