Screenwriting professor Howard Rodman described Tonino Guerra's work as “the brave and moral thread that runs through the fabric of modernist cinema” but Guerra’s preferred categorisation of his contribution was simply to claim, “I added some structure”. Yet not even the most dogged auteurist could deny that Antonio “Tonino” Guerra (1920–2012) was essential to the creation of a number of European cinema’s most influential masterpieces. A poet who professed to have taken up screenwriting merely to pay the bills, Guerra initially trained as a schoolteacher and wrote poetry – in his native Romagnolo dialect – during wartime internment by the Nazis. Not until the age of 32 did he move to Rome and, through a friendship with future director Elio Petri, begin to work in cinema, collaborating on scripts for Giuseppe De Santis.
His breakthrough came with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). The legendary auteur described his collaborative process with Guerra as one of “long and violent arguments”, which he found “very helpful”. Such close collaborations would become characteristic of Guerra’s screenwriting career – of his 96 credited features, ten were directed by Antonioni, 11 by Francesco Rosi and eight by Theo Angelopoulos, while he shared further multi-film collaborations with such giants as Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Petri, the Taviani brothers and Mario Monicelli. Guerra once claimed that, in reference to his partnerships with such a variety of directors, “I’ve a different face for each of them”. But for Guerra, poetry was a medium of images just as much as cinema, and his gifts for metaphor and symbolism were to prove essential in his most acclaimed films – slow, reflective works by the likes of Antonioni, Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky, directors who, in Guerra’s words, “always leave spaces open”.
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