John Francis Lane 

Tonino Guerra obituary

Screenwriter and poet who co-scripted films with Fellini, Antonioni and Tarkovsky
  
  

The Italian poet, novelist and screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who has died aged 92, brought something of his own poetic world to the outstanding films he co-scripted with, among others, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Francesco Rosi, but also many non-Italian directors including Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky. Perhaps his most creative contribution was to Fellini's colourful account of life in a small coastal town in the 1930s, Amarcord (1973), of which he was truly co-author, because the film reflected their common experiences growing up in Romagna.

The two were born in the region a couple of months apart – Fellini in Rimini and Guerra in Santarcangelo, in the hills above the Adriatic resort, the son of a street vendor father.

Guerra's own "amarcord" ("I remember" in dialect) is scattered over many books of poetry and short stories. He first started writing poetry in dialect when interned in a prison camp in Germany, after being rounded up at the age of 22 with other antifascists from Santarcangelo. To pass the time he told his companions stories: when he came home in 1945 he found a publisher for a book of them, I Scarabocc (Cockroaches, but also "scribblings").

He became a schoolteacher, moving to Rome only when he was 30. He met Elio Petri, the future director of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), who was working as assistant to Giuseppe De Santis. Petri and Guerra were sent to the Abruzzi mountains to find out about wolf-hunting. Though they discovered that wolf hunters no longer existed, De Santis went ahead anyway with the film, Uomini e Lupi (Men and Wolves, 1957), which gave Guerra his first screenwriter credit.

His friend Fellini was preparing La Dolce Vita, but they were not yet destined to work together. Guerra instead worked with Antonioni on L'Avventura (1960). In the preface to his published screenplays, Antonioni wrote about his scriptwriters on that film, Guerra and Elio Bartolini. "Tonino, who is closer to me, is a poet who writes in dialect; [Bartolini] is a novelist. They are very different ... [Tonino and I] have long and violent arguments ... and that makes him all the more helpful."

Guerra was to collaborate with Antonioni on the screenplays of La Notte (The Night, 1961), L'Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962), Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert, 1964), Blow-Up (1966) and, later, The Mystery of Oberwald (1981), Identification of a Woman (1982) and Beyond the Clouds (1995). Remarking on the criticisms often made of the dialogue in Antonioni's films, Guerra was to say: "They were only a comment on the images. In the end, the best lines we'd written would get lost."

Guerra also co-authored Petri's first two films, both small jewels, L'Assassino (The Assassin, 1961), and I Giorni Contati (Counted Days, 1962). The decade also saw him working on the script of Vittorio De Sica's Marriage Italian Style (1964) and the first of several films he co-scripted for Rosi, C'Era una Volta (More Than a Miracle, or Cinderella Italian Style, 1967), with Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif. They went on to include The Mattei Affair (1972), Lucky Luciano (1973) and Cadaveri Eccellenti (Illustrious Corpses, 1976).

It took till 1973 for Guerra to work with Fellini, on Amarcord. The novel of the film was published under both their names, but was clearly penned by Guerra, and in it one detects the writer's contribution on the level of reminiscence in mood and language. It was a unique occasion for director-scriptwriter empathy. They worked together again on And the Ship Sails On (1983) and Ginger and Fred (1986). Fellini wanted him to collaborate on City of Women, but at that time, the late 1970s, Tonino had fallen in love with Lora, the Russian woman who was to become his wife, and was commuting between Rome and Moscow.

Guerra's "Russian period" thus began. He had first met Tarkovsky at Venice in 1962, when the then young Russian director shared the golden lion for his debut film, Ivan's Childhood. Guerra invited him to come to Italy, but only in 1980 was he allowed to travel abroad. For RAI-TV they made a documentary travelling round Italy, Tempo di Viaggio (Voyage in Time), and this was the starting point for Nostalgia (1983), an Italian-Soviet co-production. Tarkovsky depended much on Guerra's collaboration as his Italian guide, but the film's complexities, both in their positive and negative aspects, reflected the director's personal identity crisis as a prospective émigré.

With Angelopoulos he found another director with whom he shared "ideas on life and art". Again, there was great chemistry between them, the Greek maintaining: "Tonino has been my psychoanalyst for 20 years."

Their first film together was Voyage to Cythera (1984), followed by The Beekeeper (1986) and, completing the "trilogy of silence", Landscape in the Mist (1988), then The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), The Gaze of Ulysses (1995) and Eternity and a Day (1998). The story of The Weeping Meadow (2004) is told against the three decades of Greek history up to the end of the civil war in 1949, while The Dust of Time (2008) has Willem Dafoe as a Greek-American film-maker exploring his family's story over half a century and several countries.

The last of Guerra's more than 100 credits was for Everybody's Fine (2009), a remake set in the US of Stanno Tutti Bene (1990), about a Sicilian father visiting his children on the mainland.

In the late 1980s, Guerra scripted films from two of his stories for directors from his part of Italy, who made them there: Gianfranco Mingozzi, Il Frullo del Passero (The Sparrow's Fluttering), with Philippe Noiret; and Ottavio Fabbri, Viaggio d'Amore (Journey of Love) with Omar Sharif. Around that time Guerra retired to a Romagnan village. For his 80th birthday, many of the directors he had worked with and a delegation of musicians and dancers from the Bolshoi Theatre gathered to fete him and Lora, who survives him, along with their film composer son, Andrea.

• Tonino (Antonio) Guerra, screenwriter and novelist, born 16 March 1920; died 21 March 2012