Luigi Squarzina and Gian Maria Volonte in The Mattei Case

Francesco Rosi is probably not one of the first names you think of when you hear the words ‘Italian cinema’, but the director—who turns 88 later this year—has created an impressive body of work nonetheless. Beginning Thursday, July 8, Pacific Film Archive’s new series, Modernist Master: The Cinema of Francesco Rosi, provides Bay Area filmgoers with the opportunity to acquaint themselves with some of the rarest films produced by this underappreciated auteur.

Consider Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Case), which screens at 7:00pm  on Sunday, July 11. The film briefly played in New York City in May 1973 but never had a wider American release, and it’s easy to see why: it’s about a man virtually no-one in the United States had heard of, and about an industry no-one in the United States cared about—at least until the OPEC oil embargo began to bite a few months later.

The man in question was Enrico Mattei, a left-wing oil tycoon (now there’s a nice oxymoron for you!), who, after fighting as a partisan during World War II, was appointed chief executive of the state-run Agip Petroli S.p.A., a company dedicated to the development of Italian oil resources. In 1947, the government began planning to sell the company to private investors, but Mattei fought tooth and nail to keep it in the public sector. He won the battle, but made quite a few enemies in the process.

Rosi’s film features a tour de force performance by Gian Maria Volonte as the dapper Mattei, and examines the byzantine political and business dealings that made Agip (which merged with ENI S.p.A. in 1953) a competitor with the multinationals. It also explores the frequently contradictory nature of Mattei, who espoused Maoism while (in best Berlusconi style) purchasing all sorts of goodies for himself, including private planes and newspapers.

Mattei died in a Milan plane crash in October 1962, and the film implies that his death was not accidental. The film also details the 1970 disappearance of reporter Mauro de Mauro, hired by Rosi to examine the circumstances surrounding Mattei’s last days in Sicily, and Rosi himself makes a cameo appearance as—what else—a filmmaker planning a film about Mattei.

Il caso Mattei is sometimes described as a ‘political thriller’, but that’s not entirely accurate. There’s no attempt to develop suspense or examine the multifarious conspiracies rife throughout post-war Italy. Nor is the film a mindless hagiography: though Volonte’s robust performance makes the oilman a sympathetic character, his flaws—including an oversized ego and an overweening pride—are prominently displayed.

Written by the legendary Tonino Guerra (who had already penned several scripts for Michaelangelo Antonioni) and featuring a memorable (if claustrophobic) musique concrete score by Piero Piccioni, Il caso Mattei isn’t likely to show up on stateside television or home video any time soon. For anyone interested in Italian cinema (or Italian politics for that matter), make tracks for PFA this coming Sunday.

For more information about this series, visit the Pacific Film Arhive website.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...