Saturday Editor’s Pick: The Mattei Affair (1972)

by on August 7, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Aug 13 at 2:00, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]  


Francesco Rosi’s films continue at BAM thru August 21. Recommended reading: Dan Callahan’s feature for Alt Screen and Michael Ciment’s celebration for The Guardian. Ciment argues that Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Ken Loach, and Martin Scorsese owe a great deal to the Italian director.  


Stone is an on-record fan of The Mattei Affair, as are directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Alex Cox, who calls it “the Italian Citizen Kane.”  


Cox, for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2006):

In this, the Berlusconi era, hardly any political films are made in Italy (or, for that matter, anywhere else!). But a generation ago, Italian cinema was perhaps the most radical in the world, and one of its most highly regarded writer-directors was Francesco Rosi. Today Rosi is best known for his 1984 film version of Bizet’s Carmen, but his career consists mainly of political thrillers. Rosi was a master of the genre, just as Melville was of the film noir. Of all his thrillers, The Mattei Affair is the best.



Cox continues:

The story of the founder of the Italian petroleum business, The Mattei Affair sounds as dry as a bone, or as interesting as the back pages of the financial section. Yet it’s quite the opposite: a riveting, disorienting, nonlinear drama, telling the remarkable-and true-story of a man who fought the Fascists and the American oil cartel, created an industrial base for his country, and was probably murdered by U.S. intelligence. Its complexity and style are reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s JFK. Mattei was killed in a plane crash one year before Kennedy’s assassination in Texas-the heart of the American oil industry.  


The direction and editing are remarkable, but the cement that holds the film together is Gian Maria Volonté’s performance as Mattei. Volonté was a card-carrying Communist, blacklisted until Sergio Leone hired him to play the bad guy in A Fistful of Dollars and its sequel. He went on to appear in numerous westerns and political features, including the lead role in Rosi’s Lucky Luciano (73), portraying the CIA-linked mafioso. But his greatest work was as Mattei, in this seldom seen, massively underrated masterpiece.


Stuart Klawans details that ballsy Citizen Kanereference, also in Film Comment (Jan 1995):

Stylized, expressionistic surprises recur throughout the first phase of Rosi’s career. To take an example from The Mattei Affair: A journalist who is preparing a report on the sudden death of the industrialist Enrico Mattei holds up an old photograph of him, taken in 1945. The camera moves in until the screen’s frame matches the photograph’s; then the still image comes to life, and the story continues in flashback. It’s essentially the same trick that Orson Welles used when he brought to life a photograph of Charles Foster Kane’s newspaper staff. Is it pure coincidence that Rosi should have duplicated Welles–another hubristic figure who thought he was bigger than the establishment, and suffered for it? Is it just coincidence that the journalistic investigation of Mattei’s death recapitulates the inquiry into Kane’s? I also note that The Mattei Affair begins with a mystery about a private airplane. So, too, does Mr. Arkadin, the alternate title of which–Confidential Report–would go very nicely with half a dozen of Rosi’s films.




Roger Greenspun, writing for The New York Times, gives essential background info:

In the time between the end of World War II and his death in 1962, Enrico Mattei put together an industrial-service complex that was at the very least instrumental in shaping Italy’s postwar economic boom. Based on the discovery of abundant natural gas in the Po valley, but extending to chains of service stations and hotels, to deals with Arabian oil countries, with the Soviet Union and potentially even with China, Mattei’s work served neither his own gain nor a private corporation, but rather the national Government—which his enemies asserted he more or less openly controlled.


Mattei had enemies enough, and on an international scale, for his power, his ambition, his corrosive energy, and for such outrages to the prerogatives of private enterprise as actually lowering the price of gasoline through economies effected by a state-owned monopoly. And when he died, in the crash of his private airplane, there was some question whether he died by accident or by carefully concealed design.  


The mystery of Mattei’s life and death, and of the investigation following the death, is the subject of Francesco Rosi’s “The Mattei Affair,” co-winner of the Grand Prize last year at Cannes, which opened yesterday at the Little Carnegie Theater. It is a subject not too unlike the life and death of Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane, or of the famous Sicilian bandit who is the elusive hero of Rosi’s own fine early movie, “Salvatore Giuliano” (1961).


Richard Schickel, reviewing the film on its original release, wrote:

As played by Gian Maria Volonte… Mattei himself emerges as a fascinating enigma—proud, driven, a masterful manipulator. His sheer energy—and his peculiar sense of realism, which appears to have been a blend of cynicism and idealism—compels attention. A pioneer conglomerator, he headed a state-owned corporation and drove himself not for money (he apparently had no life, let alone luxury, outside the office), but for power and, perhaps, for love of a game in which he delightedly cast himself in the role of spoiler.


Joseph B., at itsamadmadblog2, talks about Rosi’s visual design:

“The Mattei Affair” features a unique visual schematic, none more so exciting than the stationary shot of a 17 story building slowly turning on its office lights as news of Mattei’s death burns across the wire. Or the dusk shots of methane being pumped from its deposits and Mattei confidently holding his arms up in a sign of victory which surely prompts the viewer to echo the manic determination presented in P.T. Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”…. a film which surely cites Rosi’s effort as its antecedent.


Gino Moliterno for Senses of Cinema:

Like the bandit Giuliano, Enrico Mattei had been a powerful and charismatic public figure in Italy in the immediate postwar era. Appointed to wind up the Italian Petroleum Agency, he had instead expanded it and used the new company, ENI, to both explore new sources of energy for Italy and to create a personal power base within the Italian political scene. Machiavellian and idealistic at the same time, Mattei openly used the company’s funds to bribe politicians of all persuasions to support its ventures. An energetic and astute entrepreneur, Mattei resented the big American companies’ control over oil prices and so initiated direct discussions with Russia and with a number of Arab countries in order to procure cheaper oil for Italy and, in the process, a better deal for the producing countries. Thus, by the early 1960s, Mattei had become a thorn in the side of both the American oil companies and the American government and his political machinations had also created a number of powerful enemies at home. Then, in 1962, at the very height of his power and influence, Mattei was killed when his private plane crashed just outside Milan. The official version held that the plane had simply gone down in bad weather but this ignored the testimony of a number of eyewitnesses who claimed that the plane had exploded in mid-air before plunging to earth.

As he had done in Giuliano, in Il caso Mattei Rosi employs a non-linear investigative mode which allows him to bring together, often paratactically or in juxtaposition, a range of disparate materials, both real and fictionally recreated, in an attempt to get closer to the truth. As in Giuliano, Rosi’s strategy prompts the viewer to notice a number of possible connections and motivated complicities but without supplying any exclusive or definitive interpretation. Significantly, at one point in the film the investigation of Mattei’s death ten years earlier comes to be intertwined with the contemporary investigation of the disappearance of a journalist who was working with Rosi on the film at the Sicilian end, exploring the possible involvement of the Mafia. The journalist, De Mauro, in fact was never seen again, so that the film, quite literally, created more questions than it answered.


And The Time Out Film Guide weighs in:

The Mattei Affair is Point Blank played out at the level of power politics and monopolistic economic intrigue. Essential viewing.


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