Foreplays #19: Franco Piavoli's "Domenica sera"

The films of Italian director offer what Andrei Tarkovsky described as "an image that is different from the one always seen."
Cristina Álvarez López
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Franco Piavoli's Domenica sera (1962) is free to watch below.
Despite having been praised by other Italian directors of his generation, such as Ermanno Olmi, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Marco Bellocchio, the fascinating filmography of Franco Piavoli (born 1933) remains something of a secret. He began directing short films in the 1950s and '60s, but it wasn't until 1982—after a long break from filmmaking—that he made his first and best known feature, The Blue Planet. Built on an ambitious superimposition of time scales, the film displays a wondrous depiction of what the director himself has called "the lost alphabet" of animal, vegetal, and human life—something that he would keep pursuing relentlessly in his later four features (all completed during the 1980s and ‘90s), and in many shorts.    
Often working in close collaboration with his wife, Neria Poli, Piavoli handles not only the direction, but also the cinematography and the editing of his films. Giving a prominent role to sound and to the passing of time, his works are concerned with minuscule events, but imbued with a cosmic breath. They offer us—as Andrei Tarkovsky put it in relation to The Blue Planet—"an image that is different from the one always seen." Piavoli’s cinema is one of extreme sensuality, where the human presence is no more important than the sun and the moon, the blooming of flowers, ripples in the water, gusts of wind, particles of dust, dancing reflections of light, a web threaded by a spider.
Like several other shorts made by Piavoli during the first stage of his career, Domenica sera (Sunday Evening) already prefigures the director's longstanding interests. Some of the sounds and images we find here constitute veritable motifs of his cinema, reappearing throughout his films. This early, humble work combines an attentive contemplation of the events unfolding in front of the camera, with an aesthetic investigation into light and color, framing and structure.
An Italian village during the leisure hours of a Sunday afternoon: kids playing and running in the streets; groups of young women riding their bicycles, talking and laughing. In the seven shots that form this introduction, we can already appreciate one of the strategies employed by Piavoli throughout: he devises a vibrant montage where the same motifs (and, occasionally, even some of the same shots) are repeated, creating a serial effect that is both dynamic and poetic. Like several of his early shorts, Domenica sera was filmed in 8mm, with a Paillard camera. The tonality of the colors, the quality of the light, the roughness of the grainy images, give this film a particular feel that is quite different from the look of his 35mm features, where the use of macro lenses affords him a great deal of detail, and a distinctive play with sharp and soft focus.
The women seen in those first shots are headed toward an outdoor dance party that will constitute the film’s central segment. Piavoli condenses it into less than five minutes and only two songs: that is enough for him to bring forth a crucial transformation inside the scene. This gathering of young villagers in a courtyard is a wonderful depiction of the tales I've often heard from previous generations concerning the mystique of the slow dance—that magical moment of the party, expected by men and women alike, where the tempo of a slow song allows a socially accepted burst of intimacy for every couple.  
It is beautiful to see how Piavoli captures and arranges this scene. The camera begins by concentrating on one couple, but it soon opens up to wider shots. The dancers move at a rapid speed, Piavoli favoring takes of feet, legs, and decapitated torsos. Even when men and women dance with each other, there's a great deal of distance between the bodies. What matters here is the rhythm—the tapping, swirling, and nodding performed to the beat of the music. But, with the entrance of the second song, a miracle of rapprochement occurs.  
Now, rather than just reacting to the rhythm, the bodies seem inhabited by the music. Under the glances (attentive, amused, jealous) of those who remain on the outskirts of the courtyard, men and women dance, glued to each other. The camera registers every instance of touch and closeness: noses and lips pressed against necks; heads buried on collarbones; fingers tightly interlaced; hands anxiously running through their partner's hair or delicately posed on hips and backs—ready to perceive every volume, every vibration.
The ecstatic expressions of lust in the eyes of men, captured by Piavoli in close-ups, bring to my memory a much more extreme passage in Luis Buñuel's Un chien andalou (1929), in which a man drools and rolls his eyes as he imagines the naked body of the woman he's touching. But Piavoli’s shots—with their earthy colors, expressions of rapture, cracks, and scratches—also remind me of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. This section is defined by an excess that even the most prudish couples—those dancing more rigidly—betray: in the abandonment with which they experience the slightest contact with a patch of skin, a shoulder, or a cheek. But all this carnality is about to come to a sudden end. In the same way that Cinderella had to abandon the dance when the clock struck twelve, here all contact stops abruptly as soon as the song extinguishes. The couples disperse. The party is over. The roaring of exhaust pipes, the shining red of the fairings, a brief silence... and it is dawn.
The light has changed dramatically. The figures—some alone, some in couples—are now black silhouettes, traveling on bikes or motorcycles with the headlights on. Trees and vegetation form dark geometrical shapes cast against the pink sky. One can almost feel the cooled atmosphere of the summer evenings, when the sun begins to set. Mounted on a vehicle, the camera advances freely and the landscapes parade across the screen, amongst a soundscape of vrooms, humming, and whistling. A static shot of a river's glimmering waters is suddenly introduced, providing a bridge to the film's final section.  
If the dance was defined by the haptic sensuality of the images, the voluptuousness of this later segment owes a lot to the work on sound. Slowly, the noises of animals—birds, crickets, frogs—come to the fore and increase in volume. This passage—in which a couple, surrounded by trees and bushes, walks along the riverbank—again awakens our cinematic memories. Their dive into nature uncannily echoes Jean Renoir's A Day in the Country (1936), including some of the movements, gestures, and postures performed by the couple in that earlier film: the lateral stroll, pushing away obstacles; the way in which the man attracts the woman toward himself; and, finally, the clearing spot where they'll kiss. There isn't, here, any resistance on the woman's part, and the absence of music is significant—but we can't be blamed for feeling that the ghosts of Henri and Henriette from Renoir are back, haunting the screen, enveloped by shots where sky and water form an interchangeable mirror.
A church bell rings; a group of men and women drive back home. Across a series of shots, we contemplate the nightfall, as the sky's bewitching blue gradually turns darker. A round moon has appeared over the tall trees. We return, once more, to the couple. They lie on the grass, surrounded by a strange, overexposed blur that makes vegetation look as if it is painted in thick brush strokes. A dog howls. The film ends with a shot of the moon against a pitch black sky.
One can say that not much happens in this film. And, yet, Domenica sera is completely devoted to capturing the tiny eclosions, transformations, and gradations of the only things that matter: the warm light and soft colors of the afternoon giving way to the pink and blue hues of the evening; the music and talking of a collective gathering being swapped for the enchanting sounds of the animal kingdom; the sensuous promise of freedom announced by the group's dancing and riding, fulfilled in the intimate encounter of a couple lost in nature.  
Piavoli's cinema is obsessed by cycles: the hours of a day (At the First Breath of Wind, 2002), the seasons of a year (Le stagioni, 1961), the stages of life (Voci nel tempo, 1996). But, equally, it is a cinema that invents its own cyclical structures. In the barely twelve minutes that Domenica sera lasts, Piavoli has taken us from initial overhead shots, with the camera contemplating a swarm of human figures in the streets of the village, to a final image at ground level, with the camera looking at the moon—silent witness and benevolent accomplice of the couple's lovemaking.


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