Actor-In-Focus: Gian Maria Volontè

An icon of 1970s cinema, an activist leftist actor, Gian Maria Volontè incarnated the spirit of those terrible years in Italy known as Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead) both in his private life and on screen.

Social and political commitment was crucial for him, as a man and as an artist. In fact, he remains a symbol of one of the most prolific and outstanding periods of Italian cinema, one which linked the seventh art to the controversial yet realistic representation of Italy as cinema d’inchiesta or cinema d’impegno (political investigation films). He worked for the major Italian film directors, from Sergio Leone to the overtly left-leaning Francesco Rosi, Elio Petri, Gillo Pontecorvo, Damiano Damiani and Giuseppe Ferrara. An accomplished and sophisticated actor, he is remembered for his intensely dazzling and histrionic performances, although always measured and capable to pitch the right tone for his innumerable and diverse roles in terms of geographical, social and psychological differences. He played with the same rigour and natural aptitude the working class and the businessman, the intellectual political man and the neurotically disturbed, the revolutionary and the man of power. Well known for his peevish disposition and not a great fan of show business, he led a life of social battles and stuck to his moral principles both on and off screen.

Born in Milan in 1933, he made his cinematic debut in 1960 but gained worldwide recognition thanks to his convincing performances as the “baddy” only four years later in two Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, playing Ramón Rojo in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), acting next to Clint Eastwood, and then El Indio in For a Few Dollars More (1965).

After a charming, comic appearance in the 1966 film L’armata Brancaleone, directed by Mario Monicelli, Volontè’s fame grew when he moved on to more acclaimed roles of the cinema d’impegno, where he charismatically assumed the most difficult roles. The turning point was in 1967, when he took on the role of Prof. Paolo Laurana in Elio Petri’s We Still Kill the Old Way, based on the book of the same name by leftist Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia. This film marks the beginning of a long-standing artistic alliance between Petri, Volontè and screenwriter Ugo Pirro. Petri shared the actor’s predilection for uncomfortable themes and portrayals of the social turmoil of Italian reality; from abuses of power, to workers’ strikes and student demonstrations, which sadly escalated into extremist attacks on the corrupt state and a series of bombs in public places throughout the 70’s. Bloody episodes such as the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan and the 1980 Bologna Station massacre are still engraved in Italians’ memory. In such a climate Volontè found fertile soil for his leftist inclination and artistic credo, with his first serious role in Petri’s 1970 film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion as “Il Dottore”, the inspector. The film won the Best Foreign Film Oscar and the actor gained multiple prestigious Italian awards for his interpretation of a paranoid, obsessed, neurotic official, who uses his immense power to playfully defy the very justice he should guarantee – he is indeed ‘above suspicion’.  The successful artistic friendship with director Elio Petri continued, and Investigation is considered part of a trilogy known as “The Trilogy of Neurosis”. Power, work, and money were the three pillars of the newly enriched and empowered Italian middle class, as a result of the Italian economic “boom” started in the early ‘60’s”. Investigation, a film about neurosis of power, was followed by an exploration of the neurosis of work in The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971), when the protagonist realises he is just a tool in the mechanism of consumerism and fights his own battle even against trade unions; and finally Property Is No Longer a Theft (1973), which sarcastically portrayed the desire for property and money as pathological.

Another fruitful collaboration was the one with Francesco Rosi, who directed the actor in The Mattei Affair (1972) as Enrico Mattei, president of the ENI (an Italian state-owned multinational oil and gas company), who died in questionable circumstances in a mysterious plane crash while flying back home from his last visit to Sicily. A hybrid of documentary and fiction, the film investigated the life and achievement of an influential figure in Italian history and economics, and raised questions around the unsolved death of a man who was able to transform a poor agricultural nation into an industrialised country with many – perhaps too many – multinational companies. The film won a tied Grand Prix at Cannes Film festival with Elio Petri’s film The Working Class Goes to Heaven. Volontè was also directed by Rosi in many other roles, including communist writer Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), a Bafta-winning performance based on the author’s autobiographical account of his years in internal-exile in the still rural and extremely poor south of Italy.

Although Volontè died quite young (from a heart attack in Greece in 1994, while filming Ulysses’ Gaze by Theo Angelopoulos), he also boasts a long list of films and roles outside Italy. Among these Ogro, shot in 1979, the same year as Christ Stopped at Eboli. Written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, Ogro was based on true events of Operation Ogre, the name given by ETA to its assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco, Prime Minister of Spain in 1973. The final film worth mentioning is Il Caso Moro (The Moro Affair) by Giuseppe Ferrara in 1986, based on the Christian Democrat secretary’s kidnapping and execution by the Red Brigades. For this role he won best actor at the Berlin Film Festival in 1986. At the 1991 Venice Film Festival Volontè’s outstanding contribution to European cinema was loudly proclaimed with a Golden Lion for career achievement.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicious screened as part of our States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers of the 1970s film season.

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