The Milanese filmmaker, Luciano Emmer (1918-2009), made prolific film and television work: over seventy documentaries, eleven fiction feature films and many advertisements. His most famous works are some fiction films in which he successfully crystallised a certain union between Neorealism and Italian comedy in the 1950s. However, at the end of his days, on reminiscing in his film, Con aura...senz'aura, his creative self-portrait, the filmmaker strived to remember and highlight only part of his filmography: art films. He entered the film world professionally at the age of twenty with them and revolutionised a whole line of non-fiction which, according to Bazin, was the first great discovery in the documentary field since Buñuel’s contribution.
This retrospective takes a diptych approach to Luciano Emmer’s art cinema: three sessions to explain the change from story to essay; from his initial dramatisation proposal of painting to the art film-essay in his last twenty years, when he decided to explore documentary films in the first-person, rethinking and explicitly citing his own previous films. An initial session will review some of his main art films from his first era, from Racconto da un affresco (1940) to La sublime fatica (1966), his ironic reverse angle, in which he criticises the mass tourist. A second session, in the form of a hinge, will be devoted to the specific rewriting of one of his most important documentaries, Picasso (1954), in another film half a century later, Incontrare Picasso (2000), reorganised based on a concept image and told in the first person. Finally, a third session will bring together three of his essays from his final era, in which many of the images from the first session will reappear transformed and in new combinations, from the other side of the mirror.
The scope of Emmer’s small experiment in his first short film, made with his friend, Enrico Gras and his future wife, Tatiana Grauding, will be of unexpected importance for films and culture of the 1940s and 1950s. Auriol, Bazin, Langlois or Cocteau will be impressed by him. Influenced by the Emmer model, documentaries were commissioned to young French directors like Alain Resnais, who came to say that if it had not been for Emmer, perhaps he would never have become a film director; thanks to admiration for or opposition to Emmer, new lines in Italian or Belgian art film are opened; productions started to multiply, catalogues were published, international conferences were held; and all of this creative and critical enthusiasm would soon lead to something that would spread into the film world: in the second half of the 1940s, art film became one of UNESCO’s decisive instruments for the European cultural recreation following the catastrophe of the Second World War.
Cinema from a period where each art film was still a unique experiment and not a formula to be repeated, Luciano Emmer’s non-fiction work, which marked some of the André Bazin’s best pages in the 1940s, deserves to be brought back to life based on his largely unknown essay works at the turn of the century, as one of the best examples of the essay approach to the filming of art. Perhaps, in this crepuscular and threatening period for the European project, it is not a bad idea to recover this forgotten tradition that defended humanist and internationalist values, which are contrary to those that had led to two world wars. Luciano Emmer’s films which are free, cult, critical and ironic whilst profoundly intelligent and intuitive, are undoubtedly a good antidote to spread in the era of Trump and Marine Le Pen.
[Picture: Fondo Luciano Emmer– Cineteca di Bologna]