Sunday, June 7, 2009

Open Roads: Avati's GIOVANNA'S FATHER -- and an interview with Silvio Orlando

TrustMovies has seen only a handful of the 40 films directed by longtime Italian filmmaker Pupi Avati (he’s written 50!). Though Avati, shown just below, has created some light and entertaining pieces such as The Best Man and The Story of Boys and Girls, none have struck me as memorable. His newest, Giovanna’s Father (Il papà di Giovanna), definitely is.

Certainly more serious than any other of his films I’ve encountered, this one manages to be about important things without also being pompous or heavy-handed. In it, we encounter a family – dad, mom, daughter – and their friends and neighbors during the time that Italy was under the thumb of Mussolini and his Blackshirts. One of the strengths of the movie is that this is presented so naturally -- something approaching the normal -- as it undoubtedly seemed in its day. It may take some time for those viewers unfamiliar with history to realize what is going on here: how and why so much of what we see seems just a little too guarded and off-kilter.

Dad, played by the great actor Silvio Orlando (shown left, at top and below), is a teacher in the local high school, where his extremely shy daughter Giovanna is a student. (She's played by Alba Rohrwacher -- shown right, at top and below -- who just won Italy’s Best Actress award for this role.) A very distant mom (the delicately-featured and still breathtaking Francesca Neri, shown two photos down) would clearly rather be elsewhere, as well as with someone else. While the film's central event is shocking enough, its repercussions grow increasingly interesting, as they mirror not only the specific event and its consequences but the times, the leadership, the sheep-like populace -- in fact, the character of the country.

The look of the film is wonderful: not dark, exactly, but drained of much of its color and full of gray-greens and browns (it was shot by Avati's usual cinematographer Pasquale Rachini). Even the feelings that the movie generates -- initial hopefulness regarding the daughter’s budding “romance,” the sweet and caring father-daughter relationship – begin to grow suspect, due to where we are and what is going on. When leadership, whether of a family or a country, goes haywire, everything seems off-balance and it becomes difficult to tell right from wrong and wrong from worse.

Giovanna’s Father, one of the top films in this years’ Open Roads series, screened yesterday and can be seen again at the Walter Reade on Tuesday, June 9, at 1pm. I hope the recent success of Bellocchio’s Cannes-nominated Vincere, also covering this same time period, will lead to a theatrical release for Avati’s excellent endeavor.


During the recent press day for the FSLC’s Open Road, I had the opportunity to speak with Silvio Orlando (photo below) for a quarter-hour. Following is much of our conversation, as so well and quickly translated by Lilia Pino Blouin:

TrustMovies: I think the first time I noticed you was in Giuseppe Piccioni’s films Not of This World and Light of My Eyes. In the first you played the owner of the laundry & dry cleaning establishment, and in the second a gangster – but a very unusual gangster.

Silvio Orlando: Yes.

Would you say that this particular director seems interested in how the Social Contract works in Italy? Even in the case of the criminal that you play in Light of My Eyes, the social contract is at work. It seems to me that the films coming out of Italy today show us that this contract is no longer in operation. It's as though the Social Contract has disappeared. Do you think that Italian films today reflect this reality?

That is a good question.

I think it is.

I believe that now, what we are seeing in Italy -- what everyone and everything has in common -- is fear. The usual contract that binds society has crashed, and the only thing that people have left is fear.

That’s terrible. (Orlando shakes his head and laughs, probably at my naïveté.) But it's also similar to how things began to be here, under the Bush administration.

Yes. But the strongest binding force in Italy, even more so than in the USA, is family. Beyond family there is really very little. The possibility to get out of this recent crisis, in a way that is not too traumatic, was thanks to the family connections that are still very strong, very tight, in Italy.

When you say the most recent crisis, to what are you referring? Berlusconi?

(Orlando laughs) No, no, this monetary crisis that is seemingly worldwide. People in Italy seem to feel that this crisis did not effect them as strongly as elsewhere, thanks to their reliance upon family. I think this was true, particular in the south of Italy.

You mean Naples and even Sicily? (He nods yes)

To get now to your new film: It seemed, for me at least, that Giovanna’s Father worked on two levels – as a realistic and involving story, and as a metaphor for Italy itself. What happens to the daughter is, on some level, I think, what happened to the country under that deadly fascist clown. The father, your character, is a kinder man, and obviously less powerful than was Il Duce, but maybe equally deluded. Does this interpretation make sense to you?

This is a very astute analysis on your part. The film, in my interpretation, talks about a society back then that is very similar to the one we have today in the sense that it seems that there is no place for people who are not strong enough or not capable of facing all the challenges and all the demands around them, and it looks as though people who do not have this talent and strength are then expelled and marginalized in a slow but inevitable way.

During the fascist era, this same thing happened but in a very hard and dry fashion: in a primitive, primal and straightforward way. Now, it is more subtle, but it still happens. That soul of fascism, acknowledged in all its virility and strength, gave it the energy to fight hard, and so average people did not feel they had the strength to fight against it. They could not do it. That is a similar attitude that inevitably arises in people today.

I think, for example, of plastic surgery and what women go through and the kind of pain and suffering they inflict upon themselves simply to be and look like everybody else. To me this seems a like a western form of the Muslim “Burqa" or cover-up, used so that women can fit into the same mold that is pushed by TV and to which everybody has to conform.

On that subject, have you seen one of the recent Italian films in which a noted actress seems not to be able to move her face any longer? (Ed’s note: the film’s title and actresses’ name will go unmentioned here.)

(He laughs) Yes, the real crime, anywhere, is to age! In this case, it may be a reflection of her background. Initially, she was a model, rather than an actress.

One last question: You have now had a wonderful, productive and long career in Italian film and made a wide variety of films. I’ve only seen maybe ten of these, but from your choice of roles, you often seem to pick films that have a more liberal or progressive agenda. Even when you play a criminal, as it Light of My Eyes, the character comes off somehow more benign or decent than we’d expect. Can you talk about this?

I started my acting career in the 70s in Italy and in those years in Italy, everything was about politics. It was a highly political time there.

This was the time of the Red Guards, right?

Yes (he laughs), but not only them! This was a time of a lot of mass movements of people and political viewpoints and protesting. While I was very interested in politics, I would also get very bored trying to follow the traditional channels, like going to meetings and handing out flyers and all the structure and organization. For me, acting was my only way of having an active role in politics. And this is what I have tried to do throughout my entire life and career. I based my decisions on that. It was my way of making a political statement. I think that acting and cinema are also about actions and politics – it is a way of making one’s ideas spring to life.

I was personally very lucky to have been able to have this career in a time when cinema in the 90s was actually going in that direction. That was always a strong element in all the movies I chose to do. My first very successful film in Italy was Il Portaborse, in which Nanni Moretti played the lead and I played the other main character -- in 1991 -- at the time of the big political scandal in Italy when it became apparent that nothing could be accomplished anywhere unless you paid kickbacks. And the movie actually came out about one year before the scandal broke.

The moviemakers were prescient.

And my role in that movie was sort of my major imprint in acting – not for me, really, but for the way in which the audience perceived me. You know how audiences are: When you start in one way, your sort of get typecast, but I am appreciative of the direction in which this type of typecasting took me.

A lot what you have said reflects my attitude toward movies, as expressed in the title of my blog – TrustMovies. I believe that even when movies are not telling us the truth objectively, there is still truth in them. You may have to learn how to read them to understand that truth. But it’s there.

I believe that cinema cannot provide answers or create better things in itself. What it can do is provide a testimony, to be a witness and describe what is happening in a very intellectually honest way.

And sometime in an emotionally honest way, too. As when, if we feel something, we may be able to understand it better?

We are talking here about things here that are spiritual, classic. Things that will last eternally: Poetry. Art. Anything else fades away. The only things that we will appreciate from our past are these.

Thank you, Mr. Orlando. And, please, keep up the good work!

All photos are from Giovanna's Father.

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