Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wishes for a whole sky full of shooting stars—but no other shooting, please!
"Here in Tuscany we say that every shooting star will make a wish come true…You know what my wish is tonight? To be able to find the words to tell you about another night of shooting stars, many years ago…"
When Italian filmmakers Vittorio and Paolo Taviani made 1982's The Night of the Shooting Stars (La Notte di San Lorenzo), they were going back to ground covered in 1952's San Miniato, July '44, at the start of their careers. The 1952 movie about villagers killed by German soldiers in the cathedral at San Miniato was a documentary; Shooting Stars is fiction, including occasional dreamlike moments. The story has a personal connection for the brothers, since San Miniato is their birthplace.
Among its honors is the jury's Grand Prize at Cannes, where the two directors were also nominated for the Palme d'or.
Film writer Peter Bondanella, author of The Cinema of Federico Fellini, writes in his essay accompanying the DVD that the movie "may be considered a post-modern revisitation of [Roberto] Rosselini's Paisan…[T]he Tavianis avoid even the pretense of realism and search for a fanciful, fable-like style." Bondanella calls their style "magic realism."
Facts of the Case
Near the end of World War II, the Tuscan village of San Martino faces danger from both the Germans and the Americans. The Germans have ordered all of the villagers to gather in one place. All those found outside that place will be shot, and their houses are to be blown up.
Many of the villagers choose to gather in the cathedral. However, Galvano Galvani (Omero Antonutti) is skeptical of the Germans; he knows they are vengeful, and one of their own has been killed. He decides to leave and seek out the Americans, inviting anyone who feels the same way to join him. He gets a reasonably large group together to start out in the night.
Carried along on that dangerous journey is 6-year-old Cecilia. Her older self narrates the story, mixing the tragedies understood later with the wide-eyed excitement that she felt as a girl.
The Night of the Shooting Stars opens with a scene of an open window on a starry night, safe and gentle, with the fairytale quality often mentioned in the booklet accompanying the DVD. That's a little disingenuous. The movie sets its real tone in the first scene from Cecilia's story, told to her young son. A pear tree sits in a field. The scene is peaceful at first, but the sound of cannon shots is soon heard. After we hear the blasts, the tree begins to shake, with the camera eventually following a lone pear as it falls to the ground. What follows is a story that mixes the peaceful rhythms of everyday village life with the horrors of war.
Although there is a narrator, the story doesn't feel like Cecilia's story—and it's not just because she seems more interested in the earrings she's wearing for safekeeping and the Hershey bar an American soldier gives her than the events around her. The story always feels like it's about the village as a whole rather than about any person, even the noble Galvano. When the villagers come across a field of watermelons, the joy I feel is their communal joy at this simple pleasure. Likewise, the final confrontation with the Germans is a communal struggle, making any success feel like a triumph. Their journey at times seems casual, while at others it seems like the marching of soldiers, but it always seems to be the village's journey.
The characters draw strength from staying with Galvano's band. A couple get picked off as they run or wander away, and a few meet their ends when they tire of life in the open and return to the village. One character they meet starts out wanting to continue his search for the Americans by himself, but ends up joining the group. "Five," he says, weeping. "It's been five days since I've talked to someone."
The Night of the Shooting Stars comes across as a series of brief vignettes, often with a silent comedy sense of frenetic energy on the surface and a dramatic punch underneath. When villagers run to meet the Americans who aren't coming, you'll get a smile from seeing a dog tagging along behind, and then feel the villagers' sadness at the false alarm.
When there is a deeply personal moment, as when a woman argues with the bishop so that he'll let her load bodies onto a cart herself after a German attack on the cathedral, it carries impact—not despite the fact that we haven't gotten to know the characters well as individuals, but because of it. Although it's the movie's centerpiece, the cathedral attack and its aftermath are but a surprisingly short scene; that doesn't lessen its impact. The Night of the Shooting Stars is a movie that often seems distant and frivolous, and then shocks you into an understanding of lives cut short by war with its dramatic moments.
There are dreamlike moments, yes, but they hit home the terror of war as well. In one scene, for example, a woman who's been shot dreams of Sicilian-American soldiers who show her a snow glass of the Statue of Liberty as she dies. Dashed hope is another thread that runs through the film, as viewers will see in an early scene in which the villagers run outside to greet the Americans they believe are coming, only to find no one there.
The transfer is usually good, although a couple of odd bars appear on the screen momentarily during the film. The Tuscan scenery looks beautiful, but with the somber nature of the movie and the ambient noise, takes on a desolate feel. The music, which combines that fairytale quality with the martial undertone you'd expect in a more conventional war story, comes through loud and clear, as does that realistic ambient sound.
As for extras, the DVD includes "Talking About Cinema: Taviani Brothers Interview," in which the brothers spend 84 minutes swapping stories with Carlo Lizzani. If you already have a good store of knowledge about Italian cinema, this could be interesting, but if, like me, you're a relative neophyte, a lot of it will be chatter about people you've never heard of. It's also a little off-putting that the way you can tell these two brothers apart is that Vittorio wears a hat and Paolo does not (I think I've got that right). The early parts about their childhood influences are still interesting, though, so I'd suggest starting out with it and turning it off whenever you feel bored. There's also a booklet with an essay by Peter Bondanella.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times, young Cecilia, whose older self narrates, can be outright annoying. When the villagers wait to hear San Martino explode, she's thinking: "Let the houses blow up, God. I've been waiting an hour. I've never had so much fun." After Cecilia accidentally sits on a basket of precious eggs, breaking them and causing fights to break out, she's seen smashing the few remaining eggs. Making the protagonist a little brat probably wasn't the best narrative choice.
The first time I watched The Night of the Shooting Stars, I was a little overwhelmed. There's a lot going on, and most of the characters appear and disappear too quickly. I found a second viewing to pick up the nuances a must. It's an impressive movie, but you'll find yourself working to take it all in. If you go for this one, pencil in the time to give it some attention.
Not guilty. Despite its imperfections, The Night of the Shooting Stars
is one you'll remember for years.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Interview with the Filmmakers
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