Gillo Pontecorvo (born Gilberto Pontecorvo, Pisa, November 19, 1919 – Rome, October 12, 2006) was an Italian film director, screenwriter, actor, composer, and partisan fighter. Born into a well-off Jewish family, he was the brother of physicist Bruno Pontecorvo and geneticist Guido Pontecorvo. Despite initial aspirations of becoming an orchestra conductor, Pontecorvo left the University of Pisa after completing only two Chemistry exams and led a lifestyle primarily focused on tennis and socializing. Influenced by anti-fascist sentiments, he moved to Paris in 1938 following the imposition of racial laws in Italy. There, he joined his brother Bruno and mingled with Italian political exiles and the French cultural scene, including figures like Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Career in Film and Politics
Early Works and Ideological Influences
Gillo Pontecorvo began his cinematic journey by working as an assistant to French director Yves Allégret. During World War II, he joined the Italian Communist Party and coordinated partisan activities under the nom de guerre “Barnaba.” His involvement in partisan movements shaped his political perspective and influenced his later film works. His debut came with a role in Aldo Vergano’s 1946 film, Il sole sorge ancora, financed by the Italian Partisan Association (ANPI).
Major Films and Accolades
In 1957, Pontecorvo directed his first feature-length film, La grande strada azzurra, which won an award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. His 1959 film, Kapò, centered on concentration camps and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. However, his most renowned work is La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) from 1966, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received two Oscar nominations. The film was banned in France until 1971 due to its sensitive content.
Later Works and Controversies
Pontecorvo continued to direct politically charged films, such as Queimada in 1969, featuring Marlon Brando, and Ogro in 1979, about Basque terrorism. He also served as the director of the Venice Film Festival from 1992 to 1996 and faced controversy for inviting a Yugoslavian film during the UN embargo.
Legacy and Personal Anecdotes
During the 50th Venice Film Festival, Steven Spielberg returned a Golden Lion award that he had purchased from Pontecorvo, stating that “one can’t buy the work of an author.” Pontecorvo was moved and allowed Spielberg to keep the award, stating that it was “in good hands.”
Death and Memorials
Gillo Pontecorvo passed away on October 12, 2006, at the Agostino Gemelli Polyclinic in Rome after suffering from a long-term incurable illness. He was 86 years old. In his native city of Pisa, a terrace overlooking the sea at Marina di Pisa has been named in honor of him and his brother Bruno.
Featured image: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gillo Pontecorvo, source