Year 1952: “Don Camillo” is filmed, a singular Emilian parish priest created by the imagination of Giovanni Guareschi. The book of the same name, which collects stories already published in the weekly “Candido”, of which Guareschi is director, has achieved considerable success. The production of the film is Italian-French, the director is Jacques Duvivier, the interpreter of the character of the parish priest the comedian Fernandel. To play the role of the communist mayor Peppone, antagonist of the priest in a small town in Emilia where, as in all of Italy, the political controversy between communists and anti-communists flares up, we are looking for an actor who is credible in the role. He must also have a sanguine temperament in appearance, even better if he also has a strong Emilian accent: the almost natural choice falls on Gino Cervi, who already has considerable theatrical and cinematographic experience. The irony of fate is that he has very different political beliefs from those of a Communist mayor.
Born in Bologna on May 3, 1901, with a father who is a theater critic and landowner, at the age of 15 he already plays in some Bolognese amateur dramas (“Cantagalli”, “Civil employees”). After completing his military service in 1927 in the 27th Campaign Artillery Regiment in Novara, he returned to Bologna, obtained his high school license and joined the newborn fascist party. The landowners of the Po valley were in those years siding with the fascists against the "Bolsheviks" who claim the lands: the choice of the young Cervi, whose family owns lands, is almost automatic: the future Peppone participates in the violent actions of the fascist squads of the area, and probably also to the "March on Rome", the latter fact excluded by his son Tonino (see Derchi - Biggo), but underlined instead in 1940 (Lionelli). As in other cases, the fascist regime tended to exalt the adhesion to it of people of a certain notoriety, perhaps using their youthful experiences for this purpose, even if in the following years they had changed their minds towards fascism. As proof of this, as regards Cervi, there are some reports of OVRA confidants who indicate him among the opponents of the regime (Marino).
At the same time Cervi, as his "forays" into politics after 1960 demonstrate, always remained decidedly anti-Communist: in the film "Don Camillo" his interpretation of the sanguine Communist mayor, violent and very human at the same time, however, proved to be so convincing that he in 1953 the Silver Ribbon of film critics "for the complex of its interpretations".
The same role played in the following five years on subjects by Guareschi and with the same characters based on the parish-mayor opposition in a semi-serious key: The return of Don Camillo (1953); Don Camillo and the Hon. Peppone (1955); Don Camillo Monsignore but not too much (1961); Comrade Don Camillo (1969); Don Camillo and the young people of today (1972).
In the interpretations of Don Camillo Cervi he availed himself of a long theatrical and cinematographic experience, which began in 1924 at the Politeama Sampierdarense Theater, where he acted in the company of Alda Borelli, first without roles and then as a "young actor", in Bataille's "Crazy Virgin" , which was represented by the company the same year at the Quirino theater in Rome. The choice to be an actor was opposed by his father, who wanted him to be a professor or a magistrate, but without success. However, Gino was tempted to play football: he played as a right midfielder and continued to do so for passion until the end of the 60s at the Flaminio stadium in Rome in a team of actors against one of journalists.
His refined appearance, the measure and at the same time the irony that he put in the interpretation of the roles that were entrusted to him ensured him a good success (1924 - 25) in the Compagnia del Teatro dell'Arte in Rome which, directed by Luigi Pirandello, had found its headquarters. in a room of Palazzo Odescalchi, in Vicolo Odescalchi, later transformed into a cinema and now used for other uses.
In one of his "portrait of an actor" many years later (1965) Cervi recalled that now distant experience and his enthusiasm for Pirandello, from which he received many congratulations for his interpretation in the role of the son in Six characters in search of an author.
In 1926 he passed to the company directed by Lamberto Picasso, an actor and director who supported the need for a profound modification of the acting, against all artifice, redundancy, forced declamatory drama. Cervi treasured that experience: his acting changed profoundly, so much so that he became an actor suited to an essentially "light" repertoire, especially in the role of "amorous" and then placed (1965) Picasso among his masters alongside Borrelli, Melato and to Annibale Bertone, in whose company he passed in 1927 and remained until 1930, when he joined the company of Anna Melato. In 1928 he married, overcoming the tenacious opposition of his future father-in-law, Angela Rosa Gordini, daughter of a Tuscan industrialist, who for a short period of time was also an actress to make ends meet.
In 1931 he was back in the company of Picasso and the following year in that of Kiki Palmer, with a classical repertoire (The family of the antiquarian of Goldoni, Uncle Vanya of Chekhov) which he left when in 1933 he moved to the New company of comedy with Renzo Ricci and Laura Adani.
Even this experience did not last long: Cervi was just over thirty years old and was still looking for his own space in the theater. He was an elegant, refined man who loved hunting and good food, who did not lack female friendships: in short, the one who in those days was called "a bon viveur": the solution to many of his problems, including economic ones, came with in the cinema that was acquiring increasing importance also as a propaganda tool of the fascist regime. In 1935, when he acted in the Company of Yellow Shows directed by Romano Calo, he had a small part in the films "Amore" by Bragaglia and "Aldebaran" by Blasetti, which he later defined as "a nice meatloaf": before then he had limited himself to participating as an extra in the film “Armata azzurra” by Gennaro Righelli, a propaganda film on the Air Force after the exploits of Italo Balbo. Joining the company of Sergio Tofano and Evi Maltagliati, he intensified his cinematographic activity by also participating in low-commitment films (Men are not ungrateful in 1937, I want to live with Letizia! And L'argine in 1938, Let's invent love and children of the Marquis of Lucera in 1939), alongside others of greater importance (Ettore Fieramosca (1937) in which he is a young actor and An adventure by Salvator Rosa (1939) with a character actor role.
It was a little bit for the artistic ambitions of the young Cervi: he returned to the theater and in 1937 he interpreted Romeo in Venice under the direction of Guido Salvini but it was a half fiasco. The following year (1938) he joined the Company of the Eliseo Theater in Rome with Andreina Pagnani, Rina Morelli and Paolo Stoppa and took over (1939) the direction of the company.
It was finally the big opportunity: the company staged a vast repertoire ranging from Pirandello (But it's not a serious thing) to Shakespeare (The twelfth night), from Corrado Alvaro (Il caffè dei naviganti) to Dostoevskij (The player). Cervi, however, when it came to the classics of dramatic theater, such as "Othello" and "Romeo and Juliet", was not convincing for the demeaning characterization of the characters interpreted, unlike what will later happen for "Falstaff, a character that lends itself particularly to being modeled by 'interpreter.
In 1942, when the Company broke up due to financial problems, Cervi now seems to have firmly landed in the world of cinema: in 1940 he participated for the first time in an important film (La peccatrice by A. Palermi) followed by (1941) La corona di ferro and (1942) Four steps in the clouds by Blasetti, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and I promessi sposi by Camerini. At the same time, however, for clear budgetary needs, he plays secondary roles in some mediocre films such as The Queen of Navarre (1941), Don Cesare di Bazan (1942), People of the Air (1943).
September 8, 1943 arrives: the Germans in Rome are the masters. Cervi, like other actors, is under pressure to move to the north, where the Social Republic was established: a German officer who claims to speak on behalf of Goebels, the powerful Nazi Minister for Propaganda, insists that he go to Berlin and he assures that, once he has moved, he will have great opportunities for work, but Cervi refuses. The fascism of his youth is now a distant fact: his house in Rome is frequented by anti-fascist intellectuals and the political police keep him under surveillance. Deputy Commissioner Cerruti promptly warns him of the imminent deportation and Cervi goes into hiding: his last appearance on the scene is on December 18, 1943, when he participates in a charity representation (Goldoni and his sixteen plays) in favor of the wife of a actor, Renato Cialente, who died after being hit by a military truck.
In 1945 Cervi is again in the reconstituted Compagnia del Teatro Eliseo which stages a brilliant repertoire with good success. His reintegration into cinema is more difficult, where neorealism prevails. He took part (1945) in Soldati's Le miserie di Monsù Travet, which won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, but also in lesser-relevant films (A man returns and Humanity from 1946; The angel and the devil, Daniele Cortis and Black chronicle of 1947; I miserabili of 1948; Fabiola, Guglielmo Tell and The flame that never goes out in 1949).
In 1949 he participated in a large manifestation of actors in Piazza del Popolo in Rome: next to him there is Anna Magnani. They protest: they want to work and for them, as for many other professional actors, there are not many opportunities.
He returned to the theater: from 1949 to 1951 he formed a company with Andreina Pagnani who staged a vast repertoire recited according to traditional canons (Quel signor who came to lunch, Even the fat have the honor, Harvey, The queen and the insurgents, The last five minutes, I figli di Edoardo) and had some success.
The road to cinema continued to be very difficult for him: he had to content himself with participation in films of little importance (for example Ok Nero of 1951) except for brief appearances in Forbidden Christ (1950) by Malaparte and The Lady without Camellias (1951) by Antonioni.
In 1952 the great cinematographic success finally arrived with Don Camillo and the following year the theatrical one with Cirano de Bergerac and II Cardinal Lambertini, presented in Paris in the first international festival d'art dramatique de Paris under the direction of Rouleau, who will then remember ( The importance of the actor) as the theater director with whom he felt most at ease, as well as with Blasetti in cinema.
Cardinal Lambertini, represented in Italy the following year, also had a television edition in 1963 and a film edition in 1954. In 1957 he acted in the theater with Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Padovani and Adriana Asti and in 1958 with Olga Villi.
The theatrical success opened up the road to cinema again for him, even if in films coldly received by critics (Guard, chosen guard, brigadier and marshal of 1956; Wife and oxen of 1957, Love and chatter of 1958, Ambush in Tangier and The giants of the mountain of 1959; The Husbands Olympics of 1960). In 1960 he appeared in Vancini's The Long Night of 1943. Altogether he participated in more than a hundred films.
In 1960 with Enrico Maria Salerno, Marcello Mastroianni, Nino Manfredi, Giancarlo Sbragia and Arnoldo Foà he founded the Italian actors union, of which he became President. He is back in public life: in 1962 he stands as a candidate in the municipal elections in Rome on the Christian Democratic list but is not elected. This is the pretext for a cover of "La Domenica del Corriere", in which Cervi, in the guise of Peppone, holds a meeting for the Christian Democrats with the parish priest Don Camillo - Fernandel who smiles behind him.
His presence on the scene thinned out: in 1964 Mario Landi, one of the most successful television director of the time, offered him the role of Commissioner Maigret in the first series of television “dramas” based on the novels of George Simenon. Cervi accepted: he carefully studied the character, he let his mustache grow, he ruled to smoke a pipe and agreed after much hesitation that Maigret's wife was Andreina Pagnani: in his opinion the commissioner of the novel would never have had the opportunity to marry a so beautiful woman: Landi overcame the doubts by showing him some photos of the actress appropriately retouched to simulate a premature old age.
The shooting of the first four episodes began (A Christmas at the Maigret house, Cecilia is dead, The life of a man, Maigret and the fortune teller) which had great public success. The interpretation of Cervi was considered excellent by Simenon himself and judged by audiences and critics to be better than others, including those of famous actors such as Jean Gabin and Charles Laughton: the evil ones also attributed the success to the necessarily sidelong glance of Cervi to read, as he had always done in the cinema, the script reproduced on the “hunchback”, a sort of blackboard placed outside the field of the camera.
The following year four other “dramas” followed with the same character (Don't kill poor devils, Madame Maigret's lover, The Chinese shadow, The old lady of Bajeux). In 1966, with Maigret in Pigalle, the commissioner played by Cervi entered the cinema, and then returned to television screens the following year (Maigret and the altar boy and Maigret and the unlucky inspector in 1967, The inquiries of commissioner Maigret in 1971 ) until 1972, when the last drama of the series appeared (Maigret retires). Cervi, on the other hand, refused to interpret the character in the theater, perhaps not believing that it would hold up on a fixed scene, with necessarily few changes in the environment.
In 1971 he had a first serious heart attack: the woman he lives with (the Romanian Erica Majer) after the separation from his wife in 1968, tried to curb his passion for good food.
He spoke little, he retained a subtle irony in the theater as in life, he had a sanguine temperament that he transferred more and more to the characters he interpreted, as in the case of Don Camillo and Maigret, stripped of their original characteristics, reduced to the essential and then created again according to his personal vision, this research that was sometimes successful and at other times led to at least controversial results, as in the case of Othello and Romeo.
In the last few years his ancient passion for public life has resurfaced: in 1970 he is regional councilor of Lazio for the Italian Liberal Party. He actively participates in the activity of the Council with numerous interventions on cinema, theater and television, and is lively polemical towards RAI, which, in his opinion, did not allow the actors to adequately prepare by not allowing the necessary rehearsals before the resumed.
His theatrical activity is reduced to almost zero (in 1970 he returns to acting for a short period with Andreina Pagnani). Double Laurence Olivier when she plays Shakespearean characters on the screen, but he is now too tired, even with the death of his partner in 1973, to worry about further professional successes. His last appearance on the scene is in Diego Fabbri's A Thief in the Vatican: he prepares to return to television screens in a series of dramas taken from Simenon's novels (The memoirs of Commissioner Maigret) but the project will not be followed up. He goes to spend the Christmas and New Year's Eve parties in 1974 in Punta Ala (Grosseto), where he owns an apartment and attends the golf club. On the evening of January 2 he attends a dinner but during the night he feels bad. The doctor is called but there is little to do: the diagnosis is pulmonary edema. He dies at 1,30 on day 3.
- Armando Antonelli - Riccardo Pedrini, Gino Cervi, welcome back, Bologna, 1998.
- Gino Cervi, The importance of the actor, in Sipario, December 1965.
- Andrea Derchi - Marco Biggio, Gino Cervi, Genoa, 2001.
- N. Leonelli, Tragic actors, comic actors, Milan, 1940.
- Mauro Manciotti, An actor as a friend, 1999.
- Natalia Marino - Emanuele Valerio Marino, L'OVRA in Cinecittà, Turin, Bollati Boringheri, 2005