Johnny the Partisan

From Langhe’s snowy hills to the movie screen, the ardous journey of Johnny the partisan covers more than half a century of literature and culture of our country.

Passing through a long and troubled gestation, the novel which tells us what the partisans and the Resistance have been in Italy was published only in 1968, posthumous and incomplete, with a title decided by the editor of the first edition. So, the work arrived on the literary stage when the novelists of neorealism had already delivered the memories of the war to the printed paper (“Men or not men” was published in 1941, while “The path to the nest of the spiders” in 1947). What caused this latecoming? Fenoglio has never hidden the fact that for him writing in Italian was really difficult. He considered it an unnatural work, bent on the pages dealing with thoughts which were born in English, the language of youthful readings that was indissolubly melted with his artistic production. The result of this continuous (maybe existential) effort of translation and correction characterized all his works, which have often been rewritten in more than one version (some of which were lost or burned because of the author’s dissatisfaction), and it became an endless path of literary reworking. Fenoglio was looking for a magmatic and ductile language, born from an infinite experimentation and able to emancipate itself from the standards of syntactic and lexical orthodoxy. Exactly because of its intimately written nature, born from a research that is essentially a quest for the language (and not for the image), for a long period the novel remained far from screenwriters’ and directors’ attention, probably intimidated by the difficulties of the translation into the language of the camera. Only in 2000 Guido Chiesa resumed “Johnny’s war” (a screenplay written in 1984 during his years at university) and he took the risk of bringing Fenoglio’s literary world into the movie theater’s. The project was ambitious, especially if we consider the budget, since there was a higher number of locations and extras compared to Italian productions standards. However, the movie obtained only a lukewarm reaction from the public (even icy if we consider the box office receipts). In defense of the director, someone may say that the effort was particularly severe. In the case of “Johnny the partisan”, in fact, the dilemma of the conversion of a literary product into a different language assumes a relevant peculiarity. How could someone transpose through images the complex code of neologisms, hybrid constructs and interlingual loans that characterizes the novel? Fenoglio’s avant-garde extremism could have been answered with a stylistic unscrupulousness, but Guido Chiesa, loyal to his documentary footprint, chose a solid representation which was able to fill up some of the novel’s structural weaknesses, such as the fact that the convoluted language often makes the action difficult to be visualized.
Similar considerations could be made about the introspective dimension which assumes in the novel’s economy a position of crucial importance. Fenoglio places himself in a tradition which goes from Conrad to Stevenson and he build up an initiatory path that will determine the development of the hero. In fact, starting from a bookish idealism Johnny reaches a more radical idealism forged on the (puritan?) ethics of the “sparrow that will never fall”, according to which the fight against fascism becomes the historical manifestation of an eschatological conflict which was born in the maze of the consciousness. In this case, the identified cinematographic solution is the one of giving to Johnny’s voice-off his deepest thoughts (“Really, I’m in the wrong sector of the right side”). In such a way, Guido Chiesa chooses a compromise which involves an inevitable impoverishment compared to the psychological intensity of the literary version. Even if it suffers from these limits (common to the majority of movies based on adapted screenplays), Guido Chiesa’s work manages to achieve, at least in a few poetic sequences, the metaphysical inspiration which covers the novel’s pages, where a coleridgian nature amplifies Johnny’s restlessness and heroic aspirations. And above all, it has the merit of leading into the new millennium a novel which, thanks to its anti-rhetorical connotation (“The partisans are the least important part of the play”), brings a very topical message of moral (and not only political) individualism.

English version supervised by Irene Tossi