The controversial yet brilliant Italian-born director Gillo Pontecorvo is perhaps best known for a series of historically-themed dramas, including The Battle of Algiers and Burn!, that successfully
combined docudrama techniques with striking photography, to revolutionary effect.
Born in Pisa, Italy, on November 19, 1919, to a Jewish family (with nine brothers and sisters and an industrialist father), young Gillo cut against the grain of familial tradition; the rest of the children followed the prompting of their parents, who sought an education in the sciences for their sons and a literary education for their daughters. Initially, Gillo followed suit, attending the University of Pisa as a chemistry student, but inner dissatisfaction reigned. In the long term, he felt this ennui tempered somewhat by two factors: the technical insights gained from scientific studies, which became indispensable to his filmmaking activities later on, and the university environment, where Pontecorvo's professors and fellow students engendered in him a staunch anti-Fascist stance. Pontecorvo planned to build a career in journalism after graduation and moved to Paris, where he served as a correspondent for the Paese Sera and Repubblica newspapers, but during an assignment reporting on a mining strike, he suddenly understood that images delivered greater emotional impact than words ever could, and drifted in the direction of photojournalism.
By this time, the war was afoot. An intense barrage of military and political activities followed in Pontecorvo's life, including official "party" enlistment in 1941, contributions to the Garibaldi Brigade, and extensive resistance operations in Northern Italy, under the pseudonym "Barnaba." He ultimately became a full-time member of the Communist Party, working heavily in its newsreel archives. With the concurrent rise of neorealism at the hands of such directors as De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini, Pontecorvo began to grasp the political possibilities of filmmaking and accepted a position as third assistant director on Aldo Vergano's Il Sole Sorge Ancora (aka Outcry, 1947), doubling up as an actor with a bit part in the film. Numerous assistantships followed, for such directors as Yves Allégret, Mario Monicelli, Gian Carlo Menotti, and others. Pontecorvo imbibed many of his aesthetic tendencies through extensive reading of the theorists Georg Lukacs and Umberto Barbaro, and acquired the preponderance of his technical know-how from Monicelli.
Starting in his early thirties (1950-1955), Pontecorvo purchased a 16 mm camera and began shooting documentaries aggressively and tirelessly, cranking out one after another, the social concerns and aesthetic principles of neorealism evident throughout. These include Missione Timiriazev (The Timiriazev Mission, 1953), about a flood in the Polesine region of Italy; Cani Dietro le Sbarre (Dogs Behind Bars), about a municipal dog pound; Uomini del Marmo (Men of Marble, 1955), about the workers on the Alpi Apuane; and between 12 and 17 others (the exact number is undocumented). He debuted as a fiction director in 1956, with the film-a-sketch The Windrose. Made under the aegis of Joris Ivens and financially backed by the Women's International Democratic Federation, this film depicts the social problems that women experience in multiple cultures. Pontecorvo's episode, "Giovanna," dramatizes the plight of a young female textile worker torn in half between her desire to strike in her factory, and loyalty to her husband, who discourages her from participation. French journalists at the 1956 Venice Film Festival hailed "Giovanna" as one of the more unadulterated examples of neorealist theory and technique.
Pontecorvo followed this up with The Wide Blue Road (aka La Grande Strada Azzurra, 1957). Adapted from Franco Solinas' novel Squarcio, the picture dramatizes the burgeoning political awareness of a bunch of fishermen fro