During their student days, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani started shooting documentary films. Their first completed short, "San Miniato, July 1944" (1954), a collaboration with Cesare Zavattini, the cornerstone screenwriter of the Italian neorealist movement, concerned a Nazi massacre in their hometown. Working as a team from the start, the early Taviani films were influenced by and often made with Valentino Orsini, a resistance fighter. A turning point in their work, as well as Italian political cinema in general, was "Subversives" (1967), which combined documentary footage of a prominent Communist leader's funeral and the story of four people for whom this death raises numerous questions about their political future.
Often concerned with the social and political problems specific to southern Italy, the Tavianis work together on the writing, design, and direction of all their feature films. Their primary inspiration was Roberto Rossellini's "Paisan" (1946), a film which treated contemporaneous life honestly and suggested means for its improvement. A number of their films also display the influence of such mammoth Italian silents as "Cabiria" (1914) and the parallel American epics of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. (The brothers' "Good Morning, Babylon" 1986, telling of two Italian brothers who emigrate to the USA and ultimately work building sets for Griffith's landmark "Intolerance" 1916, is an affectionate though not apolitical tribute to such influences.) Although their first films used non-professional actors, natural lighting, location shooting, ambient sound and working-class situations, the Tavianis have altered this approach in search of a style adequate to their own times. Using ambiguity of character and motivation to suggest the impossibility of portraying historical truth, they present subjective views of history based on objective fact. They have rejected the neorealist aesthetic in favor of a more metaphoric film language, as embodied, for example, in the narrative structure of their time-spanning saga of a cursed family, "Fiorile" (1993). Perhaps because their childhood was dominated by plays rather than movies, the Tavianis are strongly influenced by the theater. Their tendency to emphasize invention and staging calls narrative perspective into question and proclaims their work as interpretations of history rather than documentaries. "The Night of San Lorenzo/The Night of the Shooting Stars" (1981), a feature-length remake of "San Miniato, July 1944", exemplifies this quality and its effect. A flat, painted mural of a window opening out to a starry night is accompanied by a poetic voice-over describing the film as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. A child narrator, whose memories are corrected by adults, suggests the collective nature of memory and the capriciousness of individual recollection. Similarly, "Kaos" (1984), an adaptation of four Pirandello stories, each intended to be shown separately on television, describes how an enigmatic childhood memory blossoms forth in its full significance only as it is told and envisioned on film.
Music, and sound in general, are very important to the Tavianis' work. Both men are musicians who use their knowledge and appreciation of folk music and instruments, oratorio and classical presentation and the modern symphony of voices, radios and record players to reinforce their themes. In "Under the Sign of Scorpio" (1969), the camera's rhythm is determined by the music's pace to enforce the balletic, anti-naturalistic structure of the film. The Verdi operas which the Tavianis would see on trips to Florence in their youth also manifest themselves generally in their commitment to exploring the social ramifications of the excesses embodied in melodrama, and more specifically in the memorable "musical number" made of the militant march at the finale of their unjustly neglected "Allonsanfan" (1975).
The brilliant and powerful "Padre Padrone" (1977), the only film to win both the Grand Prix and the Critics International Prize at Cannes, is the Tavianis' best known work. Using a highly mobile camera, with elaborate aerial and pull-back shots, they scrutinize the relationship of a father and son who both suffer under a system of cruel domination. The film alternates extreme long shots of field, roads, or church interiors with close-ups in order to isolate characters in their determinant time and place as a means of explaining motivation. Within this dialectic of peasant and modern laws, silence and communication, father and child, the son learns to save himself through the telling of his story.
The theme of resistance and communal action in an ongoing, revolutionary effort is evident in all of the Tavianis' films. Even "Good Morning, Babylon", dismissed by some critics as an atypically light film for the brothers, reconfigures these ideas as they relate to the problematics of family custom and social hierarchies. Similarly, "Il sole anche di notte/Night Sun" (1990), a sensitive, spare adaptation of Tolstoy's study of a recluse, "Father Sergius", critiques the thought of social, political and philosophical retreat even as it admits the allure of such choices. The Tavianis often use an allegorical structure to discuss current events and relate them to the past, referring to anarchists of the 1870s in "Saint Michael Had a Rooster" (1971) and to the revolutionaries of 1816 in "Allonsanfan". They question the possibility of a "good" revolution, since upheaval is inevitably marked by bloodshed, injustice and innocent victims. In the Tavianis' view of history, one revolution replaces another in an everlasting struggle between the collective and the individual.
"The Night of San Lorenzo" best exemplifies the Tavianis' belief in history as a continual utopian rebirth based on military liberation and domestic reform. A deft combining of emotional involvement with characters who reflect the Tavianis' own lives and an ironic distancing through the use of slapstick, capped off with an overwhelmingly powerful scramble for life through grassy fields, the film narrates the past through a variety of perspectives to illuminate the present. This film, "Kaos", and "Fiorile" stress how Italian folk myth and popular religion define people's lives and their place in history. These films also suggest the entrenchment of patriarchy within these cultural traditions, as the family in "Fiorile" traces the acquisition of the nickname "Maledetti" (the cursed) over the course of many generations by a family whose surname is actually "Benedetti" (the blessed). The Tavianis believe that retelling history in a style appropriate to current needs, whether within a community or in a film, acts as an incantation to prevent the repetition of history's worst aspects.