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Pontecorvo: 'We Trust the Face of Brando'

CARTAGENA, Colombia -- "Too much Coke and lime juice," Gillo Pontecorvo said, gingerly pressing his fingertips against his stomach. "We were out in the sun all day and we, drank too much. Ohhh. What's funny, it only makes you more thirsty. Come, we go home. My little boy is mal all day today; I must see him before he goes to sleep."

Pontecorvo had been out since early morning, scouting locations against the day when Marlon Brando would return from Los Angeles. It might be tomorrow. It might be the day after tomorrow. Tonight Pontecorvo was hot, dirty and tired, his stomach hurt and his son wasn't well. Around the pool at the Hotel Caribe, it was whispered that "Quemada" ("Burn!"), the Italian director's first film since the widely acclaimed "The Battle of Algiers," was weeks behind schedule and in financial trouble, And now it appeared that Brando's skin rash was associated not with his temperament but with amoebic dysentery.

Pontecorvo was met at the door of his apartment by a small blond-headed boy wearing, altogether, a T-shirt. "Marco," he said. "How do you feel? Have you been sick?" He lifted the child into his arms and cooed to him in Italian, leading the way into the dining room. Pontecorvo's wife, Picci, came in from the bedroom with a small pair of pants, too late.

The room had the look of a graduate student's furnished apartment. A heavy old wooden table of Spanish design was surrounded, by folding chairs. There was a painting of Picci in green and chalky, white, an old couch against the wall, toys and books on the tile floor, and on the table a dozen bottles of sauces, spices and. pills. Pontecorvo had been here three months, shooting an action picture which he says will subtly transform itself into a call for revolution.

He sat at the head of the table, holding his son on his lap. At 49, he looks ten years younger; South America has tanned his face a dark brown. "I used to be able to wait for years between pictures," he said, "but now I am married with two small children, and here I am at work again only three years after 'The Battle of Algiers.' Before 'Battle,' my writer, Franco Solinas, and I waited six years and turned down 33 scripts - including three we wrote ourselves, but after we wrote them, we didn't like them any more."

"The Battle of Algiers" has become in many ways the key film of this revolutionary age. It employs Franz Fanon's theories of revolution in a fictional treatment of the Algerian War, and has been embraced by black militants as a source of tactics and inspiration. When it played in a New York East Side art theater, blacks from Harlem helped make it a box-office success; in Chicago, it ended its first run after 14 weeks last October, but is still playing at the Afro-American Arts Theater on the South Side. Jimmy Breslin went on TV last summer to describe it as the training film for urban guerrilla warfare.

"Really?" Pontecorvo said, not sounding particularly surprised by Breslin's statement. "Perhaps he is right, but that is much too simple. The film champions everyone who is deprived of his rights, and encourages him to fight for them. But it is an analogy for many situations: Vietnam, for one.

"What I would prefer for people to discover is something that is in all my films, a certain kind of tenderness for man, an affection which grows from the fragility of the human condition. But we must have soup," he said, as Picci appeared with a plate of brown bread and bowls of minestrone. "Soup over all." His wife took the sleepy Marco from his lap.

"So many critics see 'The Battle of Algiers' as propaganda," he said, "but in the scenes of death the same religious music accompanies both the French and Arab bombings. I am on the side of the Arabs, but I feel compassion for the French even if historically they were at fault. I do not say the French were bad, only that they were wrong. So here I disagree with Fanon. But Fanon is so important; he clarifies the Third World. The scene of the Arab woman cutting her hair to pass as European and plant a bomb - we borrowed that from Fanon. Still, my film is wider than his focus. My subject is the sadness and laceration that the birth of a nation means in our time.

"A lot has been written about the film's realistic style. In fact, the realism came easily. The most difficult point in the staging of the film came at the very end, when the Arab woman danced in front of the police. Until this moment we had not moved one millimeter from reality, but then at the end we remained in the same style but moved to a lyric subject. It was difficult because, in truth, nobody dances in front of policemen." He grinned. "Did you not discover that last summer in Chicago? But the problem was to keep the appearance of reality even though it is a lyric dance. And there perhaps the smoke helped...a little smoke always helps such a scene."

He smiled. From the bedroom came the sound of a record being played: "Peter and the Wolf." Pontecorvo finished his soup and his wife served a sausage and vegetable casserole. Marco appeared in the doorway, rubbing his eyes, and Pontecorvo got up to lead him back to bed. He felt his son's forehead with the back of his hand "He isn't warm," he said. He started "Peter and the Wolf" again from the beginning and sat down to finish his dinner.

If Pontecorvo was worried by anything else but his son's illness, you couldn't tell. And yet if "Quemada" fails, it will be expensive for him, perhaps representing his last chance at major money backing; the film is budgeted at around $3,000,000. "We made 'The Battle of Algiers' for $800,000," he said, "and already it has earned $1,800,000. I had a share, I was half-producer, but I needed the money and I sold my share for nothing." He shrugged.

In "The Battle of Algiers," he used unknowns, most of whom were appearing in a film for the first time. In "Quemada," Brando co-stars with Evaristo Marques, an illiterate peasant who was living with two wives when Pontecorvo found him during a tour of Colombian agricultural villages. Marques had never seen a movie, but Pontecorvo didn't care. He says he prefers inexperienced actors that he can keep under his complete directorial control.

Would his disciplinary style inspire a vintage performance from Brando, an actor who has mired, recently, in permissiveness?

Pontecorvo's wife, still occupied with serving the dinner, overheard the question and laughed. Pontecorvo looked at her quizzically. "I hope so," he said. "I said before and I still believe that Marlon is best for this role. When Solinas and I began to construct the script, we had three actors in mind: Lancaster, Burton and Brando. But as the story grew, we decided that the only one who could do this role was Brando. There are many moments when there is no time for dialogue, and then we need the synthesis of Brando's acting and his face. When things are psychological, we trust the face of Brando..."

Brando plays a British adventurer sent to a Spanish-held Caribbean island early in the 19th century with orders to break the Spanish domination. He decides that the only way to accomplish this is to incite a revolution among the natives. He enlists a peasant, played by Marques, to lead the revolution, staying in the background himself as theorist and mastermind.

"We are trying to make a meeting of two kinds of film," Pontecorvo said. "We want to join the romantic adventure and the film of ideas. We begin with the sort of photography, music and dialogue that belong to the classic manner of the adventure film, and gradually, as the story advances, we slide into a more realistic style. The audience forgets it is watching a period film and has the impression this is a theme of today. Even the costumes gradually become more modern, and the style becomes more stark.

"For the music we will use, in two places, the Gregorian Chant of the Kyrie and the Hosanna. It will be sung in the pure style, but by a black chorus with a drum accompaniment. You know, the music in my films is so important to me that when I go in the morning to shoot, if I can imagine a tune for the scene, it is easy for me. If I can hear the music in my mind, I know I can linger on this face or that face, or move the camera like this, because the music is a guide. I cannot understand how some directors do films and then the music is added later..."

Pontecorvo's decision to use a peasant as Brando's co-star has led to many of the film's production delays. At the beginning, Evaristo was terrible," he said. "He had the correct face, the correct presence, but we had to teach him even to walk. He had no idea what we were doing.

"On the second day of shooting, the script called for a look of irony. Now, a look of irony is a lot to ask of a sugar-cane cutter on the second day. We did 44 takes and never got it right. Finally I decided, we will not ask for a look of irony, we will simply inspire a look that to us appears ironic. So we found an overhead camera angle that if Evaristo had his head down and then looked, up, it would appear ironic." Pontecorvo demonstrated. "Brando said his line, and then he kicked Evaristo from off-camera, and when Evaristo looked up, we had our look of irony.

"During the early weeks of shooting, Brando was obliged to tap him, or give him some sort of cue, for every line. Or we would shoot over Brando's shoulder and Brando would say the line of dialogue and then make the face that Evaristo was supposed, to make in reaction.

Now, however, Evaristo can handle scenes of great difficulty. His warriors had to applaud him the other day, and then he was to give a sad little smile to these people who trust him. And he did it on the first take. After seeing the early days of shooting, I could hardly believe it. For a while we thought we would have to abandon our plan and bring in a professional actor. But Brando was so patient, coaxing Evaristo along, making faces, miming everything for him-what a drama coach!"

The fact remains, however, that "Quemada" fell well behind, in its 17-week shooting schedule in Cartagena even before Brando's departure for Los Angeles. And although the film already in the can is satisfying to Pontecorvo, the original budget is a forgotten dream.

"My producer, Alberto Grimaldi, is also producing 'Fellini Satyricon,'" Pontecorvo said "And Fellini, as we sometimes say, has the custom of finishing half his film and then telling the producer he needs twice as much money. This time I am the one over budget. So we are joking here in Cartagena that we hope we finish 'Quemada' before Fellini spends all the money."

As Pontecorvo told it, it did not sound entirely like a joke. His wife brought out a fruit salad, hot water and Nescafe. Pontecorvo was just putting the instant coffee into hot water when the doorbell rang. His wife came back to the table with a cablegram.

"Perhaps this tells us no more money," Pontecorvo said. "But probably it is from Marlon."

It was, instead, from Mort Engelbert of United Artists: "Congratulations on your Academy Award nomination for best director for 'The Battle of Algiers.' We are all pulling for you."

Pontecorvo read the cablegram aloud, a mixture of joy and surprise on his face. "But how can this be?" he said. "Last year, 'The Battle of Algiers' was already nominated for best foreign film. How can I be nominated this year?"

That is the way the Academy rules operate, he was told. There is a loophole.

"Oh, Gillo!" his wife cried, jumping to her feet and applauding.

Pontecorvo read the telegram again. "But how can this be?" he said.

"Gillo!" his wife said, and kissed him.

Pontecorvo kept a serious face. "If this is true," he said, "perhaps it is just what we need." He stirred his Nescafe into the hot water and added some orange marmalade for sweetness.

You do not seem very excited, he was told. You seem to receive this news so calmly.

"I was nominated before, for 'Kapo,'" he said.

"One, two, three, four, five," his wife said, counting aloud as she lined up a row of pill bottles in front of his place. She looked at him in amusement.

"My medicine," Pontecorvo explained. He shook up a can of Redi-Whip and put a layer of whipped cream on top of his coffee. Then he immediately spilled the whole cup into his lap.

"Perhaps," he said, "after all I am a little excited."

(This interview originally appeared in The New York Times on April 13, 1969.)

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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