Far Beyond Tears
For his portrayal of Primo Levi in’The Truce,’ John Turturro tried to approach the subject as Levidoes: delicately and subtly
By Naomi Pfefferman,
In March 1996, John Turturro packed a trunk filledwith Primo Levi’s books and traveled to a remote part of the Ukraine.His destination was the set of “The Truce,” Francesco Rosi’s filmbased on Levi’s searing 1963 memoir “The Reawakening.” Portraying theHolocaust author, Turturro sensed, would be the most difficult roleof his life.
The epic film follows Levi as he is liberated fromAuschwitz in mid-winter and begins the long, tortuous, journey backhome to Turin, Italy. It explores Levi’s human reawakening, as hemeets heroes and thieves, Gypsies and intellectuals in the settlementcamps and Red Army convoys of chaotic, post-war Europe.
The role is something of a departure for Turturro,who is best known for portraying complex, edgy ethnic characters,often Italian or Jewish, in the films of the Coen brothers or SpikeLee. He has been Bernie “The Schmatte” Bernbaum, a homosexual, Jewishgrifter, in the Coens’ “Miller’s Crossing.” A Clifford Odets-type inthe Coens’ “Barton Fink.” A nerdy Jewish contestant, Herb Stempel,in “QuizShow.” Adysfunctional widower-to-be in“Unstrung Heroes.”
John Turturro is best known for portrayingcomplex, edgy ethnic characters, often Italian or Jewish, in thefilms of the Coen brothers or Spike Lee. Above and lower left as heappears in Francesco Rosi’s film, “The Truce.”
But playing Levi in“The Truce” immersed Turturro in a wakingnightmare. Especially painful was the opening sequence in which Leviand the other human skeletons silently stare at their approachingRussian liberators.
“The scenes behind barbed wire were almostimpossible to do,” admits the 41-year-old actor-director, betweenediting sessions for his upcoming film, “Illuminata.” “I tried toapproach the subject as Levi does: delicately and subtly. His booksare not histrionic. They are not about him venting, though that wouldhave been valid. People going through that experience didn’t cry;they were far beyond tears.”
Turturro is Italian-American, but his ties to thesubject of the Holocaust run deep. His wife of 13 years, KatherineBorowitz, is Jewish. Their 7-year-old son, Amedeo, is named after thepainter, Amedeo Modigliani, who like the younger Turturro is Italianand Jewish. In the interfaith household, “We have Chanukah everyyear, and my wife sort of gets through Christmas,” the actorsays.
John Turturro learned about World War II from hisfather, who lived under fascist indoctrination in Italy until heemigrated to America at the age of 6. As a young man, he served inthe Navy and was sunk aboard a U.S. destroyer on D-Day. He was sofiercely opposed to fascism that he required his son to watch myriaddocumentaries about the Holocaust. “At 7 or 8, I saw all thesehorrific images, and they burned in my mind,” Turturro recalls. “At avery young age, I realized, ‘This happened. This reallyhappened.'”
During his childhood in working-classneighborhoods of Queens, Turturro devoured books on the Holocaust. Itwas a private preoccupation as he pursued his very public interest inthe theater.
Turturro graduated from the Yale School of Drama;earned a 1984 Obie and caught Spike Lee’s attention with hisperformance as a neighborhood psycho who throws his mother out thewindow in the 1988 film, “Five Corners.” Lee knew Turturro would beperfect as Pino, the racist pizza-maker who helps incite the riot in”Do The Right Thing.”
As his career took off, Turturro earned areputation as an intensely physical actor who is obsessive aboutresearch. For “Do the Right Thing,” he worked in a pizza parlor; for”Quiz Show,” he interviewed and re-interviewed the real HerbStempel.
But for “Miller’s Crossing” and “Mo’ BetterBlues,” Turturro received criticism that seems ironic in light of hispresent role. In “Mo’ Better,” Turturro and his younger brother,Nick, portray money-grubbing Jewish jazz club owners, Moe and JoshFlatbush. On the set, the actors performed a cartoony, vaudevillianschtick, which,Turturro says, was ineffectually edited during post-production. Theactor, however, was surprised when everyone from Time magazine to theAnti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith denounced the characters asanti-Semitic stereotypes. “Obviously, if I had thought the film wasanti-Semitic, I would never have done it,” he insists.
Similar accusations haunted the release of”Miller’s Crossing,” in which Turturro plays a gay-Jewish hustler whois both pathetic and sleazy. “People were calling the Coenshomophobic and anti-Semitic,” Turturro recalls. “But Joel and Ethanmake fun of everyone. They make paraplegic jokes in ‘The BigLebowski.'”
Turturro is sick of answering the accusations andhe isn’t much happier with questions about his ubiquitous ethnicroles. “No one ever tells Kevin Costner, ‘Gee, it’s too bad youalways play WASPs,” he snaps. “Yes, I’m dark, I have curly hair, Ihave a prominent nose. What do you want me to do, have plasticsurgery?”
“Look, my characters are always diverse,” he adds,on a softer note. “I’m not frustrated, so what’s the bigdeal?”
When Turturro was approached to do “The Truce” in1991, he was, coincidentally, portraying Hitler on-stage in Brecht’splay, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” Actually, Martin Scorsesewrote him a letter about Rosi’s project, adding that Turturro wouldbe perfect for the role. Apparently, Rosi had obtained Levi’spermission to do the film just a week before the author had committedsuicide in 1987.
Turturro had never read any of Levi’s prose orpoetry, but he was quickly taken with the writer. He read every oneof his books; practically memorized Levi’s Auschwitz memoir, “If ThisIs a Man”; read “The Monkey’s Wrench” to his son; and did extensiveresearch at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. He spokewith Holocaust survivors and traveled to Turin to interview Levi’sfriends, who had dissenting opinions about whether the writeractually had committed suicide.
Turturro also haggled for a year to obtain a BBCinterview with the author, though he was initially hesitant to watchit. “I worried that I would be disappointed,” the actor says,sheepishly. “But Levi was really the quiet, penetrating man who hadwritten those books. I felt, as I had as a reader, that he and I wereintimate friends involved in conversation.”
Nevertheless, the actor was nervous as he left for thegrueling, 17-week shoot in the Ukraine. He believed it would be”impossible” to truly enter Levi’s world, though the freezing setsand desolate landscapes helped. To prepare for the most difficultscenes, which inevitably had little dialogue, he read and re-readpassages of “The Truce” or perused the many other Holocaust volumeshe had brought to the set.
Turturro, who had lost 30 pounds for the film,returned home to Brooklyn thin and exhausted. The emotional toll wassuch that he did not travel to Italy to promote his two other filmsat the Venice Film Festival. Even his mother repeatedly remarked thathe had changed.
“Levi’s experience was unimaginable, but I had theteeniest window on what it must have been like,” the actor says. “Yetin a way, the film was also a beautiful experience, because there isa beauty to Levi and his work.”
Turturro, who hopes “The Truce” will introduceLevi to a whole new audience, recently watched the film with Amedeo.He spoke with his son about the Holocaust, just as his father haddone with him when he was 7 years old. “I think he understood some ofit,” he says. “He was a bit upset, because the movie is very sad. Iexplained certain things I thought he could handle, and as he getsolder, I’ll share more with him.”
The Truce opens April 24 in LosAngeles.