In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Contempt, starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, and director Fritz Lang, the house is first seen from above. Piccoli and Lang are making their way down a densely overgrown path toward the dark red edifice framed at the end of a steep promontory overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. They have been discussing the script of “Odysseus,” the film that Lang is shooting on the island of Capri.
From this point forward, up to the movie’s final right to left panning shot across the flat rooftop to the open sea beyond, the house becomes the fifth character in the movie’s drama, with Lang directing the film within a film, quietly enduring the rants of Palance’s Joseph Levine-like producer: a vulgarian interested only in Bardot’s body and protecting his money. Palance’s Jeremy Prokosch proclaims histrionically, “Every time I hear the word ‘culture’ I bring out my checkbook.”
The crew has descended on this odd house, known as the “Casa Malaparte,” a remote sentinel on a steep stone outcropping called Punta Massulo. It is here that the final act of Contempt plays out.
A Spanish architectural student has made a mashup of many of the moments in the movie that feature the house; it ends with Bardot and Piccoli descending the 99 hewn steps leading from the house to the sea:
At the time of filming in 1962 the owner of the house, writer and polymath Curzio Malaparte, had been dead for five years; the property had been abandoned, falling into the semi-decrepit state seen in the movie. Godard seemed uninterested in even painting the peeling, curvilinear, sail-like wall that is the sole vertical feature of the flat, precipitous rooftop. Construction on the house had begun in 1937 when Curzio Malaparte was living on Capri during one of his several internal exiles from the Italian fascist government. Architect Adalberto Libera had made an early, box-like design, but he and Malaparte soon had a falling out; Malaparte then redesigned the house himself and hired a local stonemason, Adolfo Amatrano, to work with him. The house went through several design phases during WWII but was sufficiently finished for Malaparte to take up residence before 1943. Noted architect Michael McDonough has described the house as, “a building with an ontology as complex as the twentieth century, often called by those who have seen it, simply, the most beautiful house in the world.” Malaparte referred to it as “Casa come me,” (A house like me.)
Who is this “me?” Curzio Malaparte is his nom de plume; his birth name is Kurt Erich Suchert, born in 1898 of a German father and Italian mother, in the medieval trading town of Prato, Tuscany.
His picaresque, even chaotic, life is the stuff of grand fiction, even of the movies. He lived as a “Renaissance man,” a decorated WWI soldier (seriously wounded in a gas attack near Reims), as an emerging political figure in the rise of Mussolini, a multi-lingual, peripatetic journalist, a novelist and poet, an architect, a film director and composer. Yet, despite all the very public roles he embraced—there is something deeply private, even enigmatic about him—a figure who appeared to change identities and political positions as easily as changing an overcoat.
Even the name Malaparte, which Suckert adopted in 1925, is as ambiguous as he was: Is it an ironic variation on Napoléon Buonaparte? Or an apt and fateful description of himself as the “bad part” who would never fit, or at least not for very long, any of the roles that he assumed or that society assigned to him? (At Hitler’s suggestion, Mussolini threw him out of the Fascist Party and sentenced him to prison for five years in 1933.) The contradictions and collisions of his life seem like a sped-up film of the first half of the twentieth century: German-Italian, Protestant-Catholic, soldier-pacifist, Fascist-Communist, journalist-novelist, editor-architect, film director-composer, diplomat-prisoner. (Quote from an essay by filmmaker/editor Walter Murch, who has translated a volume of Malaparte’s poems and short stories.)
In the introduction to his monograph, McDonough addresses the thorny question of Malaparte’s shifting personae:
Where enthusiasts see repudiation of a youthful romance with fascism’s possibilities, detractors see self-aggrandizement and insincerity. There is a sense that Malaparte constructed his life and work for effect, [like his house?] and that together they can be understood as art or artifice, as one will.
A very public advocate of Mussolini and Hitler’s rise to power, Malaparte’s allegiances shifted. During the war, and after years of internal exile in the late 1930s, he became a wartime journalist for the newspaper Corriere della Sera, often reporting from the dangerous, shifting lines on the Eastern Front. He became a liason officer for the American High Command when the allies invaded Italy. A recognition of the horrors that had been unleashed in Europe, led him to a postwar radical shift to the political left and pacifism, then to Marxism, becoming a member of the Italian Communist Party, followed by a visit to Maoist China and an embrace of its revolution: finally, and strangest of all, a deathbed embrace of Roman Catholicism and the taking of the Last Rites. This act may have been foreseen in the only motion picture he directed, Cristo Proibito (Forbidden Christ), released in the United States in 1951 as Strange Deception.
The only available DVD is non-region 1, but there is a sequence on YouTube that is the film’s centerpiece, a religious holiday procession; it gives evidence of the visual sophistication of Malaparte. The cinematography is by Gábor Pogány who a decade later would photograph the Oscar winning Two Women with Sophia Loren for Vittorio De Sica.
Malaparte’s book on war reportage, The Volga Rises in Europe, was published in 1943, followed the next year by Kaputt that has been described by Milan Kundera:
It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.
The autobiographical elements in Malaparte’s journalism seem to anticipate the “New Journalism” of the 1960s, and have been compared to Michael Herr’s Vietnam book, Dispatches or Norman Mailer’s late 60s political works.
In 1947 Malaparte published La Pelle (The Skin) a surrealist look back at the war that is described by the editor D. Moore:
In all the literature that derives from the Second World War, there is no other book that so brilliantly or so woundingly presents triumphant American innocence against the background of the European experience of destruction and moral collapse.
In 1999, Michael McDonough wrote and edited a comprehensive look at the many sides of Curzio Malaparte in Malaparte: A House Like Me.
Library Journal cites the diversity of reflections on the man that are explored in the book:
This somewhat surreal book, with a foreword by Tom Wolfe, is a portfolio of essays, photographs, drawings, and paintings from 38 contributors (including writer Colman Andrews, actor Willem Dafoe, designer Philippe Starck, architects Robert Venturi and Michael Graves, photographer Mimo Jodice, and cartoonist Ed Koren). Intended to boost the development of Casa Malaparte as a center for international art, literature, and ideas, the assorted content assesses both the house and the man who lived there.
The book is a comprehensive look at the interlocking facets of this complex man in a way that individual works can’t explore. It is a verbal and visual portrait of a place, of a time, and of a man, his many personae abrading and overlapping, as only the messiness of such a life can.
I first heard of the Casa Malaparte and the man who created it through the Godard film. But this strange house was doomed to remain one of those iconic film locations that hover on the fringes of one’s consciousness as a purely cinematic dream. It was the publication of McDonough’s book that reawakened for me the memory of this fortress crafted from local stone and tiles. Martin Scorsese’s re-embrace of Contempt and the release of a Criterion DVD made it possible to access the film at one’s command. Some critics cite Contempt as the greatest film made about filmmaking. But there are also dissenters, such as Lawrence Russell who wrote an incisive takedown in the opening paragraphs of a longer critical essay on Malaparte:
Many people like Contempt, see it as a hip insider’s view of the movie business, and a damning of the Hollywood method — that crass capitalistic credo that brutalizes old Europe and her prerogative in Art. Combine this with the usual Godard pop-art funkiness — that iconographic magazine ad style — wherein he collages an American star with a French star has them directed by the maestro Fritz Lang, and what have you got? A post-modern multi-cultural classic?
Another YouTube clip features shots of the cast, beginning with a graceful dolly of Fritz Lang with monocle, a languorous pan of Bardot’s bum, ending with Piccoli ascending the exterior stairs looking for his wife.
Russell also sees the house as an intricate metaphor:
The setting here is brilliant insofar as the Casa Malaparte is a hybrid of ancient and modern architecture. In truth, the building looks quite shabby in 1962 [this was written after Russell had made a production set visit], its low squat profile, flaking stucco and rusting barred windows making it look like an abandoned artillery bunker from the Second World War. Could be German, could be Italian — just like its creator, the writer Curzio Malaparte. Despite the condition, the dualism of the concept dominates…. the rectilinear modernism of the actual building acting as support for the 32 steps that fan upwards to the flat roof like an inverted pyramid, creating an open platform theatre. No walls, no railings, no parapets… nothing to impede the view or the communion. This temple minimalism with its straight-line modernism and curved-line paganism exists in contradiction, a terminus to nowhere and somewhere simultaneously.
A behind the scenes “making of” documentary by Jacques Rozier (Le Parti des Choses), affords a few glimpses of the architecture but principally highlights a scene shot on the beach below the house. The shooting plan had been to do a dolly shot with Piccoli and Bardot walking on the beach, but after an overnight storm had washed away the sand, the scene was shifted onto a boat. For those of you who already know the film, these scenes of Godard (dressed like Piccoli, in tight pants and fedora, and playing the AD) and the camera crew give yet another dimension to the film within the film that reminds me of my own such venture with Werner Herzog and Zak Penn in Incident at Loch Ness. The footage in the Rozier documentary is not subtitled here but is included in the out of print Criterion Collection DVD which has several extras. Toward the end of Rozier’s film there are shots of Godard and Lang in conversation between setups.
Rozier’s narration explains that Godard’s films are all about women; the movie Contempt is fully in this mode– that it is not about Bardot becoming Camille, but about Camille becoming Bardot, much as do the Anna Karina roles in his other films. Godard has said he allows the actors to play themselves.
The Casa Malaparte, is accessible by sea, but only when the beach is not pounded by breaking waves. Otherwise, it must be reached by a walk of about an hour across intervening private property. This seems only a fitting “path” to the refuge of a man who had seen so much of 20th century’s strife and turmoil, who built his refuge— that only by an arduous trek could visitors interrupt his solitude.
One thing may be certain. Had Curzio Malaparte still been alive in 1963, it is doubtful that a film crew would have gained entry to Casa Malaparte as a movie “location.”