Thursday, June 11, 2009

Open Roads ends: Ozpetek's dark "Day," Q&A with screenwriter Sandro Petraglia

Closing the FSLC Open Roads fest this afternoon is the most recent film from one of the annual series’ most frequently-screened filmmakers: Ferzan Ozpetek. As befits this year’s roster of movies, A PERFECT DAY is the director's darkest film so far.

It may be that the darkness comes primarily from the novel by Melania Mazzucco on which Ozpetek (shown below) has adapted

-- with the help of one of Italy’s finest and most renowned of living screenwriters, Sandro Petraglia. This Italian director of Turkish birth has always co-written his movies, indicating a need and/or desire for collaboration where the screenplay is concerned. His concerns as a humanist filmmaker, however, have remained remarkably consistent throughout his career. Ozpetek deals with society -- sometimes Turkish, more often Italian -- as a whole and includes the many divergent groups that combine to make up that whole, while concentrating on family. Yet the director sees this “family” in both its nuclear and extended varieties, with close friends often counted as important and meaningful as are our blood relations.

As his career has moved ahead, Ozpetek seems increasingly drawn to large ensembles, never more so than with his latest effort, in which a group of disparate people become connected by a single event over a 24-hour period. A Perfect Day, a title that can only be considered ironically, takes in a dozen or more pivotal characters, including a recently separated couple and its two children; a politician (desperately fighting to save his career) and his extended -- and dysfunctional -- family; police, teachers, doctors, even the country’s all-important and unseen President.

Out of this, Ozpetek, Petraglia and novelist Mazzucco create a look at Italy today, in which priorities have gone horribly awry and confusion reigns -- at least so far as the characters on view are concerned. In terms of film-making technique, the director graces us with some of his usual elegant visuals and compositions. This is a beautiful film to watch, even as we’re increasingly appalled by the behavior going on in these often swank interiors and historic exteriors (the locations are chosen with superb visual flair).

In the end, we're left with little solace. (I wonder if the novel offered the same small but hopeful concession that does the film.) In any case, Ozpetek has another memorable movie to his credit, and viewers have yet another opportunity to consider the state of Italy today -- and wince.

Screenwriter Sandro Petraglia (left) certainly matches whatever is the Italian equivalent for the French éminence grise. Physically, he fits that description perfectly, an older gentleman – and he is indeed a gentlemen – sporting a beautiful head of gray-white hair atop a handsome face and very fit body. But Petraglia also, in a sense, matches the real meaning of that phrase: the power behind the throne. Who else but a very talented and productive screenwriter could claim responsibility for some of the best Italian films of modern times. Not that Signore Petraglia is doing any such thing. He seems modest to a fault. I’m the one doing the claiming here. But consider even a small selection of the fellow’s 59-piece oeuvre, and you'll see what I mean: Luchetti’s Il Portaborse and My Brother Is an Only Child; the TavianisFiorile, Giordana’s The Best of Youth, Amelio’s The Keys to the House, Placido’s Crime Novel, last year’s big Award winner The Girl By the Lake, and now Ozpetek’s A Perfect Day. That’s an impressive list -- but a drop in the bucket of his entire output.

Press interview day for Open Roads begins very early on a rainy Friday morning, initially in the lobby of the Park Lane hotel, where I meet with Petraglia, then later in the gallery adjoining the Walter Reade Theater. The first thing the eminent screenwriter and I must do is to clear up a mistake posted on everyone’s movie site of choice the IMDB, which lists Petraglia as the screenwriter of Kiss Me Again, the sequel to Gabriele’s Muccino’s international hit The Last Kiss. No, the gentleman informs me: Rather than the screenplay, he wrote only the original story for the film.

TrustMovies: Your work has spanned so many different genres, from a classic like The Best of Youth to the TV mini-series The Octopus. Do you have a favorite genre?

Sandro Petraglia: I prefer to write comedy.

But I don’t see much comedy on your resume so far?

from Il Portaborse,
written by Petraglia, Stefano Rulli and director Daniele Luchetti

It would be mostly my work with Daniele Luchetti.

My Brother Is An Only Child


And Ginger and Cinnamon?

No, I did not write that one.

So, then, you like to write comedy, but you don’t get the opportunity to do it that often. Sort of like the comic actor who wants to play Hamlet, but nobody will give him the chance. People often want what they don’t get the opportunity to do.

I would have liked the chance to work with directors when Italian comedy was at its height -- Dino Risi, Mario Monicelli -- but this generation does not have those kinds of directors. So we do less comedy. I would prefer more.

Do you see this changing?

Well, the tradition of Italian cinema is a very “realistic” tradition. It seems more about real tragedy.

God knows, your country is a real tragedy -- in some ways. (Petraglia laughs heartily.) I mean, I really love your country. But it keeps surprising me. And not always in a good way.

Well, what I like to do very much is to describe the family and its universe.

As in My Brother Is an Only Child? (A still from same is shown, right.)

Yes, with relationships: brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. Particularly as in The Best of Youth. This was a very original subject, a very original story.

It is! I have never seen anything other movie quite like that one. It is one of my favorite films.

Even with The Best of Youth, which had some very tragic moments, the relationship between brothers and sister in this film, is actually somewhat "light.” So even though bad things surround them, the relationship itself is rather sweet, rather delicate.

And very Italian. And different from what we know here in America.

There is a fine line of difference….

Yes, families are families, but culture are also cultures, I think, with their own differences.


I found A Perfect Day to be the darkest film, by far, that Ferzan Ozptepek has given us.

Yes, yes.

Why is this, do you think? Does the movie reflect Italy now?

Not really. But it is a very hard, a very difficult film. I’ve never written anything as dark as this. The writer of the novel on which the film is based is a very dear friend of mine. I respect her very much. When I read her book, I was really taken aback from the way that she describes the weakness of the male.

This was a very interesting and disturbing part of the film, certainly.

Normally, unlike how you do things here in the states, we write the film script first and then we look for the director. So first I wrote this screenplay for myself. This is not always the case. But this time it was.

from The Best of Youth,
co-written by Petraglia and Rulli and directed by Marco Tullio Giordana

How closely did your screenplay for The Best of Youth and for A Perfect Day adhere to what we see on screen in the final films?

For The Best of Youth my screenplay came very close to what you saw on screen. A Perfect Day, no. That was very different. In fact, it was the very strong presence of the director, Ozpetek, that made the difference.

Were you pleased with that strong presence and with the finished film?

For the most part, yes. The novel that we worked from was a very difficult novel. Nothing happens except in the head of the protagonist.

That would be the father, played by Valerio Mastandrea? (He is shown below, right, with co-star Isabella Ferrari.)


It’s interesting that this director usually has ensemble movies, rather than strong individual character who command the scene. The movie was certainly changed from the novel, in that it has moved from one major character to an ensemble.

Yes, and this was the first time that both Ozpetek and I had ever worked on a film like this. And Ozpetek had wanted to make a film different from all the others he had made previously. I really loved the story very much, but something got lost on the screen.

I’m sure. I’ve seen all of Ozpetek’s other films and have liked them all a great deal, some more than others. I was expecting maybe not to like this one so well because I had heard negative things about it, but no – I thought it was surprisingly strong and dark and not sentimental. I think he sometimes has a tendency to go sentimental.

Yes, very sentimental. But this was not.

When I interviewed Daniele Luchetti last year, the director mentioned a movie of his I Piccoli Maestri, for which you wrote the screenplay, and he called it a disaster for him, after which, he felt he might never make another film. How did you feel about this film?

The book that the movie was made from is almost like “cursed” book in Italy.


The author Luigi Meneghello is a great Italian writer; he wrote this after the war about his experiences with the Italian partisans. Though he was a partisan, he was not a communist, but was very intellectual -- among a group of young intellectuals who were living up in the hills. The book -- and the film -- is about what happens when they go into town to a bourgeioise home to take the shower and wash up. These were a very unique type of partisans.

This is what Little Teachers was about? It sounds really interesting! (Two stills from the film are shown at left)

It is most interesting! But it was against the rhetoric, very, very against this rhetoric of the Italian partisans of that time.

Do you think perhaps Luchetti was not disappointed in the movie itself, but in the response to the film with audiences?

Well, you see, this writer found that, after the war, Italy had turned itself into a terrible country, which was why he then fled to London.

But Italy was also a terrible country during the War, right?

Yes, of course. But Meneghello's hopes of change died after the war.

Boy—I would love to see this film. Regarding the partisans, it seems that, although these groups existed in every country conquered by the axis powers during the war, it also seems that they were often not as strong nor effective nor so popular in the country itself as was proposed after the war was over. Particularly in France and Italy, the “resistance” was perhaps not all it was cracked up to be?

It was not just in its reaction to fascism, it was also in waiting for the country to come forth and develop after the war.

And finally become what we might call “progressive.” All countries seem to have a movement toward this, but yet it never happens. It hasn’t happened here, either. I used to think I would live to see this happen, but now I think I will not live that long. How would you describe the state of Italy today? Do you think Berlusconi will be elected to a fifth, sixth or seventh term?

photo, above, from A Perfect Day.

I am rather pessimistic. We have this President who continues to protect himself from the law. Who makes laws for himself. And who controls the television, too. So we have a public opinion that is very favorable to him. So I am very pessimistic.

We thought we has this same thing during the Bush administration, and we did to some extent. Certain TV stations – like Fox -- seemed completely on his side. But then it changed, probably becaue of our economic downturn. Here, we say, “People vote their pocketbooks.”

Like in Italy.

Like everywhere, I guess.

But we don’t have any Obama in our country. We don’t even see the hint of someone like that on the horizon. There is no one with a strong personality. For us, it’s very sad to see someone like our President, very mediocre, very small minded, at the head of our country. (Petraglia shakes his head, and I shake mine.) But still, there must be hope. You can never take away the hope.

Where there’s life, there’s hope, right?

Luchetti is making a film right now about a small businessman, a relatively poor man with three children and a wife, He’s 30 years old -- a construction worker who knows how to do everything about building and has decided that he wants to become the boss and earn a lot of money. We don’t say it in the movie, but this is a man who, in the end, is going to vote for Berlusconi. Yet he is a nice character, a good man, full of life.

There has to be many decent, good people in Italy who still voted for Berlusconi, right?

Yes, and that is where the idea for this film came from.

This could make a most interesting motion picture. Are you finished with it yet, and what will be it called?

We are in the middle of it now, and it will be called simply “The Life.”

At this point, I must leave Petraglia’s hotel to get
up to Lincoln Center for the remainder of my interviews.
So I thank this talented, generous man for his time -- and depart.

(All photos are from A Perfect Day, unless otherwise indicated.)

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