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EMANUELE CRIALESE with actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays alluring British passenger Lucy in his celebrated film ‘Nuovomondo’ (Golden Door), about a family’s shipboard migration from Italy to New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. Below, he is on the set..(Photo by: ANGELO TURETTA)
Identity is the theme of the century
I have experienced that feeling of separation from my land, my people, my family several times. It is sad, it hurts, but it is also an evolution for your soul

Emanuele Crialese, multiple award-winning Italian scriptwriter and film director, makes auteurist films, with sea motifs as a characteristic for him. He combines magic with realism, as did old masters of Italian cinema.

A major part of his movies is dedicated to the theme of emigration, in the past and present, which he raised as an issue before it was on the front pages of newspapers. In an interview with the Magazine, he says emigration was the theme of the last century; now the theme is identity.

Crialese also shares some details of his working methods on set and also while writing the script. He also tells about his American dream and the amazing circumstances of him meeting with Martin Scorsese.

Crialese was the guest of honor of this year’s International Student Film Festival in Tel Aviv. It was his first visit to Israel.

Why do you make movies?

This is a hard question [smiles]. I think it’s the only thing that I can do. I’ve always had this kind of imagination, since I was a child. I always had my head in the clouds. So at one point, I thought maybe I could make a living out of my imagination.

Also, the most important thing is that I feel most comfortable in communicating ideas and stories by visuals. My movies have many elements of fantasy. I take a lot from reality, but then I try to transcend it. There must be something beyond reality. Magic realism. I like [Federico] Fellini, [Michelangelo] Antonioni – those are my main inspirations.

You often describe your way of working on a script as fishing inside of you. When did you start to think about it in this way?

When I understood that writing and creating has a lot to do with discipline, I realized that I must visualize it, and that it has to do with catching, finding; with dragging from the bottom to the top; and that bottom is what is inside of you.

Sometimes it comes out in dreams, and sometimes you can wait for what your subconscious wants to tell you in a very static way. Every day I sit and wait. It is a regular job. Sometimes I am frustrated. You can be stupid for three days, but on the fourth – something comes up. Fishing is the best metaphor for explaining this process.

When you come to the set, is this processes finished, or are you still open for fishing?

No, when I come to the set, I become a hunter. I need to be more dynamic. There is no time for sitting and waiting. My actors are like animals, I give them tropes, and I try to capture what I think is important for them to express.

I often work with nonprofessional actors, but I ask them to interpret characters as if they were professional actors. On the other hand, I want my professional actors to react to unacceptable situations, that natural actors bring to the set.

How much of the final effect of each film is what you initially had in mind during the writing?

I always come to the set with Plan A and Plan B. The first one is what I am prepared to shoot, the second is what will happen in the interactions with the actors, the reality, the situation. I live in the moment. It is always a surprising combination of the two. I like to have full control on the movie, but I am also not afraid to doubt. I need my crew to let me explore, to hesitate. That’s part of the creative process.

Your actors Vincezo Amato and Beppe Fiorello say in interviews that not only the cinematography experience is very important to them, but also the personal relationship that you build with them.

My work with an actor is technical but also very personal. In order to work with an actor, I need to know him/her. I spend a few months with them before the movie. I cook with them, we hang out, we spend time together that is not strictly related to the rehearsal or to the film.

…and actors come back to your movies.

I like to call back my actors. Once you establish a relationship with a person, you train yourself to have an immediate communication.

But on the other hand, you often change cinematographers.

Yes, I like to give a different lighting approach to my movies. I am curious about the way the DP [director of photography] brings light to my stories. I also try to spend as much time with my DP as possible, to make sure that we inspire each other, and understand, find the common language regarding light.

You studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and you went there without knowing any English. Why to America?

I grew up with American movies, and I was completely into the American dream.

Did you feel like characters in your film Nuovomondo (Golden Door) [2006, won six awards out of seven nominations at the Venice Film Festival, won three awards at the David Di Donatello Awards, was nominated for a Golden Lion award and a European Film Award for Film of the Year; and was Italian candidate for the 79th Academy Awards], when they saw postcards from America with coins growing on trees and giant chickens and carrots, and they believed all of those were true?

Yes, I felt like one of those immigrants in 1904, who goes to America, thinking of finding a larger type of life. The American world in the context of movies was something that really attracted me; that’s why I chose to go there. But I was also following the immigrant tradition a little bit, like an Italian from the south [of Italy], who in order to explore the world goes to America.

There is a scene in this film, when emigrants are on board the ship to America and their families are on the land, but they all seem like one body. The boat starts moving slowly away, and we see a line of the sea between them. Did you experience such a feeling of separation with your family when you left to America?

I have experienced that feeling of separation from my land, my people, my family several times. It is sad, it hurts, but it is also an evolution for your soul, because you want to go, explore and bring back what you have learned to your people. The emigration is always a two-way experience. First, you want to go out; but then, when you are out, the only thought is to come back, share with people that you love what you have learned.

Your first film, Once We Were Strangers (1997), was successfully received at the Sundance Festival. But you did not stay in the United States. When did you realize that you must go back to Italy?

When I felt the need to tell the Italian story, when I wrote Respiro [2002; won Critics Week Grand Prize and the Young Critics at the Cannes Film Festival for the film; was nominated for the Best European Union Film at the Cesar Awards, and Best Film – David di Donatello Awards], based on an old legend from Lampedusa.

In Respiro, but also in your other movies, the sea plays a very important part, like an individual character. Also, underwater scenes are very crucial in your films. Were you always so connected to the sea?

The sea is the oldest witness of history; it remembers the times of Odysseus. We do not know what is hidden in those waters....
Personally, I always felt a strong connection with the water and the sea. I am scuba diver and I like to be underwater. When I am there, I feel the lack of gravity, I perceive my body differently, and my thinking process changes. So it is a new dimension, like a meditation. This is a way for me to come up with new ideas.

You seem to be also very much connected to the south of Italy, even though you were born in Rome.

I feel more southern than Roman, without a doubt, even though I am second-generation Roman. My grandparents emigrated from Sicily and Calabria to Rome. My grandfather was my mentor.

Did he speak Sicilian?

At those times, speaking dialect was considered vulgar. I had great satisfaction when I learned dialect and, just before he died, at age 90, I convinced him to speak dialect to me. But I had never, ever heard him speaking it before. He learned Italian, he was a lawyer, so he thought that the proper way to communicate was in Italian.

Emigration is the dominant theme of your films.

Now we call it emigration, but since the very ancient times, mankind moved around the Earth and established communities and cities. So, telling a man that he cannot move is like telling him that he cannot eat. Only through movement did we stand up on our own two legs. If we did take this step, those legs need to walk, and every man has a right to go. I think it is very similar nowadays with emigrants to Europe.

Emigration was the theme of the last century. Now, the theme is identity.

How do you define identity?

Identity is what shapes us and our relation with the world. Having a strong identity is to know where you come from, and having the courage to declare it. There is social, religious, gender, or historical identity. Now, during these multicultural ways of living in the world, I think we need to go back to our roots and revisit where we came from and define ourselves in precise identity.

It is also metamorphic... we can have different identities that are the truth in diverse moments of our lives. Identity is something that cannot be imitated. Due to media, especially young people follow their idols and lose the sense of themselves. The search of identity is the work of a lifetime. I want to explore that kind of search.

And this will be in the new movie you are working on?

Yes. It is a little bit too early to talk about it. But this is the theme.

Speaking of identity, when I visited Italy many years ago, I asked Italians whether they feel connected to the tradition of ancient Rome. In Greece, many people answered me that they feel like natural descendants of ancient Greeks, but for Italians, the connection with the ancient world was not that obvious. How do you feel about this?

Sometimes, I feel that I believe in the Roman Empire. I think we have this genetic history that transfers information from time to time. I have a strong relationship with certain periods of history, with the Renaissance, the Roman Empire and also with Greek times. I am very interested in archetypes and mythology. So definitely there is a relationship, but I don’t know if it is my fantasy or if it comes from somewhere else.

This connection with the past refers only to your own origins? Or when you visited Jerusalem yesterday, did you feel something similar?

I felt a very strong energy in Jerusalem. I definitely felt something that went beyond religion and belief. I was educated as a Christian, so the thought that Jesus was walking on those streets moved me very much, even though I am not a practicing Christian.

Do you think you could ever make a film in Israel?

Well... I need to know a little bit about the culture I film in. So if, for some reason, I would live in Israel for some time, maybe yes. Maybe that would be a source of inspiration for me.

How was the experience to be the guest of honor at the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival?

It is one of the best festivals I have been on. They are very well organized, and they work with enthusiasm. They care for you; you feel like a subject, not an object. Your participation makes a lot of sense, because you are sharing your experiences with students who are very curious to know you not only as a filmmaker but as a person.

I am also curious: your third film, Nuovomondo, was distributed by Martin Scorsese. How did you get in touch with him?

Martin Scorsese wanted to present and participate in the distribution of my film in the US.

He contacted you?

He contacted the distribution company, so when I went to New York to promote the movie, I met with him. And we introduced the film together.

Was he one of your heroes?

He was always one of my favorite directors.

His movies are the essence of New York.

I told him: “I visited New York, before coming to New York. I knew New York thanks to your movies.” So when we presented the movie, I said: “This is the perfect example of the American dream. I wanted to make movies in New York and to meet Martin Scorsese, and now Martin Scorsese is presenting my movie.” So that was the sign that I had somehow made the right choices.

That sounds like a dream! To end our conversation, I would like to ask you about a beautiful scene in Terraferma [2011] – the film based on some true stories, but also very much a prophetic one, considering the events involving refugees from Africa that happened in following years in Italy – the scene of old fishermen talking. They refer to the law of the sea, the law that does not allow them to leave a person in the water. The way they talk is calm and respectful.

Making that scene, I thought of a Greek symposium, when men decided to regulate how they argue, talk. There was mutual respect. Now, especially in television, the main goal is to show the conflict. Back then, talking was adding ideas. I think we should reconsider the way we publicly communicate important issues. I think we should be open to other people’s opinions, and we should avoid that warrior attitude. So, in my film, those old fishermen were able to sit and talk about a very controversial subject. Talking, not arguing. Like at a symposium.

Is the making of movies a mission for you?

Not really. For me, making movies is a necessity. I make movies in order to relate to the world. But I don’t think so much about the message I want to send to the world when I make a movie. I want to be authentic. But I can be wrong. For me, making movies is to raise questions, not to answer them. Maybe my mission, if we want to call it this way, is to raise as many questions as possible and for the audience to answer.

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