The Mattei Affair (Francesco Rosi, 1972)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Mattei Affair.

criterion logoIn the 1950s, during Italy’s postwar industrial boom, the head of its state-owned oil company, Enrico Mattei, leveraged a small reserve of methane gas in the Po Valley and challenged the established order for international energy policy until he mysteriously died in a plane crash in 1962.  Francesco Rosi, along with his frequent collaborator and actor of choice, Gian Maria Volonté, presents a portrait of Mattei as a dogged industrialist and an unrelenting force for political action, material security, and self-determination.  The Mattei Affair, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, is an obliquely non-linear interrogation of the life and death of one of Italy’s most controversial figures and a rumination on the causes and complicities that led the nation into a period of social and political turmoil.

Disc Features:

  • New digital master from the Film Foundation’s 4K restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • New video introduction with Martin Scorsese
  • New video interviews with Francesco Rosi and film critics Tullio Kezich and Michel Ciment
  • Unique – Francesco Rosi on Gian Maria Volonté, Marco Spagnoli’s 30-minute documentary with Rosi on the 20th anniversary of Volonté’s death
  • Video appreciation with filmmaker Alex Cox
  • Restoration demonstration with Scorsese
  • Power & Oil: Enrico Mattei, an hour-long documentary by Fabio Pellarin in 2008
  • Gallery of production art
  • New and improved subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by film critics Stuart Klawans and Gary Crowdus

Francesco Rosi’s The Mattei Affair contemplates the career of Italian businessman and civil servant, Enrico Mattei.  Following World War II, Mattei was hired by his nation’s government to wind up AGIP (the General Italian Oil Company), but upon identifying a reserve of natural gas in the Po Valley, Mattei instead expanded the industry and used a new public company, ENI, to retain the wealth of Italian energy resources and establish a sphere of political power for himself and his ideals.  He challenged the hegemony of the “seven sisters,” a consortium of oil companies that controlled global energy policy from the 1940s to the 1970s, and pursued direct deals with the Middle East, Russia, and even China.  Mattei’s efforts came to an abrupt halt when, in October 1962, his private plane crashed just outside of the Milan airport.  The crash continues to be a source of scandal and controversy, as many hold Mattei was assassinated for his dogged refusal to abide by the corruption that kept Italy and its resources subordinated to foreign interests.

The film approaches Mattei’s life and the mystery of his death in a narrative style consistently typical to Rosi – non-linear, oblique, ellipsis-filled, open-ended.  Its ostensible focus is on investigating the cause of Mattei’s fatal plane crash, engaging in various sidebars and flashbacks, and then partially shifts in a reflexive concern over the real-life disappearance of journalist Mauro De Mauro who went missing in 1970 while investigating the Mattei case for Rosi and the production.  The Mattei Affair‘s mosaic-like examination of a doomed industrialist often draws comparisons to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).  Each is the subject of journalistic investigations and flow freely from investigation to flashback by match cuts and associative editing that sometimes even masks the spatial and temporal transitions themselves.  There is a fundamental difference between each film’s interrogation of its subject however.  Kane involves a modernist investigation on Charles Foster Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud,” undertaken in the belief that the word holds the key to understanding the prolific businessman.  Welles uses the term as a signifier that encapsulates Kane’s loss of innocence, while at the same time undercutting the reductiveness of this approach by presenting a life that overflows from the easy confines of that explanation.  Mattei questions the cause of the aircraft’s crash in an effort to similarly pin down some meaning for the industrialist’s life, but Rosi ultimately offers no answer in that regard and the film routinely notes a lack of content to consider (“bits and pieces scattered all over the place.  All the priest had to bless was just 20 lbs. of flesh and bones”) and a lack of will to investigate (“You see?  Dead, this Mattei is only worth 500 words.”).  Thus, The Mattei Affair is, as Jonathan Rosenbaum describes in Monthly Film Bulletin, “a sort of semi-fictional Citizen Kane without a Rosebud,” but the enigma of Enrico Mattei is less a post-modern lament over truth and objectivity than a mechanism that allows Rosi to explore the national and international character of Italian politics.  Rosi’s method is to suggest an idea to the viewer for consideration and exploration, rather than dictate a conclusion to be dismissed or forgotten.  As Rosi states, “I think film should not end but continue to grow inside us.”

Francesco Rosi is hardly a novel choice for another wacky “C” and spine number.  His two most famous films from the 1960s, Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and Hands Over the City (1963), are already included in the Criterion Collection, as is his bullfighting film The Moment of Truth (1965).  The Mattei Affair once again expresses his arm’s length approach to his subject matter, his civic conscience, and an underrated aesthetic sensibility that Pauline Kael called “one of the greatest compositional senses in the history of movies.”  Mattei relies heavily on speeches and monologues to convey Enrico’s ideals and challenges, but the film is also full of striking visuals by Rosi and his frequent cinematographer, Pasqualino De Santis – the lights of a 17-storey building turning on in the darkness as news of Mattei’s death spreads through the international news service, multiple scenes of Mattei standing in the darkness while illuminated in the light of ignited gas spewing from a high derrick, Mattei giving his final public address to a Sicilian crowd from a balcony looking down on a packed, multi-tiered commons.  A sense of foreboding dread seethes beneath the film, as Piero Piccioni’s entirely electronic score periodically throbs, conveying Rosi’s desire that “the petroleum chief’s heartbeat” was “to be heard on the soundtrack.”  More than anything, it is Gian Maria Volonté’s performance as Mattei that carries the film and it is here that the Collection is incomplete in its survey of Rosi’s work, as Volonté and Rosi became devoted collaborators and Rosi became unable to even read a script without imaging Volonté playing its male lead.  Volonté was a card-carrying Communist blacklisted until cast in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and his career is typified by politically conscious performances in those political thrillers popular in Italy during the 1970s.  Criterion has always had a place for iconic collaborations in cinema (Kurosawa and Mifune; Anderson and Murray; Dietrich and von Sternberg; Sirk and Hudson; Bergman and Ullmann; Ford and Wayne; Truffaut and Léaud) and The Mattei Affair would introduce yet another significant pairing to the Collection.

Mattei Affair PosterThe timing for a Criterion Collection edition of The Mattei Affair is excellent.  This Palme d’Or winner was recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, premiering at the 2012 Venice Film Festival.  Recent anniversaries connected to Volonté, Mattei, and ENI have also resulted in a number of retrospective works that could be included in a Criterion treatment of the film.  Ultimately, there cannot be too much Francesco Rosi in the Collection and exploration of his highly entertaining, expertly crafted, political thrillers of the 1970s should start with The Mattei Affair.  There is a bounty of promotional art connected to The Mattei Affair, but this print seems most in keeping with the aesthetic of the Collection’s packaging style.  The dual images of Mattei standing in shadows is a foreboding expression of his larger-than-life career and his tragic end.  With some possible colour adjustment, we can see this poster easily suiting the needs of a Criterion edition of The Mattei Affair.

Credits:  Scorsese is an avowed fan of The Mattei Affair and has frequently served as a talking head for features on Rosi.  An introduction and discussion on the restoration are rote supplements to Criterion editions of Film Foundation restorations, and so are easy choices.  Alex Cox has always been a gigantic promoter of the film and so it seemed necessary to include an appreciation by him as well.  The interview with Rosi, Kezich, and Ciment is a common feature on other Criterion editions of Rosi films and so we’re hoping a similar discussion could be present here.  A clip from the Volonté documentary by Marco Spagnoli can be seen at the Bifest website (sorry, no subs).  The Power & Oil documentary on Mattei also exists, however we must admit that we haven’t seen it.  Stuart Klawans is a frequent contributor to the Collection and is chosen in part for his 1995 article on The Mattei Affair for Film Comment.  Gary Crowdus is also a Rosi fan and his interview of the director for Cineaste is a frequently cited source for discussions of Rosi’s career.  Lastly, we should acknowledge the debt owed to the Alt Screen page on The Mattei Affair, as it served as an invaluable springboard for this post.

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