Arrigo Frusta and The Writing Workshop

Programme curated by Andrea Meneghelli, Claudia Gianetto and Stella Dagna

In early Twentieth-century Turin, Arrigo Frusta (1875-1965), born Augusto Sebastiano Ferraris, was the director of Ambrosio’s Screenplay Office. Having escaped his father’s plan for a future as a notary, Frusta worked as a journalist, dialect poet and lovable loafer until he stumbled upon his vocation: writing for the screen. The young cinema industry was hungry for new stories, and Frusta was always ready to hunt for the right inspiration; the idea for a successful film could spring from a note jotted on the back of an envelope or a short newspaper article about a strange piece of news. The main source, though, are the great classics: Schiller, Manzoni, Shakespeare, no adaptation was too mighty for Frusta’s pen. Master of variations on a theme, he was perhaps the first in silent Italian movies to receive public recognition as a screenwriter.
Between a compliment to a pretty actress and a mountain hike (in 1910 he shot three films at high altitude with Giovanni Vitrotti), Frusta worked on over 250 screenplays and scenarios combined, making a decisive contribution to establishing the practice of ‘written cinema’ during the crucial years when filmmaking, as Frusta himself said, became an industry, with film length getting rapidly longer and the form’s genres being classified.
Frusta’s screenplays alternated words with drawings and sketches. As Silvio Alovisio discovered analysing the rich collection of documents at the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Frusta’s working method often involved a visual approach to the story, demonstrating how the cinema-factory of the time did not draw rigid distinctions between different roles. He scripted big hits of the time – including Nozze d’oro (1911) and Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1913), not shown this year because both have been screened at the festival in the past – helping to consolidate the success of Italian film internationally, as attested by this section’s prints coming from Amsterdam, Washington, Tokyo and London (special thanks to the BFI – National Archive, which gave us permission to work on nitrate prints from the Joye collection). Although Frusta preferred historical dramas (a new restoration of the masterpiece Nerone will be screened), some of the section’s main surprises come from exploring the terrain of fairy tales, thrillers and farces.
The guiding idea of this programme of films is to pay attention to the small gestures that define a character, to the abilitiy in creating causal relationships between scenes and to the touches of realism. In other words, the fruit of that ‘writing workshop’ of which Frusta was master.

Stella Dagna