“He never feared failure, and this is the only way you can be successful in life. I learned that from Dino.” So said Arnold Schwarzenegger at the funeral of the Italian film producer Agostino ‘Dino’ de Laurentiis. Dino’s C.V. reads like a surrealist notebook, timeless masterpieces like La Strada, Serpico and Blue Velvet cheek-by-jowl with flamboyant catastrophes. An ingenious financier and talent spotter, as well as an adventurous anti-snob, he was instrumental in the careers of neorealist icon Silvana Mangano (whom he later married), Al Pacino, David Lynch and Schwarzenegger, as enlightened and audacious an operator in post-war Italy as in eighties Hollywood.
De Laurentiis was born in the Neapolitan seaside region of Torre Annunziata in 1919. After early work as a truck driver and a travelling salesman for his father’s pasta company, he applied to the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, initially as an actor, though not for long: “I see my face in the mirror and I said, ‘No, my ambition is not to be an actor’.” Army service during world war II delayed his film career, but on his return to Italy he took a producing job at Lux studios. Buoyed by the success of his 1949 film Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice), which starred his future wife, Mangano, he formed his own company in 1950 with Lux colleague Carlo Ponti.
Just as comfortable purveying Roberto Rossellini’s state-of-the-nation neorealism as the comedies of Naples’ favourite clown, Toto, Ponti and de Laurentiis combined these two sensibilities in Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), a lyrical fable about the kinship between a circus strongman (Anthony Quinn) and the small young woman who accompanies him (Giulietta Masina). Fellini had a nervous breakdown days before its release, and its screening at Venice caused public brawls between fans and critics, but it went on to win the Oscar for best foreign film and is widely considered one of the finest films ever made, a crucial pivot in European cinema’s shift from war-shadowed social realism to a more abstract aesthetic (Bob Dylan also cited its influence on Mr.Tambourine Man).