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Middlebury Experiences "The Taviani Effect" Firsthand

Cheerful, 83-years-young writer-director Vittorio Taviani, the Italian School's 2012 artist in residence, brought Mediterranean warmth to Middlebury.

La Vita è Bella

During the course of the ceremony where he received his honorary Doctor of Arts degree, Taviani tossed his cap, cracked wise, and generally charmed his audience. He seemed brimming with “that reflected Italian sunshine, that distinctly Italian sense that la vita è bella,” to borrow a phrase from Middlebury College President Ronald D. Leibowitz’s introduction.

Indeed, the choice to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Scuola Italiana by inviting Taviani speaks to the same exuberant joy that has sustained the institution’s growth. As Leibowitz recalled, “From the very beginning, the Italian School had a reputation for combining a challenging curriculum with lively and engaging cocurricular activities that contributed immensely to the experience of everyone on campus during the summer.” Today, the school offers courses and clubs dedicated to the study of diverse aspects of Italian life, from movies to regional dialects to pressing political issues.

Just as cultural study and global consciousness go hand in hand at the Italian School, so art and social criticism continually intertwine in the works of Vittorio Taviani.

In spite of his lighthearted demeanor, or perhaps because of it, Taviani, along with his brother and collaborator, Paolo, has managed to create some of the most poignant depictions of ordinary people striving to overcome tyranny ever captured by the cinema. Steeled by growing up under the yoke of Mussolini’s fascism, Vittorio and Paolo fought abuses of power through the film medium’s own strength.

The 1977 feature Padre Padrone, based on the true story of a Sardinian shepherd who overcomes his domineering father by pursuing learning, catapulted the Taviani brothers to international acclaim. Exalting the quiet victory of education over ignorance, the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Ever since, the brothers have stood out as a masterful duo, most recently earning the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival for Caesar Must Die.

Little Epiphanies

Though committed to exposing brutality and injustice, the cinema of the Taviani brothers nurtures moments of salvation through what Michael Geisler, vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and graduate programs at Middlebury College, calls the "Taviani effect," a tender attention to exquisite, yet quotidian details. As Geisler remarked, “Often, it is these little, unexpected glimpses of peace or translucent beauty amid the pain and suffering of human existence that lift their films above so many other great works of cinema history.”

To prove his point, Geisler screened a sequence from Kaos (1984), which he described as “one of the films on my personal list of the 10 best films ever made in the history of cinema.” As the projector bathed the hall in a vision of sea-bound exile, seen largely through the eyes of a child, the whole audience was inducted into the “little epiphanies” of the Taviani effect, at once playful and melancholy.

The Power of Utopia

After such a crescendo of introduction, Taviani approached the podium with an air of comic bashfulness at all the commotion on his behalf. He announced that, like the magician Mandrake, “I want to disappear, but I’d certainly like to take all, all, all, all, every word of what has been said!” He commended the speakers for their “deep understanding of the cinematic art,” and clowned for the audience, through his translator Gloria DiFolco, about his inability to pronounce that great tongue twister: “Middlebury.”

After thanking those who had made his visit possible, the filmmaker expressed his pleasure in visiting Vermont: “I’d like to thank this part of America with which I was not acquainted, and I thank it for the infinite green which has welcomed us.” From the state’s beauty, Taviani moved on to address the students in the audience. He commended his listeners for devoting themselves to education and to study—both of which lead, he contended, to “reciprocal respect and peace.”

Born three years before the founding of the Italian School, Vittorio Taviani concluded by projecting a greater hope for the “young folks” in front of him: “Here, over and beyond a thousand contradictions…it has again seemed possible for me to believe in the power of Utopia.”