One of the 14 films in Competition at the Marrakech International Film Festival is Sole by Italian director Carlo Sironi, a film that deals with a Polish surrogate mother coming to Italy to give birth to a baby, where she is taken care of by the uncle of the prospective parents, who is paid to claim he is the father of the child. Cédric Succivalli talked to the young filmmaker about finding a loophole in Italian adoption law, about finding two actors who couldn’t communicate, and about how there is always something missing in our desire for love.
CSu: Your film debuted in Venice in the Orizzonti section, where it was pretty well received. How was your personal reaction to the reception in Venice?
CSi: It was really good. Both screenings were packed, and the audience reaction was good. I was also surprised what the trades wrote about it, Variety really wrote a wonderful review for it. I was pretty worried beforehand, so for me that was unexpected.
CSu: I have just interviewed Ginevra Elkann, another young Italian filmmaker also with a debut this year. Both of you come up with very personal, potentially autobiographical stories about family matters and how to cope with personal drama. It is pretty rare these days for Italian cinema to deal with such strong stories in a debut feature. Where did it come from?
CSi: For me it came pretty naturally. The last two short films I made were about parenthood. A very universal idea, but different for everyone, so for me that was an invite to continue to talk about it. I was studying Italian adoption law for the short films, and I figured out that this fake adoption loophole that is in the film could work. I researched it with the president of the juvenile court in Rome, and we discovered that it’s true. From the beginning I and screenwriter Giulia Moriggi decided that it would be interesting not to tell the story from the point of view of the mother that is selling the baby, nor from the point of view of the couple that buys the baby, but from the point of view of someone who pretends to be the father. Maybe this emotional journey begins with him, even if he is not the biological father. So in a way the idea was to be in the head of the most anonymous character, the one who has the least dramaturgical reason to be in the story. This was a challenge, to be in the head of someone that has no purpose to do that, that just cares about the money. For me it’s more a movie about self-determination. The moment when you decide what you want to be, and you will do everything to become that.
CSu: His emotional arc is incredible, because he starts as a nondescript persona, emotionally deprived of any strengths, and progressively comes to terms with the idea of maybe becoming a father himself. How did you cast your incredible actors?
CSi: From the beginning I knew that Ermanno had to be non-professional. He had to have such precise features, and not just physically, that I knew we needed a discovery. We found Claudio (editor: Segaluscio) in a high school, and he was exactly how I imagined Ermanno. He has this pain in his eyes, but at the same time a potential tenderness. Those two features were important for the character. But we searched for Lena first. She is the main character, and she is shaping the movie much more than him. We contacted a lot of film schools in Europe, because we were looking for somebody from Eastern Europe. I knew from research that most of these girls who are surrogate mothers are Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian. Not so much Polish, because that is a richer country, but also because of its abortion laws. I saw a lot of tapes, and we narrowed it down to twelve actresses. When I met Sandra (editor: Drzymalska) in Poland I thought she was playing the character in a much more interesting way, because she has this naive and light way to her acting, she looks very childish. A bit like a ghost, like a Bartusz painting character. She learned Italian for the movie, which also gave us a four-month period to rehearse while she was learning the language. The funny thing is that Claudio doesn’t speak any English, and she doesn’t really speak Italian, because she only knows the lines of the script. So they didn’t communicate during rehearsals, never on set during the shooting. It was very funny.
CSu: Let’s talk a bit about the theme of surrogacy. How much of the reality of contemporary Italy with regards to this topic is documented in the film?
CSi: A lot, because in a way every law about surrogacy tells a lot about the country whose law it is. For example, US or Canadian law is super libertarian, very well done but very expensive. In Italy there is a sort of absence of law. It is forbidden to have the child abroad even if the mother is barren and the father sterile. There is something missing there. I didn’t mean to make a movie about surrogacy. It leaves a lot of open questions, but for me it’s a love story. In every desire of love there is an absence, there is something missing. In the blind desire of Fabio and Bianca for a baby there is something missing. In the desire of Lena to get rid of the baby and start a new life, there is something lacking. Every desire of love has a lacking, and the lack of every character is there. But for me it’s a love story. An unrequited love story, for sure. It’s more about falling in love. They are people that don’t know what love is, they haven’t been loved probably, and most of all they don’t know how to show emotion. This was an important tool working with them, knowing every time in every scene which emotion was there, and which emotion was hidden. My intention was for the viewer to feel that there was an emotion, but for the characters to hide this emotion from others, and even from themselves.
CSu: Another theme is broken masculinity, because this young guy doesn’t know how to cope with his male chauvinism, something that is strongly rooted in Italian chauvinist culture. He starts as a tough guy, but ends up an emotional mess. He opens up to his emotions in ways that at the beginning of the film you would never expect. How did the actor, Claudio Segaluscio, react to this arc?
CSi: I talked about it with him from the beginning, telling him the character had a potential tenderness inside that he would discover at a certain moment. But it was always there, everyone has something there. Maybe you just need another person to bring it out. For me it was this contrast with his icy looks that made it work.
CSu: In terms of stylistic qualities, what is the kind of cinema that attracts you, that drives you? Are you a film buff yourself?
CSi: First of all, I think that every movie has to achieve an abstraction. Every time I read “Based on a true story…“, I don’t care. Maybe it’s important, but for me it’s always about finding an abstraction in the story that you are telling. I think that a movie can really tell a lot without saying any words. So in terms of references I was focusing more on photographers, for the tone of the film, for the colors. A good reference was Todd Hido. But as for the cinema that I adore, it’s the Japanese cinema. It’s my biggest reference, it has this pudore, as we say in Italian. It’s untranslatable in English, it’s not shyness, it’s not decency. It’s the idea of not showing feelings because in this way you respect this film. So I was thinking about Naruse films from the ’50s, totally different from our story, but there is this melancholy, a simple story. And of course the master of masters, Bresson. Some masters you cannot approach, because you will fail. There are some milestones in cinema, and for me Mouchette is always one of them. I’m always thinking about the way Bresson managed to depict loneliness as a real, tangible thing, not as an allegory or a metaphor, but a real and concrete thing. So it was important for this movie that we wouldn’t let the audience empathize with Ermanno from the beginning. I really think that loneliness is a concrete thing. So this was important for me for the first part of the film.
CSu: I actually thought of Bresson while watching the film, not as a copycat but for the emotional and intuitive way in which you direct your actors. That’s a strength of the film because it’s not too naturalistic but still gives us a path to empathy, while at the same time, like in Bressonian cinema, there are a lot of unanswered questions. One last question: what are the projects you are working on at the moment?
CSi: I have two ideas. One I had already before Sole, and it’s really different. But I’m still writing, so I don’t know where it’s going. And the other one, I found this wonderful French novel by Sébastien Japrisot, Les mal partis (The False Start). It’s a love story of a nun who falls in love with a 14-year-old boy, and she is 26. I really would like to get in touch with the publishing house. There are always novels that I want to do, but some are super big. For instance La neige était sale by Georges Simenon, but such a project would be so expensive.