"He disappeared in silence." Sadly this is how everyone is recalling Augusto Tretti's recent death. He died on the 7th of June, and while 10 days have gone by since he passed away, it still seems that in Italy nobody has noticed it.
Maybe the failure to notice comes because he closed himself off in his house on Lake Garda for a long time. Tretti's life in movies ended prematurely in 1985, when he directed Mediatori e Carrozze thanks to his friend Ermanno Olmi, a short movie released on TV five years after his third and final feature, Alcool. Apparently no one cared for his body of work, an impressive trio produced over 20 years, acclaimed by a lot of filmmakers and a few critics.
"I give this advice to all my producer friends: grab Tretti, have him sign a contract right now and let him shoot whatever crosses his mind. Most of all, don't ever attempt to have him reacquire his reason; Tretti is the madman that Italian cinema needs."
These were Federico Fellini's words about Tretti, who worked for him as an assistant when he was shooting Il bidone in 1955, words remembered today with guilt because they were quickly forgotten. When someone like Federico Fellini gives this kind of advice, everyone should sit down, listen and try at least to give the guy a chance, but he was not Quentin Tarantino, and Augusto Tretti's first feature in 1962, La legge della tromba was bashed by all but a few critics. One professed fan was Alberto Moravia.
An artist was needed to understand another artist, and so Alberto Moravia, film critic and praised writer, organized a new screening where instead of journalists there were filmmakers of all kinds. Tretti's madness was applauded by each one of them. Now after 50 years it is incredibly sad to hear that no one has remembered the genius behind the man who directed La legge della tromba.
Common advice from film school teachers and famous directors when asked by upcoming filmmakers what to do when you have no money is ask for a little help from your friends. And that's exactly what Tretti did; he asked his cook and neighbour, an old woman, Maria Boto, to be his star.
Depsite her gender, Boto didn't play any female roles. She was first a guard in a prison and an army General, then a vicious entrepreneur called Mister Liborio, later a Scientist who was attempting to launch a shuttle in outer space. Maria Boto was no actress and she explains everything to us in a small prologue where she confessed she had never watched a movie in her life yet she's there mocking the famous MGM logo, roaring at the camera after she talked about how funny and interesting was to work with electricians and other crew members, never mentioning the director.
La legge della tromba was a comedy about a young man, Celestino, trying to start a new life after he had been released from prison, but everything turned out the wrong way. He started work in a trumpet factory where he met Maria, a young lovely girl that ends up marrying her boss Mister Liborio, a ruthless entrepreneur who moves his company to South America. This leaves Celestino no choice but to find another way to earn a living, but as the movie's final joke says, the system wasn't (and still isn't) working.
Italian directors at the time responded with enthusiasm. Screenwriter Ennio Flaiano said it was a small lesson in which he admired both purity and sharpness, while director Michelangelo Antonioni also said he was impressed, words repeated by filmmakers such as Florestano Vancini, Cesare Zavattini, Valerio Zurlini and so on.
Clearly Tretti had no desire to compromise for anyone, choosing an old unknown woman as the star of the show, making fun of the system, and creating every sound and score with human voices. He also had no interest in praising anyone, not even himself.
Together with financing problems, these were all reasons why it took four years to gain enough faith to complete his second feature film. Titled Power, Tretti's sophomore film was a sort of Mel Brooks' History of the World, in which Tretti explored the history of mankind from one precise point of view: how the powerful ruled over the weak.
A man confused as the God of Fire in prehistory; Jesus and Muhammad deciding who must eat what and when because of a power no one has seen; Tiberius Gracchus killed by the senate because he was fighting for the people. Tretti had a bullet for everyone. He loved to unmask those who claimed to be on the side of the less fortunate, showing the three powers - military, commercial and agricultural - sitting on three thrones and chatting on how they can suck life out of men and keep power tight in their hands.
Shot in the Province of Milan, Alcool was Tretti's third and final film. it should have been a classic documentary but instead plays with funny and devastating insight on those afflicted by alcoholism. Always willing to embrace satire and irony Tretti depicted a society of derelict and miserable men and women controlled by governments, religions and industry. He laid the groundwork for Luciano Salce's White Collar Blues but never wanted to show just one man in the middle of all this mess. Tretti strove instead for anonymous characters that could represent not just one person, but everyone.
Now he's gone and his movies have barely seen the light, screened in a few festivals but never mentioned between those classics that made Italian cinema a drawer filled with masterpieces. We now remember Federico Fellini, Elio Petri, Gillo Pontecorvo, Mario Bava and so many more great directors and Augusto Tretti deserves to be one of them, his movies weren't known just because someone at the time decided that they were not worthy, but when we now watch them we can see and understand he was one of the Italian masters of cinema.