Elio Petri (January 29, 1929 - November 10, 1982) was a political Italian filmmaker.
Elio Petri was born in Rome on January 29th, 1923 into a modest family, his father being a coppersmith. As only son, he grew up in the working-class area of the city before attending school where he was noted for his intelligence. After being expelled for political reason from San Giuseppe di Merode, a school run by priest on Piazza di Spagna, he embarked on a career combining political militancy, film-journalism and the coordination of cultural activities for the youth organization of the italian communist party. He wrote for Unita' and for Gioventu' nuova as well as for Citta' aperta. He left the party in 1956 after the Hungarian rising. A friend of Gianni Puccini, he was introduced through him to Giuseppe De Santis and became Assistant to the director of Bitter Rice. He collaborated, without being credited for it, on Rome 11 O'Clock (1952), carrying out the preliminary inquiry among the real-life protagonist of the drama. The inquiry was published in book form in 1956. There followed the collaboration with De Santis, both as script-writer and as director's assistant, on La Fille sans homme (1953), Jour d'amour (1955), homme et luops (1956), La strada lungo un anno (1958) and La Garconniere (1960). During the period, Petri also wrote scripts for Giuliano Puccini, Aglauco Casadio and Carlo Lizzani. Nevertheless, it was his collaboration with the film-director from Fondi which was decisive when it came to learning the tools of the film-directing trade as well as developing an autonomous cultural and political outlook. All his life, Petri remained deeply attached, both politically and personally, to 'Beppe' De santis. After two shorts, Nasce un Campione (1954) and I sette contadini (1959), which gave him the opportunity to broaden his knowledge of film-making 'on the job' as was the usual course in those days,
Petri made his debut as a director with L'assasino (The lady killer of Rome) based on a script co-authored with Tonino Guerra in 1961. Already in this film, Petri's gift for portraying alienated characters, for conjuring up a Kafkaesque thriller mood, is evident. I giorni contati (1962), his second film, again co-authored with Tonino Guerra sets the pattern: Petri's filmic world is political by allusion and dominated by the themes of exclusion and divided lives. After two somewhat less films Il maestro di Vigevano, (1963) and the sketch 'Sin in the afternoon', included in High Infidelity, 1964, Petri directed The Tenth Victim (1965), a film with futuristic overtones also co-authored with Tonino Guerra. In 1967, he shot We still Kill the old Way (adapted from the homonymous novel by Sciascia), one of the most poignant of his works dealing with the individual's inability to cope with realty. The film also marked Gian Maria Volonte's entry into Petri's expressive world and the beginning of the collaboration with the script-writer Ugo Pirro which was to last until 1973. With A quiet place in the country, the last of his film to be co-authored with Guerra, he tackles the subject of solitude and the artist's romantic agony. He then directed four film which showed that he was one of the most acute, lucid and despairing analysts of the schizophrenia of our time. These films constitute, as it were, a portrait of all the facets and contradictions of Italian soociety: Investigation of a citizen above suspicion (1970), the subject of which is the police-force; The working class goes to heaven (1971), on the worker's condition; Property is no longer a theft (1973), about the role of money in our society and how power destroy the individual: Todo Modo (1976), adapted from the homonymous novel by Sciascia is about the warped psychic structure of the power moguls among the Christian Democrats. Pointing out as it does all the danger of conformism in politics, culture and communications technology, Petri's work increasingly came up against production obstacles. The ideological violence of Investigation of a citizen above suspicion almost caused the film to be definitely banned. In 1978, putting aside those topics that were direct reflections on contemporary italian society, Petri directed for the television a remarkable version of Sartre's play Dirty Hands, in which, once again, Marcello Mastroianni gave an exceptional performance. For the reason of copyright the film has not been released outside Italy. With Buone Notizie (1979), which Petri himself produced together with Giancarlo Giannini, the main character in the film, Petri reached an impasse: the joint inability of the artist and his character to convey their suffering and dismay.
At a time when sociopolitical and psycoanalytical methods were converging in an attempt to better define the crisis in western societies, Petri tries to interpret the field of the unconscious. More in the line of Freud and Reich than Marx, he is one of the directors who have done most to renew the political approach to man's problems, to his social insertion. Ranging from neuroses to schizophrenia, Petri's world is one of the most coherent and stimulating where a film-director's commitment to his implicit audiences is involved. The work, however, took its toll on Petri. Like his own characters, he was a constant prey to existential doubts and anguish. The last years of Petri's life were overshadowed by the difficulty he experienced in getting a new film-project under way, and by the onset illness. In 1981, Petri went to Geneva to produce Arthur Miller's new play The American Clock. It was to be his sole incursion into the theatre domain. Work on another film, Chi illumina la grande notte was well advanced: the takes were scheduled for September 1982 and Marcello Mastroianni was to play the leading role. But his illness too was far advanced: Elio Petri died prematurely of cancer on November 10th, 1982. He was 53 years old.