Italian cinema has always been a murderer’s row of contorted stylistic bravado. From elemental Western no man’s lands to diabolically garish horror cinema to rambunctiously loopy, absurdist comedy, Italian cinema has done it all. Yet the streams of neo-realism, the earliest well of Italian cinema, had largely dried up by the 1970s. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Padre Padrone nominally recaptures that spirit of earthen woe and low-to-the-ground cinema, but their style is more cosmically barren than it is naturalistic. The oppressively wide frames contrast with the grisly immediacy of the 16mm stock to evoke the sensation of peering into an empty limbo of human loneliness. The earthen hues of the piece reveal the contagious habits of the almost primordial landscape that infects the characters with its own unforgiving dejection.
In this region, two characters, a father and a son, abide. The father becomes a stagnant agent of the landscape, as tormented by its traditions as the nature around him that seems perpetually devoid of life. The pas de deux between the two humans mirrors the unbalanced, parasitic mutualism of the human species and nature itself: one (the son) struggling to evolve beyond its forebearer (the father), only to curdle and grow cruel and indifferent under the oppressive weight of the older institution (the father).
Gavino (Saverio Marconi , as an adult), the father’s son, begins life on a farm that might as well be a hellscape; his father, a tiresome and difficult man, ravages Gavino with brutal cruelty in his early life. Gavino struggles to hold on, but he grows temperamental; dejection and rage boil in his blood and meet the hand of his father’s cruelty even more bluntly as time moves on, but Gavino’s teenage malcontent persona inches closer to the hurtful, bruised ways of his father (the directors cheekily parallel Gavino and his father through graphic matches, undercutting the false progressive narrative the film seems to present, wherein Gavino overcomes his father’s oppression to become a more enlightened person). Although Gavino claws his way out of a barbaric lifestyle, we wonder if the dirt around him hasn’t simply internalized itself or absorbed itself into his skin through mental osmosis. Gavino, as an adult, entertains a middle class lifestyle, unlike his father, but the question of his humanity is left open.
As is the question of the film’s reaction to all its own cruelty. It is a willfully antagonistic film, high on pain and punishment, but its attitude and temperament are more knowingly abrasive and comic than purely miserabilist. Take an early scene where Gavino milks a sheep and confronts the wryly amusing fact that the sheep has disobeyed him and excreted feces into the milk bucket, penetrating Gavino’s milk bucket as though it were his personal orifice. Gavino responds by shoving the sheep face-first into his own excrement with a grotesquely phallic motion that cannot but resemble the thrusting brutality of the father, whose reasons for dishing out pain are intentionally left unknown and arbitrary – the simple fact of evil masculinity in its elemental simplicity being more frightening than an attempt to know in full truth why such barbaric violence exists among human males.
The sequence is disturbing, foretelling the ways in which violence and brutality are generational. But it is difficult to ignore the smirk the film plays it with, as is true with a sister scene where children grow accustomed to sexual arousal through bestiality. The father’s punishment, like the carnal pleasure of raping the beasts, and like Gavino’s assertion of superiority over the sheep, stew together in a bucket of human rebellion and resistance masking the persistence of power and privilege. For all Gavino does as a child to rebel against his father, we are trenchantly aware that, initially, Gavino only destroys his master’s house with his master’s tools, to quote Audre Lorde, thus preserving their use, their identity, in his own body and being. He fights abuse with his own means of abusing livestock and the animals he feels superior to. He transmutes abuse, maybe even disguises abuse, but he does not eradicate it.
Still, Padre Padrone, despite its unequivocal distaste for the peasants it finds to be backwards, ultimately debates with rejecting a teleological narrative of history. On one hand, Gavino’s escape is simply a matter of muscular communication; he asserts agency for himself, but only through language does he truly confront a father who preferred to speak with a blunt stick rather than a word, be it comforting or fraught with venom. Yet Padre Padrona cannot fully reject its telos wherein civilization is superior to the so-called savage farmers. The film is not merely a paean to the necessity of communication; it filters this temptation through a specific plea for Western civility and a vindication of elite scholarly habits. A subcutaneous aura of unblinking civilization festers in the film until it erupts and the puss fumes outward near the end. It is Gavino’s civility, his education, his fascination for the academic language that eluded his father, that saves him.
Which is a gaping question mark on Padre’s persona, a question wherein the poor are fundamental abusers and the wealthy are knowledgeable, respectable erudites. But the film nonetheless attains moments of majesty that unfortunately trail off over time. As classist as its notion of social critique may be, the early moments of the film – when Gavino is still a child – represent a virile masterwork of severely constructed craft and free-floating impressionist mystique, framing nature and humanity as tense partners and depicting Gavino’s father with all the tactile horror craft of a slasher film. The man positively penetrates the frame in many shots, entering and doing bodily harm to the image by his very presence, and the directing brothers sell their replete penetrative imagery almost entirely through the way the father’s motions become phallic and abusive simply in the way he approaches the camera. Omero Antonutti’s gruelingly vacant physical performance also serves to mask the man’s internal features so that he becomes an implacable, unknowable force of destruction rather than a human being, a tone entirely in harmony with the film’s more elemental, fable-like structure.
The film is not without troubles though. Beyond the evident classism, it struggles to marry its formalist ambitions – where characters pose around one another in deliberately artificial, literary fashion – with its more naturalist elements. Not to mention, the barbarism of the early moments can grow difficult, even if the film carefully hints at a layer of cultivated comedy underneath the lengths it will go to demonize the father. In particular, a cunning opening slice of meta-fiction where we are introduced to an adult Gavino Ledda (who authored the book about his childhood upon which the movie is based) sharpening a stick and handing it to the actor playing his abusive father, slyly comments on the self-fulfilling nature of their back-and-forth. Gavino’s father not only shaped Gavino, but Gavino the author allows for the persistence of Gavino’s father the fictionialized demon by writing about him.
The film doesn’t pursue this trend as luminously as it might, but it here dabbles in the larger idea that this particular portrayal of masculine cruelty is the product of a mind suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Gavino’s father has taken on a new life in Gavino’s mind, living and breathing and gathering agency over an adult Gavino even after his father rots within the earth. In acknowledging the filmicness of itself, the film rejects the need to cut through the overly-monstrous depiction of Gavino’s father; it admits, instead, that no film could convey Gavino as he really lived, because the real Gavino’s father did all he could to ensure that Gavino could only ever see him as a monster. In the end, the very literature that saved Gavino can only allow Gavino to share his father’s ghoulish nature with others, to attempt to capture his father in words, and to entrap to the prison of public shame. There is no guarantee it will overcome the weight of his father; the film affords us only possibility, then, and no semblance of safety.
With the perfect cognitive symmetry of the opening and closing moments layering a self-reflective, self-reflexive fictionality onto the film, the bubbling classism underneath is somewhat overridden by its pungent craft and its ability to interrogate this classism as a product of fiction rather than reality. Admittedly, Padre Padrona is not the equal of a number of other ’70s Palme d’Or winners – its beauty is more siphoned off into singular, unmistakable moments perennially occurring throughout the film than, rather than say something like The Conversation from a handful of years before, a work that seems positively bathed in porous perfection of framing and paranoid camera movement throughout every shot. Still, the sheer conviction of the film to play around with masculine objects is often astounding and frequently bracing. When Gavino escapes to the military, only to ride a tank upwards toward the frame, we witness the tank’s cannon barrel pierce the frame like its own act of genital insertion. Here, we are painfully and fully admitted to the knowledge that the patriarchy and paternalism of Sardinian culture will live on, arguably no matter what Gavino does. We are aware that, for all his civility, he is not merely a victim of it, but he can be an agent as well.