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Le Mépris (Contempt)

There are many reasons to watch Le Mépris (Contempt). For one, it is considered one of French director Jean-Luc Godard's greatest works. It also stars the rather unlikely line-up of French screen goddess Brigitte Bardot, American actor Jack Palance and German director Fritz Lang. And then there is Casa Malaparte.

This striking villa on the island of Capri, located high above the Gulf of Salerno in the Punta Massullo nature reserve, is an architectural phenomenon. Admired and loathed almost in equal part, it has proved endlessly fascinating – and Le Mépris is possibly the easiest way to take a tour of it.

Most of the movie, the tale of a relationship’s decline, takes place in Rome. Shortly before the film ends, the characters travel to Capri. Bardot
and her husband, played by Michel Piccoli, play out the demise of their once passionate love on the grand steps of Casa Malaparte. Characters criss-cross each other’s paths as they ascend and descend its angular stairs. They hold heated discussions beside panoramic windows that offer stunning views of the Capri coast. The hard lines of the house stand in stark contrast with the spectacular curves of the mountains and provide almost effortless frames for each scene. In short, the house is a wonderful sculpture on which to pose the final scenes of the movie.

The villa may be picturesque, but it also has a fascinating story to tell. Built between 1941 and 1943 by Italian journalist and writer Curzio Malaparte (real name Kurt Erich Suckert), it was a protest against the kitsch brought to the island by newcomers. Malaparte himself described it as a ‘self-portrait cut in stone’ and a ‘house like me’. In his novel, La Pelle (The Skin, 1949), he writes, ‘I now live on an island, in a melancholy, austere house, which I have built myself on a solitary cliff by the sea. The image of my longing.’

The project was started for Malaparte by Rationalist architect Adalberto Libera, but it seems the writer took over the design, using only a ‘simple master builder’ to finish it for him. It is an eccentric and very personal building. The reverse pyramidal stairs are drawn from a church on the island of Lipari (where Malaparte was exiled to in 1933). The color of the house, finally red, was changed several times before he was happy with it. Among its features visible in the movie is a heavy stone wall relief by Pericle Fazzini showing twisted human figures.

Amazingly, Malaparte only lived in the villa for about a year. Just after it was finished he left to work as a war correspondent. When he died in 1957, he left Casa Malaparte to the People's Republic of China, to promote cross-cultural understanding. His will was contested and the house given to a foundation governed by his estate. It sat locked and empty for 20 years, during which time Le Mépris was filmed there. It was renovated in the late 1980s by Malaparte’s great-nephew Niccolo Rositani, and today it is owned by the Giorgio Ronchi Foundation, dedicated to Malaparte’s nephew who died in 1944 during the war. It is used for occasional seminars and conferences.

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