Unlike Roberto Rossellini, who gave up making films for the cinema in the 1960s to devote himself to his great ideal: the transformation of television into a historical encyclopaedia of knowledge, Vittorio De Seta began working with Italian public television in the early 1970s without any pedagogical or political viewpoint. Although sharing Rossellini's formal and ethical preferences, De Seta initially saw television as an economic tool that would provide him with the freedom to work and the time to carry out his research, something that hadn't been possible in his previous films made within the Italian and French industry. He only became aware of television's educational and emancipatory potential later on, while filming Diario di un maestro and especially after its huge success with the public at large. That's when he encountered Rossellini's idea.
As we'll see, the themes of Diario di un maestro (the world of childhood, school and children's work), the techniques used (a 16mm hand-held camera and direct sound) and aesthetic choices made bring De Seta closer to the work of another great master of Italian cinema, Luigi Comencini. In 1970, Comencini made I bambini e noi, an experiment for RAI in six one-hour episodes which involved no staging but was completely improvised on the set by the crew and the filmmaker. From Comencini, De Seta had learned not to give in to the ideological reflex of illustrating or verifying preconceived set-ups, rather making thought emerge from the work itself, at the risk of endangering his status as "author". According to Adriano Aprà, I bambini e noi produced a kind of "hole in Comencini's career, a laceration through which reality burst into his films, contaminating the fiction, making his work sick with reality". [...]
When De Seta began thinking about Diario di un maestro, he was unaware of the works and the names of those clamouring to transform the school: "I hadn't even read the name of Don Milani! [...] I knew absolutely nothing about the school or its problems". Such ignorance didn’t stop De Seta from applying his usual principles to this new project: approaching film as a journey to yield knowledge, allowing himself to be guided by curiosity regarding the human condition and placing himself in a position of constant experimentation. Diario di un maestro has several points in common with his other films: an anthropological approach, already applied in his shorts from the 1950s (the issue of how much distance should be maintained in order to enter a community, with the aim of sharing and filming the time and space of life with the community; a predilection, in the evangelical and Tolstoian tradition, for the world of "forgotten people"), which meant that he recognised, in the children of Rome's suburbs, the children and grandchildren of the farmers, fishermen and miners of southern Italy. [...]
His fieldwork began by looking for locations in Tiburtino III, researching places and faces. The reality of the suburbs led him to integrate both the social reality and its players within the project on a daily basis. He gradually came to think that the children of the immigrants in those neighbourhoods, those excluded from the "economic boom", with their families and their territories, could become the film's protagonists. At this point it became clear to De Seta that it wouldn't shooting a film in the traditional way (with a script and storyboard) wouldn't make any sense in Tiburtino II. Intuitively, he realised how the film should be made and also the form it should take: since the new school sought to make children free, he would adapt the film in line with this revolutionary notion of education.
"Our fundamental choice was not to make a film; we actually made a school and filmed it. My position was one of absolute modesty. This ground-breaking school focused on the children and their interests. Making a film about education that shouldn't be national; shouldn't be "taught"; suddenly, the film can no longer be "performed". Just as we were rejecting school textbooks, we also rejected having a script." [...]
Francesco Tonucci, a psychology researcher for the National Research Council, was involved in the filming as a pedagogical consultant alongside Cirino and De Seta. His constant attention to the children and his ability to transpose their reactions into the writing of the film made him a sort of off-screen double for the teacher. [...] The team decided to shoot the film in chronological order: another unusual choice but a vital one to ensure the continuity of the pedagogical action which the film wanted to show. Just before filming began, and following Tonucci's advice, De Seta wrote a second script consisting of a few key themes to improvise from: home, the neighbourhood, delinquency, sex education. [...]
Behind the camera was Luciano Tovoli, who'd worked with De Seta on his three previous feature films and whose contribution was crucial. De Seta asked for a kind of leather harness to be made to attach the 16mm camera to Tovoli's body: this pioneering Steadicam, completely handmade, allowed the chief camera operator to be ready to shoot at any time. With his sixth sense, Tovoli managed to keep the action in his sights at all times; he was constantly on the move and captured even the most unexpected or slightest improvisation in the classroom. The synergy between De Seta and Tovoli meant the cinematographer's role had to be completely rethought. Apparently following Tovoli's advice, De Seta decided to stay out of the classroom for part of the shoot. The chief camera operator, who was given complete freedom, became a kind of shadow cast by the filmmaker. From the time he gave up being able to give precise instructions about the framing, De Seta took the risk of abandoning his last few prerogatives as a filmmaker. The new school's anti-authoritarian principle was embodied in the cinematography: the film became a place for collective experimentation, for teamwork that undermined the hierarchy of the seventh art. The work of the teacher D'Angelo and that of the filmmaker De Seta were mirror images of each other; they both questioned their role as directors, rethinking their position in terms of collective action and coordination, constantly revealing their tools, their methodology and their critical-creative approach. [...]
De Seta then took on the ideal of Roberto Rossellini, who'd dreamed of filmmakers capable of ridding themselves from the demiurgic pretensions of the "author", humbly placing themselves at the service of a collective work, allowing themselves to be carried along by reality and its laws, on the lookout for experiences. With Rossellini, suspension of the author's role goes hand in hand with the suspension of dramaturgy: the characters and scenes thereby lose their fictitious nature, acquiring a new dimension of truth and annulling the effect of spectacle. The film's reality becomes more real than everyday reality because it's concentrated in a selection of significant moments and not reduced to character and type. This is the Rossellini method used by De Seta in Diario di un maestro. The director of the legendary documentaries of Il mondo perduto who, equipped with his 35mm camera with CinemaScope lens and sound, confronted reality all alone, transposing it in his majestically lyrical and polyphonic writing, gives way to the director-coordinator whose task is limited to overseeing the effective use and success of the method and situations he has set up. "I didn't apply a particular style for Diario di un maestro; it all came about spontaneously. And if, in spite of everything, there is a style, then it's unintentional. We have to destroy the chemistry of cinematographic grammar". Finally, this experimental collective work, in which improvisation and writing overlap, correct and contradict each other dialectically, becomes the third script, the one that could only be written day by day. [...]
De Seta edited the film from the end of August 1971 to October 1972. Assisted by Cleofe Conversi, he was faced with a huge amount of chaotic material - 36,000 metres of film, a movie 50 hours long - living material but which, unlike in classic storytelling, included hardly any dubbed scenes, no reverse shots, no cuts, no raccords, no different angles; the reference points that normally structure a film didn't tend to exist. So editing took on the form of writing a fourth script.
This section's extracts form part of the text by Federico Rossin on Vittorio De Seta's film, published in Diario di un maestro / Journal d'un maitre d'école. Le film, un livre. Translated from the French by Francisco Algarín Navarro. The full text, in Spanish and with footnotes, can be found on the Lumière website.