The Big Bang 

Yves Montand looms large in Gillo Pontecorvo's recovered classic, The Wide Blue Road.

How's this for a tale of working-class angst? A poor but pugnacious dynamite fisherman, an outcast from his community and in constant trouble with the law, scuttles his fishing boat to avoid being arrested for using explosives, then is forced to make a deal with the unscrupulous local seafood merchant in order to keep working and feeding his family. This leads to his becoming an even worse pariah among his peers, and ultimately to tragedy.

Wrap it up in vaguely operatic style, set it along the ruggedly beautiful Dalmatian coastline of the Adriatic, shoot it in rich color, and cast two-fisted, working-stiff movie star Yves Montand as the fisherman, a man named Squarció, and you've got director Gillo Pontecorvo's 1957 post-Neo-Realistic melodrama, La Grande Strada Azzurra (The Wide Blue Road). This was the debut feature for Pontecorvo, who went on to acquire considerable cult status as the filmmaker of such influential leftist-politically-tinged pics as The Battle of Algiers. Since The Wide Blue Road apparently never received a US premiere until now, it's easy to see why the rerelease is such a big deal to film fanatics. They'll undoubtedly be there in force when The Wide Blue Road opens Friday night at the Roxie for a one-week engagement.

Director Pontecorvo seems torn between making a proletarian opera and a lean, no-frills slice of hardscrabble life. Thanks to the press notes, we learn that if the director had had his way, the film wouldn't have been in color, nor would international actress Alida Valli (best known for her role in The Third Man) been cast as Squarció's wife. Too glamorous.

Pontecorvo, a former journalist who hung out in Paris with Picasso and Sartre and later joined the Communist Party, but whose main influence was evidently filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, even objected at first to casting Montand. But the transplanted Frenchman is the best thing about this essentially ordinary grassroots saga. Montand gives Squarció the Full Mediterranean: doomed eyes forever gazing into the middle distance, quick sardonic comebacks, slouching physicality (think Robert Mitchum pickled in Ricard), and always, the simmering threat of violence. We stick around to see what crazy thing the defiant Squarció will do next, and he obliges by stirring up a capsule history of European labor unrest, garnished with believable touches of warm family life, particularly between him and his two equally feisty sons.

The post-WWII reference points may be a little too hazy for us to pick up on in 2002. Certainly both Pontecorvo and Montand knew firsthand about 20th-century strife. Pontecorvo, son of a wealthy Jewish industrialist in Pisa, relocated to Paris to avoid fascist anti-Semitism, later returning to Italy to create socially conscious films with a strong reportorial feel. The Wide Blue Road was followed in 1960 by Kapo, a concentration-camp drama, but his everlasting fame came with 1966's The Battle of Algiers, an unnervingly realistic docudrama, filmed in grainy black-and-white, about Algerian revolutionaries' efforts to drive out the French colonial apparatus in the 1950s. The tension was so thick you could smell the cordite as the bombs exploded. The Battle of Algiers was scripted by Franco Solinas, who began his collaboration with Pontecorvo on The Wide Blue Road. Pontecorvo's Burn! (1969) starred Marlon Brando in another piece of historical agitprop, the story of a Caribbean slave revolt and the British officer who commandeered it (the same incident that inspired Alex Cox's Walker).

Pontecorvo helmed only six feature films (including one episode in an anthology) before retiring in protest of "the decline in cinema" -- one masterpiece and at least two pretty good movies. The Wide Blue Road is one of the pretty good ones, the tale of an uncomplicated, natural man being pushed and pulled by current events, and facing his troubles with plenty of Italian menefreghismo. It's hard for us to feel a sense of solidarity with a man who makes his living by bombing fragile coral reefs and collecting the dead fish that float to the surface, but somehow Pontecorvo and Montand lend frustrated Squarció his share of rough dignity, especially in the magnificent final moments, when the poetry of the situation bubbles to the surface in spite of all the documentary grittiness.

Yves Montand, arguably the most popular French film actor of all time (and along with Jean Gabin the epitome of the soulful working man), was in fact born Italian, the son of a Communist broom-maker father. Many biographies assume that because his real name was Ivo Livi, Montand was Jewish. Not so; but in common with Pontecorvo, the young man and his family did flee Mussolini's Italy to resettle in France. Growing up in a poor neighborhood in Marseille, young Ivo adopted his stage name from his mother's habit of calling him to dinner: "Ivo, montaaaa!" Montand's life was legendary -- French Resistance, lover of Edith Piaf, dancer, Communist, tough-guy actor, singer of world-weary chansons, master of the art of smoking a Gauloise, etc. -- and a measure of that legend rubs off on his character Squarció. He talks back to cops, does the wrong thing for the right reasons, takes care of his family first, and never gives up -- a definite threat to the new world order.

The rest of the cast forms a sort of chorus behind the bloody but unbowed hero. Pontecorvo was right -- Alida Valli is probably too chic-looking to portray a humble fisherman's wife who takes in sewing, but her role is more symbolic than dramatic. More to the point are Squarció's two young sons, twelve-year-old Tonino (Giancarlo Soblone) and eight-year-old Bore (Ronaldino Bonacchi), chips off the old block who stand up for their father and defend the honor of their older sister with their fists. That older sister, Diana (Federica Ranchi), would be the linchpin of the tragedy if The Wide Blue Road were truly an opera: her first love, a guy named Domenico, gets accidentally blown up when the local Coast Guard marshal catches him removing some of Squarció's stash of homemade depth bombs; the family of boyfriend number two, Renato (Mario Girotti), is heavily involved in plans to start a fishing cooperative in the village in order to bypass the avaricious fish merchant and get fair prices for their catches. But headstrong he-man Squarció wants nothing to do with labor unions ("I'm not the co-op type," he declares) nor the old-fashioned practice of going out in nonmotorized boats and using nets. He prefers a motorboat and dynamite, and he pays the price.

The Wide Blue Road is being rereleased by Milestone Film & Video, which has performed similarly painstaking rights acquisition, restoration, and distribution for other "lost films" in the last few years, notably Mikhail Kalatazov's I Am Cuba, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma, and F.W. Murnau's Tabu. Based on the honest, meat-and-potatoes appeal of The Wide Blue Road, it would be a treat to see more of Pontecorvo's rare filmography. In the meantime, careful with that dynamite.


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