'For Lucio' review: The voice of Italy for four decades

Chubby and shaggy, preferring floppy hats and round glasses, Lucio Dalla didn’t look much like a pop star. A jazz clarinetist who rein...


Chubby and shaggy, preferring floppy hats and round glasses, Lucio Dalla didn’t look much like a pop star. A jazz clarinetist who reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter, Dalla nonetheless became one of Italy’s most beloved troubadours in the closing decades of the 20th century. His songs were rhapsodic and discursive, polemical and observant—often in the span of a single verse—and his voice could shift from conversational intimacy to full-throated passion just as quickly.

“Pour Lucio”, the new documentary by Pietro Marcello, offers a portrait of Dalla that is both informative and enigmatic. More of an essay film than a standard musical biography, it emphasizes personality rather than timeline and dwells more on work than life. Instead of assembling the usual squadron of talking heads, Marcello focuses on just two interview subjects, both of whom knew Dalla well.

Her manager, Umberto Righi – everyone calls him Tobia – appears alone in the first part of the film, putting flowers on Dalla’s grave and recalling the early years of their association. Later, Tobia is joined by Stefano Bonaga, who knew Dalla when they were children in Bologna. This being Italy, the two men sit down and reminisce about a leisurely pasta lunch, stopping to sip wine and light cigarettes. Their conversation sometimes turns abstract, and the way they describe their old friend (died in 2012, at 68) do not always paint a vivid picture. We hear he was unpredictable, brilliant and generous, but there’s a curious dearth of anecdotes that could bring those traits to life.

More satisfying is the archival material that Marcello collects. Dalla is seen in concert, on television variety shows, in proto-music videos and in conversation with journalists. These moments largely explain its appeal. They show an outspoken intellectual who could be mischievous, fiery or gnomic, and whose songs captured both the exuberant spirit of Italian popular culture and the country’s political agony and social unrest in the 1960s and 70.

Although Dalla released hit records in the 80s and 90s, it’s the earlier period that most interests Marcello, particularly the years of the early 70s when Dalla collaborated with the Bolognese on the left. poet and writer Roberto Roversi. The filmmaker, who has directed both documentaries and feature-length fiction films (recently, and notably, “Martin Eden”), is fascinated by stories of class struggle, ideological conflict and intellectual turmoil. He juxtaposes images of war, poverty and labor unrest with Dalla’s songs to underscore their messages and explain their context. A dark climax is provided by the bombing of Bologna Central Station in 1980, an act of right-wing terrorism that was the deadliest incident of political violence in an era known in Italy as the Years of Lead.

Even when the subject of a song is not explicitly political – as in “Nuvolari”, a rambling ballad about a famous racing driver – there’s a sense of urgency and struggle in Dalla and Roversi’s lyrics and in the voice that delivers them. One of the most striking passages of “For Lucio” is the performance, before an audience of workers, of “Itaque”, a song that evokes Homer’s “Odyssey” from the perspective of ordinary sailors. This kind of romantic populism connects Dalla to Latin America New Cancion movement, while his music incorporates influences from Brazilian bossa nova and tropicália as well as popular European and North American styles.

Despite all his cosmopolitanism, he remains a typically Italian figure, and “For Lucio” is a film concerned above all with Italy’s cultural memory and identity. This can make it a challenge even for Italophiles or students of history, music and the like. This is by no means “Lucio for Beginners”. Nor is it a greatest hits anthology or a tell-all “behind the music.” It is a tribute and an invitation to new research.

For Lucia
Unclassified. In Italian, with subtitles. Duration: 1h19. Watch on Mubi.

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