Special guest at 2019 Lavazza Italian Film Festival, Mimmo Calopresti talks to Segmento
Acclaimed Italian filmmaker Mimmo Calopresti, noteworthy for his 1995 drama ‘La seconda volta’ and ‘La parola amore esiste’ (1998), winners of three David Di Donatelli Awards, has excelled also in documentary filmmaking and wants to bring the lives of everyday people to the screen, shedding light on human experiences and stories that concern all of us. (Images from the Opening Night of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival in Melbourne: Palace Cinema Como: 20 September, 201
A special guest at this year’s Lavazza Italian Film Festival, Calopresti is in Australia to present his most recent socio-politically oriented film ‘Aspromonte: La Terra degli Ultimi’ (Aspromonte: Land of The Forgotten), set high up in the Calabrian mountains where the earth meets the sky, and an inherently poetic film about human resilience and interconnectedness in the face of external adversities.
Mimmo Calopresti, welcome to Melbourne, an honour to meet you. Is it the first time you are here?
Yes, it is. I am surprised by how many Italians, including Calabrian people, I have met here in Melbourne. I feel right at home and as if I was part of one big Italian family! They all join together here, live and work here and combine their Italian lives with this new foreign existence. I find it very interesting. And cinema parallels life in this sense: It speaks of old worlds and new. And it is also interesting how people back home have these set ideas about, or ways of looking at Australia’ (laughs). And Calopresti talks about how the children in his most recent film make references to Australia: ‘Everyone talks about Australia. I realised that Australia attracts a large number of people, many of whom migrate here. I read up on Australia and understood why this is the case’.
You have brought your film ‘Aspromonte: La Terra degli Ultimi’ to this year’s LIFF. It is an impressive cinematic feat. The film carries historical and socio-political importance and stars big names like Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Marcello Fonte, and Francesco Colella. What prompted you to make this film, who are ‘the forgotten’ (i dimenticati) referred to in the title, and could this be a reference to displaced people across Europe in general?
When I first set out to make the film (based on the book ‘Via dall’Aspromonte’ by Pietro Criaco) it never struck me that this film set in the 1950s could in actual fact be talking about today, but everyone who watches the movie considers it a very important film (about the current word order), relevant in today’s global context. It can certainly be read like this and this is a beautiful thing. There is always a spot in the world, a small village, where it all begins, and which is, in a way, the origin of the world. Then these people leave in search for a better life’. With reference to Aspromonte he says that ‘There are people in Italy who live in a submissive state to or ‘under’ other Italians: They are born immigrants, they come from Calabria and southern Italy. And yet there is a lot of movement amongst people today and also within Italy itself. And people now ask themselves: ‘Where do I come from?’ ‘What is my home?’ When it comes to Calabria there is a large Greek influence and we keep coming back to our origins. But in the end where you belong is not necessarily any specific place but where you feel at home and can be yourself’.
And do you yourself feel close to your Calabrian roots?
Well I am proud of everything, of being Italian and Calabrian but I am also proud to have known the world, to have lived in France, seen Germany and Berlin. In the end I feel like everyone else. I feel close to all people and particularly close to my characters, and I feel they really need to exist. And it is high time that the ‘last ones’ – ‘gli ultimi della terra’ (in a double sense of the word: the last inhabitants of Africo who in the film decide to abandon their local village, leaving it desolated, and also those people who inhabit the southernmost outposts of Italy) became protagonists and played a lead role.
What can we learn from this story and why does a story based on an event in the 1950s still carry importance today?
In life, we all have a road or a path to walk where we go to find something else, where we find a sense of well-being, happiness, and, ultimately, ourselves. We don't always know what we are looking for, and this is the mystery of life. But we need a road that allows us to travel (with other people) and a place where we feel we belong. We are scared of being poor and of being born in a place where there is nothing. Having shot the film in Aspromonte there are people who live there and who have very little but who are still some of the happiest in the world. So, it is about finding a road or a way forward and about the possibility to enter into relationship with the world and for everyone to coexist and to participate. But, unfortunately, this world often controls us, in the United States, in San Francisco, and in some other cities more than others we see more or less the same thing as we are currently witnessing in Milan, etc. ̶ that there is a great deal of control and we need a lot of personal roads (through which we can find our own travel routes).
In an interview published in online American platform i-Italy in July this year you claim that ‘The South has always been a geographic and spiritual place. Heaven and Hell, fairy tale and tragedy’, and that this is also the case with this film. In your words, ‘When I began filming, I thought I was making a timeless film. Then I understood that Africo is the capital of the world, it is today’. In what sense is Africo the capital of the world?
‘Because you are in a land high above the sea, a place far from everything and precisely because you are far from everyone this enables you to be the centre of the universe: you can be where everything first began, you can delve into the very depths of our existence yet you are close to the sky and that’s where the centre or capital is. It is a place with a horizon, where you can just exist. Sometimes I go to places full of cars and traffic and realise they lack real life. On the contrary, in Calabria and Aspromonte lending themselves as setting for the film, you see and feel life, you see animals and experience both the simplicities and the many complexities of life. And there is poetry in all of this. Artists and filmmakers often fear their audience will run away when we turn art into poetry. And yet poetry is what makes the world attractive: There is poetry in everything’ (if we look hard enough).
He talks of Calabria as a kind of earthly paradise and adds that it may be better to be in a difficult place but with a wonderful landscape and scenery.
At the end of the film everyone moves to a new place and abandons Africo (similar to what happened after the real flood that left Old Africo in ruins in 1951, reducing it to a ghost town. Do these characters find solace and happiness at last?
I never respond this question. Pasolini spoke of the complex and paradoxical relationship between the mythical past and our current modernity. The film touches on this topic. It is open-ended in the sense that I don’t give away what happens after they leave. The film ends on a doubtful note.
Has any other feature film dealt with this topic based on true events?
No, well there are other smaller films made about Aspromonte’. Calopresti says he is fascinated by the word Aspromonte. ‘Today, the word aspro in Italian is thought of as a difficult place but when the Greeks discovered the place, they rather thought of it as the land of light because it is all white. And that is also how the film begins; with a touch of poetry. The Greeks saw it as a place of light and it's beautiful. It is a light spot. There’s so much space and so much movement’ (and he draws a parallel to the vastness of Latin American countries and territories). ‘And yet (it is important to highlight that) there is a place like this: with its own poetry and magic’.
How has the film been received in Italy and what do you think will be the audience reaction at the Q&A screening in Melbourne tonight?
‘It was very well received and critically acclaimed at the Taormina Film Festival. I decided to first take the film there as Taormina is located in the south and Africo and Taormina face each other. The Etna volcano is also nearby. The producer Fulvio Luciano (with more than a dozen films under his belt and himself a character in the very last scene of the film) also wanted the characters to speak in local dialect’. Calopresti says the film was positively received in Sydney and notes that even if the audience felt it was a tough film, it had a poetic touch to it and also its moments of happiness (‘un film pieno di felicità in certi momenti’). The filmmaker hopes the reaction will be the same at the Melbourne festival.
You are particularly known for ‘La seconda volta’ (The Second Time) and 'La parola amore esiste' (Notes of Love). Which film are you most proud of, and do your films, some of them released decades apart, have anything in particular in common?
Calopresti says he feels comfortable and engaged when he creates a narrative around a topic familiar to him. He is most proud of his documentaries, particularly ‘La fabbrica dei tedeschi’ (2008), a film about workers who die under tragic circumstances when a fire ravishes a factory in Turin. ‘I want to bring attention to groups and people in focus in my films, like the hard worker who gets up without complaints every morning’, and he recalls his father who worked as a labourer and who is a source of narrative inspiration for Calopresti.
What themes do you mostly explore in your films?
‘I like people and I think cinema has a great ability to tell about people’s lives:… raccontare delle persone con nome e cognome. Cinema is still a powerful means of communication (even if it’s now competing with Netflix and television). Films and cinema have enormous possibilities from an artistic point of view’.
What has being a judge at the Cannes and Venice film festivals brought you and how does your role inspire your own filmmaking?
Speaking of Cannes, Calopresti says that ‘Cannes is the centre of the world in terms of cinema. When you arrive in Cannes, you enter into the very temple of cinema. There are so many people involved in making cinema and being an active member of the Cannes jury gives me the opportunity to meet extraordinary people like writers, actors, filmmakers, producers, many of whom I myself admire. He feels that Cannes is one of the last outposts where cinema is still celebrated for its inherent artistry and which, in a way, resists globalising trends’.
Are the themes explored in your films ultimately universal?
Look, sometimes it feels as if I’m describing a small thing in the world (which then grows and becomes more universal also through interpretation and the effect of ‘the death of the author’, where the audience analyses a piece of work partly through their own prism) but in the end I want to talk about some of the issues that I myself face in the world. My films pose existential questions: ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I doing here?’
I would like to conclude our interview with some general questions: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I remember as a child back in Calabria I was impressed by all the images and the scenery around me and I’d had enough of talking. I preferred to let the images do the talking and became a bit of an observer.
What should be one of the main roles of a filmmaker?
It’s important to take a step back and take a closer look at the world. I used to be a protagonist but now I am more outside looking in. It feels as if the moment has arrived when it is time to watch, observe and contemplate.
Speaking of this, what, in your view, is one of the main qualities of a filmmaker?
‘Knowing how to look at the world but at the same time play an active part in the world as well. (In a world of mobile phone fanaticism) it is as if filmmakers are some of the few people left standing who are still able to just watch and observe and engage in the art of watching per se. We have reached the point when it is important to learn how to appreciate the power of ‘the gaze’. Calopresti says that rather than the sound of the busy world out there he prefers the sound of the sea: ‘Preferisco il rumore del mare’.
Finally, where do you see Italian cinema heading today?
'In Rome, where I now live, there is a cinema called Nuovo Cinema Aquila that attracts a lot of viewers. The Italian filmmaker welcomes this cinema complex which has a diverse approach to the cinematic experience and which includes also international films in its repertoire'. He feels television sometimes has a corrupting influence, streamlining everything. Still, Calopresti is hopeful when it comes to Italy and its filmmakers: ‘There is always an Italian who does the opposite’ (and he mentions, e.g., Marcello Fonte who is now wanting to try his hand also at directing).
There is, in other words, hope and possibilities also for cinema in Italy and beyond!