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In 'Wondrous Boccaccio,' 14th Century Tales of Love and Humor

  • Carolyn Weaver

Italian filmmaking duo Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, brothers now in their 80s, have been making movies since the early 1960s, winning top prizes at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals for several, including Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars, and Caesar Must Die.

“Vittorio and I, after the war, he was 18, I was 16, went to the movies one day, and we saw a film by Rossellini about the war, the war that we ourselves had just survived,” Paolo Taviani said through an interpreter recently on a visit to New York. “And that was when we decided we were going to dedicate our lives to making movies. It was not an easy life, we had to fight very hard, but I think we were made strong by our certainty that the truth that a film could tell would help humanity, the same way that Rossellini helped humanity through his art.”

For their latest, Wondrous Boccaccio, which screened in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Tavianis adapted five stories from The Decameron, a collection of tales by the 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. As in the book, the film is framed by the experiences of a group of youths seeking respite from the epidemic of the black plague in Florence.

“It is seven young women who decide that enough is enough; they don’t want to spend any more time in Florence counting how many people died each day,” Paolo Taviani said. “So, they decide to go outside of the city, into the open air, to a villa in the midst of the countryside.”

Together with three young men, the women pass their interlude in the country telling each other stories, mostly about love, often bawdy, sometimes tragic -- to escape the nearness of the death. Taviani says he and his brother saw a parallel in what feels like omnipresent death and devastation today.

“We’re very disturbed by what we see happening around us in the world. Look at the phenomenon of ISIS, the horrors that are taking place in Africa,” he said. “Vittorio and I sort of looked at each other one day and said, 'It’s like the plague, we feel like we are surrounded by a plague.'”

In filming, he said, “We asked the cinematographer to enhance, to really heighten the beauty of Tuscany. Vittorio and I are Tuscans, but through the camera, it was as if we were discovering Tuscany for the first time. Its beauty is very varied, but it sort of remains constant. In Boccaccio, the beauty of nature is a response to death. Death exists, but so does nature in all its beauty.”

Gorgeous views aside, early reviews of Wondrous Boccaccio have mostly panned it as bland, broad and overly clean, both in look and story treatment. With its sylvan backdrop, and cast of gentle young women gowned in muted Renaissance colors, it could hardly be less like the Tavianis’ 2012 film Caesar Must Die, a black-and-white drama set in a high-security all-male prison.

But Paolo Taviani says the two films are “born from the same sentiment. These men, the prisoners, are filled with suffering and with pain. The prisoners are then able to escape momentarily through art, through Shakespeare.”

Likewise, in The Decameron, he said, “these young people are escaping the plague, they’re escaping these horrors, and surviving through art, through storytelling. And this allows them for only a few days, maybe, to overcome death.”

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