After opening Locarno, Ginevra Elkann’s debut feature Magari (If Only) landed in a Special Screening slot at the Marrakech International Film Festival. A mixture of coming-of-age and dysfunctional family drama, the film features three wonderful child performances next to known adult talent such as Alba Rohrwacher and Céline Sallette. Cédric Succivalli talked to the Italian director about finding such young talent, how strongly related her own story is to the film, and what her inspirations were.
CS: Congratulations on the film, I was riveted by it. What fascinated me was your blending of two genres, the family drama and the coming-of-age story. Since you co-wrote the screenplay with Chiara Barzini, how was that process for you, and how much of yourself was incorporated and blended into the narrative process?
GE: We did a lot of talking before we wrote. It was quite a long process, and we really co-wrote this film. I think there was a strong sense of togetherness in writing this story and in falling in love with all these characters, finding out who they were and what they were doing and why. All the psychology behind all these people. We were analyzing all of them, blending in characteristics from several people we knew, fathers, this guy, that guy. Going back to the ’90s, we were both born in ’79, so we really had the same nostalgia for those years, and writing this story was very much teamwork.
CS: What I liked is on the one hand this character of Alma, who I believe is more or less an impersonation of who you were when you were young, and then you have the characters of Jean and Seb, who to me as a French person were like two little Antoine Doinels. They are such heartening characters. The three of them, because of their age, are bound to be non-professionals. How did you find these three phenomenal young actors?
GE: I did a casting. I really didn’t want a professional child actor, I still wanted to have that magic and purity of a child. Children now are very different from children in the ’90s. Now they know everything, back then they knew nothing. So I wanted children who had retained some kind of surprise and awe, nothing blasé. We casted in schools to find bilingual children, both in Italy and France. Oro lives in the UK, and both boys live in Rome. I just fell in love with them. There is something about the three of them that is from another time, and they completely surpassed my expectation.
CS: You never romanticize Italy like most Italian directors sadly do these days, and you depict an Italy that does not exist anymore because, for one, it’s the ’90s, but also an Italy in wintertime, because we are close to Christmas. It’s not like we’re in Portofino or anything. How did you manage to capture this elegance of the ’90s, because you feel this Italian elegance throughout the film, an elegance that unfortunately is gone in Italy a bit these days.
GE: I worked on the costumes a lot. Not only the clothes themselves, but the way they are worn. I wanted people to wear them the way we wore them. So maybe you are stealing a sweater from a boyfriend, or you’re wearing your sweater like a scarf, that kind of thing. Also the way the set was done, with the colors and prints, I worked a lot on that. Another interesting thing about Italy is that we have a lot of beauty in our country. The way we look at it, however, is like it’s just there, we pay no particular attention to it. I wanted to present it somehow as ‘just there’. Yes, they talk about the Colosseum, and we see it, but just in passing.
CS: These scenes are remarkable, almost anti-climactic. “We’re in Rome? Yes, we’re in Rome. That’s it.“
GE: Right, I’m not taking you to see the Colosseum, it just happens to be there. So somebody is walking to the pharmacy, and suddenly around a corner there is this beauty. But there is no emphasis on it, because for Italians, they don’t notice it as such.
CS: Going back to casting, when you were writing, did you already have Alba Rohrwacher and Riccardo Scamarcio in mind?
GE: Actually, I didn’t, it came later. In some way I always thought about Alba, but we casted them after we had casted the kids. Because with Riccardo, I didn’t want to have kids too different from the dad. I really wanted a kind of chemistry for the parents, a couple that were not totally stereotypical. It was so much fun to have two such brilliant actors like Riccardo and Céline Sallette, who plays the mother.
CS: The sexual tension between Benedetta and Seb, an underage sexual awakening, is something that is rare in film these days because we are not allowed to talk about desire between people of different ages, particularly when they are underage. What can you say about this?
GE: It’s childhood. It’s not Benedetta throwing herself at him, he is the one who gives her the most sober kiss, but he is still manly in doing it. It gives him the courage to speak his mind and be his own person. As children you can fall in love with anyone. What I love about that is that there is nothing dangerous in their relationship. The problem often is that everything these days is tainted with something dirty and everything is sexualized. Here sexuality is where it should be, between a couple. Sometimes the father is being sexual in an inappropriate way, but in the other relationships it’s just about a crush, an awakening. It’s just very sweet, I feel. A lot of it is about the imagination. Nowadays we put in a lot of graphic images, but this is about a lot more.
CS: It reminds me of Call Me By Your Name, what Luca Guadagnino did. It’s the same timeframe, the ’90s, and the desire of Timothée Chalamet for Armie Hammer, an underage boy who has a strong desire for an adult. Something else, the way you manage to handle the thorny topic of a long-term disease (editor: in this case, diabetes) of a young person is remarkable because you are never over-sentimental about it, but you still manage to get to the reality of it. How did you investigate this topic to depict it so vividly?
GE: We wanted this character to have something they could carry in their history, and something that would require constant care, which I have seen with children and parents that I know. We had to research how it was to constantly monitor this disease in the ’90s. Now you have all these little machines, it’s much easier. We didn’t want to go into it to the point it would take up all the space, but still give it attention. It was about preconceived notions about the disease, and what it really was like day-to-day.
CS: About dysfunctional families, how did you come to that theme? Did you bring any personal history into that?
GE: All families are in a way dysfunctional. When I see a person who is as dysfunctional as they could be, I’ve always been interested in the question: how did it come to that? And very often in people’s lives it comes from their childhood. How their family has affected them, things that happened in their childhood. Things about life and patterns of behavior that you bring from your childhood. Your dad wasn’t listening to you when you were telling him a story because he was more interested in his dog, that sort of stupid thing. It’s these little behaviors that make adults who they are. My parents were divorced, so I knew this very well. What really was very close to me in this story was Alma as magari, which is unfortunately untranslatable in English. This idea of family that she has so strongly, what was this family she wanted, what it meant. This idea of closeness, that was something that was personal to me. So with Chiara we worked from that starting point on all these characters.
CS: The film debuted in Locarno to outstanding reviews in the trades, which is not something that regularly happens to Italian films these days. Let’s talk a little bit about your personal references in terms of cinema that you like and that has inspired you as a woman and a viewer.
GE: I am a very big film buff. Of course French cinema, since I was brought up in France, had a very strong influence on me. As I was writing we thought of a lot of American cinema as well, like The Squid and the Whale, Kramer vs. Kramer, the classics about divorce. Also, Francesca Archibugi. As I was directing it all became a tabula rasa, it was gone. There is so much influence of so many directors, but I feel I was much more inspired by photographers, for instance Luigi Ghirri, who has expressed Italy and winter in Italy in such a beautiful way. That was an aesthetic I definitely went for. Also Sally Mann, a lot of photographic inspiration really. I couldn’t even say who I was inspired by as a filmmaker, because there is so much: Ettore Scola, Comedia Italiana, mixed with French cinema, La ciénaga, all sorts of things. Cinema from all over the world. It was important to me that it was also humorous, and Riccardo was incredible in that sense. This idea of keeping humor in all the drama, that idea of Italian cinema of the ’70s. It had very human characteristics, and Scola is very much like that.
CS: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story also plays here in Marrakech, did you already see it? There are some parallels between his film and yours, in terms of unrequited relationships and love falling apart.
GE: I loved it, and I loved Adam Driver’s performance so much, he was so moving for me. I cried so much. Definitely his is the perspective of the adult. It’s all about the frustration of the parents, we don’t care about the child in this film at all. It’s all about the adults and what they’re feeling, how they go for this separation. It’s masterfully done, I think, and the performances are fantastic. But what stayed with me is Adam Driver.
CS: It would be a great companion piece to your film!
GE: Yes, together you have the whole spectrum.
Photo by Maria Laura Antonelli/AGF/REX/Shutterstock