I last saw Ettore Scola several days ago at the Auditorium here in Rome, where there was a celebration for la Repubblica newspaper’s 40 years. I joked with the aging director, asking him, “Why are you disguised as an old man?” He replied, “Because I am already long dead.”
Scola, the Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee, died yesterday at 84 after falling into a coma on Sunday. Among sarcastic folks our age, black humor is one way to avoid taking old age seriously. For me, it was just an affectionate joke. For Scola, for years he has marked his date of birth as justification for his bitter separation from everyday life, from the cinema as well as from politics. Somehow he was yielding to the ugliness of modernity, all the more melancholy for someone like him who has fought for so long.
In recent years, it seemed he had delegated his body, still beautiful, to express the pain within it: breaking his leg during a festival in Venice, then a toe, then I don’t remember what. Now it was his damn heart, but this time it was not a joke.
Not that his melancholy wasn’t broken by moments of joy, mind you. One great joy was the film about him, created by his daughters, Paola and Silvia. Then, after a long hiatus, he directed Puccini’s La Bohème, with great success. I attended this showing with him a few months ago in what I believe was his last public event, the premier of the annual conference of Eurovision.
For almost 10 years at the turn of the century, after I had spent many years concerned with metal workers and Palestinians, I returned to promote European and Italian cinema, including as chair of the Culture Committee of the European Parliament. Those years witnessed a tough battle, what was called “the undeclared war” between U.S. and European film, as audiovisuals were about to enter the World Trade Organization meat grinder, reduced to a “good.” We had to defend its cultural nature.
Scola was not among the many in Italy who engaged in the battle, but he always used to be in the front row, along with many friends and colleagues from France. For this, not just because of great admiration for his art, the French love Scola. Yesterday I received a phone call from Paris — I had not seen the TV — to warn me he was dead. France went into mourning for the “great Italian master.”
I owe much to Scola. When I was involved in film I knew very little, and it was he who helped me find my bearings. We became friends, not just acquaintances. I am immensely grateful to him for his support, with a beautiful phrase on the inside cover, of one of my first books not just about politics and for presenting, with his usual intelligence, humor and warmth, a Daniele Segre film, though my voice, about how it was after the war. Then to this day, through the Communist Party of Italy and il manifesto, he was a large piece of a generation striving to be communist.
That he’s no longer among us is a great sorry for many.