Illustration by Leo Cardini
The decade between 1945 and 1955 is described as the golden age of Italian cinema. Emerging from the stark and often desolate picture of post-World War II Italy depicted in the neorealist films, the commedia all'italiana or Italian-style comedy was born. The film producer and distributor who helped to popularise this genre worldwide was Mario Cecchi Gori.
Born in Brescia on March 21, 1920, Cecchi Gori set up his film production company in 1949. During his long, prolific and commercially successful career, he produced more than 200 films, ranging from B-grade movies to cult films such as Dino Risi's The Easy Life, starring Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Tritignant; critically-acclaimed pictures like Federico Fellini's The Voice of the Moon, starring Paolo Villaggio and Roberto Benigni; and box-office hits like Johnny Toothpick, starring Roberto Benigni.
In 1991, he was given the David di Donatello, the most important Italian film award, for his career. His prestige grew when, in 1992, Mediterraneo, a film about Italian soldiers stranded on the Greek island of Egeo during World War II, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. In 1994, he received the Best Film Award at the European Film Awards for L'america, directed by Gianni Amelio. Two years later, Cecchi Gori, along with his only son Vittorio (who was born in Florence in 1942), Gaetano Daniele and director Michael Radford, was posthumously nominated for The Postman. It was the first Italian film to be an Academy Award nominee for Best Film.
Known in Florence simply as Marione, Mario was hailed as a saviour by the Fiorentina soccer club's fans when, in 1990, he acquired the club from the Pontello family, who had been bitterly criticised for selling Roberto Baggio to Juventus. He remained the club's president until his death.
When, on November 5, 1993, Cecchi Gori died of a heart attack in Rome, all of Florence turned out for his funeral, held in the Basilica of Santa Croce. Commemorating his passing, Columbia-Tristar, the mega American film and television production company, took out a full-page in Variety, the entertainment industry magazine, which simply read ‘Mario Cecchi Gori-In memorium.'
Subsequently, Vittorio Cecchi Gori took over management of both their production group and the Fiorentina. Despite further successes as a producer, notably for Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, which won three Oscars, including Best Film in 1999, it has been difficult for Vittorio to fill his father's shoes. Without the legendary, almost daily battles over business, in which the elder Cecchi Gori's innate common sense usually prevailed, Vittorio Cecchi Gori has been involved in a series of financial and other scandals.
In a risky move in 1995, he acquired Videomusic, Telemontecarlo and shares in Telepiú, hoping to break the television duopoly of the Rai and Fininvest. In 2000, it failed badly, one of the major causes of the financial downfall of the Cecchi Gori Group. A settlement of over 2000 billion lire on his separation from his wife Rita Rusic the same year did not help. To compound his woes, a senator in 1994 and 1996, he sought re-election in 2001. Although not elected, several months later, he came under investigation for attempting to buy votes.
At the Fiorentina, not only did his management eventually lead to the team's relegation to the Serie B at the end of the 2001-2002 season, but also, in June 2002, to its bankruptcy, making him, at the time, one of the most reviled men in Florence. In November 2005, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his role in the team's financial situation; pardoned, he did not go to jail.
In 2006, the younger Cecchi Gori was once again involved in charges of fraudulent bankruptcy regarding Finmavi, the financial holding company of the Group, which at its peak included more than 40 companies operating in film production, distribution, exhibition, television, multimedia and soccer.
For the third time, on June 3, 2008, Vittorio Cecchi Gori was once again arrested for fraudulent bankruptcy, this time of Safin, a company that controlled numerous movie houses throughout Italy. From his prison cell, he told the press, ‘there has been a misunderstanding, and it will be cleared up.' We can only hope so, for the sake of his father's name.