Puccini Through Benvenuti’s Lens: In the magnificent movie Puccini e la fanciulla, Paolo Benvenuti unveils secrets, silence and colours of the great Italian composer


Sometimes the story preceding a movie– the original glimpse of an idea, the attentive archive research, the choice of characters and settings – is as interesting and compelling as the movie itself. That’s the case of Puccini e la fanciulla (Puccini and The Girl), the last magnificent movie by Paolo Benvenuti and Paola Baroni produced by Arsenali Medicei and the Fondazione Festival Pucciniano. The release of the movie coincides with the 150th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s birth and sheds a new light on the Italian composer’s life and genius.

Giacomo Puccini as played by Riccardo Joshua Moretti (Photo Courtesy P. Benvenuti)
Giacomo Puccini as played by Riccardo Joshua Moretti (Photo Courtesy P. Benvenuti)

Presented at the last edition of the Venice Film Festival, the movie was welcomed as one of the most original and extraordinary piece of art of the last years, for its absolute formal rigour, thegreat pictorial quality of the mise-enscène,and the primary interest of the story, which granted the film the “Poverima belli” Collateral Award and enthusiastic reviews all over the world.

Puccini e la fanciulla was conceived to elucidate one of the darkest episodes in the Maestro’s life: the tragedy of Doria Manfredi, his young maid servant, who committed suicide in January 1909,while Puccini was composing a new opera based on the drama by David Belasco, The Girl of the Golden West.

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The movie is the fruit of a six-year archive research led by Benvenuti himself and a group of sixteen young people from Intolerance, the film school of Viareggio, Tuscany. Investigating the mysterious death of Doria Manfredi and the events surrounding the composition of Puccini’s opera, the young scholars searched through the immense bibliography on Puccini and his private letters kept at the Centro Studi Pucciniani in Lucca. They went up to Torre del Lago, the small Tuscany village where Puccini used to live and find the inspiration for his masterpieces, with the purpose of interviewing the older people of the village and collecting their memories. But what they came up with was an impenetrable wall of silence, almost mafia-like.

The fact emerging from Puccini’s letters was that Doria had been accused by Elvira, Giacomo’s wife, of being her husband’s mistress. But the circumstances of the event and the reason why Doria never defended herself still remained obscure. Another mystery emerging from the research was related to the composition of The Girl of the Golden West. In their search, in fact, the students came across in a very interesting statement from a book by Aldo Valleroni: “The famous Don Juanism of Puccini was not an end in itself, but was functional to his creativity.” Apparently it was a minor consideration, but it hid a remarkable truth: every time Puccini composed an opera, he magically fell in love with an actual incarnation of his heroine. Interestingly, after the opera was finished, the affair would be concluded as well. The book mentioned various women corresponding to the female protagonists of his works, from Bohème to Butterfly to Turandot, but no “Muse” could be found for Minnie, the heroine of The Girl of The Golden West. The first question that crossed their mind was: could Doria possibly be the model for Minnie? But the two figures were too different to be directly related. What finally emerged was that in Puccini’s life there was another woman, Giulia, who was Doria’s cousin and the daughter of Emilio, the owner of the chalet-restaurant in front of the Puccini villa. Giulia was Puccini’s lover, as well as the real-life corresponding model for Minnie that the researchers were looking for. But the story doesn’t end there: apparently Giulia became pregnant and gave birth to a child, Antonio Manfredi, who was never recognized by the parents and died in misery in 1988. In 2007, Benvenuti managed to meet Antonio’s daughter and told her that she could reasonably be Puccini’s granddaughter (apparently the resemblance was stunning). She then showed him a dusty suitcase belonged to her deceased father, which she had never opened before. The suitcase contained photos and letters from Puccini to Giulia, written from 1908 to 1922, which indisputably proved their relationship. But the surprises were not over: in a biscuit tin inside the suitcase there was an old film clip dated 1915 showing Puccini playing the piano, writing, smoking and walking in his villa. It was an exceptional document of immense historical value. However, Benvenuti did not want to make use of this extraordinary discovery in his movie, firmly convinced that the life of this document was different and independent of that of his film. Holding to his purpose of not mixing reality with filmic reconstruction, Benvenuti only focused his movie on the events that took place in Torre del Lago in 1908.

And that’s where the movie starts: Puccini, interpreted by the internationally renowned musician Riccardo Joshua Moretti, is composing The Girl of the Golden West and regularly attends Emilio’s chalet in front of his villa, where this magnificent woman, Giulia, serves up wine and smiles. One day, Puccini’s maid servant Doria Manfredi surprises Fosca, the composer’s step-daughter, in the arms of her lover, Guelfo Civinini, Puccini’s young librettist. To prevent Doria from revealing the truth, Fosca spurs her mother Elvira to spy on Doria, suggesting that she might have a relationship with Giacomo. One night, Elvira follows her husband to a secluded spot and catches him kissing a woman. Convinced it is Doria, she starts persecuting the poor girl and destroying her reputation. Only guilty of having played the role of “love messenger” between Puccini and her cousin Giulia, Doria is annihilated by Elvira’s attacks and finds her only possibility for redemption in suicide. The peculiarity of the movie is that there are no dialogues. And this is exactly what is so exceptional and audacious in Benvenuti’s work: a “silent film” on one of the greatest musicians of all the times. The only sounds we hear in the movie are the voice-overs reading the letters of the people involved in the story, the sounds of nature, and the music composed by Puccini. In Benvenuti’s aesthetic view of the world, such silence was the only way to reach the total purity of the cinematographic language, where the music becomes one with the image, without any other interference.

Benvenuti’s background as a painter is also evident in the visual construction of the movie: every frame has the stylistic perfection of a painting. With great mastery, he reconstructs in detail not only the secret life of a great composer but also the social imagery of a rural Italy that no longer exists. The movie is therefore a kinesthetic experience, involving the deepest forms of perception and emotion: the great homage of an artist to the imperishable memory of a genius.

Laura Giacalone is the Associate Editor of the Italian Journal.