Monday, April 22, 2024

Forget White Lotus: The Real Italy Develops in Bruce Weber’s Gorgeous New Doc About 97 Year Old Photographer Paolo Di Paolo

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If you think scenic Sicily is having a moment in this season’s “White Lotus,” check out the southern Italy of Bruce Weber’s ravishing “The Treasure of his Youth: The Photographs of Paolo Di Paolo.” Opening with archival shots of children on the street, a girl on communion day, Anna Magnani with her dog, Marcello Mastroianni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the documentary arrives at a provocative and hilarious clip of Sophia Loren in a striptease from de Sica’s “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Marcello howls with desire.

Illustrating his childhood love affair with Italy through Italian cinema, Weber in voice over reveals a happy discovery: At a gallery in Rome, he and his wife, Nan Bush, were struck seeing prints from a prominent photojournalist of the late 1950’s, who, at the height of fame, after the breakup of a love affair in the ‘60’s, retired to the countryside. Signed Paolo Di Paolo, the photos became the inspiration for this film.

When Weber called, Di Paolo’s daughter, Silvia, had to explain who this American photographer was. It was she who, rummaging through the basement looking for skis one day, found a chest full of negatives and pushed her father to tell his story.

 

Charming and dapper, Di Paolo at 94 (he’s now 97), recounts his life, living under fascism, leaving his home to find the world, his first commission photographing a debutante ball with 2,000 guests, and a welter of celebrity artists including Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Taylor; Weber’s film was set to wrap after covering Paolo’s first ever photography retrospective, “Mondo Perduto,” when Di Paolo was commissioned to shoot the Valentino couture fashion show in Paris. He speaks humbly of his art, “I did it as an amateur, because I loved it. My luck was to know important people.”

Bruce Weber knows some too, some of whom attended his opening at Film Forum this week, with a Q&A conducted by the great Isabella Rossellini, whose parents, Hollywood legend Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini, are seen in the film. Alec Baldwin, Benjamin Bratt, and William Ivey Long were in the crowd cheering on the filmmakers and Silvia Di Paolo. (A post screening dinner was held at the ravishing Ciccio restaurant on Sixth Avenue just below Houston, where mouth watering Italian food underscored the authenticity of the film.)

Aside from his well-known ads for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, Bruce Weber has made non-fiction films of Robert Mitchum and Chet Baker, of his dogs surfing in Montauk. I spoke to him  after the opening. When asked how this portrait fits into his oeuvre, he said, “I did not set out to make a film of a photographer. It happened. I stumbled on it because I cared about the photographs. All my films come from my wanting to explain something to people. Today that whole reportage world is almost completely gone. I love photographs that are not trying to sell something.

“Paolo left photography as the magazines were changing. As they changed in my time, I did the opposite. I never retreated, photographing every day.” As he says in the film, “If I gave up photography, I could not breathe.”

 

Bruce Weber’s exquisite film is playing right now at Film Forum in NYC. Stay tuned for info about wider distribution, coming soon…

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