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Alice Rohrwacher

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The Italian director chats about her feature debut Corpo Celeste's unique exploration of faith.

Italian director Alice Rohrwacher has been making waves at film festivals around the world with her debut feature, Corpo Celeste, an intimate portrait of a young girl’s exploration of her Catholic faith, following her family’s relocation from Switzerland to the devoutly religious Calabria region of southern Italy. LWLies caught up with her recently to discuss the film’s themes and its unique exploration of faith.

LWLies: Corpo Celeste feels like a very personal film. Is it partly based on your own experiences of the church?

Rohrwacher: It’s not an autobiographical work. It all started when I met the producer who asked me to write something, so I started from where I was living and decided to tell the story of a place, and that particular place happened to be the Church. There’s so much talk in Italy about the origins of the church and the importance of the church and religion, and how politicians can’t say they’re not religious because they would never get voted for. So I wanted to look at that closely: what’s really interesting in the Church? How do things work in a small parish church from the inside and how is religion taught to young people?

Did you consider it to be an anti-faith film in a sense?

It’s not an attack on anybody. It’s looking at the society from the outside like an alien looking in I guess. I wanted to open up a debate about the Church more than attack it. So it’s more about using the space of the Church to talk about how society has changed in the last 20 years, rather than talking about the Church itself.

In terms of visuals, it’s a very interesting looking film. Where did you draw your influences from?

The places we chose were very symbolical for me. To me they were symbolically very strong. The problem was actually talking about these places without making them too aesthetic and assuming the responsibility of being there in that scene. That’s why we always chose to have a handheld camera, not to have a sort of documentary agitated feeling, but because we were there. And that also allowed us never to be completely safe, but to have a real rapport with the place we were in and with the actors.

All the places where the film takes place are real. So the river where the procession takes place is really the river where the procession takes place, the church is really where they have the Catechism. But at the same time we wanted to tell the story as though it were a fairy tale for children. So all those places – the mountain, the lake, and the city – are all topical places and symbolical places.

There seems to be a recurring trend in Italian cinema at the moment to tackle sociopolitical themes. Was that a conscious decision, to make an overtly political statement about faith?

Well everything is politics isn’t it? The least political part of the film is when the priest talks about politics, to me. What is more political, perhaps, is to talk about how television has changed society and how it has changed the way that little girls grow up. When we talk about commercial television we talk about the last 20 years of Italian politics. And when I went to Catechism I saw that the games used to learn excerpts from the Bible were games used in game shows and television. When I saw these little girls dressed as virgins doing these modern dances I really thought 'Wow, this is everywhere now'. It’s a political film, but there isn’t a political message. It’s difficult to explain.

How has the film’s response in Italy compared to the response at festivals abroad? 

In Italy it was very well received. It won the Best New Director award at the Nastro d'Argento, which is the national critics award. It’s only a small film so it had a limited release, but it was very well received and it generated a lot of discussion. The dramatic and painful aspect of the film is obviously a lot stronger in Italy, whereas the ironical aspect of the film tends to be felt more abroad because there’s more distance from the subject, so there is more of an ability to laugh at it. In Cannes, people would say ‘did you see the comedy Corpo Celeste?’. [Laughs]. Watching this whole thing of Italians going to Catechism and going to church, from the outside it’s very different to watching it from the inside.

How did you go about casting the film? Did you find the younger roles, particularly Marta, harder to cast?

We had a lot of time because the funding was blocked from the ministry of culture. We had the money, but it was blocked, so we had a lot of time to look.

Why was that?

Sometimes they just block it.

There was no political motive behind it then? 

No, they block it for all culture. It wasn’t just for me, but Italian cinema in general. But it was a bit of a silver lining in a way because we should have started filming at the start of winter, but because of the funding we had to start at the end of winter. This in itself wasn’t the silver lining, but I’d found Yle [Vianello] as a little girl and this gave Yle time to grow up, so, in the context of the bad political culture, for us it was actually a good thing.

The cast is a mixture of professional and non-professional actors and, in particular, the two non-professional actors are the girl and the Catechism teacher, who had never acted before. The process of casting Marta was quite long. We wanted to find an ideal Swiss girl and to do this I went looking in the countryside to look for all the people I knew and finally ended up in this community, this self-sufficient community, a commune actually. And that’s where I found Yle. Even though she was actually very different to Marta, it was very important for me that she had that experience for the first time of going to live in a city in the south. That was a new experience for her.

The teacher is actually a neighbour. She had a bed and breakfast near where we were working and that’s where I found her. We already had a professional relationship, so that’s how we knew each other. I’d been looking at so many actresses and I was finding it so hard to find somebody who could render the character and also the tragedy of this character, not just the comical aspect. I thought I’d written it badly, but I asked Pasqualina [Scuncia] to try it and she was perfect. So there was a lot of research and it was a very long process.

Which filmmakers would you cite as personal influences?

It’s very difficult to discuss influences because I see art as a means rather than an end. It’s such a big melting pot of different things. I draw from films but I also draw from a lot of books and paintings and all of that is within me. All those elements contribute organically to interpreting reality. I’ve never thought of shooting in the style of someone else. And also, when shooting, we just didn’t have the time to think about doing it in a particular style. I probably made references to all sorts of filmmakers, but that’s to interpret reality, rather than make a specific reference to their work.

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