By Danilo Amione
Sergio Leone, popularly known as the father of the Italian western, was one of the greatest innovators in world cinema. He was able to create art in a world, like that of cinema, increasingly pressed by the needs of business and capital. Considered the inspiring prince of all the so-called post-modern cinema that, from Tarantino to John Woo, invaded the screens of the whole world, putting for the first time (or almost) public and critical agreement, Sergio Leone was born in Rome and lived in Cinecittà.
This is the ideal biographical incipit of a man who made love for cinema the very reason for his existence. Leaving his law studies very early, Leone follows in the footsteps of his father, known director of silent films (Roberto Roberti pseudonym of Vincenzo Leone), doing apprenticeship with the masters of the Italian Kolossal (Camerini, Gallone, Bonnard) and Americans working in Hollywood on the Tiber (from Wise to Le Roy, from Wyler to Aldrich). Not failing to work for free even for Vittorio De Sica of which he was a volunteer assistant and appeared in "Bicycle Thieves" (in the role of a prince of Propaganda Fidei).
All these experiences, he will put fully to fruition when he decides to go in the first person behind the camera. The "familiar" experience of the silent films will be indicated by the value of the gestures and the importance of silent glances; the apprenticeship with De Sica will leave an essential trace in his cinema: the use of detail. The practice with American directors will not only be a harbinger of a technical mastery that few in Italy can boast, but above all a spirit of cinema experienced as adventure and communication. He himself used to say that his films were basically adult tales. After the debut with "Il colosso di Rodi", 1961, made for "food" reasons but immediately appreciated by the French critics, will be the so-called "dollar trilogy" to consecrate it immediately to the general public and only later to the honors of the 'academy. "For a Fistful of Dollars", 1964; "For a Few Dollars More", 1965; "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", 1966. These are the three titles that will make him known not only in the Italian western cinema but in the world, but above all the ability of Leone to translate the cinema into Mito. The brilliant intuition of the Roman director was to work on the western, epic and historical genre par excellence of American cinema, renewing it and to overturn its contents and structures. The mythology developed by Leone is placed outside any historical and temporal reference, until it becomes universal. His characters are "heroes" without past or future, whose sole purpose is to succeed in winning in the present. Loads of this for references to the European culture of every era, from ancient Homeric Greece to Shakespeare and even Goldoni.
How much Leo's goal was to superimpose "his" myth to the American myth, thus realizing a myth myth, will be fully revealed in "Once Upon a Time the West", 1968, co-produced by Paramount at a time when in the USA was at the end of the classic western which was celebrated and inexorably approached the New Hollywood rereading of Pollack, Penn, and Sarafian. With this film Leone manages to combine, at the highest point, his love for the Hollywood western and his desire to desecrate it. All the technique prodigiously expressed in the trilogy is found in "Once Upon a Time the West" the moment of maximum exaltation: very early plans and details, exhausting stasis, skinny dialogues, amazing camera movements, sudden rhythmic accelerations, magic fusion of images and music (sometimes even onomatopoeic and underlining). The film marks the farewell of Leone in the West and the western. By his own words, "Giù la testa", 1971, is already another film, out of many previous stylistic features, except for the inevitable epic of the assumption. With "Once Upon a Time in America", 1984, Leone will return to the analysis of the Myth, borrowing from it this time from the gangster-movie, not by chance another leading genre of the American cinema of all time. Many of the formal aspects of the 1960s westerns, used and conjugated in a large 1930s American fresco, persist in this film. This time the (re) reading of the myth is finalized to the search of a cinematographic reality to be grasped in its deepest essence. The arrhythmic oscillation of the story between the 1930s and 1960s, the timely use of flashbacks, the continuous temporal overlapping of faces and stories, a finale among the most fascinating in the history of cinema, make "Once Upon a Time in America” one of the greatest masterpieces in the use of cinematographic language.
The different levels of reading the contents merge in an almost miraculous way to the magniloquence of the show caught in its absolute essence. Few filmmakers in the last century have succeeded, like Leone with his last film, to move narratively with the ability to move from the existential check to the historical problem without a solution of continuity. For all this we will always be waiting for that film on the siege of Leningrad that Leo was preparing before his sudden death.