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Cinema and Polyphony 

Franco Piavoli   •    17.09.2023

translated by Cecilia Ermini


Ever since my early short films in the '60s, I have had a love for the rediscovery of the primitive sound and musical value of the human voice. This is why I chose to abandon word as an instrument of denotation of a precise and unambiguous meaning, in favor of its use only as a sound. Words are primarily sounds that are created with the vocal cords. They are modulated and orchestrated with different tones and timbres according to the situation and the interlocutor. The power of communication and persuasion of the verb "to love", for example, does not reside in its denotative value, but in its phonic, tonal ones, which are musical values. During the decisive stages of erotic seduction, man abandons articulated language and entrusts himself to pure sound. This is also true when he is in the grip of fear, when he is moaning to express his pain, when he is crying, and when he is screaming to attack or to defend himself.


In my short film Emigrants (1963), the confused calls of the travelers, the obsessive voice of the loudspeaker, and the lamentations in the waiting room conveyed the drama of loss better than any dialogue ever could. With Evasi (1964) I wanted to underline the barbaric and savage survival in the human voice. In Nostos (1989), the memories of war and violence are expressed above all in the wild shouts and screams. The figure of the ancient warrior is an archetype that often resurfaces in contemporary man.


I am anxious to discover what is ancestral in us, to strip off the clothes and masks imposed by fashion, and to find myself naked in my primitive animality that occupies such a large part of daily existence. Elementary considerations of a biological and anthropological nature led me to give particular importance to the phonic and rhythmic value of words. In the great polyphonic compositions of Guillaume de Machaut and Josquin des Préz, words cross, overlap, contract, and expand into pure sound. I strive for a similar sensation by recording and processing voices and sounds when composing soundtracks for my films. I like to build a cinema that recalls the values of music and painting, rather than the rules of the theater. A kind of cinema that does not follow a traditional narrative line, but rather creates the story through the concentration of different voices, different images, and different fragments, to draw a polychrome mosaic, a symphonic or polyphonic concert. 

In a film with a symphonic structure, it is not the development of the drama that is relevant, but rather the involvement with the theme, which is achieved through the composition of images and sounds in a complex audiovisual fabric that proceeds through a succession of scenes and "sound shots". Beyond their physical and realistic impact, both images and sounds have a symbolic and educational value. They can awaken emotions deposited in us for millennia. An example: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Jupiter Symphony is certainly no less beautiful than his Opera Idomeneo, and yet while the latter is based on a story, on a literary text, or what we would call a screenplay, Jupiter does not contain a single word and still has an incredibly evocative and dramatic force. The same thing can be said for the symphonies of Brahms and Mahler, compared to the operas of Verdi and Puccini.


It's true that cinema replaced melodrama as the popular art form in the 20th century, and it's right that it should be given a larger space. However, I am convinced that in the future of the audiovisual sector there will also be a parallel path to polyphony and the symphonic concert. I, being a free and independent man, continue on this path, even if it is unexplored and lonesome.


Unlike other art forms, music and cinema unfold over time: they have a precise metric and duration. Nuclei or movements that are characterized by a varying degree of rhythmic acceleration can be grasped both in the musical and in the cinematographic composition. In music, they have well-defined names: adagio, largo, allegro, andante, etc., etc., and serve as cues for the performers. In cinema, these movements are rigidly studied and defined by the editor. Editing is an operation very similar to composing music; the rhythm of the film is born in the visual sequence.


I consider Giacomo Leopardi a master of philosophy and compositional technique, and I believe that the final sequence of his film Il pianeta azzurro (1982) cannot be understood without Leopardi's Infinito. In this sequence, the music of Josquin des Préz, the only piece of music in the movie, carries great weight. The piece is taken from a Mass that the Flemish musician had composed in honor of Duke Ercole of Ferrara.  However, the lyrical afflatus that opens the Sanctus introduction transcends contingency and unfolds in an expression of moving, arcane religiosity.


The same effect that I wanted to achieve with the slow flow of the fog, which flows in the valley, covers and connects everything: the farmhouses, the plants, the pylons, the men, and the animals. With this exception, the film's soundtrack is constructed only with sounds, natural noises, sampled noises, and non-denotative dialogue. There were no precedents in the field of feature film because if dialogue was not used, captions or at least musical commentary were present. But I felt a profound need to express myself in this way, assimilating man's voice to that of other animals, water, wind, and all natural elements. Even the editing does not obey the canons of logical narration but an analogical and evocative procedure. The analogy is sometimes proposed within the sequence, for example, in the blades of grass and the hair of the two lovers, the wrinkles on the peasants' faces, and the corroded leaves. Other times, in scenes very distant from each other; like the air bubbles in the thaw sequence and the bed sheet that “breathes” in the night. The frequent use of detail and macro photography, highlighting the similarity of animal and plant tissues, stimulates analogical connections.


In Nostos (1989), I have relinquished the word's denotative value with the sole exception of the scene in which the protagonist calls upon his mother. All remaining dialogues and monologues are constructed of archaic idioms and occasionally fabricated words for phonic needs. In this film, the use of symbolic and asynchronous sounds is frequent. In the scene in which the protagonist, having abandoned the raft, swims alone in the middle of the sea while the camera constantly frames his face, the soundtrack is very complex and precisely composed of a - the sound of water; b - stammering and monosyllables of the protagonist off-screen; c - cries of seagulls and cries of women (the same ones heard in the opening scene of the siege); d - cries of men and animals; e - battle cries. It’s clear that in this case the texture of sound, formed by the succession and superimposition of realistic and symbolic, synchronic and asynchronous sounds, has a decisive and certainly no less important expressive function than the image. The face of the man who is frantically swimming expresses fear and desperation while the sound sequence, without resorting to monologue or voice-over, evokes the terror, violence, and pain that the protagonist suffered and, at the same time, caused in battle. Without a word, it evokes remorse, the laceration of conscience, and the disturbing question about the aggression and violence of men.


In Voci nel tempo (1996) the human voice occupies a large part of the soundtrack. Not only in the background but also in the foreground. As in polyphonic music, the logical sense of the text is subordinated to the tonal and timbral values of verbal communication. An important evocative function is also entrusted, throughout the film, to the noises and sounds off-screen. The passage of time, which is the main theme of the film, is repeatedly marked by the chime of the hours. In the scene of the sick old man, the persistent ticking of the clock highlights the unstoppable course of time and, in the last shots, the slowed-down rhythm in sound fade-out symbolizes the heart of the man who ceases to live. In the final sequence, the voices of the children return to the fore as a prelude to a new cycle of life and they get lost in space and time.

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