Italy 1949: a young philosophy student leaves his small village for Rome; his studies for a camera. He channels the wounds and the wonders of post war Italy in Il Mondo. Intelligentsia and artists embrace him.
Anna Magnani and Pier Paolo Pasolini befriend him. Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Brigitte Bardot, Federico Fellini, Giulietta Masina, Simone Signoret, Grace Kelly, Yves Montand, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Ezra Pound, and Giorgio de Chirico open themselves to his camera. He portrays children, farmers and tradesmen in the aftermath of war.
A decade and a half later, the zeitgeist shifts. Il Mondo closes. Now, editors want scoops and scandals. He cancels that culture, walks away, gets a conservative job, an unaffected wife, has children, grandchildren. He never takes another shot or speaks of his storied past.
One day, his 20-year-old daughter Silvia finds boxes of negatives in the basement. A photography buff, she realizes their worth. “Who took them?” she asks. “I did,” he casually replies, “I was once a photographer.”
His name? Paolo Di Paolo.
Years later, another photographer is shooting in Rome. He, too, is famous for stark black and white images that capture the spirit of his time. He, too, lives at the fulcrum of fashion and celebrity. This man makes careers. He is a man of his moment. Still, the postwar Italy of his parents’ generation speaks to his soul.
He answered that call, in Rome, when his wife ran to show him: in a small memorabilia gallery, there were the lost photos of the Italy of his dreams.
His name? Bruce Weber. And The Treasure of His Youth: The Photographs of Paolo Di Paolo, the stunning documentary he created about Paolo di Paolo, is a tribute to both men’s art.
We met Weber after a Hamptons Doc Fest screening, at a Peggy Siegal private dinner at beautiful Baron’s Cove, on the water in Sag Harbor. Also there: Paolo’s daughter Silvia di Paolo, Weber’s wife and creative partner Nan Bush, their longtime co-producer Eva Lindemann-Sanchez, her husband Antonio Sanchez, Fern Mallis, Bob Collacello and Doc Fest Founder and Executive Director Jacqui Lofaro.
The following Friday night they held a premiere screening of “The Treasure of His Youth” at the Film Forum on Houston Street to a packed house. After the screening, Isabella Rossellini led an intimate discussion with Bruce and Silvia about the film, which was then followed by a private dinner at Ciccio in Soho, hosted by Weber and Bush.
Masculinity is a leitmotif in Weber’s work. “Di Paolo let us into his world and what it meant to be a certain kind of man,” Weber told me. “When I was growing up, I looked up to my dad, my grandfather and my buddies from school. Now, everything’s about the women. I see all these guys walking around with their heads down, instead of standing straight up. So, I was proud to make a film about an extraordinary man who created a great wealth of history for his country.
“Men like Paolo weren’t commercial people. It wasn’t about buying and selling, it was about making a record, something that they believed in. Today, I really feel sorry, not just for new photographers, but for any photographers or writers. It’s all so commercial.”
Weber also bemoaned the soulless consumerism he witnessed on a recent trip. “I have a fascination with Paris and the whole sense of romance surrounding it,” he said. “But the last time I was there, something really bothered me: the lines and lines of people standing in front of clothing stores. It’s so depressing because the fashion in Paris was always on the street. You would see a woman walking and say, ‘that raincoat is so great.’ Or you would marvel at the way a guy looked in his blazer. You wanted to look like that, not like those people waiting to get into a store.”
Style and substance also informed the Postwar ethos. “Bruce is a huge fan of Italian cinema from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” Lindemann-Sanchez — there when they discovered the shots — told me. “He and Nan (Bush) are enormous collectors of photographs. As such, he had what he thought were the best photographs that anyone could ever have of Pasolini, Magnani, Visconti, Loren and so many others. Paolo’s pictures of his favorite cultural figures were unlike any Bruce had ever seen. They speak for themselves. They are enormously cinematic, perfectly composed, but also feel spontaneous and romantic. Bruce was blown away.”
How did they get there? Di Paolo was a store patron who stood out: an older man, who walked with a cane, dressed well and had “an aristocratic air, noble and aloof,” even as he rhapsodized about finding old issues of Il Mondo. One day Di Paolo brought in an exceptional photo, signed, as a gift. Who shot this!? “I did,” he casually replied. “I was once a photographer.”
Fifty years later, he was found. Just as Paolo’s subjects once trusted him, now he gave his trust to Weber. “He never asked to see any footage, or for approval,” said Eva Lindemann, who served as Executive Producer with Nan Bush for Little Bear Films. “He only saw the finished film the night of its world premiere in Rome.” The documentary is a tour de force: the imagery, the music, and the deep perceptions of the philosopher cum photographer.
“I think because we could keep the process so intimate, that Paolo allowed us in,” Eva continued. “It was like a family making a movie about another family.” Nan Bush is married to Weber. Eva Lindemann to Antonio Sanchez, the editor. Bruce, Eva and Antonio wrote it. “Bruce has known his cinematographer, Theodore Stanley, since he was 14. He’s also our neighbor. Stanley and I have been working together for about 22 years. My husband and I, for 20.”
Finally, at 95, Di Paolo returned to his Leica, shooting for the House of Valentino. Their Creative Director Pierpaolo Piccioli had found the Di Paolo photos of their show in the ’60s, recreated a look and brought the nonagenarian in to shoot their show again. And yes, he’s still got it.
Daughter Silvia is now the keeper of the 250,000 plus images she found in the basement and brought into the light. Last year, she curated two shows at Milan’s Galleria Carla Sozzani. “There are so many more stories,” she told me. “I need to write a book.”
How, she asked her father, could he have disappeared so completely? Wasn’t anyone looking for him? “‘In the cinema,’” he told her, “the moment you were there, you were one of them, part of everything. Unless you are Marcello Mastroianni, the moment they don’t see you, even if you had been close, they forget. You disappear, you are gone.”
“The mystery of Paolo Di Paolo to me,” Weber muses as the film closes, “is that he was able to give up photography, something he once had such a deep passion for. I can’t imagine doing that. If I gave up photography, I couldn’t breathe.”
Ah Italy. The lust for la dolce vita: love, art, food, wine. It speaks to me as well. I recently returned from its countryside, so enamored, that I gave the new puppy an Italian name.