Gillo Pontecorvo began as a documentarian and his interest in social and political issues was already evident in early works like Giovanni (1955), which follows a textile laborer and her female co-workers through punishing work conditions into a full-blown protest against the factory owners. So it comes as no surprise that his first feature length film, The Wide Blue Road (aka La Grande Strada Azzurra, 1957), has an underlying social agenda even if it looks like a slice-of-life melodrama on the surface.
Unfortunately, U.S. audiences weren’t able to see The Wide Blue Road until 2001 when the combined efforts of Milestone Films, director Jonathan Demme and actor Dustin Hoffman resulted in the film’s official American premiere 44 years after its original release. Pontecorvo, an Italian director who is best known for The Battle of Algiers (1965), a fiery, impassioned account of the Algerian guerilla struggle against the French (1954 -1957), has stated that the title refers to the “image of a boat, in late afternoon, drawing a line in the sea, a trail.”
The story, which could be interpreted as a political allegory, follows a renegade fisherman named Giovanni Squarciò (Yves Montand) who resorts to illegal tactics in order to provide for his family. While the other fishermen from his economically depressed village use nets to catch their fish, Squarciò succeeds in bringing in larger catches through the use of dynamite. Surprisingly, the other fishermen don’t resent Squarciò’s methods; instead they admire him for his daring. The Coast Guard, however, feel otherwise and vow to punish Squarciò for his open defiance of them.
The Wide Blue Road is heavily influenced by the Italian Neorealism movement, particularly the films of Roberto Rossellini, but it also predates the French New Wave of the late fifties in its stylistic approach to the social and political issues of the story. At first glance, the film is a beautifully photographed character study about conflicts within a peasant fishing village, but underneath is another scenario that pits capitalist ingenuity against Communist collectivism. Regardless of his intentions, Pontecorvo reportedly was very disappointed with his first feature, saying in a New York Times interview with Bill Desowitz, “I was so sad that it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I wanted to shoot it in black and white, and I felt Alida [Valli] was too exquisite to play the wife of a fisherman, and I felt it had too much melodrama. But Rossellini told me: ‘Don’t be stupid! This is only your first film. It’s not that bad. There will be more.'”
Pontecorvo would go on to make such controversial films as Kapo (1960), which was set in a Polish concentration camp, and the internationally acclaimed The Battle of Algiers, both of which were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars. Burn! (1969), starring Marlon Brando as a diplomat trying to suppress a slave revolt on a Portuguese-controlled Caribbean island, was the last Pontecorvo feature to receive a decent theatrical release in the U.S.
Despite Pontecorvo’s reservations about The Wide Blue Road, the film has many ardent supporters, such as Jonathan Demme, who said, “the use of locations and the acting is extraordinary. This is no curio; this is a great, great tragic story. It brought me to tears. And what can you say about Yves? He was such an ultra-testosterone romantic male. I just couldn’t believe it when I heard that the film had never been distributed in the U.S.”
For anyone unfamiliar with French actor/singer Yves Montand, The Wide Blue Road is a great introduction to this magnetic screen presence. While deservedly famous for his macho portrayal of a dynamite-carrying truck driver in The Wages of Fear (1953), Pontecorvo’s film is an even better showcase for Montand’s talents. Interestingly enough, the actor’s own background is very close to the outsider character he plays in The Wide Blue Road; the son of Italian immigrants living in France, Montand grew up in poverty and supported himself with a variety of occupations – busboy, bartender, factory laborer – before gaining fame as a chansonnier in Paris under the “sponsorship” of internationally renown singer Edith Piaf.
Pontecorvo recalled that during the filming of The Wide Blue Road, “Yves was such a showman. He was not only very patient with me, but he served as my assistant. He would do anything you asked. He couldn’t swim and was afraid at first, but we attached a rope to him and he made it look so easy with that graceful body of his.” Graceful might not be the best word to describe Montand’s famous dog-paddling scene but everything else he does in the film looks effortless, and inspired New York Times critic Stephen Holden to write that Montand gives “a star performance radiant with macho glamour.”
The one aspect of The Wide Blue Road that prevents many current day viewers from sympathizing with Montand’s Squarciò is his flagrant use of dynamite to catch fish. Not only is such a practice completely destructive to marine life and the local ecosystem but a guaranteed way to hasten the extinction of numerous ocean species. Instead of looking like a gutsy, lone wolf survivalist, Squarciò sets a bad example for the human race with his entitled behavior – here is a man who knows he is at the top of the food chain and all lower life forms are fair game for his exploitation.
Still, it has to be said that Montand is enormously charismatic in this film and it’s fascinating to see the beautiful Alida Valli (The Third Man, The Paradine Case) in a deglamorized role as his wife, Rosetta. The Wide Blue Road also features an early performance by Mario Girotti, who would later change his name to Terence Hill and become an international star, thanks to his appearances in such popular spaghetti Westerns as They Call Me Trinity (1970) and My Name Is Nobody (1973). Spanish actor Francisco Rabal is also prominently featured as Squarciò’s former best friend, Salvatore. Rabal has one of the most versatile and envious filmographies of any film actor in the 20th century having appeared in films by Juan Antonio Bardem (Death of a Cyclist), Luis Bunuel (Nazarin, Viridiana, Belle du Jour), Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Eclisse), Jacques Rivette (The Nun), Valerio Zurlini (The Desert of the Tartars), William Friedkin (Sorcerer, a remake of The Wages of Fear) and Carlos Saura (Goya in Bordeaux) to name just a few.
The Wide Blue Road has yet to be released on Blu-Ray but you might be able to find an affordable DVD of it if you are willing to go on an extensive internet hunt. Unfortunately, current used copies are going for as high as $96 on Amazon and Milestone Films only offers a DVD institutional rate with PPR and 3-Year Streaming for $249.00. But if films like Demonoid: Messenger of Death (1981), Nashville Girl (1976) and The Sicilian Connection (1971) can all get Blu-Ray upgrades in 2015, maybe there is hope for The Wide Blue Road. * This is a revised and extended version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.