04 December 2015

Gabriele Ferzetti (1925-2015)

On Wednesday 2 December 2015, Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti passed away, aged 90. He had more than 160 credits to his name across film, television and stage. His career was at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, when he worked with such directors as Michelangelo Antonioni, Sergio Leone and John Huston.

Gabriele Ferzetti (1925 -2015)
Italian postcard by Casa Editr. Ballerini & Fratini, Firenze (B.F.F. Edit.), no. 2818. Photo: DEAR Film. Publicity still for Puccini (Carmine Gallone, 1953).

Gabriele Ferzetti (1925 -2015)
Italian postcard by Casa Editr. Ballerini & Fratini, Firenze (B.F.F. Edit.), no. 3191. Photo: Titanus Film.

Giacomo Puccini

Gabriele Ferzetti was born Pasquale Ferzetti in Rome, Italy in 1925. He studied at the Accademia d'Arte Drammatica in Rome but was expelled after accepting a screen test for his first film. At the age of 17, Ferzetti made his screen debut in the romantic drama Via delle Cinque Lune/Street of the Five Moons (Luigi Chiarini, 1942) featuring Andrea Checchi. That year he also appeared in La contessa Castiglione/The Countess of Castiglione (Flavio Calzavara, 1942) starring Doris Duranti.

He then took a break from film acting and made a succession of theatrical appearances until 1948, when he had a small uncredited role in I miserabili/Les Misérables (Riccardo Freda, 1948). He appeared as Claudio in Fabiola/The Fighting Gladiator (Alessandro Blasetti, 1949), an antiquity drama, set in Rome. The film starring Michèle Morgan, was warmly received.

His first leading role followed in the film Lo Zappatore/The Peasant (Rate Furlan, 1950). The film focused on the life of peasants and farm workers during the depression of the 1930s. During the 1950s, film roles came in abundance for Ferzetti. In quick succession, he began starring in films, from the crime comedy Benvenuto, reverendo!/Welcome Reverend (Aldo Fabrizi, 1950) with Massimo Girotti, to Luis Trenker's war film Barriera a Settentrione/Mountain Smugglers (1950), and to Curzio Malaparte's drama Il Cristo proibito/The Forbidden Christ (1951) with Raf Vallone.

He portrayed the composer Giacomo Puccini twice: in the biopic Puccini (Carmine Gallone, 1953) and in Casa Ricordi/House of Ricordi (Carmine Gallone, 1954) alongside Roland Alexandre as Gioacchino Rossini. The film was based on the early history of the famous Italian music publishing house Casa Ricordi.

In 1953, Ferzetti starred in La Provinciale/The Wayward Wife (Mario Soldati, 1953), a Cannes Film Festival nominee for best film. In this film he played the role of a professor who falls in love with a glamorous star (Gina Lollobrigida). Ferzetti's performance garnered him an award from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists and cemented his status as a leading actor in Italy by appearing alongside La Lollobrigida. He appeared next in the opera adaptation Vestire gli ignudi/Clothe the naked (Marcello Pagliero, 1954), with Pierre Brasseur, and in Camilla (Luciano Emmer, 1954).

Then, Ferzetti starred as a downbeat, struggling artist alongside Eleonora Rossi Drago in Michelangelo Antonioni's Le amiche/The Girlfriends (1955). Robert Firshing at AllMovie: "Le Amiche, based on a 1949 article published in La Bella Estate (Tra donne sole (Among single women) by Cesare Pavese), is perhaps Michelangelo Antonioni's first great film. Juggling 10 characters with great aplomb, Antonioni and co-screenwriters Suso Cecchi D'Amico and Alba De Cespedes have created a rich, interlocking narrative which manages to rise above mere melodrama through careful attention to the ebb and flow of interpersonal relationships and a keen sense of balance."

Another major film was Donatella (Mario Monicelli, 1956) starring Elsa Martinelli. The film was screened at the 6th Berlin International Film Festival. Among his other films are the French historical comedy Le secret du Chevalier d'Éon/The Great Deception (Jacqueline Audry, 1959), and the exciting Peplum Annibale/Hannibal (Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, 1959) featuring Victor Mature, and set during the Roman Empire.

Gabriele Ferzetti (1925 -2015)
Italian postcard in the Divi del Cinema Series by Vetta Traldi, Milano, no. 92. Photo: publicity still for Le avventure di Giacomo Casanova/The Loves of Casanova (Steno, 1955).

Gabriele Ferzetti (1925 -2015)
Italian postcard by Bromostampa, Milano, no. 138.

Gabriele Ferzetti
Vintage postcard, no. 3083.

Michelangelo Antonioni

Gabriele Ferzetti made his international breakthrough in Michelangelo Antonioni's controversial L'avventura/The Adventure (1960). He starred as a restless, oversexed playboy alongside Lea Massari and Monica Vitti. This ground-breaking film won a Special Jury Prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and established its director as a major international talent. It also would be Ferzetti's most acclaimed role.

After a series of romantic performances, he acquired a reputation in Italy as an elegant, debonair and a somewhat aristocrat-looking leading man. In 1966, he starred as Lot in John Huston's biblical epic, The Bible: In the Beginning, based on Book of Genesis. He also made his television debut by appearing in two episodes of the cult series I Spy (Robert Butler, 1966).

In 1968, he appeared in Sergio Leone's celebrated western epic C'era una volta il West/Once Upon a Time in the West. He played Morton, the railroad baron, opposite Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. Then he appeared in the James Bond feature On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969), perhaps his best known role internationally. He co-starred as distinguished organised crime boss Marc-Ange Draco, the father of Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). He promises James Bond (George Lazenby) a handsome dowry for marrying his daughter. However, the two fall in love and marry anyway. Despite speaking good English, Ferzetti’s lines were dubbed by British actor David de Keyser due to Ferzetti's strong Italian accent.

In 1970, he starred in the political thriller L’aveu/The Confession (Costa-Gavras, 1970) opposite Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. The film, based on the book by Lise London, explores the mental tortures facing the vice-minister of the Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia when he is imprisoned. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

Art-house audiences are familiar with Ferzetti for his role in the cult classic Il portiere di notte/The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974) about the Holocaust. He starred alongside Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling and played the psychiatrist Hans, one of his most notable roles. Nathan Southern at AllMovie: "On a global scale, Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter sharply divided critics upon release. Reviewers generally fell into two camps - the Euro critics, who almost unanimously hailed it as a masterpiece - and the über-P.C. American commentators, such as Pauline Kael, who referred to it in the New Yorker as 'proof that women can make junk just as well as men.' Roger Ebert even went so far as to blast the film, damning it 'as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.' Brushing these criticisms aside for a second, The Night Porter, over three decades later, feels strongest in retrospect because Cavani manages - in two hours - to deeply engrave one of the most credible portraits of sadomasochistic bondage ever committed to celluloid, outside of Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. Cavani uses the Nazi mystique to climb deeply into the womb of sadomasochism, exposing the inner sicknesses and depravity inherent in S & M - so deeply that the viewing experience becomes palpable, sweat-inducing, and wickedly uncomfortable."

Ferzetti then appeared opposite Laurence Olivier in the historical war film Inchon (Terence Young, 1982), in Il Quartetto Basileus/Basileus Quartet (Fabio Carpi, 1982) and alongside Kathleen Turner in Giulia e Giulia/Julia and Julia (Peter Del Monte, 1987). But his film career declined during the 1980s, and he mainly appeared in TV films and mini-series.

His only role of major note in the 1990s was the Duke of Venice in the William Shakespeare adaptation Othello (Oliver Parker, 1995) starring Laurence Fishburne. His most notable role since then was Nono in the popular French TV series Une famille formidable/A great family, in which he appeared in 11 episodes between 1996 and 2007. Later, he appeared in the lavish, sprawling drama Io sono l'amore/I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009) and the comedy 18 anni dopo/18 Years Later (Edoardo Leo, 2010) featuring Marco Bonini.

Official French trailer for Le Amiche (1955). Source: Fury Prod. (YouTube).

Criterion Trailer 98: L'Avventura. Source: Criterion Trailers (YouTube).

Official Trailer for On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Source: Movieclips Trailer Vault (YouTube).

Sources: Robert Firsching (AllMovie), Nathan Southern (AllMovie), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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