Tonino Guerra was the most prolific and influential Italian scriptwriter of his generation. His ability to lend subtle poetic overtones to fluent speech made him a most sought-after collaborator by leading directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Francesco Rosi, Federico Fellini, the Taviani Brothers and, outside Italy, Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Born to a poor family in a small town near the Adriatic sea – his father was a fisherman and street vendor – he worked as a school teacher until he was arrested by the Nazis in August 1944, when found with partisan leaflets in his pockets. Sent to a concentration camp in Germany, he began to entertain his fellow prisoners with dialect poems and storytelling.
After the war he published both dialect poetry and narrative in Italian and moved to Rome in the early 1950s. Thanks to his friendship with artist Renzo Vespignani, he met and collaborated with Rome-based directors Giuseppe De Santis – then famous for his neorealist masterpiece Bitter Rice (Riso amaro, 1950) – and Elio Petri, then assistant director to De Santis and later director of thrillers and political films, many co-written with Guerra.
In 1959, Guerra was asked by Antonioni to help him write the script of L’avventura, the first part of his groundbreaking trilogy on modernity and alienation. Their collaboration lasted nine films and brought him an Oscar nomination for Blow Up in 1967.
Fellini asked Guerra to join him in the making of his most autobiographical film, Amarcord (1973). Helped by the common cultural background – Fellini’s hometown, Rimini, is less than ten miles away from Guerra’s Santarcangelo – Guerra was able to make full use of his art as a poet in dialect. Indeed, the character of the local historian and poet, who introduces and comments on the episodes of the film, could be considered a projection of Guerra’s own persona. He received another Oscar nomination for Amarcord and in later years worked with Fellini on And the Ship Sails On (E la nave va, 1983) and Ginger and Fred (1986).
The Tavianis, with whom he collaborated on four films (The Night of the Shooting Stars, 1982, Kaos, 1984, Good Morning Babylon, 1987 and The Sun Also Shines at Night, 1990), wrote about Guerra’s unique capacity to improve a script with an innate sense of the most appropriate balance between said and unsaid.
In May 2010, he was given Italy’s most prestigious film award, the David of Donatello for Lifetime Achievement.
Also in the March 2013 issue of Sight & Sound
Bob Mastrangelo’s survey of the film greats and lesser-knowns who left us during 2012, with new obituaries of Herbert Lom, Sylvia Kristel, Yamada Isuzu, Seyfi Teoman and child actors of the silent era.