Interview: Gianni Bozzacchi on Cinephile-Oriented Doc “We Weren’t Just Bicycle Thieves. Neorealism”

To all cinephiles! This one is for you!

What a surprise was in store for us when we went to see “We Weren’t Just Bicycle Thieves. Neorealism” on its opening night of its qualifying run for Oscar submission in the documentary category.

The footage!

It took two and a half years to clear it all! The best scenes of Neorealistic cinema illustrate points on how Neorealism changed the lexicon and language of film in the same way that the Renaissance changed the visual language of art with linear perspective and its humanistic point of view.

The commentary!

Speaking about the influence of the Italian post-war Neorealism upon their filmmaking choices are Bertolucci, the Taviani Brothers, Scorsese, Olmi, Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez… the only reason Antonioni and Fellini did not speak was because they were no longer living when the movie was made. The interviews were not “talking heads”; they were conversations in which the great directors expressed their connections with Neorealism as they spoke to Carlo Lizzani.

Carlo Lizzani, the narrator and host of this documentary is an elegant 91 year old man who worked as scriptwriter, assistant director to every Neorealistic director and director in his own right. He starred in movies 1939-1954.

I loved him dancing in "Bitter Rice" (which he cowrote) with the women workers. That was the first Neorealistic movie I saw, dubbed on TV, when I was about eight. It was so puzzling to me, seeing this woman in a rice field with her skirt hiked up in a very provocative way, calling to someone with her words not matching her lips.

I really did not understand what sort of movie I was seeing… Similar to the first time I saw Chantal Akerman’s "Jane Dielman" which was rather Neorealistic too, though a product of the early ‘70s.

The production value!

The room, a fascinating “study” filled with objects of Neorealistic movies where the Lizzani seemed to belong was actually a room built from scratch by production designer Maurizio di Clemente within the walls of the oldest film school in Italy, Centro Sperimentale de Cine. When Lizzani opened windows, they looked out upon landscapes of these great Neorealistic movies. The technology of today was used in service of high art. Opening windows itself was a Neorealistic device.

The book!

You will want to read it all and show it off on your coffee table. Interviews, philosophic discussions, pictures and detailed listings of all the Neorealistic movies are splendidly displayed.

The education!

My view of cinema — both post war Italian cinema and today’s cinema shifted into an informed appreciation of how much Neorealism changed our vision of what a film could be.

Neorealism came to fruition with the rebirth of Italy after the war and lasted to 1954. Actually as Carlo Lizzani explains, it began in 1939 “with the first rumblings of an anti-fascist rebellion… as well as among many intellectuals and cineastes, increasingly unanimous in their refusal of so-called “White Telephone” cinema.”

“Before Neorealism, films were called ‘Bianchi Telefono’ after the white telephones that Hollywood movies showed in the so-called ‘White Telephone’ cinema for the way they featured Hollywood-style living rooms where that status symbol was invariably set center stage. It may have been a typical object in certain Hollywood mansions or Middle-European villa, but hardly in the average Italian home,” says Lizzani.

The interview!

Gianni Bozzacchi, the film’s director, writer and producer is a Renaissance man and his stories are funny, deeply moving and extremely interesting! This is someone you want to talk to for hours.

Watching this labor of love was an experience I will always treasure.

Rarely do we see a film about the art of film…Todd McCarthy’s "Visions of Light" comes to mind but others fade into PBS TV memories. This is a cinematic, highly technological and artistic feat. The Dp was Fabio Olmi the son of Ermanno Olmi.

After the screening, Bozzacchi stayed for a Q+A and the next day I continued to question him in the home of producer Jay Kanter where he was staying. After two and a half hours, I still wanted more. But the issue of condensing it all to a blog was weighing on me.

“Everything was planned and laid out in great detail, scripted and planned to the second so that filming 91 year old Lizanni for two hours a day took exactly 8 days to complete.”

Bozzacchi had previously made movies and in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He worked in Los Angeles with Greg Bautzer, who, for nearly 50 years, was one of the premier entertainment attorneys in Hollywood and with Kirk Kerkorian who needs no introduction. He wrote, directed and produced “I Love N.Y.” which was sold internationally by Walter Manley. It presold widely including to Australia where it played six weeks. But for the U.S. release, Manley edited it, and Bozzacchi moved away from it and took the DGA pseudonym, the credited name Alan Smithee.

Why did you leave filmmaking for so long?

I still remember that film, starring Christopher Plummer, Virna Lisi, Scott Baio, Jennifer O’Neill, but that was my last until “Neorealism”.

In 1986 I saw the industry was changing and I chose to step out in order to watch it as an outsider. What was ‘Show Business” was becoming a 'Business Show’. Marketing led to creating a show which led to creating a sales industry. “

“I decided to change direction and do only what I really wanted to do. I took ten years developing a big project ‘Oh Brave New World: The Renaissance’ for TV. It is now in pre-production. I thought of the Neorealism project and of The Enzo Ferrari story for which I now have a deal with Tribeca and Robert De Niro.

What did you do before you were a filmmaker?

I quit school at 13. From 1966 to 1974, at 20 I entered the jet set and became a photographer.

Elizabeth Taylor was shooting ‘The Comedians’ in Africa by Graham Greene. In Dahomy (today it’s Benin) they rebuilt part of Haiti. In the photo agency I worked no one wanted to go there, so I went. I knew Elizabeth Taylor’s face very well so I photographed her with light; no retouching was needed. After seeing a photo I took of her, Richard Burton said to me, ‘You want to join our family? Elizabeth needs you.’ I only spoke Roman, no English. I worked with her for 14 years and her two kids were my assistants. I also worked on 162 films as a special photographer, reading the scripts and shooting scenes for magazine layouts, working with “the making of the film” format.

It was when I stopped as a photographer in ‘75 that I began to think of producing films like the cult film “ China 9, Liberty 37” directed by Monte Hellman and starring Sam Peckinpah, Warren Oates and Fabio Testi and I wrote a book ExpoXed Memory about my life.

There is a relationship of all my projects to Neorealism, and of Neorealism to the Renaissance. All our projects are ready to go.

What are you doing in L.A.?

We have formed a new company with producer Jay Kanter and other partners who love film rather than the business of film. “We Weren’t Just Bicycle Thieves: Neorealismo” is the first to come out of the gate.

“The Listener” is the next project I will direct. It is based on the semi-autobiographical book, Operation Appia Way, by the Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. Andreotti served as Prime Minister of Italy seven terms since the restoration of democracy in 1946.

Yes he was the subject of Paolo Sorrentino’s film “Il Divo”. The book is about phone tapping, abuse of power and violations of personal privacy as is so often employed in politic, spying, etc. Andreotti had studied to be a priest but became a politician and this is about the birth of wire tapping which took place in the Roman catacombs and tapped the phones of Pope Pius Xii in conversations with Churchill, Churchill and the King of Italy, Mussolini and Hitler, Roosevelt and the Pope. The scenarios alternate between New York and Rome today and flashbacks to past times.

The production coordinator of “Neorealismo”, Julia Eleanora Rei, also has a project on Eleanora Duse and Gabriel D’Annunzio. Known as ‘Duse’, this Italian actress is known for her words of wit and wisdom, ‘The weaker partner in a marriage is the one who loves the most’ and ‘When we grow old, there can only be one regret – not to have given enough of ourselves’. She is also known for her long romantic involvement with the poet and writer, the controversial Gabriele D’Annunzio. They are now targeting a star for the film, although, says Bozzacchi, ‘Today the script is the star’.

What films are most important to you?

Those shown in this documentary, especially "Open City" where the scene of shooting down Anna Magnani still makes me feel angry.

Every week the Neorealistic filmmakers met in a café or restaurant. They did not have lots of money, had only one camera and not much film. But they created a way to tell a story very realistically, hiding the camera and shooting the people as they are.

Cary Grant pleaded De Sica to star in ‘The Bicycle Thief’, but he would have disrupted the Neorealist aspect; he was too recognizable. In the scene where three men stop the thief , other citizens joined in thinking it was real. If they saw it was Cary Grant, the scene never could have happened. The little boy in the film, played by Enzo Staiola, was scared the mob would turn on him.”

It was surprising to see Enzo Staiola in conversation during the movie. He said that ‘De Sica invented this whole story about how he made me cry. When I looked at him in surprise, he said: ‘Don’t worry, it’s just cinema…you’ll understand later’.

They also changed the way to shoot in sequence, called ‘piano sequenza’. Before a film was done in steps, with a storyboard, with cuts, three camera povs. Actors and the camera depended on the director. Now the camera follows the actor as he or she moves. This went from Rossellini to Fellini who always used the system; but Fellini, who shows a new reborn Italy, did not want direct sound. Fellini directs saying, ‘pick up drink’ or ‘turn right’ or ‘look left’ and then afterward he would add the sound. He showed Italy out of war time in ‘La Dolce Vita’.

What happened after ‘Neorealism’?

Pontecorvo was born in the time of Neorealism and he brought it to Algiers (‘Battle of Algiers’). He was going to make a doc there but then decided on fiction. He wrote notes on his hand.

Who were the French, German and U.S. adherents to Neorealism?

Truffaut and Melville, Wim Wenders with ‘American Friend’ and ‘Paris, Texas’, Coppola with ‘Apocalypse Now’. Cassavetes was a producer of Neorealism; he took it to his era. Scorsese did with ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Mean Streets’.

What do we see about Neorealism today?

If you really love movies, with all of today’s technology, you must bring in realism. With the new technology there will be a new wave of new realism. New filmmakers are very straight. Honesty and realism on the screen will come out. We’re at the sea floor now, coming back. Tell me a story that I can feel and see emotion…that is the legacy of Neorealism.

The final scene was great ...

There was a great sense of collaboration on this film.

What made that so related to Neorealism?

Neorealism also had the full participation of everyone. Directors heard and listened to the community. Clint Eastwood does this too. He would be great directing the Ferrari movie…depending on the script of course.

I love you story about the dog being an actor who allowed for transitions and covered discontinuities in film.

What about catering Italian style?

Take a look at the film's trailer Here.

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