"Padre Padrone" ("Father Master" in Italian) is inspired by Gavino Ledda's autobiography. The book provides invaluable insight on living conditions and bigger-than-life anecdotes. The movie transforms this authentic account into a metaphor on traditions, knowledge, emancipation and growing up.
The movie only adapts selected passages of the book as usual (notably because of length), but interestingly adds a few scenes: men arguing and promising to leave Sardinia during the religious procession; Gavino peeing from the truck taking them away; Gavino and Cesare speaking Latin in the tank, etc. Logically, these scenes have a strong visual impact. Also, the father's role is more developed in the movie and we perceive how he thinks: he is a victim of the system like Gavino, even though they fight back differently.
The metaphorical dimension is first expressed by the presence of Ledda himself at the beginning and at the end: the movie is hence put into perspective; we understand it carries a message. The actual life of Ledda is almost an allegory in itself: mostly alone when he was a child with limited communication possibilities, illiterate, he ultimately becomes... a famous linguist.
The movie illustrates this journey progressively:
- First there is silence, depicted by a bell ringing when Gavino is alone in the mountains, as well as in military class (he hence remains lonely despite being surrounded by people because he does not understand). Silence is also symbolised by the fact he cuts his lips twice: once to pretend he was attacked, once precisely to remain mute.
- He afterwards learns to interpret the "language" of nature: sights, sounds, smells. This will allow him to pass the blindfolded test Cesare imposes to him later on, and hence have access to education.
- Then a non-verbal medium, music, allows Gavino to communicate. He initially tries to play Strauss' waltz on his accordion... and another shepherd in the mountain answers with a flute. He then catches it on his radio, and thus passes the army test. Later on, he whistles Mozart's clarinet concerto after his father destroys the radio.
- He eventually learns Italian and articulated communication. He finally is able to answer back to his father.
- Remarkably, we partly revert to silence towards the end: the shots on the children's faces with their inner thoughts at the beginning are repeated without sound at the end; the shot when Gavino is finally leaving is totally silent. Despite all the knowledge and talk, a part of us and of our past remains mysterious.
However, despite all this progress, it is difficult to escape traditions and one's heritage: many events are repeated throughout the movie, frequently linking childhood and adulthood.
- The movie starts and ends at school, each time with the presence of the main character both young (Gavino) and old (Ledda). Some shots are even duplicated.
- The bell representing silence rings at different points.
- Gavino cuts his lips twice.
- When adult Gavino comes back to the village, he is afraid his father will strike him, like he was as a child.
- His father then forbids him to eat and locks the food closet, as he did in the mountains.
- In the kitchen, the father wants to strike the adult Gavino with a stick, just like the other shepherd stroke his son in the mountains.
- After the father violently hit the young Gavino, he sings a Sardinian tune, which will be repeated during the religious procession when Gavino is adult. Additionally, during this fabulous procession, the young men carry a heavy statue that we visualise as the father: they are dominated by traditions in different forms (religion, father, master).
Remarkably, repetitions often occur from one generation to another: it feels as if the new generation will reproduce the flaws of the previous one.
- When Gavino rebels against his father, the speech he voices to him from his bed is memorised, just like the father's speech at the beginning in school.
- Gavino recites words from the dictionary, as his father recited multiplications.
- Gavino does not understand the class at the army, as his father did not understand the olive purchaser's explanation.
- Ledda says at the end: "I might abuse my new privilege, as my father did".
The resulting psychological tension between education and traditions is visually expressed by instability: the camera (apparently hand-held) is always moving, even when shots are supposed to be static. In the latter case, the movement is subtle but quite noticeable.
The movie has a universal dimension. Nobody bears a name, apart from Gavino, Cesare (the true friend) and Sebastiano (the mountain legend): the father, the mother, Gavino's sisters and brothers, other children and adults. This lack of identity is highlighted by the young men during the religious procession: "We have no name, we are just the padrone's this and that". Hence it is not just Ledda's story: we see other children and adults with the same issues and desires. The shots on the children's faces at the beginning (with their inner thoughts) and at the end are striking. These thoughts are horrible, like the ones Gavino's family has near Sebastiano's deathbed, yet we understand them: it is how necessity forces people to think.
Some scenes are spectacular, for instance when the father fights with Gavino in the kitchen. It plays on different levels:
- Abstract: close shots on hands washing, on a hand hitting the red table to have food.
- Symbolic: father and son fight in obscurity, expressing their subconscious desire to get rid of each other; it is the dark conflict between tradition and emancipation.
- Ironic: they fight as Mozart's beautiful music plays; afterwards, the mother sings.
- Ambiguous: when Gavino fetches his suitcase afterwards, he first ignores his father, then puts his forehead on his leg. He still loves him despite everything. And his father first wants to caress his head, then strike it. We unexpectedly move on to the next scene, so will never know what actually happened, but it does not matter: the father's emotion stays suspended between love and hate.
The following shot is magnificently nostalgic: we silently drive away from the village, looking backwards. This subjective view echoes the scene when Gavino previously left at the back of the truck: we now leave with him, apparently forever.
In summary, "Padre Pardone" is gripping, with social, psychological and symbolic reach. Be warned, it is violent: poverty, harsh living conditions, harassment, child abuse, bestiality. However, it progressively delivers an optimistic message: through education and hard work, one can escape one's condition.