“Because I’m a genius!” The life and work of Lorenza Mazzetti

This writer-director is due proper recognition. Thanks in part to a new documentary, she’s finally getting it
September 6, 2023

“There are people whose souls are sick, who at times cannot find the energy to live,” Italian artist and filmmaker Lorenza Mazzetti once told a friend. “Like me, for instance.” Born in 1928, she arrived in England in 1951—her passport read “Undesirable Alien”—having lost almost everything. Her mother had died during childbirth. With her twin sister Paola she was raised on a Tuscan farm by an aunt and uncle (Robert Einstein, cousin of Albert). The aunt and her children were killed by SS officers in 1944, and their house set on fire. Robert, consumed by grief, committed suicide the following year.

The London in which Mazzetti arrived was cold, smoggy, indifferent. At times, she could barely afford to eat or to travel on the Underground. A landlady stole a treasured pendant. Men never stopped groping her. She cried often. One day she showed up at the Slade School of Fine Art and, told it was too late to enrol, started screaming. The principal, William Coldstream, asked her why he should bend the rules for her. “Because I’m a genius!” Gamely, he offered her a place.

It was a decision he nearly regretted after she stole equipment from the film society in order to make K (1954), perhaps the first adaptation of a work by Franz Kafka, a writer of whom she once remarked, “He and I had one thing in common. Terror.” Later, when Coldstream learned she had told the laboratory that had developed the film to bill the school directly, he threatened to take her to court. Before that, he suggested, he would screen K to her fellow students: if they applauded, he would forgive her. They did. Also in attendance was Denis Forman, director of the British Film Institute, who was so impressed that he agreed to finance her next production.

That film, Together (1956), is absolutely indelible. It follows two deaf-mute friends—Michael Andrews (the artist) and Eduardo Paolozzi (the later-celebrated sculptor)—who work as dockers in east London. They’re an odd pair. Part Laurel and Hardy, part Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Their fate is to be outsiders, locked out of a dockside soundscape that is raucous with children’s rhymes, street-market euphony, clanking machinery. Those local kids tease them relentlessly, tragically. The director’s affinity with them is unmistakable.

Mazzetti was very much taken with portside London. “It feels as if I landed in some fairy tale with ogres and witches.” Cinematographer Hamed Hadari’s photography—of warehouses and wharfs, bombsites and rubble-strewn squares—has the aching beauty of Italian neorealism. (Cesare Zavattini, creative partner of Bicycle Thieves director Vittorio De Sica, would go on to champion Mazzetti’s work.) The use of amateur actors is inspired. Did the director know that Paolozzi had been interned during the Second World War, that his father was killed when a ship deporting Italian civilians from the UK was torpedoed?

Together was hailed as part of the nascent Free Cinema movement. Two of its other three members were Lindsay Anderson (born in Bangalore, always railing against bourgeois Britain) and Karel Reisz (who had escaped from Czechoslovakia on a kindertransport and whose parents were killed at Auschwitz). They were all outsiders, unmoored and finding their way in the UK, able to see its postwar brittleness with rare clarity.

Together received plaudits at Cannes and won the interest of American avant-garde figures such as Jonas Mekas and Amos Vogel, but London could never be Mazzetti’s home. She soon returned to Italy where, still damaged, she began psychotherapy. While she made a few TV shorts and contributed to omnibus films, her energies migrated elsewhere: she wrote a prizewinning autobiographical novel, The Sky Falls (1962), penned an advice column for a communist paper, painted and even set up a children’s puppet theatre.

Mazzetti died in 2020 aged 92, but not before her work had been discovered by a new generation of cinephiles. A 2016 documentary, Steve Della Casa and Francesco Frisari’s Because I’m a Genius!, is now complemented by British artist Brighid Lowe’s Together with Lorenza Mazzetti. It’s a delicate, quietly enthralling portrait, during the course of which its makers learned of a missing film—The Country Doctor (1953), inspired again by Kafka—that they have since tracked down and had remastered.

Decimated adolescences, sick souls, lost futures: there is so much sadness in Mazzetti’s life and work. There is also tenderness, bruised solidarity, togetherness.

“The Lorenza Mazzetti Collection” will be released on BFI Blu-ray on 2nd October

Lorenza Mazzetti’s remastered films and “Together With Lorenza Mazzetti” will screen at the BFI Southbank on 13th September