Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Simplicity and Irony": Nanni Moretti on Popes, Politicians, and Cannes

When the Italian actor-director Nanni Moretti’s new film We Have a Pope premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, some critics were perplexed. Moretti, an outspoken leftist and a longtime atheist, had skewered religious piety in The Mass is Ended (1985) and had not long ago made some waves with his incendiary satire of Silvio Berlusconi, The Caiman (2006). But We Have a Pope was a seemingly gentler film – a comic drama of a newly elected Pope (Michel Piccoli) who, suffering an existential crisis, flees the Vatican and wanders among the people of Rome, visiting with a psychotherapist and reliving his youthful dreams of becoming an actor. And yet it contained a subtler, more humanist critique of the Papacy, underlining the tension between the power of the office and the messy, all-too-human thoughts and needs of the people who inhabit it. But this sort of humanism has always been the hallmark of Moretti , an iconic figure in Italy and Europe who isn’t particularly well known in the U.S. (Although his 1993 film Caro Diario [Dear Diary], was a small arthouse hit.) I sat down with him during a recent visit to New York, to talk about his new film, crossing Silvio Berlusconi, making political movies, and much more.

I was surprised to see that We Have a Pope got criticized by some quarters for not being hard enough on the Vatican.

A lot of people – regular spectators as well as critics – like to imagine a film before it’s made or before it comes out. And if they don’t get that film, they’re disappointed. Maybe because of The Caiman (Moretti’s 2006 satire about Silvio Berlusconi), many people imagined my film would be a collage of bits and different pieces of stories involving different scandals regarding the Vatican. Those kinds of films, even if they pretend to be controversial, often simply reassure what you already know. I wanted to do another type of criticism of the Vatican. I believe that that empty balcony at the end of the film is much more disturbing for the institution of the Vatican. With those few steps backwards -- taken by a man away from the balcony for his humanity -- the entire institution of the Vatican seems to crumble. The humanity of the Pope in that moment reveals the nudity of power. At the end of the movie the cardinals are beside themselves and they feel alone. The same with the believers in the Piazza. It’s as if all of St. Peter’s Basilica is saddened by this waiting.

Was the Vatican worried when they heard you were making a film about a Pope?

It’s not like the Vatican is this monolithic thing, so I’m sure there were lots of different opinions but I didn’t hear all of them. The thing that seemed to be most disturbing to people is the idea of the Pope renouncing his position. I think the rest of it people accepted it with some kind of respect. But what happens often with my films is that people talk about them before they even come out, and then continue to talk about them after they come out without seeing it, which is what happened with The Caiman. With We Have a Pope, at least people were able to see it. When I was young, I used to read all of my critics. Not any more, though. 

We Have a Pope

Did Berlusconi ever see The Caiman?

I don’t know. But he certainly talked about the film without seeing it! During the 2006 election, there was a debate with the opposing candidate, and he referred to it as “that horrible film.” But he hadn’t seen it yet, because nobody had seen it yet.

It’s funny. In Italy, and maybe Europe in general, when a director tackles a politically fraught subject, audiences expect it to be confrontational and controversial, and are let down if it isn’t. In the U.S., it’s sort of the opposite. When Oliver Stone or Spike Lee announce they’re going to make a film about something controversial, everybody’s worried it’s going to be too incendiary, and they’re relieved when it isn’t.

When you think about it, it really shouldn’t matter. Sometimes directors have this attitude that they’ve made an important film and that therefore people must see it. They should just focus on making good films -- maybe innovative films sometimes, but above all good films. I don’t believe there are themes that are Class A or Class B. I think any theme can be used to make a good movie or a bad movie.

The Caiman

You’ve made some films like Caro Diario (Dear Diary) and Aprile where you decided to put yourself – as Nanni Moretti – at the center of the film. Were you afraid at all of putting yourself out there?

In Caro Diario and Aprile, more than being myself, I played a version of myself. In Caro Diario there’s a chapter devoted to a tumor I had to have removed. In deciding to recount that part of my life, I realized that tone and style are everything – this fact is paradoxically undervalued, but I really think it’s true. I had to be careful: I didn’t want to be sadistic to my spectators when talking about my tumor. I also didn’t want to be proud of myself, or celebrating myself, for dealing with it so well. So, the tone I decided on was simplicity and irony. But, this was a conscious decision, an artifice. Autobiography is a way to reveal oneself, but one can also hide behind autobiography. If I were to publish the diaries I write while I’m actually making my films, then I’d be a little embarrassed.

A lot of your movies are either about filmmakers, psychiatrists, or public figures, like politicians or priests? Do you see some kind of similarity between these professions?

It’s strange, because the more time passes the more I enjoy doing my work, but the less I’m able to explain it. Maybe the thing that interests me most is the idea of a character who has to be something, or pretend to be something, and the difference between that and who that character really is, how he really feels. We Have a Pope is very much a film about roles: The Pope is not able to play the role for which he’s been called. The psychoanalyst isn’t able to fulfill the role for which he’s been called, so he invents another one, organizing the cardinals’ free time. The Swiss Guard has to play the role of the Pope behind a curtain, so the people outside don’t realize what’s really going on. The journalist who has to cover the story of what happens at the Vatican can’t perform his role, and has to improvise facts. The theater actor loses his mind and starts to play all of the roles in Chekhov’s play. So, in essence, a lot of my films are about the roles we call on ourselves to play, or others call on us to play, or destiny calls on us to play.

A lot of Italian filmmakers, after they have some success at home or in Europe, seem to come and make American films, like Gabriele Muccino (Seven Pounds, The Pursuit of Happyness). Have you ever gotten offers? And, if an American producer came to you and gave you complete freedom to make a movie in America, what would you do?

Nobody has made any offers to me. English is not my language, and the Hollywood style is not my way of working.  But if I had the ability to control everything, to have final cut, maybe.  If a film were to take place in America, I’d have to live here for a while. I’m interested in politics, but I don’t think a European director is needed to tell the story of American politics. There are good American political films out there, like George Clooney’s last film, The Ides of March.

It seems strange though that it’s very hard in America to make low-budget films. Not tiny, tiny budgets, but small-budgeted films that are then released to theaters. In America it seems they’re either huge films that cost a lot and don’t really risk anything in terms of script or filmmaking, or very, very small films that barely get distributed. I directed the Torino Film Festival for two years, and we took on some American films, like The New Year Parade and Prince of Broadway, that were very good films but had very little prospects for distribution in the U.S. It’s not simply a moral or economic question, but rather an artistic question: directors should be able to make a film the way they want to, to some extent.

You’re also a distributor and exhibitor of films. You even made a short film once about trying to convince people to see Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up. Is independent film in Italy struggling the way it is in the U.S.?

To be honest, this has been a lucky year for us. Within a week, the Taviani Brothers’ film Caesar Must Die won the Golden Lion and A Separation won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Those were both films I was distributing. The Taviani Brothers -- I was a big fan of theirs 40 years ago. A few months ago I saw their last film, as it was finishing post-production. I said, “It’s great, let’s distribute it.” I thought I was the first person to see the movie, but it turned out that I was the last person to see the movie; all the other distributors had seen it and passed. They’d all said, “It’s good, but difficult. Good, but unsellable. Good, but the public is not going to see it.” I could even agree with, “It’s good, but unsellable.” But if a movie is good, then I want to distribute it, and I have to. So, we got into the Berlin Film Festival. The Taviani brothers are in their 80s now; it had been many years since they’d gone to a festival, but this time, they went and won the big prize. And, a propos of it being unsellable, during the festival it sold all international territories.  

I believe that cinema needs to surprise.  As a spectator, I see almost everything. If an American film falls into the same shape as other American films but is well-written and directed, I’ll go see it. But as a spectator and a distributor and exhibitor, I look for something else. I’m attached to the cinema of the 60s. The New Wave in France, the free cinema in England, the first films of Pasolini, Bellocchio, Bertolucci in Italy, Cassavetes in the U.S.…because they were films that reflected on reality and on cinema, while refusing the cinema and the society that they had inherited. Through their cinema they tried to imagine a new reality and a new cinema.
So you’re going to be the president of the jury this year at Cannes. What are you least looking forward to about it?

I don’t want a unanimous vote. I think it’s a mistake when all the members of a jury feel they have to be in agreement about all the prizes. I think all the movies should be discussed and debated with the same attention. But I believe it’s a big mistake when juries try to find something they unanimously agree on, because then they choose something that’s right in the middle. So I’m hoping there will be some disagreement.

What makes a good festival jury member?

The important thing is to find people who are excited to see several films a day, and aren’t going to complain about it. Not every filmmaker is excited about seeing so many films. Fellini, for example, hated watching other people’s films. He never went to the cinema. Unfortunately, he lived right next to a private screening room, so directors would always organize screenings for him! [Laughs] I knew him, but I never asked him to go see one of my films. I respected his disinterest in other people’s films. As for Cannes, I don’t know who the other members of the jury are yet. Thierry Fremaux said that he would choose them but that I could give him some input. I wrote down some names, some of whom had already been on the jury, but I still don’t know yet.

The image of you on the Vespa in Caro Diario became kind of iconic in Italy and Europe, and even briefly in the U.S. Would you ever ride a Vespa in New York traffic?

Oh, I don’t know how drivers drive in New York, but in Rome between traffic and parking you need a scooter. I still have the Vespa from Caro Diario. It’s over 35 years old, and it doesn’t really work anymore. My back can’t take it either, But I can’t get rid of it, so I still use it from time to time. The color in the film is not its original color. I decided to make it dark green, and it’s still dark green. I took a lot of time to choose that color, but people who saw the film were convinced that it was white, for some reason. Sometimes people will see me stopped at a traffic light and they’ll say, “That’s not the one from the movie!” And I’ll say, “Yes, it is!” “But it can’t be, it was white!” And then I’ll sit there and argue with them.

Caro Diario (Dear Diary)

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