Miceli, Sergio
(ed. and transl. by Marco Alunno)


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3.4. I Miserabili by Riccardo Freda and Alessandro Cicognini (Italy, 1947)

DVD 1 Caccia all’uomo, 87’ – DVD 2 Tempesta su Parigi – 93’.


I Miserabili, 1947.

Gino Cervi as Jean Valjean

Gino Cervi has a good supporting cast in these films. Among many theater and radio actors performing in both films, I am going to mention first a very young, twenty-five-year-old Valentina Cortese who interprets Fantina/Cosetta. Except a sudden intemperance when Fantina dies, Cortese’s acting is properly measured, even though the story does not lack dramatic occasions. For example, prostitution is not concealed and Fantina, although with her hair and teeth in place,92 is shown fighting with a man who lured her. The actress had already the skills and the distracted mood that would make her successful both in cinema and in the tv-broadcasted theater, e.g. in François Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (1973) and The Cherry Orchard (Вишнёвый сад) by Anton Čechov (Антон Чехов) directed by Carlo Battistoni (1978), respectively. Anyway, it is not necessary to go through one of the most intense careers in cinema (also in Hollywood), television and, particularly, at the Giorgio Strehler’s Piccolo Teatro of Milan since 1959 on. I will only say that if using the same actress for both the mother’s and the daughter’s part is not new in cinema, in this version of Les Misérables the two characters are quite similar since there are not many differences in hair styling, make-up and costumes. The two female characters look very much alike, possibly due to a specific directorial choice that wanted both Fantina and Cosetta to conjure up the same physical identity, especially in Valjean’s mind.

92 I recall here that in the original novel, before starting prostituting herself, Fantine sells her hair and teeth to earn money in order to support her daughter.

The inspector Javert is very well interpreted by Hans Hinrich. He is resolute without exceeding in exhibitionisms, and his clearly crossed eyes enrich the character with an appropriate ambiguity. Even when he goes through one of his worse moments, that is, when he must confess to M. Madeleine his guilt toward the authorities and the mayor, he never whimpers. Instead, his stubbornness does not divert him from being an inflexible server of the Law. I would even say that the character takes a road from the beginning – and us with him – whose only possible outcome is a suicide. Hinrich’s Javert does not utter nonsensical phrases but, after a long and lucid reflection he delivers himself to the muddy water as well as to our sight.

An actress also worth mentioning is Andreina Pagnani93 (interpreting here Sister Simplicia). She was an artistic colleague of Paolo Stoppa, Riccardo Ninchi and Gino Cervi (with whom she interpreted Mrs. Maigret many times), and had a brilliant career as a dubber since the 1930s on. Her unique tone of voice along with her great skills as an actress did not make directors doubt about what parts she was more suited to interpret.

93 Stage name of Andreina Gentili (1906-1981).

Another interesting figure is Luigi Pavese, a very important character actor in Italian cinema. Here, he interpreted Thénardier as best as he could. In fact, one should not forget that the generation of actors active during the 1930s was not always able to perform with the appropriate ironic distance the character required. Therefore, Thénardier ends up being a criminal whom Jean Valjean must fear much more than Javert who is merciless, but somehow predictable and loyal.

The screenplay was written by Freda, Mario Monicelli and Steno,94 but in the second film Nino Novarese joined them. There is not much to say about the adaptation, except, maybe, noticing the remarkable attention that the revolutionaries receive (one of them is a young Marcello Mastroianni in his cinematic debut). Moreover, the film is not lacking in programmatic statements that quite clearly reflect an apology of the Resistenza (after all, WWII ended only two years before). Unfortunately, the outcome is a joyous, partial defeat that, as in a vaudeville, converts the execution of the chief of the revolutionaries and his followers into a jaunt. There is also a possibly excessive freedom in representing the pre-finale whose function is to tightly gather all the protagonists of the previous episodes under one common destiny. However, an adaptation deserves to be named as such particularly when the literary tale is transformed into what cinema analysts, in the 1960s, called the specifico filmico.95

94 Nickname of Stefano Vanzina.

95 ‘What is characteristic of the film language,’ in Italian in the original text. [EN]

Carlo Ponti was the producer for the Lux Film, which was one of the most important Italian production companies. This might shed light on some choices of particular interest. First of all, Lux was directed, strangely enough, by a musical critic, Guido Maggiorino Gatti, who was its CEO from 1934 to 1966. Gatti was a convinced Crocian intellectual who trusted his friends Fedele d’Amico and Mario Labroca when it came down to decide what music to use in the film produced by Lux. Precisely in that environment a serious misunderstanding that started in France in 1908 (see Part III), was inherited by the Italian film d’art in 1914 and was never corrected during the following twenty years of Fascism, grew bigger: film music must be composed by important academic composers like Ildebrando Pizzetti and Gian Francesco Malipiero. In fact, was not the “Cinematografia l’arma più forte”?96 Such composers collaborated with conductors from the same academic environment only when Lux hired them. In those years, though, Neorealism spread out all over the world, but composers such as Alessandro Cicognini (1906-1995) who often worked within that aesthetic movement, could not musically represent the new artistic ideas. Rossellini’s Roma città aperta was filmed in 1945, but the music were unfortunately by his brother Renzo.97 Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di biciclette was released one year after Freda’s I Miserabili and its music was composed, in fact, by Cicognini who later on admirably confessed to have entirely misconceived the Neorealist agenda. He also worked with De Sica in Sciuscià (1946) and Miracolo a Milano (1950). However, the latter seems to move away from the actual Neorealism, possibly due to the strong personality of Cesare Zavattini, screenwriter and catalyst of De Sica’s and others’ film productions.

96 “In fact, was not "cinematography the strongest weapon?". The text is taken from a banner that Benito Mussolini used in 1937 to inaugurate the Italian film industry “Cinecittà”, in Rome.

97 The adverb ‘unfortunately’ reflects my personal position according to which the music for Roma città aperta is one of the worst ever composed in cinema history.

Cicognini was an introverted and self-critical person. In film music history he is a transitional figure, half-way between the new specialized composers and the academic ones. Therefore, rightly or wrongly, he could afford imposing his opinion in the symphonic world. But Cicognini was not an academic composer, although he did had an academic education while studying with Rinaldo Renzo Bossi and Giulio Cesare Paribeni. In reality, Cicognini was the immature offspring of a new compositional tendency that from Giovanni Fusco onward became a true film music specialism. In fact, by looking at his list of works after 1936, one realizes that he had been one of the most active composers in cinema, whose collaborations include a large deal of the movies mentioned in this chapter: historical films made to elude the Fascist grip, Gallone’s and other’s filmoperas, don Camillo’s and Totò’s films, the most engaged Neorealist productions (Ladri di biciclette, perhaps his best score, except the last part), and post-Neorealist movies (Pane, amore e fantasia, dir. Luigi Comencini, 1953; Peccato che sia una canaglia, dir. Alessandro Blasetti, 1954; and L’oro di Napoli, dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1954). Between 1940 and 1950, Cicognini’s name was everywhere, just like Morricone’s name would be between 1965 and 1975.

By hiring Fernando Previtali98 as the composer of the music for Freda’s I Miserabili, Lux preserved its ‘elitist’ tradition. Actually, there are still a couple of connected points to observe about the music. First, underscoring is not the main option, although sometimes it seems to be the opposite. In fact, music cues are often too long and intense (even at a mixing level). They fill in the silence with very dramatic tones that overwhelm the characters and, what it is even worse, constantly anticipates the mood of the next event. For example, if the protagonist gets close to a door, the music tells the spectators well before the character realizes it whether behind that door something bad or good is going to happen. To aggravate this situation, a long, dark shadow might loom up on a bright-white wall.

98 To know more about the names and the topics mentioned here, see the bibliography in Sergio Miceli, Film Music, p. 219-304.

There are too many themes and their development is carried out in such a way that two important characteristics of film music are lost: being recognizable and catchy. Therefore, the second point is a consequence of the first: certainly, the importance of the film put some pressure on Cicognini who, overloading its score with too much music, produced one of his worst music tracks ever.

The direction is not of help either, as it is spotty and tends to imitate horror films. This is not surprising, though, as Freda, after I Miserabili, would dedicate himself full-time to that genre both as a screenwriter and a director (under the stage name of Robert Hampton). Both Thénardier and, in particular, Javert look like two horror characters. Some shots of them can prove it. Not even the bishop Bienvenu in the first film is spared: see, for example, the black cat that scares Jean Valjean while seeking refuge in his room on a rainy night with lightning and thunder. Since Valjean is about to steal the silver candle holders, could the black cat be a demonic premonition? Does this sound trivial? Horror genre is actually trivial, especially if from Europe (except maybe a few German and English films).

I Miserabili, 1947

In any case, beside his passion for horror films, Freda possessed a very remarkable versatility. He made his debut as a screenwriter in 1937 and directed his first film in 1942 (I Miserabili are his fifth and sixth works in a list that counts forty-five titles). He worked also as an editor, assistant director, actor, set decorator, producer, art director, production manager, soundtracks author and much more that would be too long to tell here. He definitely had a lot of experience, but what else?

I left the main interpreter to the end of this chapter for a reason that will become clear below. As it is well-known, Gino Cervi (1901-1974)99 had a varied and intense career During the Fascist era, after having shortly adhered to that ideology, he devoted himself to interpret historical subjects. It was an attempt to not be involved directly with propagandistic films that allowed him to keep working without undergoing the control of censorship. But it was also a mere illusion. In fact, the only way of not getting involved with the regime (remember that racial laws were applied from 1938 to 1944) would have been to expatriate, which is what a good deal of the German intelligentsia – scientists, writers, composers, painters, musicians and directors – did during Hitler’s dictatorship. That did not seem a viable solution in Italy where almost everyone – except some politicians and some Jewish artists – continued living in the country and endured the regime with an open endorsement, a mild, but not so involved sympathy, or a silent aversion that Dante Alighieri called sloth many centuries before.

99 Born Luigi Cervi.

In the decade that goes from 1938 to 1949 Cervi became quite popular by acting in such films as Ettore Fieramosca (1938) Un’avventura di Salvator Rosa (1939) and La corona di ferro (1941), all directed by Alessandro Blasetti. In 1941 Cervi interpreted also Renzo Tramaglino in I promessi sposi by Mario Camerini who, apparently, did not care much about the age of a character that in the Alessandro Manzoni’s novel was much younger than the forty-year-old Cervi. Finally, Cervi interpreted Charles V in Carmine Gallone’s Regina di Navarra (1942).

Cervi achieved a real, uninterrupted success in cinema and television from 1952 to 1972. In fact, in 1952, he formed a memorable artistic collaboration with Fernandel (1903-1971)100 under the direction of Julien Duvivier in the first two films they made together. Giovanni Guareschi wrote several tales about the rivalry between father Camillo, a quite pugnacious parish priest (Fernandel) and Giuseppe ‘Peppone’ Bottazzi (Gino Cervi), a communist major in a small town of the Po valley. In 1955 and 1961 Carmine Gallone directed other two films and, finally, Luigi Comencini closed the successful saga with one more episode in 1965. In 1964, three years after the fourth film with Fernandel, Cervi started acting in a fortunate television series titled Le inchieste del commissario Maigret, from George Simenon’s tale, that ended in 1972 after 16 episodes. In short, these were some of the most important steps in the career of one of the major Italian actors who had been active in theater (since 1924), cinema (since 1932) and on television (irregularly since the 1950s and more regularly since the 1960s up to Maigret’s triumph in the 1970s).


Fernandel and Gino Cervi.

100 Stage name of Fernand Joseph Désiré Contandin.

Nonetheless, I consider Gino Cervi as one of the worst interpreters of Jean Valjean. His appearance as both the inmate Jean Valjean and M. Madeleine is barely noticeable (but this may be ascribed to the makeup artists, although Freda and Cervi could have complained about it). In addition, Cervi never changes his dumbfounded gaze throughout the whole film. And this is enough about Cervi. However, I cannot help but recalling one of Sergio Leone’s jokes about Clint Eastwood. According to Leone, Eastwood had just two expressions: one with and one without his hat. But Cervi is worse than that. In fact, he cannot even show a trace of shame when the police handcuff him and bring him back to whom he has just robbed: M. Myriel. I do not think it is necessary to mention all the situations in which Cervi is inexpressive: they are too many and to list them would not serve any purpose. However, here are two very annoying episodes that I cannot recall having read in the novel, but they are worth mentioning. In both cases Jean Valjean gets angry at Cosetta: in the first film when she is a young girl, and in the second film when she is an adult.

In the first case, when Valjean is persecuted by the police and hears that they know that the young girl whom he is escaping with has a big dolly with her, he tries to take it away from her. Of course, Cosetta resists because she does not understand his actions. Yet, Valjean gets offended and without saying anything tears the dolly apart and throws it in the sewer. I would assume that after maintaining the same expression again and again anyone could lose their temper, wouldn’t they?

In the second case, while Valjean is persecuted again by the police, he tells Cosetta about his decision to leave for London in a week’s time. Cosetta refuses to follow him and frankly speaks about her sentimental relationship with Mario. As soon as Valjean is informed, he ridiculously behaves as a betrayed lover and gets back at her by saying that they will move to London the very next day. Cosetta reacts by restating that she will not go anywhere, but Valjean’s answer is a loud slap.

I agree that such observations should be mainly addressed to the screenwriters, because everything leads one to conclude that they did not understand much of Valjean’s and Hugo’s character. However, no matter how unfair it might sound, I prefer to focus my criticism on Cervi because he accepted to be part of a game that did not interest him.

In Guareschi’s tales I could see that the criticism to the schematic blindness of the left-wing parties was necessary and well represented, although in the film version a political apathy along with a fair amount of Christian-Democratic propaganda passed off as timor di Dio101 are constantly present. Guareschi could also credibly highlight a sectarian closeness to the PCI, that at that time it was still the authentic Italian Communist Party, the first one in the Western world, as the young generations should remember. Fernandel’s acting skills were unparalleled, but also Gino Cervi, as the communist mayor, was exhilarating and hot tempered. If only he had injected a little bit of that temper in Jean Valjean’s blood…

101 ‘Fear of God,’ in Italian in the original text. [EN]

I Miserabili.
DVD – 1° Caccia all’uomo; DVD – 2° Tempesta su Parigi.
Cristadifilm presenta un film di Riccardo Freda da I Miserabili di Victor Hugo
Sceneggiatura Riccardo Freda, Mario Monicelli, Nino Novarese [2° DVD], Stefano Vanzina.
Con Gino Cervi, Valentina Cortese, Giovanni Hinrich, Aldo Nicodemi [2° DVD] Luigi Pavese.
Jone Romano, Andreina Pagnani [1° DVD], Marcello Mastroianni [2° DVD].
Direttore di produzione Clemente Fracassi.
Capo operatore Rodolfo Lombardi.
Montaggio Otello Colangeli.
Aiuto registi Giorgio Lastricati, Valentino Trevisanato.
Scenografo Guido del Re.
Costumi Dario Cecchi.
Truccatore Alberto De Rossi.
Effetti speciali Giovanni Piccolis.
Musiche Alessandro Cicognini.
Dirette da Francesco Previtali.
Prodotto da Carlo Ponti per Lux Film.
© 1947 Lux Film.
Titolo originale I Miserabili: caccia all’uomo [1° DVD]; I Miserabili: tempesta su Parigi [2° DVD].
Produzione Italia 1947.
Durate 87 minuti [1° DVD]; 93 minuti [2° DVD].
Formato Video 4/3 - 1.3:1.
Audio Italiano Dolby Digital 2.0.
Sottotitoli Italiano per non udenti “La grandezza della Factory Lux”.
Extra Intervista ad Antonio Fabio Familiari, storico del cinema [DVD 1°].
[Sistema – Zona] PAL – 2.
CG Home Video PSV20698 [DVD 1°]; PSV20699 [DVD 2°].
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

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