In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
Lorenza Mazzetti, 1950s. (Unknown photographer, courtesy of Shelley Boettcher)
In 1956, in a central London café, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and Lorenza Mazzetti wrote a manifesto for what they termed the “Free Cinema” movement. Among the aims of these four young, avant-garde filmmakers was a belief in “the importance of people and the significance of the everyday.” They eschewed traditional box office appeal in favor of authentic depictions of the quotidian, particularly that of the ordinary working man and woman. Mazzetti, who died this past weekend at the age of ninety-two, was then only twenty-eight years old—she’d recently moved to England from her native Italy, and first gotten work as a potato picker. Later that year, her second film, Together—which follows two deaf-mutes through the bomb-wrecked streets of London’s East End, or as Mazzetti described it, “fields of ruins overrun by children”—would win the Prix de Recherche at Cannes Film Festival. Her first film, K (1954), “suggested by” Kafka’s Metamorphosis and made on the most shoestring of budgets while she was a student at the Slade School of Art, anticipated the Free Cinema movement, and her signature appears first on the manifesto. And yet today she’s the least commemorated of the four, and her name is often little more than a footnote to the group’s history.
She’s even less well known as an author, especially beyond the borders of her native Italy. Although her first novel, Il cielo cade (1961)—translated into English, by Marguerite Waldman, as The Sky Falls (1962)—was awarded Italy’s prestigious Premio Viareggio Prize, and is still considered something of a contemporary classic there, the English translation has been out of print for years. Told from the point of view of her child narrator, Penny, the author’s fictional alter-ego, it details the tragic events of Mazzetti’s own childhood during the Second World War: namely the murder by the Germans of her aunt and her cousins, followed by the suicide of her distraught uncle. The Sky Falls is ripe for rediscovery, not least because recent years have seen significant efforts to restore Mazzetti’s place in the cinematic canon. It’s only fitting her equally audacious literary work be celebrated as well. Mazzetti valued the same intensity of personal experience in her writing that she did in her filmmaking. Despite having been written nearly sixty years ago, Penny’s voice is astonishingly fresh, urgent, and compelling.
“I wonder if it is right for me to love my sister Baby more than the Duce,” Penny asks at the beginning of The Sky Falls. The siblings are orphans, living with their Uncle Wilhelm, Aunt Katchen, and their cousins, Marie and Annie, in a large villa in the Tuscan countryside. Mussolini’s portrait hangs on the wall of their classroom at the village school, watching over the Little Sons and Daughters of Italy, all of whom would “give, if necessary,” Penny has no doubt, “our blood for the cause of the Fascist Revolution.” All the same, her sister remains Penny’s best beloved: “If Baby is angry with me it’s as though the sky were to grow dark and the sun turn black and my heart were slowing freezing up.” Amongst The Sky Falls’s other achievements, it’s a thoroughly convincing depiction of an all-encompassing sibling bond. Mazzetti and her own twin sister, Paola, were inseparable; they lived together in Rome at the time of Mazzetti’s death.
Penny and Baby’s life is, by and large, an innocent idyll. They spend their days playing with their cousins and the other children from the village. Thus, early sections of the novel are reminiscent of scenes from the English-born but Italian-wed writer Iris Origo’s wartime diaries, A Chill in the Air and War in d’Orcia, as seen, of course, through the eyes of the children roaming the Origos’ bucolic estate. Penny often gets into trouble, especially with her strict uncle. He’s not unkind to her, and she loves him dearly—“To think that I’d give my life for him and he doesn’t even know it!”—but he sets impossibly high standards for his precocious and high-spirited niece. “The grown-ups are always right and there’s nothing we children can do about it: my truth and my lies aren’t real,” she thinks during a routine punishment for talking back. The temptation is to describe Penny as a bit of a drama queen, but her existence is steeped in the discourse of martyrdom and self-flagellation. This originates in both the Catholic Church, which holds significant sway over the neighborhood, and in the form of the Fascist propaganda being fed the children during this period. Indeed, in the excellent 2000 film adaptation of the novel, directed by Andrea and Antonio Frazzi, the extent of the children’s indoctrination is emphasized by the fact that when Penny and Baby first arrive at their aunt and uncle’s home—Isabella Rossellini plays beautiful, kind Aunt Katchen, and Jeroen Krabbè is handsome, cultured Uncle Wilhelm—they’re dressed in spotless Piccola Italiana uniforms and creepily greet their new guardians with the salute Il Duce.
Uncle Wilhelm, who is Jewish, is the only one not taken in by either religious or nationalistic rhetoric. He sits in his armchair “looking depressed” while the children run around him “roaring” their patriotic responses to one of the Duce’s speeches on the radio. This simply confuses Penny, but his refusal to let the family attend Mass causes her anguish. Preoccupied by fear that Uncle Wilhelm is going to hell unless she and the other children can find some way to save him, Penny dictates that they must do penance on his behalf by walking through fields of thorns. It’s his absence of Fascist fervor, of course, that’s the most dangerous; though Penny, and thus by extension the reader, remains oblivious to how the war is playing out beyond this tiny patch of rural Italy.
Penny’s confusion continues even after the Germans have arrived, commandeering quarters at the villa. The local priest warns her that Uncle Wilhelm is in grave danger. She knows something about the priest’s caution is “odd”—he and her uncle are two men who don’t normally have anything to do with each other—yet she can’t believe that the Germans, especially the general in charge who’s courteous and civilized enough to regularly play chess with Uncle Wilhelm, could present a threat. Penny’s view of the world is fragmentary, and her understanding incomplete. As we watch the events unfold through her unwitting, innocent eyes, we feel a mounting tension that would be impossible if the story was being told from the perspective of an adult. Penny wants to believe her uncle when he dismisses the priest’s fears. “My uncle always knows the truth,” she asserts. “He is Truth and Justice in person and can never be wrong.” Yet at the same time, the eerie sound of the officers “clicking their heels and shouting orders” as they bustle about the villa during the night sets her heart thumping, and she feels “danger hovering like a gigantic monster.” “What if Uncle’s truth were not true?” she contemplates fearfully. “What is the truth? I should like the truth somehow to appear in large letters in the sky.”
The Sky Falls is so much more than just a book about the horrors of the Second World War. It is as much a loving homage to the picture-perfect childhood Mazzetti’s aunt and uncle provided for her and her sister before circumstances beyond their control overwhelmed them, and thus also a moving portrait of the cruel loss of childhood innocence. As Mazzetti explains in Because I’m a Genius!, the 2018 documentary about her life and work directed by Steve Della Casa and Francesco Frisari, the writer friend who helped her find the voice with which to narrate The Sky Falls showed her, “that if I saw my childhood through the eyes of the child who had experienced it, I could write in a happy, cheerful way about it, while if I wrote as an adult, I would have spoken of revenge, anger and horror.” The novel’s horrifying and violent dénouement is all the more chilling for it, especially the gruesome tableaux on the final page: Penny and Baby, their hands and dresses soaked with their uncle, aunt, and cousins’ blood, crying over their dead bodies in the still-smoking ruins of the now destroyed but once majestic family villa.
Although The Sky Falls was published as a novel, it’s autobiography in all but name. Mazzetti and Paola’s mother died in childbirth in 1928, after which their father handed them over to his sister and her husband to raise alongside their own two daughters. Their uncle was Robert Einstein, Albert Einstein’s cousin, and Mazzetti was always convinced that the murder of Robert’s family in what’s since become known as the Strage di Rignano Massacre was “a precise order against Einstein’s relatives.” How else to explain the Germans sparing both her and Paola’s lives, or that of the servants and farmhands on the property, other than the fact that none of them shared the famous man’s name? Believing he was the only one in danger, Robert had eventually heeded the warnings and fled to the relative safety of the local partisans. In his absence, the Germans took the rest of the family hostage. Mazzetti and Paola were close enough to hear their aunt and cousins being executed in a nearby room in the villa. Overwhelmed with guilt and grief, Robert committed suicide, leaving his adopted daughters all alone in the world.
Mazzetti left Italy for London in the early fifties, where she ended up at the Slade. As she explains, both in her London Diaries (which were published in the original Italian in 2014, and as an English edition four years later, translated by Melinda Mele) and Because I’m a Genius!, she turned up at the art school the day before term began and demanded she be allowed to enroll. “I’m a genius!” she told Sir William Coldstream, the school’s principal, convincing him to bend the rules for her. It was he who later introduced the same willful young woman to Denis Forman, then head of the British Film Institute. She had borrowed, without permission, the school film society’s equipment in order to make her first feature, and brazenly told the lab that developed the film to charge it direct to the school. Sir William came up with an ingenious plan to see if Mazzetti deserved to be reported to the police for theft: he would screen K for an audience of her fellow students, and if they applauded her efforts, he’d excuse her questionable methods. Not only were her peers bowled over by her work, but Forman—whom Sir William had also invited to the screening—was so impressed by Mazzetti’s raw talent that he immediately agreed to finance her next feature. Together was the first publicly funded film made in the UK by a woman director.
After taking Together to Cannes in 1956, Mazzetti was on course for a brilliant career in the UK. And yet, she decided to return to Italy. Back home, she realized that she was finally ready to “tell the world what I witnessed.” Once she’d found Penny’s voice, she wrote The Sky Falls in only twenty days. She sent it to publishers, but to no avail, until, that is, the famous neorealist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini—who’d greatly admired Together—took the manuscript direct to Attilio Bertolucci, the editorial director at the Garzanti publishing house. Bertolucci published the novel with an introduction by Zavattini, and submitted it for the Viareggio Prize.
Mazzetti worked on a few Italian films and TV productions, but her interest in the medium was waning. She published a sequel to Il cielo cade in 1963, Con rabbia—translated into English, by Isabel Quigly, as Rage (1966)—which picks up Penny and Baby’s story after the war, in which, now adolescents, they’re living in Florence. Read as a standalone work, The Sky Falls is potent enough—“a brilliant tour de force, charming and harrowing,” described the Spectator. But the “flinty anger” that critic Penelope Mortimer, writing in the Daily Express, identified beneath the surface of the first book explodes to the fore in Rage. Penny is struggling with all the usual torments of adolescence—an “awful age when you know everything wrong and at second hand!” she wisely surmises, and one made all the more complicated for a woman in what’s very much a man’s world: a “prisoner of my sex,” the “prey” of rapacious men, “[a]n object to chase through the dark streets, to impress with their male voices, to debase after they’d fondled it, to despise after they’d used it. An object to look at, to wink at, to pierce or to strip with their eyes. An object that belonged to them”—but she’s also dealing with the trauma of her past. If The Sky Falls is a child’s dream-turned-nightmare, Rage is more like a feverish hallucination from which Penny is unable to escape. With its intense focus on interiority, often at the expense of plot, it’s admittedly less accessible than The Sky Falls. As a portrait of a traumatized and confused adolescent, however, it’s masterful. Her straightforward depiction of everyday sexual harassment will resonate particularly with contemporary readers, I’m sure. Mazzetti also penned a third volume in this autobiographical series, Mi può prestare la sua pistola per favore? (1969), but it’s yet to be translated into English.
For a time, later in life, Mazetti wrote a weekly column for the magazine Vie Nuove, in which she interpreted readers’ dreams (with the help of a Jungian psychoanalyst), but her main interest, somewhat unexpectedly, became puppetry. She set up a children’s puppet theatre at Rome’s Del Satiri Theater. An article in the New York Times in 1988 describes one of her performances, the tale of an orphaned prince and princess, who by the end of the show have “charmed a dragon, outsmarted the witch and—not orphans at all—found their parents.” Perhaps it’s not as surprising a medium as it might initially seem. In Because I’m a Genius! Mazzetti describes her own life after having been accepted at the Slade as like a “fairy tale,” and The Sky Falls reads like a modern-day Grimm’s tale, beauty and horror, innocence and corruption side-by-side. Mazzetti spent her entire life telling and retelling the story of her childhood, sometimes explicitly—as in the series of eighty paintings she exhibited in 2010 depicting her and Paola’s life at the villa with the Einsteins—and sometimes more implicitly—as in the world of puppetry. It’s high time her work found the broader audience it deserves and The Sky Falls took the place it merits, both among other narratives set in wartime, and those of portraits of the artist as a child. That Mazzetti won’t be around to see this herself is extremely saddening. Indeed, when I wrote this column—in what now turns out to have been the week before she passed away—I had no idea that I was penning an obituary. I can only hope the news of her death will lead readers to discover her beautiful but chilling novel.
Read earlier installments of Re-Covered here.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.
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