Jan Švábenický (*1981) graduated from the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Studies at Palacký University in Olomouc and then completed his doctoral studies at the Institute of Literary and Artistic Communication of the Constantine philosopher University in Nitra. He specializes in the history and interpretation of Italian cinema, especially in the field of popular genres. His contributions are published in a number of domestic and foreign periodicals, eg. Film and Time, Kino-Ikon, Protimluv, Cinepur, Slovak Theatre, Quaderni di cinemasud or Inland. Quaderni di cinema. In 2014 he published his first book in Italy, "Aldo Lado & Ernesto Gastaldi". Due cineasti, due interviste. Esperienze di cinema italiano raccontate da due protagonisti\". He is the author of chapters and contributions in several other Italian book publications.
I was able to conduct an interview with Jan via e-mail about his new book Fenomén italský western sociokulturní charakteristiky jednoho žánru (The phenomenon of Italian western socio-cultural characteristics of one genre). Published in Czechoslovakian by Casablanca, Prague it contains 420 pages with a forward by Ernesto Gastaldi
Jan please give us some background information on yourself.
I am a film historian, researcher and publicist specializing in Italian cinema, but also a fan and enthusiast for this area. Without enthusiasm such work can never be done. One of my areas of interest in film is the western genre, particularly in individual European cinemas, especially in Italy. I grew up on westerns as a little boy. They were first West German co-production Westerns based on the novels of Karl May and then mainly Italian Westerns. My passion for Italian westerns and especially Ennio Morricone’s music for this popular genre later led me to university film studies. Much later, I found out that some intellectuals like writers Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini or film historians Guido Aristarco, Tullio Kezich or Vittorio Spinazzola were also involved in Italian Westerns in Italy. So I also really enjoy discovering new cultural connections with this area and writing magazine articles and studies about them.
How did you become interested in Spaghetti/European westerns?
This is a very long story that begins already in my childhood. I became enthusiastically interested in Westerns in general as a small boy. At that time, I mainly watched West German westerns based on the novels of Karl May, which were filmed in the Yugoslav exteriors in the sixties by directors Harald Reinl, Alfred Vohrer, Harald Philipp or Robert Siodmak. A little later I discovered the magic of Italian westerns by Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Leone, Tonino Valerii, Enzo Barboni and other creators. I only started researching the Italian western during my university studies, during which I also started writing my first articles about it. My childhood passion eventually turned into a professional interest, but the enthusiasm has never left me and is the starting point for my esearchh and writing.
Do you remember the first Spaghetti/European western you saw and where it was?
Yes, it was most likely The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, 1968) by Sergio Corbucci, which impressed me greatly with its rawness and brutality, but also with Ennio Morricone's melancholic and lyrical music. It was an absolutely different concept of the genre as I had known it until now. I was eleven years old and I saw the film despite the ban of my parents, who had read in a TV program that the film was not suitable for children. I waited for them to fall asleep and with tension and enthusiasm I watched an atypical western from a winter setting. I always like to come back to this movie and every time I discover some new detail in it that I never noticed before.
What was your impression of that first experience?
The experience of this film was so strong and intense for me that I became more interested in Italian westerns and looked for other films of this popular genre. For me, the film was a total deconstruction of the genre as such, but it impressed me all the more and left a deep impression on me. As I said before, I was an eleven-year-old boy, and Corbucci’s western struck me as a dark and apocalyptic spectacle full of violence and cruelty. I later discovered that violence and cruelty in various forms are a fixed part of the theme and film style of Corbucci’s other Westerns as well. For example, the gothic western Django (Django, 1966) is a characteristic example of how Christian iconography not only permeates the genre, but also becomes a significant plot element. The gunslinger, whose main attribute is a coffin, was another element that was absolutely new for westerns at the time.
Can you tell us some of your favorite films in the genre and actors?
I can’t say which Italian westerns and their creators are more popular, because I like the work of each director differently. There have been many Westerns in Italian cinema, and basically every one is interesting in some way. But I can say that westerns by Sergio Corbucci are much more interesting to me than those made by Sergio Leone, because Corbucci’s films are much richer in various socio-cultural elements and intertextual references. Even the music is different in all of Corbucci’s westerns and does not form such a compact whole as in Leone’s films. For example, Ennio Morricone wrote completely different music for each of Corbucci’s westerns, trying to find new compositional methods as well as cultural references. If we compare Morricone’s music to the films Navajo Joe (Navajo Joe, 1966), I rudely (The Hellbenders, 1967) or The Great Silence, it is very different in all cases.
How long have you been researching the genre for articles and your book?
I started researching sources in the popular genres of Italian cinema and the Italian Western gradually from the beginning of my university studies in 2001-2002 and focused mainly on materials written in Italian, which I consider the most credible for such research. During my study years, I also gradually began to establish contacts with Italian filmmakers as well as film historians, researchers and publicists, who always very willingly and helpfully provided me with the necessary materials. It was a long journey of constant search and even today there is still much to discover in this area, even though much has already been written about it.
What influenced you to write a book on the genre?
It has always been a big dream of mine to write a book about an Italian Western, but it required seeing all the available films and reading all the accessible material. Basically, I can say that I was inspired to write the book by my passion and enthusiasm, which are always my driving force to create such a project. I said to myself that I have to put such a long-term passion, which I have cultivated since childhood, into the pages of a book and share it with readers.
What sources did you use in writing the book?
Since I wanted to get to the cultural essence of the Italian western as much as possible, I based myself mainly on Italian books and periodicals. I found this trip to be the best way to get straight to the historical and socio-cultural facts about the Italian Western. For this reason, I studied book publications by authors such as Luca Beatrice, Alberto Pezzotta or Giulio d’Amicone, who look at the Italian western from a similar perspective to mine. I was also in contact with Alberto Pezzotta and he provided me with very valuable materials and information that I utilized in my book. However, I wanted to follow my own research path and therefore focused on the Italian Western as a socio-cultural phenomenon of its time. De facto, it is a metaphorical genre in which many aspects related to Italian society and culture of the gray and seventies are hidden.
How long did it take to write the book?
I wrote the book with longer breaks for approximately one year, because I had many study materials already prepared for a long time and I did not have to devote too much time to research, reading and watching movies. Once you have all the resources ready, you will save a lot of time searching and researching them. This fact put the trump cards in my hands and I was able to play a card game, as is done in many Italian westerns.
How difficult was it to find a publisher for the book?
The search for a book publisher was very difficult, because in the Czech Republic it is not easy to publish a book about the Italian western, although this genre has many fans and admirers in our country. Finally, I met Václav Žák from the specialized film publishing house Casablanca in Prague, who put a lot of trust and enthusiasm into the book. First, I had to develop a book project, which was assessed and approved by an expert committee. The final version of the written book then went through several editorial adjustments and proofreading to make it as good as possible. I asked my good friend Tomáš Motlíček for a linguistic and material revision of the book. My book is over 400 pages long, so it was a demanding editorial job.
Is there an audience for your book?
Yes, the book was bought by a relatively large number of readers, especially enthusiasts interested not only in the Italian western, but in the western genre in general. Italian Westerns are now almost a thing of cinematic history, even though they are still filmed in Italy. This is not a new current trend that drives current events in the field of cinematography. But despite all this, today the Italian western still has many fans, also thanks to the films of Quentin Tarantino, who revived this popular genre with his films, gave it a cultural face and made it accessible to a young generation of viewers.
How is the book going over as far as sales are concerned?
The book was published in a circulation of only 500 copies, but its sales are from January 2022, when it is quite good on the shelves of Czech bookstores. I am aware that my book will probably never be a bestseller, but that was never my intention. The book does not aim to appeal to everyone and become a box office hit. On the contrary, it wants to appeal to those interested not only in the Italian western, but also in the Italian cinematography and culture of the 20th century and to open a new horizon of interpretation of this popular genre.
Do you have plans on writing any more books?
I would definitely like to write more books in the future, but I have to think about topics that would be acceptable to Czech book publishers and readers. Publishing books about Italian popular cinema is very difficult in the Czech Republic. It is much easier to publish articles and studies in academic, professional and popular journals. It will depend on opportunities, conditions and whether I can convince book publishers of the cultural necessity of such projects.
Do you think the western film will ever come back to prominence again?
I think it certainly is, because westerns are being made all the time, although not with the same intensity as in the past. Producers always follow the current course on the film market and the interests of the audience, which often determines what genres will be filmed. It is certainly a good sign that westerns are still being filmed in Italy and other European countries as well. This fact proves that the cultural and audience interest in Westerns has never completely died out.
What are some of your favorite newer westerns?
Yes, I like the Italian westerns made in recent years by filmmakers such as Emiliano Ferrera, Stefano Jacurti or Mauro Aragoni. I was in contact with all of them some time ago and was interested in their new projects. Their films continue the best cultural tradition and legacy of the Italian Western from previous periods. I’m also curious about new adaptation of Django by Sergio Corbucci, which is now being developed as a TV series directed by Francesca Comencini, Enrico Maria Artale and David Evans. At least the trailer suggests that the series will also show some plot situations that are only mentioned or hinted at in Corbucci’s film. For example, Django fighting in the American Civil War.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
For myself, I can only say and wish that the western will return to prominence in all national cinemas and tell us realistic, fairy-tale and mythological stories about lone riders on sun-parched steppes and snowy plains. The passions we had for this genre as little boys still survive in us to this day, and there is no better metaphor to reflect the image of our world and society than in the exciting stories narrated in westerns. Western is one of the few ways to free yourself from the cynicism and material coldness of the contemporary world and return to the times of childhood and boyhood.
Thanks for your time Jan and good luck with the book and your future endeavors.