By James Van Maanen
When the award-winning Days and Clouds opens this Friday at NYC's Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinemas, it will be an interesting test for distributor Film Movement, who only last month had a surprise success with its French film The Grocer's Son. While the latter, fine as it is, offers a built-in "pleasure" factor (the French countryside and employment that may strike some as so exotic and charming that it qualifies as a vacation), the former is all about an upper middle-class couple facing a downward economic spiral. Fun, huh?
Well, yes, if you're idea of fun is watching characters, real and flawed, engaged in fighting the economy, society and themselves - all of this presented by a writer/director (Silvio Soldini) who appears to have his finger on the pulse of present-day Italy. Leads Margherita Buy (who won a Donatello for Best Actress) and Antonio Albanese (whose performance easily outdoes that of the fellow who won Best Actor) are exceptional, and the other characters swirling around them - family, friends and co-workers - are brought to life via an equally fine supporting cast.
The question is whether American art house audiences will turn out for a film that holds a mirror up to their own, slowly (or-not-so) imploding lives, perhaps a bit in advance, and from a country that many of us, post-WWII (Three Coins in the Fountain through La Dolce Vita to My House in Umbria) have considered one of our favorite vacation destinations. Days and Clouds is a beautiful movie visually, despite its often bleak theme. And it is not, finally, a "downer," though it holds out no more hope for its protagonists than is believable. I suspect that, given a little time, word-of-mouth may build this one into a decent draw - prior to its inevitable DVD release.
Rebecca Conget, Film Movement's VP of acquisitions & distribution, tells me that she has a particular fondness for Days and Clouds, a film that she had been pursuing since first seeing in at last year's Toronto film festival. She's got it. Now we have a chance to get it, too.
I met with multi-award-winning Italian director Silvio Soldini during the recent Open Roads series of new Italian films organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, together with the Italian Cultural Institute of NY and FilmItalia. The society planned a single day for the press to speak with a dozen or more Italian filmmakers - directors, writers, producers, even one of the film editors - who have flown in for this annual event. We were all given roughly fifteen minutes to interview each filmmaker, and Signore Soldini happened to be first director on my dance card. Days and Clouds is the only film in the Open Roads series so far to have been picked for US theatrical distribution.
Now 50 years old, Soldini has been writing and directing since 1982 and has some 24 films to his credit. He seems a reserved, polite and quiet gentleman, perhaps not completely comfortable in an interview situation, although his command of English is relatively good.
While I have liked your films very much - Bread and Tulips, Agate and the Storm and now Days and Clouds - watching this last one was like seeing a very different Italy. [Soldini laughs] Very, very different! Can you talk a bit about what has happened there over the last seven years?
Italy is the same, but what has changed - what you see in the film... [He stops to reform his thoughts] When I shot Bread and Tulips, it was a sort of detached from reality, a kind of fairy tale. But now the reality around me has changed. What you can see in this film is a sense of uncertainty. It seems that people now don’t feel so sure about the future.
That's certainly true over here, too.
You can sense that in Italy. And this is why I wanted to shoot this story - about a man, a family, two people who don’t have economic problems, and everything seems okay. Everybody is kind of happy, they don't ask questions about things. And then everything becomes a kind of battle in the relationship between the two of them - with everything coming against them from the outside.
Until it starts coming, you could say, from the inside, too.
Yes, and what happens is a crisis that begins between the two of them, and they have to reinvent their relationship
Did you cast this film, which is superbly acted, as you were writing it, or even before? Did you think of Margherita Buy for the role of the wife?
Normally, what happens with me when I film, is that either I know an actor or actress with whom I want to work from the beginning and I write the film thinking about her or him. If I don't already know, then I don't want to know or to think about a particular actress while I am writing because I prefer to be free. Then, when I finish, I think about casting. Margherita is a very well known actress in Italy, but she is probably best known there for comedy.
She's one of my favorite Italian actresses, but I think over here we know her more for drama: Not of This World, Ignorant Fairies/His Secret Life, and now, this year, your film and Saturn in Opposition.
And Antonio Albanese, who plays her husband, began in Italian cabaret, inventing some satirical, political characters. He, too was mostly a comic actor before now, and mostly in legitimate theater.
Interesting, because an outsider like me would never suspect this. He seems so right for this role: a perfect Italian middle class "everyman."
The good thing is that both of these actors play this married couple without overdoing the drama.
They make a wonderful, very real pair. The young woman who plays the daughter, Alba Rohrwacher, also won an award for her work. She is quite good, as well. And she is so different in your film than she is playing Luca Flores' sister in Piano, Solo. Margherita Buy, so good here, is equally fine in Saturn in Opposition - looking younger than ever, too! One thing I have noticed after seeing all the films in this series, is that we see one actor after another in one film and then another and sometimes a third. It's like this wonderful repertory company.
I think, regarding our actors, that there are simply many fewer in Italy that you have over here.
So, consequently, we see them more often?
Yes. For instance Giuseppe Battiston was in my film and in two other in this festival.
That's right - and he is so good in every one of them! Let's talk about the end of your film, which manages to avoid sentimentality, I think...
Yes, that is good.
The ending of the film was very difficult for me. It took a long time to make. There were money problems; I started with one producer, then had to change, then look for another one. It was difficult to find the money because I kept hearing from almost everyone that audiences do not want to go to the movies only to face problems that they already know in their own lives. But this is absurd! If it is a good film, it will work.
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