Filmmaker and artist Giovanni Conarto, who died a week last Tuesday, was a truly remarkable individual. His all-too-infrequent exhibitions and film screenings were controversial and provocative, and his passing leaves an indescribable void in Italy's cultural scene.
Little is known of his childhood. He was born Guiseppe Buenito Marcello in 1934, and later changed his name in order, he said, to disinherit his father, who had been tragically decapitated in a freak backgammon accident only days before his birth. "The bastard sooner died than be there to see me come into the world", explained Conarto.
From an early age his teachers recognised his brilliant intellect, along with a talent for really annoying people. "I got on with him better than most", remembered his Latin teacher, decades later, "And I used to spend most of our lessons imagining all the different ways I could kill him."
He was awarded a philosophy scholarship to the prestigious Collegio del Cicero in Rome, and the excellent grounding he recieved in the questions of existence greatly influenced his later works.
After graduating, Conarto went into the cinema business, as a best boy. He was fortunate to work with many of the great names of Italian Cinema in the 60s, such as De Sica, Rosellini and Fellini. In 1968 he was offered the chance to direct his own film.
Sans Lux was a romance. Conarto chose to film the whole picture with the lens cap on the camera and no sound. Sophia Loren was originally cast in the starring role, but left after artistic differences with Conarto. He was a perfectionist, who insisted on what seemed like an endless number of takes until he was satisfied. Conarto defended this, explaining that because the audience would never see or hear the actors, it was vital that they be as good as possible. "People who pay to see this film have to understand that the performances were perfect. Otherwise we might as well not bother turning the projector on, and they can have their money back", he said.
Sans Lux was recieved with huge critical acclaim, though none of the major TV networks bought the rights to show it, making the film a financial failure, and Conarto's triumph bittersweet. Although he was never again offered a directing job in Italy, he did not let this discourage him, and his dream of making an even better film would be realised in Hollywood many years later.
In the meantime, Conarto spent the next decade of his life painting. His output was immense - in all he produced more than 100 large-scale works in just over nine years. At first, he spent 15 hours of each day painting, 8 hours sleeping, and 1 hour doing everything else. This frenetic pace was to lead to a nervous breakdown, and on medical advice he cut his painting down to only 12 hours.
During this time he did not exhibit at all. Finally in 1977, he announced that he was ready, that all of the paintings were perfect, and set a date for the opening of his first (and only) exhibition. The night before he held a party at a farm outside Rome, inviting many notable critics and famous people. Conarto himself was not present, and a large bonfire could be seen in the distance. At the end of the evening Conarto appeared and announced that he had burned every one of his paintings. "I look forward to seeing you all at the gallery tomorrow!".
Thus the exhibition consisted of blank walls, with small signs indicating what each work had been. Some critics denounced the whole thing as a stunt, others doubted whether the paintings ever existed. However, all of them were sold to collectors, and Conarto made enough money from this one showing to retire from art altogether.
Conarto was now an internationally reknowned figure, and was able to raise funding for his cinematic masterpeice "Lux", which was completed in 1979. It starred Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep as light bulbs, with the offscreen role of God given to Marlon Brando. De Niro famously spent 18 months preparing for this role by living inside a lighthouse, and Streep spent almost as long perfecting her accent.
As with the previous film, there was no sound, and the only picture was a blinding white light for the whole 3 hours. Unfortunately, the premiere was ill-fated when the projectionist suffered a heart attack and could not therefore change the reels. This was only noticed after the audience had sat looking at a white screen for 4 and a half hours. The first proper screening did not take place until the following day, and the picture was never put on general release.
The aborted premiere also proved unlucky for one New York paper's film critic whose rave review entitled "Three Breathless Hours of Pure Cinema" appeared the morning after. The writer in question returned from his unofficial leave in Acapulco to find himself out of a job.
Conarto left the US on the next available plane, and spent the rest of his life as a wealthy recluse evading the film's backers, who never got any of their money back.
When asked how he'd like to be remembered, Conarto is reported to have said "As a shady character. Who saw the light." He never married.