Roma 2017 review: NYsferatu – Symphony of a Century (Andrea Mastrovito)

The 12th Festa del Cinema di Roma has just come to an end and one of its last screenings offered a transfixing film/stage/live music experience with the projection of NYsferatu – Symphony of a Century, the riveting feature length debut (animated) film by the Italian-born artist and NY resident Andrea Mastrovito. After premiering in select New York locations over the summer: public parks and cultural institutions (Brooklyn Bridge Park, Queens Museum, The Magazzino Italian Art), the More Art production made a big deserved splash in Rome for its European premiere.

The Rome Film Fest screenings were accompanied live by the Luigi Boccherini Orchestra from Lucca, conducted by Simone Giuliani (the very composer of the flamboyantly electrifying original score) with live vocals by Bisan Toron, in ghostly stage interludes. Imagine if Oum Kalthoum and Elisabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) morphed into one single singer and you will have a pretty accurate idea of the Syrian vocalist’s hypnotic presence on the stage of Sala Petrassi last Friday night.

It required a team of 12 assistants over the span of 3 years of laborious work and no fewer than 35,000 rotoscope drawings in order to reminisce the flickering effect of the very first films of silent cinema and create this arresting (hand-) animated revisitation of the original vampire film by Friedrich W. Murnau (Nosferatu, 1922), This eye-catching technique was formerly used in video clips (Take on Me by a-ha or Innuendo by Queen, for instance) but Mastrovito and his uncommonly talented team have succeeded in transcending and pushing it to a higher level of romantic beauty and visual splendor, wowing the Roman audience, this writer included!

Here is not the place to recount Dracula/Nosferatu’s story and for those not familiar with it, all the better! Let’s rather focus on how Mastrovito appropriated that myth.

From Nosferatu to NYsferatu.

Each background scene of Nosferatu was entirely redrawn to set the film in contemporary New York, where the Italian director currently lives. The film abounds with cultural and political references to our present times with slogans drawn on the NY skyscrapers and Downtown buildings, such as “Don’t dream of Liberty, fight for it!”, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (the name of a vibrant speech for the defense of women’s rights and abolitionism, delivered by Sojourner Truth, an anti-slavery speaker in 1851) or “Silence = Death” (the punchy ACT UP slogan was also featured earlier this year in Robin Campillo’s Cannes winner BPM).

For the film, recent NY immigrants took part in workshops where they were asked the following question: “What is the vampire in my life?”. Their personal harrowing experiences as immigrants fueled the revisited vampire narrative and the film eloquently throws light on the double-bind situation in which they find themselves, having fled their home countries devastated by war (notably Syria) only to be targeted as threatening aliens through a xenophobic discourse once in their “new” country, facing economic exploitation and constant discrimination as well. This is one of the film’s numerous undeniable strengths, to modernize, reverse and subvert the classic tale of Nosferatu by associating the vampire with the prototypical outsider. The fear of otherness that culminates in unprecedented heights in Trump’s America finds itself at the core of Mastrovito’s own Nosferatu (himself an immigrant, it bears repeating). In these dark times of ours, such a powerful (and visually arresting) film-manifesto is a MUST see, obviously.