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Filmworker review - Stanley Kubrick's right-hand man gets his moment in the limelight

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago Gwilym Mumford
Leon Vitali in Filmworker © PR Leon Vitali in Filmworker

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The film industry is full of unassuming figures quietly holding everything together without ever demanding a share of the limelight. This tender documentary makes time to profile one of them: Leon Vitali, the man who walked onto a Stanley Kubrick set in 1973 and never walked back off.

Cast as Lord Bullingdon, the callow, vicious stepson in the director’s peerless period piece Barry Lyndon, Vitali found himself so enthralled by Kubrick’s working methods that he jettisoned a promising acting career to become his right-hand man, a role he remained in up to the auteur’s death and beyond.

It was a working relationship that was never anything other than idiosyncratic. During his time with Kubrick, Vitali’s job description extended to production assistant, acting coach, sound engineer, driver, tailor, casting director, and, after Kubrick’s passing, the digital restorer of the director’s remarkable filmography. Indeed, at one point he was even asked to assist Kubrick in euthanising his ailing cat with a shotgun. (It was a rare task that Vitali politely refused to carry out, instead contacting a vet.)

Kubrick, as that anecdote – not to mention the director’s meticulous body of work – infers, was a demanding sort. Vitali recounts of how he was liable to ring his charge on Christmas Day to ask for something or other, and there is the lingering sense here that their relationship at times might have bordered on the abusive. Vitali compares his old boss to Gordon Ramsay in his capacity for sudden eruptions of molten fury, and Vitali’s health, finances and family life seems to have suffered as a result of his fealty to the director.

Yet, at the same time, Vitali never speaks with any bitterness about his former taskmaster, and recalls fondly some of Kubrick’s gentler moments: the affection he showed Vitali’s three children; or the detailed and engaging debriefs the pair would share after a day’s filming. What shines through most here is the pure sense of pride felt by Vitali, in the trust Kubrick placed in him, and in his part in creating some of the last century’s most monumental pieces of cinema, from The Shining to Full Metal Jacket.

Filmworker, while offering up plenty of juicy morsels for the Kubrick-obsessed (the director fed Vitali raw eggs and “semi”-raw chicken to make him vomit during Barry Lyndon’s climactic duel scene), never forgets that this is Vitali’s story, even when Vitali himself is too egoless, too busy praising his old boss, to acknowledge it. A revealing and stirring celebration of one of cinema’s unacknowledged heroes.

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