Released in Italy in February, Paolo Genovese’s last film has received great media attention grossing a whopping 16 million euros at the box office and Monday, April 18 was awarded best film at the David di Donatello awards.
Last week the director was in New York where Perfect Strangers is the only Italian film competing at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was screened for the first time outside of Italy. In May, it will be part of the Cannes Film Festival where Medusa Film’s distribution arm is expecting to launch it on the international market. The film has in fact already garnered much interest not only for its foreign distribution but also for possible remakes: an American version is virtually assured. In the meantime, all the Tribeca screenings are sold out, and its opening night was a huge success.
Perfect Strangers is at the same time a simple and complex story that mixes comedic tones with issues of social concern, in a generational portrayal of irresolute Italian bourgeoisie. Set for the most part in one room, the film centers on a group of seven longtime friends who are gathered at dinner and decide to play a sort of game: everyone places their cell phone on the table and let their messages, chats and phone calls be heard by all over the course of the evening. Each of them though as something to hide or something to reveal in that black box that is their cell, and that something becomes the cause and pretext to question relationships, friendships and values.
Born in Rome and earning his degree in economics, Paolo Genovese worked in advertising and directed more than three hundred commercials for which he won many awards before dedicating himself to making movies full-time. We managed to take some time from his wanderings in his beloved New York, meeting with him at a hotel in the Triangle Below Canal Street. We spoke to him about his film, his work, Italian cinema, and New York.
Your film has received much media attention. Why do you think that is? What about this movie hits home?
“I believe it is the subject that first strikes some small chord of the human soul because it’s talked about everywhere, from social networks to the supermarket; it unleashed a debate and a desire to talk about our cellphones as our black box, our keeper of secrets. It’s as if by getting media coverage, we have freed our desire to discuss our secret life.”
The impact new technologies have on our private life is becoming somewhat of a movie trend, thinking of Black Mirror, for example. Do you rely on or take inspiration from something or someone in particular?
“Actually technology for me is simply a pretext to talk about the human spirit. The main theme is mostly how little we know the people we’re with. It’s a universal theme. So today we have a way to discover how little we know about them thanks to cell phones: the moment we place all our–selves into a device, we suddenly become vulnerable because that container is breakable. It used to be our fears and our secrets were hidden in our head; there was nowhere to put them. Now there’s a place, a box.”
Does this reflect your personal view on technology as something unsettling, dangerous?
“No, my message isn’t that technology represents a danger to us, but I wanted to represent factual data objectively. The only thing that we all carry with us today is our cell. I don’t want to demonize it. Progress changes our life, clearly, but from any progress or technology we tend to have a physiological use for it or a pathological one. The physiological one, in the case of our cell, is for information: knowing what’s going on around us frees us. The pathological one instead can directly provoke radical changes in the way we relate to others or can create an addiction.”
All the characters have something to hide. The only one who comes out of this clean is Bianca, played by Alba Rohrwacher. She’s also the one, who later in the film, says that she never believed in marriage, that she couldn’t have cared less about getting married. Does this call to question the crisis of the traditional family? Is it in part your point of view?
“No, the idea was to narrate all possible secrets and relationships in all different human variations on as broad a spectrum as possible. I don’t believe some characters come out of this clean and others don’t. Even the role played by Marco Giallini comes out of this well. In the end, Battiston has a secret but it’s imposed by society, which doesn’t allow us to reveal all our secrets. Even the most negative characters aren’t judged in the movie, they are representative and and play out to varying degrees their secrets or wrongdoings. But it’s then up to the audience to make up their minds. No one is completely bad or completely good. It’s up to us to understand and/or justify their behavior. Bianca allowed herself to be dragged into it so profoundly but having a family was never her desire. It’s a simple way to narrate the story of a woman who made important choices solely for love.”
Can you share with us something positive and negative about working with each of cast members?
“Marco Giallini manages to give such incredible humanity to each of the roles he plays. I find Valerio Mastrandrea to be able to provide such nuances to all his characters. Giuseppe Battiston has such skill, talent, and energy and truly becomes such a point of reference on the set. Edoardo Leo in this movie was able to change compared to his previous roles and in my opinion this is fundamental for an actor: to go beyond those characters that one plays instinctively so well. Alba, it goes without saying, is incredibly talented, tending to every little detail of the role she plays entering into an incredible identification with that character. While she prepared her parts, in those more dramatic scenes, I would hear a beat that I thought was some audio interference instead it was the microphone on her chest picking up her heartbeat that was beating faster and stronger. Anna Foglietto is I believe an extraordinary comedic actress with great ability to touch people and make them laugh at the same time: a truly rare asset. Kasia [Smutniak] is successful in giving her characters facets outside of the usual patterns and the ordinary. She creates characters that we don’t see on the screen. With respect to their faults, it would be quite difficult to identify any, but I will share with you one collective shortcoming they shared: perhaps a bit because of the set, a bit because of the longtime friendship these actors have, but the set was very undisciplined, chaotic. Yet I let it go because in this film I think it was helpful as it created the sense of a true circle of friends.”
From a certain point onward your work seems to have shifted more and more toward the drame bourgeois. Was this intentional, was there a mindset behind this choice?
“I refuse the idea of creating a movie that fit into a certain system. I still make movies because I like to tell stories. Whichever story in a period of my life I wish to tell, I will tell, even if it’s cartoon. I made a bourgeois melodrama, I made a comedy, I made a generational film. There is a determining common factor: the story must touch me. I would probably never make an action film.”
And what touches you?
“Human relationships, people. I like to tell stories about our weaknesses, people who fall and get back up, those who have a dream, not the powerful but the multifaceted. Emotions are the common element. Then the rest depends on the moment. I don’t know what my next film will be about, family, society, who knows…”
Does your experience in advertising prove helpful in your work as a movie director? Is it useful?
“My previous work allowed me to travel the world and meet a whole lot of people. I consider it to have been helpful mostly because to tell stories you must have lived them and met people. So too, obviously, advertising was the way for me to learn very well the technical part of my craft, because I had had access to all kinds of equipment and was able to film in all parts of the world, but the technique is not as important in this job. I consider my past experience was helpful especially for synthesis and the centrality of ideas. Good communication always has at its core a strong idea. I always look for a strong idea to tell the idea of the film. It’s difficult to have themes be completely new but we can be original in the way we narrate them. Like in this case, the theme of secrets is clearly not a new one, but it is wrapped in the shell of a cell phone. Or, like in A Perfect Family, we take on this theme by having the main character rent a family, thus creating an artificial family situation. Or The Immature, a generational film whose generation is narrated by sending 40-somethings back to school as students.”
Is this your first time at Tribeca? What do you think of this film festival?
“It’s the first time that I take part in the competition, yes. It’s a fascinating festival. The immediate sensation you get is that of enormous interest and centrality of the movie. It goes without saying but it’s not like that: in other festivals there are films, but there are also many other things that often become more important than the films themselves. Instead here it seems that it’s all about the movie. For example, opening night of Perfect Strangers there was a woman kneeling next to me with a microphone. I hadn’t understood what she was doing there. After the first five minutes of the movie, maintaining communication with the projection booth, she asked me if everything was satisfactory, if the volume was correct, etc. What struck me most was the attention to detail, which is more than just details: they could ruin the entire screening. That had never happened to me, having a dedicated person to ensure that the film was being screened the way you imaged and filmed it.”
Does it seem to you that there is interest in Italian movies?
“Yes, because we export so little but there is instead such a great demand. I participate a lot in these festivals and see there is always much attention given to Italian cinema. Our films are valued, loved, there are always long lines to see them, they’re always packed. Sadly because the facts speak for themselves: regrettably we bring so few abroad. Comedies are especially valued. I believe that our comedies are more appreciated outside of Italy than they are in Italy. They’re given a cinematographic authority that we don’t attribute to them. It’s not a coincidence that, other than Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, Oscars were given to two Italian comedies, Mediterraneo and Life is Beautiful. I believe that everyone likes this type of storytelling; typical of Italian comedies that mix entertainment and content.”
In your opinion, is your film Italian? And if so, how?
“The dilemma of Italian and international movies is always the same: movies are international not because they are filmed abroad or with foreign actors, etc. but because there comes a moment when they’re understood globally. The more your film is Italian while succeeding in being understood abroad, the more it’s considered an international film. My movie is profoundly Italian but is easily decoded beyond Italy.”
How is it profoundly Italian?
“In its narration. The theme alone could be international but it’s Italian in character: for starters, the dinner table is the center of the story, then there’s also the warmth and informality of the characters’ relationships. I see myself in those seven friends, the loving and warm way they interact with each other, which is neither the comic way that Italians are sometimes represented nor are they interpreted with cool detachment. And then there’s the idea of a circle of friends, longtime friends, that I believe is very Italian: it’s convincing for the country in which the story takes place.”
The seven characters are quite heterogeneous in their jobs and professions and this stands out. How come?
“I think it’s credible that in a circle of friends that know each other forever this type of heterogeneity does in fact exist. In Italy we’re more settled, we tend to stay in the cities in which we are raised thus we maintain school friends and we carry them with us for years. This is a truly Italian thing. And the credibility of the mixed group derives from the fact that their roots go so deep in time, in school, after which everyone follows their own path.”
So it doesn’t reflect a particular Italian social moment?
“Yes, it was also a way to narrate heterogeneity which is the result of a specific social and political moment of the country. But it’s also a matter of the deep roots of friendship, which are very much felt in Italy.”
Is New York a city you like?
“Now you’re touching on a sensitive point: it’s the only city in which I’d live. I’ve come many times before and I’ve also filmed here: Blame Freud starts off in Manhattan. And every time I return I like it even more. There’s no one specific reason. It simply makes me feel good. It has an authentic quality, it’s not derivative: it’s a place from where many things begin. In other places in the world, things seem to arrive; from here they take off.”
Do you have some personal ritual, something in particular that you like to do whenever you’re here?
“Grab a bike and ride around the city aimlessly.”
Translated by Enza Antenos.