We The Italians | Great Italians of the Past: Sergio Leone

Great Italians of the Past: Sergio Leone

Great Italians of the Past: Sergio Leone

  • WTI Magazine #101 Mar 17, 2018
  • 2834

All those who have experienced the honor and the adventure of meeting him, said that his English was, actually, its own English. For the first ten minutes, the largest U.S. producers looked at him and thought how strange was the accent of that Italian man from Rome who wanted to reinvent cinema. They stared at him, then at his eyes, listening to his story carved into the American myth in a time either ancient and new. And, kidnapped by his stories, they opened their doors to his visionary passion, its sharp images and to the camera of Sergio Leone. 

Born in Rome on January 3, 1929, in only seven films the director transforms the language of the movies, rewriting a model which will inspire directors of every age and gender. After working as a second unit director on several among which “Ben Hur”, winner of 11 Academy Awards, Sergio Leone debuts as a director in 1961 with the film “Il Colosso di Rodi” (The Colossus of Rhodes), spectacular film made with a low budget thanks to the extraordinary experience acquired by the director in his previous years. 

It will be his famous “Dollars trilogy” to allow him to be recognized as one of the most acclaimed directors of those years. Between 1964 and 1966 the master will do, consecutively, “Per un pugno di dollari” (A fistful of dollars), “Per qualche dollaro in più”(For a few dollars more) and “Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo” (The Good, the bad and the ugly). 

The protagonist of the films is his first big new idea born in Leone’s mind: the man with no name, central character in the trilogy, undermines all the canons of classic American westerns. The hero without fear is replaced by a smart man, who knows how to play dirty, with great skills as a gunman but also a deep, realistic moral ambiguity. Clint Eastwood, until then a simple television actor, will be the actor who will give a face to this character. Sergio Leone choose Eastwood after evaluating as many as 11 actors for the role. He will later say, ironically: "I like Clint Eastwood because he is an actor who has only two expressions: one with the hat and one without it". 

With three films, Sergio Leone invents a genre, which will later on be given the name of spaghetti westerns, which will inspire filmmakers from all over the world for its technical innovations, the artistic originality of the direction, the ability to reinterpret such a dear style to America. 

Sergio Leone literally invents from nowhere new cinematic elements, far from the classical theory of the genre: the famous rhythm alternating very slow actions to extremely sudden ones, the faces of the common characters idealized in the realist narrative of the epic West; then the music composed by Ennio Morricone, now entered in the collective imagination of western. But the most famous is the so-called "primo primissimo piano” (extreme foreground)": the shooting where the actor's eyes fill the film, in a long and decided cut, slow and real. Quentin Tarantino calls it the "Leone’s framing". He himself will admit to have shouted several times to technicians, during the shooting of his movies "Give me a Leone!" 

In 1967 Sergio Leone shoots what to him had to be the last page of his history of the West: “C’era una volta il west” (Once Upon a Time in the West), narrating the end of the American epic. Leone chooses a woman to represent the end of the battles, a woman who in the film brings the water to the cowboy, metaphor of a love that breaks the violent fascination of the West. “Giù la testa”(A fistful of dynamite), in 1971, will be his most thoughtful film, closer to the political issues of those years. For several years, Leone will continue to write screenplays and produce Carlo Verdone films.

In 1984 Sergio Leone signs his last great masterpiece. After a very long engagement on the screenplay, which lasted about 13 years, Leone includes all his cinema in “C’era una volta in America” (Once Upon a Time in America). The story of "Noodles" Aronson, starring Robert De Niro, goes through forty years of American history, following the life of the protagonist, of the United States, of those times (from the 20’s to the 60’s). It is a movie about the lack, the nostalgia for ages and values. A story of violence and redemption, morality and ambiguity, of love and betrayal. In the scenes where Noodles - violent gangster and lover - is a child, flows the adventure of a man who would have lived all his life in the still picture of his childhood.

Sergio Leone dies on April 30, 1989, leaving a new, different, rethought cinema. Quentin Tarantino will define him "the first post-modern director of history". 25 years after his death, the great director is remembered for having created myths, out of nowhere. Myth as "the most beautiful form of entertainment” as he liked to say. Its characters, its atmosphere, the movements of his camera have never left the modern film language.