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Gillo Pontecorvo

Gillo Pontecorvo
Born (1919-11-19)19 November 1919
Pisa, Italy
Died 12 October 2006(2006-10-12) (aged 86)
Rome, Italy
Occupation Film director

Gillo Pontecorvo (Italian: ; 19 November 1919 – 12 October 2006) was an Italian filmmaker. He worked as a film director for more than a decade before his best known film La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966) was released. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1966.

His other films include Giorgio Napolitano.


  • Early life 1
  • Film career 2
  • Political commitment 3
  • Motivations 4
  • Selected bibliography 5
  • Filmography as director 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early life

Pontecorvo, born in Pisa, was the son of a wealthy non-observant Italian Jewish family. His father was a businessman. Gillo was the brother of Bruno Pontecorvo, an internationally acclaimed physicist and one of the so-called Via Panisperna boys; Guido Pontecorvo, a geneticist; Paolo [Paul] Pontecorvo, an engineer who worked on radar after WWII; Giuliana (m.Talbet); Laura (m.Coppa); Anna (m. Newton); and David Maraoni.

Gillo Pontecorvo studied chemistry at the University of Pisa, but dropped out after passing just two exams. It was there that he first became aware of opposing political forces, coming into contact with leftist students and professors for the first time. In 1938, faced with growing anti-Semitism, he followed his elder brother Bruno to Paris, where he was able to find work in journalism and as a tennis instructor.

Film career

In Paris he involved himself in the film world, where he made a few short documentaries. He became an assistant to Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Jean-Paul Sartre. It was during this time that Pontecorvo truly developed his political ideals. He was particularly affected when many of his friends in Paris packed up to go and fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Pontecorvo joined the Fascist partisans and going by the pseudonym Barnaba, becoming a leader of the Resistance in Milan from 1943 until 1945. Pontecorvo broke ties with the party in 1956 after the Soviet intervention in Hungary. He didn't, however, renounce his dedication to Marxism and in a 1983 interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, said, "I am not an out-and-out revolutionary. I am merely a man of the Left, like a lot of Italian Jews."[1]

After World War II and his return to Italy, Pontecorvo made the decision to leave journalism for filmmaking, a move that seems to have been in the making for some time, but was set in motion after he saw Roberto Rossellini's Paisà (1946). He bought a 16mm camera and shot several documentaries, mostly self-funded, beginning with Missione Timiriazev in 1953. He then directed Giovanna, which was one episode of La rosa dei venti (1956), a film made with several directors. In 1957 he directed his first full-length film, La grande strada azzurra (The Wide Blue Road), which foreshadowed his mature style of later films. It deals with a fisherman and his family on the small island off the Dalmatian coast of Italy. Because of the scarcity of fish in nearby waters, the fisherman, Squarciò, is forced to sail out to the open sea to fish illegally with bombs. The film won a prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Pontecorvo spent months, and sometimes years, researching the material for his films in order to accurately represent the actual social situations he commented on. In the next two years, Pontecorvo directed Kapò (1960), a drama set in a Nazi death camp. The plot of the film is about an escape attempt from a concentration camp by a young Jewish girl. In 1961 the film was nominated by the Academy Awards for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film.[2] Also in this same year the film won two awards: the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists awarded Didi Perego a Silver Ribbon for best supporting actress, and the Mar del Plata Film Festival awarded Susan Strasberg for best actress.

Political commitment

Gillo Pontecorvo may be slated as an Italian director, but he is idolized as a Third World Cinema director based on production, narrative, and style through the film, Battle of Algiers. The Battle of Algiers was Pontecorvo's masterpiece and is widely viewed as one of the finest films of its genre ever made. Its portrayal of the Algerian resistance during the Algerian War, follows in the footsteps of neorealist pioneers such as de Santis and Rossellini, employing the use of newsreel-style footage and non-professional actors and focusing primarily on the disenfranchised population that seldom receives attention from the general media. To employ Italian neorealism influence into his film, he co-produced with an Algerian film company. The script was written with the view to using actual Front de Libération Nationale leaders as actors. For example, the character, Djafar in the film, Battle of Algiers, was played by an FLN leader named Yacef Saadi. Pontecorvo also demonstrated a clear, anti-imperalist theme. He stated, " homage to the people who must struggle for their independence, not only in Algeria, but everywhere in the third world" and "the birth of a nation happens with pain on both sides, although one side has cause and the other not." Battle of Algiers is stylized through fictionalized documentary. the film achieved mass screening in the United States, Pontecorvo received a number of awards, and was also nominated for two Academy Awards for direction and the screenplay (a collaboration). The film has been used as a training video by government strategists as well as revolutionary groups. It has been and remains extremely popular in Algeria, providing a popular memory of the struggle for independence from France. The semi-documentary style and use of an almost entirely non-professional cast (only one trained actor appears in the film) was a great influence on a number of future filmmakers and films. This can be found in things as diverse as the few surviving works of West German filmmaker Teod Richter made from the late 1960s up to his disappearance, and presumed death, in 1986 through to more recent commercial films such as the Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and many others.

Pontecorvo's next major work, Queimada! (Burn!, 1969), starring Marlon Brando, is another anti-colonial film, this time set in the Antilles. This film also depicts an attempted revolution of the oppressed, with strong anti-colonial message.

Pontecorvo continued his series of highly political films with Ogro (1979), which addresses the occurrence of terrorism at the end of Francisco Franco's dwindling regime in Spain. He continued making short films into the early 1990s and directed a follow-up documentary to The Battle of Algiers entitled Ritorno ad Algeri (Return to Algiers, 1992). In 1992, Pontecorvo replaced Guglielmo Biraghi as the director of the Venice Film Festival and was responsible for the festivals of 1992, 1993 and 1994. In 1991, he was a member of the jury at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival.[3]


Gillo Pontecorvo directed films with an eight or nine years gap in between. In an interview that Pontecorvo gave in 1991, when asked why he had only directed so few movies, his response was that he could only make a movie with which he is totally in love. He also stated that he had rejected many other movies. Pontecorvo was a director who only directed movies in which he was going to be able to give it his all.

In 2006, he died from congestive heart failure in Rome at age 86.[4]

Selected bibliography

  • Bignardi, Irene (1999). Memorie estorte a uno smemorato. Vita di Gillo Pontecorvo.  
  • Celli, Carlo (2005). Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. 
  • Fanon, Frantz (2001). Pour la revolution africaine: Essais politiques. Paris: La Decouverte. 
  • Mellen, Joan; Pontecorvo, Gillo (Autumn 1972). "An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo". Film Quarterly 26 (1): 2–10.  
  • Mellen, Joan (1973). Filmguide to The Battle of Algiers'. Indiana University Publications. 
  • Said, Edward W. (2000). "The Quest for Gillo Pontecorvo". Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 282–292. 
  • Solinas, Franco (1973). Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers'. New York: Scribner’s. 

Filmography as director

  • Missione Timiriazev (1953, documentary)[5]
  • Porta Portese (1954, documentary)
  • Festa a Castelluccio (1954, documentary)
  • Uomini del marmo (1955, documentary)
  • Giovanna (1955, short)
  • Cani dietro le sbarre (1955, documentary)
  • Die Windrose (1957, segment "Giovanna")
  • La grande strada azzurra (The Wide Blue Road, 1957)
  • Pane e zolfo (1959, documentary)
  • Kapò (1959)
  • Gli uomini del lago (1959, documentary)
  • Paras (1963, documentary)
  • La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966)
  • Queimada (Burn!, 1969)
  • Operación Ogro (Operation Ogre, 1979)
  • Addio a Enrico Berliguer (1984, documentary)
  • 12 registi per 12 città (1989, segment "Udine")
  • Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers (1992, documentary)
  • Danza della fata confetto (1996, short)
  • Nostalgia di protezione (1997, short, also featured in I corti italiani)
  • Un altro mondo è possibile (2001, documentary)
  • Firenze, il nostro domani (2003, documentary)


  1. ^ quoted by Rethinking Nordic Colonialism: A Postcolonial Exhibition Project in Five Acts, (24 March - 25November 2006), curated by Kuratorisk Aktion for NIFCA, Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art.
  2. ^ "The 33rd Academy Awards (1961) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-29. 
  3. ^ "Berlinale: 1991 Juries". Retrieved 2011-03-21. 
  4. ^ Peary, Gerald. "Talking with Gillo Pontecorvo". 
  5. ^ Thompson, Bordwell, Kristin, David (2010). Film History: An Introduction, Third Edition. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. 

External links

  • Gillo Pontecorvo at the Internet Movie Database
  • Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo at the World Socialist Web Site
  • (French) (1959) de Pontecorvo, sur le site d'analyse L'oBservatoire (simple appareil).KapoEdition de « De l'abjection » (1961) par Jacques Rivette, critique du film
  • (French) de Gillo Pontecorvo, sur le site d'analyse L'oBservatoire (simple appareil).La Bataille d'AlgerPrésentation de
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