'Life as a B-Movie: Piero Vivarelli': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
B-movie indeed.

Niccolo Vivarelli and Fabrizio Laurenti co-directed this documentary about the late Italian screenwriter, director and songwriter.

At least the title of the documentary Life as a B-Movie: Piero Vivarelli is well chosen. Not only did Vivarelli, who died in 2010, write several hit songs, including two sung by Adriano Celentano, he was also responsible for the screenplay of B-movie treasures including Quentin Tarantino favorite Django, by Sergio Corbucci, and directed a whole bunch of genre movies including several erotic films that are ready for their cultural reappraisal. He was also obsessed with women, to the point of having his wife and two other actresses he was dating on the set of the same film all vying for his attention — perhaps one of the reasons he finally never broke out of the B-movie mold that fit him so well. 

Directed by Fabrizio Laurenti and Niccolo Vivarelli, this amusing, trivia-filled documentary — who knew Vivarelli’s 1964 film Il vuoto never had its Venice premiere because a producer’s car ended up in a ditch? — is told largely chronologically, contains a lot of talking heads (including quite a lot of archive interview material) and generally doesn’t dig particularly deep. But it is nonetheless a treasure trove of titles of post-war works from Italy that beg to be discovered or rediscovered. As such, this work could be a welcome appetizer at festivals focused on cinema history and at cinematheques. 

Life as a B-Movie premiered in Venice as part of the Venice Classics section, and the festival’s efforts to put a spotlight on forgotten and older works has its own meta moment early on in this documentary. In fact, in 2004, Tarantino curated a selection of around 30 Italian films called “Italian Kings of the Bs,” which also included Vivarelli’s 1970 erotic fantasy The Snake God (Il dio serpente). A short extract from the 2004 press conference and junket about this lineup shows Tarantino talking about his love for obscure European B-movies with his usual gusto, though it is kind of a stretch to formally include him in the long list of names touted as being “interviewed” in the film.   

Co-director Niccolo Vivarelli, more familiar to international industry people as Variety film writer Nick Vivarelli, chronicles the life of his uncle here and collaborates with Laurenti, a more experienced helmer of both genre films and documentaries. The latter, who also edited the film and shot the new interviews, mostly follows the chronological order of Piero Vivarelli’s filmography and, indeed, his work in the cinema industry fills most of the screen time, followed by his tumultuous private life and then his career in songwriting and the music biz. 

Vivarelli’s job as a writer, for the youth-oriented music magazine BIG, is mentioned only very briefly. Though the doc talks more generally about how his work in a sense foreshadowed and fed into the events of “Sessantotto” or 1968, the film's writer-directors don’t make much of a direct connection between Vivarelli’s work for BIG — it is not even clear what he even wrote about exactly — and his broader interests in the counterculture and place in the history of postwar popular music in Italy.

This particular example offers a good sense of the general modus operandi of the documentary, which is entertaining but finally quite superficial. Life as a B-Movie is filled with anecdotes that will delight fans of Italian postwar culture as well as whoever writes the Italian questions for Trivial Pursuit. Quick: Who inspired the name of Corbucci’s most famous spaghetti Western? Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt! Which B-movie director joined the Fascist Republic of Salo volunteers after his father had been killed by Yugoslav Communists, only to later become the only Italian member of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Communist Party? Piero Vivarelli! But all these loose facts feel like parts of a mosaic that is never quite fully assembled.

The documentary contains fascinating snippets of many of the films Vivarelli directed or (co-)wrote, starting with several titles from the musicarello genre that he helped define. They include films such as Ragazzi del Juke-Box with Adriano Celentano; Howlers in the Dock with Chet Baker; and Sanremo: La Grande Sfida and Io bacio… tu baci, the last two starring Italian diva extraordinaire Mina. The suggestion that parts of the latter film — but it could be argued that it’s really the whole genre in general — were filmed as a music video long before those were invented for TV is the kind of incisive comment that puts things in a larger cultural context. But these kinds of broader insights are missing in especially the second half of the film, which concentrates on Vivarelli’s complex love and family life and his exploits in the erotic film genre. 

The film also only makes a summary attempt to explain how cinema and music intersected and interacted throughout Vivarelli’s life, like when a screenwriting job led to him penning what is arguably Celentano’s most famous song, "24.000 baci." (The tune was used by Emir Kusturica in his first film, and he appears here to give some general words of praise about it without tying it directly to Vivarelli.) Another brief interlude suggests Piero was involved in bringing both Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin to Italy or perhaps even continental Europe, though the details remain vague and there’s not a lot of effort to tie this into his larger body of work.

Because of a tendency to keep cutting between different interviewees, sometimes even mid-sentence, it is also hard to keep track of who is saying what and which arguments are made by which interviewee. And the fact that some of the more recently filmed material has been treated to look like older footage also makes it difficult to distinguish contemporary interviews from older material, which makes it harder to get a handle on the temporal perspective the interviewees are offering. A key conversation with Vivarelli himself in old age and in a red sweater is generously excerpted so there is a sense that he, too, is part of the talking heads. But there is no indication of when that interview was done, either, and in what context and by whom. This makes it harder to figure out how to take the answers he gives. 

Though an array of family and lovers are interviewed, the most interesting comments come from European critics and directors. Critics such as Olivier Pere and Giona Nazzaro manage to say something about the value and uniqueness of Vivarelli’s work. And director Gabriele Salvatores talks perceptively and movingly about the fate of Piero’s son, Alessandro, who co-starred in his Oscar-winning film Mediterraneo and who died in 1996, at age 40, of problems related to his drug use. But these moments are more like intelligent flickers in the dark than part of a larger, coherently argued case that places Vivarelli the artist and the person into a larger sociopolitical and cultural context. 

Production companies: Tea Time Film, Wildside, Istituto Luce-Cinecitta 
Writer-directors: Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolo Vivarelli 
Producers: Marcantonio Borghese, Taku Komaya
Cinematographer: Fabrizio Laurenti
Editor: Fabrizio Laurenti
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Venice Classics)

Sales: Tea Time Film

In Italian, English, French, Spanish
82 minutes