Few films, even the greatest ones, are life-changing. It’s just something critics say. But Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan, showing Italy in tatters in the second world war, really did alter the paths taken by two Italian brothers: 17-year-old Paolo Taviani and his 15-year-old brother Vittorio, who saw it in 1946. They made a pledge after leaving the cinema: if they were not shooting films within a decade, they would buy a gun and shoot themselves. Thirty years later, and fully established as directors, they made their masterpiece, Padre Padrone. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1977, as well as the international critics’ prize – the first picture to scoop both awards at the festival. The jury president that year was the man who had inspired them: Roberto Rossellini.
Padre Padrone, which was made for Italian television, is based on the autobiography by the linguist Gavino Ledda. It details his upbringing in Sardinia at the hands of his father, a brutal peasant farmer, and opens with the real Gavino whittling away at a branch with his knife. The camera pans right to a man approaching a door. It is Omero Antonutti, the actor who will play Gavino’s father. He is about to enter a classroom, from which he will drag his illiterate six-year-old son (Fabrizio Forte) before forcing him to work in the wind-beaten mountains. Gavino hands his screen parent the stick he has been fashioning: “My father was carrying this,” he says. It’s a masterful, Brechtian moment; the baton is passed from reality to cinema.