Violent Summer/Girl with a Suitcase
Dir. Valerio Zurlini, 1959/1961, Italy

by Jeff Reichert

The canonization process being what it is, there are plenty of filmmakers out there languishing in obscurity who’ve made a bunch of generally similar movies (or dissimilar, but featuring potentially interlocking identifying strands) just waiting to be promoted to auteur rank by virtue of mere prolificacy. One hopes that our ancestors don’t see fit to anoint Tom Shadyac a master 100 years from now, but then it’s always hard—if not impossible—to peg the tastes of a moment, even in retrospect. And who’s to say that any historically circumscribed move for or against a particular filmmaker is right or wrong? (As an aside: I will never understand why serious-minded folks so neglect Akira Kurosawa.)

Until a major retrospective in late 2000, Italian filmmaker Valerio Zurlini was largely unknown in the U.S. and, by all accounts, wasn’t particularly renowned even in his homeland. That fall was my first in New York, and in my fresh-from-Rhode Island exuberance, I caught three or four of his eight features (including La Soldatesse and The Professor) based only on a couple of glowing paragraphs in free weeklies and, to be honest: I liked what I saw, but six years on, I’ll be damned if I remember a great deal about any of them.

That’s why I’m grateful for No Shame’s nifty twofer containing Zurlini’s second and third movies, Violent Summer (1959) and Girl with a Suitcase (1961), even though I remain somewhat mixed about the films themselves. What I do remember of Zurlini from those long-ago screenings are his bundled pillow shots—three or four in a row, and more often of lonely urban spaces than Ozu’s grandiose landscapes—and his melodramatist’s eye for character detail and how the combined tics of a pair of human beings work themselves into believable interaction. (It’s Alain Delon’s pathological pursuit of the striking Sonia Petrovna and her eventual capitulation in The Professor that remains most vivid to me today.) What I’d forgotten: his willingness to push a moment to the edge of credulity, and his ability to neatly skirt that line; his confusing of diegetic and extra-diegetic music, always to ends that suit his drama; his gentle hand, such that when Zurlini does choose to push us a little bit in one direction or another, either with sound, an unexpected close-up, or, most usually, with a violent cut, those moments are rendered all the more powerful. It’s this last trait that explains most to me his relative anonymity. Unlike Antonioni’s always-hip existential malaise, Visconti’s opulence, or Fellini’s viewer-friendly dreamscapes, there’s nothing in Zurlini that really announces itself at all, a point echoed in Richard Harland Smith’s readable, if poorly edited (major typo on page 3, guys), liner notes.

Do Violent Summer or Girl with a Suitcase feel like the work of a major filmmaker, as the “masterpiece” tag on the packaging suggests? Not quite. Summer finds a young Jean-Louis Trintignant (much too young at this point to have that mouth) forsaking his frivolous fascist bourgeois comrades in favor of the charms of an older war-widow (Eleonora Rossi Drago). Their illicit relationship is set against the waning days of World War II (a German fighter place buzzes the resort beach where much of the action is centered, marking an early, notably grand Zurlini maneuver), and feels thoroughly historically mediated, if not suffocated entirely. It’s the type of fiction where the characters labor under the weight of an obvious grand design (here, a look at the various stages of acceptance and denial of the soon-to-be-toppled Italian state), and Trintignant and Drago struggle mightily against Zurlini’s crushing historical fatalism. I admire the director less in the film for his psychological acuity (though it is in evidence) than for his closing gambit: As the two lovers speed away by train, hoping to escape Trintignant’s impending conscription, an Allied air raid disrupts their flight. Stunningly realized, the attack lasts longer than it needs to prove its point, and it’s perhaps the only moment the film reaches the truly grand symbiosis between the personal and the political necessary to carry off such an endeavor. The rest, while largely well rendered, reveals more than a few traces of its own construction.

Girl with a Suitcase fares better, largely because it drops some of Summer’s overt historicism in favor of focusing more closely on another impossible younger man/older woman relationship, here between 16-year-old Jacques Perrin and his brother’s jilted lover, played by Claudia Cardinale. Though I’d be unsurprised to learn the Postwar historical moment dramatized here is just as crucial to the narrative as the war was to Violent Summer, with fewer obvious outside circumstances to intrude, Zurlini is free to let this doomed relationship play out on a wider formal canvas, with Perrin’s obsession spiraling out of control as Cardinale bounces from one man to the next. Suitcase revels in its truly cinematic flourishes: an extremely discomfiting close-up of Perrin in agony as the object of his desire dances with another; a talk between Perrin’s priest and Cardinale set in a crumbling, cavernous museum; an unexpected session of lovemaking on the beach at sunset. These are the scenes where Zurlini the artisan excels, though for all of the lack of encumbrance in these moments, they’re balanced by others stamped by his overt, playful manipulations of the soundtrack (a particularly difficult Perrin/Cardinale interaction is kicked off by a woman dropping needle to turntable for a pop soing about heartbreak). Cardinale, luscious and pouty as ever, is instantly pegged by all as “that kind of girl,” but Zurlini constantly works with her to complicate her “Aida”; coupled with his handlings of Drago, Petrovna and Anna Karina in La soldatesse, Zurlini instantly jumps the ranks of Italian filmmakers working to create complex (and lusty), female characters.

Mastered from the original 35mm negatives, both films look terrific though, as in most other formal respects, the chiaroscuro play of light and shadows is more advanced and subtle in Girl with a Suitcase. No Shame, which has quickly made a name for itself by resurrecting lost Italian classics, stuffs both discs with the obligatory photos, interviews, and restoration documentaries, which are always welcome though I do often question how much value is really added by these types of features. The distributor handles a couple of other Zurlini titles including his last, Desert of the Tartars, which I haven’t seen, but which is by most accountings one of his most worthwhile. The filmmaker on evidence in Violent Summer and Girl with a Suitcase isn’t quite there yet, but if you’re one of those journey-not-destination folks, there’s more than enough here to recommend.