A Quiet Chaos

By James Norton

quiet-chaos-antonelo-grimaldi.jpgQuiet Chaos, 2008

For the past three decades Nanni Moretti has been Italy’s most celebrated film maker and cultural figure, as director and actor observing the country’s rich stew of political, social and religious tumult with peerless humour and insight. Between the passing of the giants of post-war Italian cinema and the recent success of such films as Il Divo and Gomorrah, Moretti for many years carried the flame of authored Italian cinema almost alone. Beginning his career in the seventies, Moretti won growing renown at home and amongst continental cinephiles with half a dozen increasingly accomplished social comedies, playing in each an alter ego named Michele Apicella; neurotic, irascible, romantically frustrated and politically engaged, and variously a teacher, a film director, and a priest, earning him an inaccurate reputation as the Italian Woody Allen. Apicella’s swansong, as an amnesiac communist, was in Moretti’s 1989 masterpiece Palombella Rossa which ingeniously casts the debate concerning the Italian left as a water polo match. The pair of autobiographical films which followed, Dear Diary and April brought Moretti international acclaim, surpassed by The Son’s Room, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2001, which portrayed the effects of the accidental death of a teenage boy on his family, the work of a more mature but mellower director. After a hiatus Moretti returned with an urgently necessary but almost unique cinematic treatment of the Berlusconi phenomenon, The Caiman, a complex work in which various possible films about the controversial prime minister and media magnate are imagined, along with the personal repercussions on those producing them.

The witty cinephilia that frequently enlivens Moretti’s films was given a concrete commitment when Moretti founded the production company Sacher Film and opened his own art house cinema in Rome, the Nuovo Sacher, both named after sacher torte, the rich Austrian chocolate cake that is his favourite food. On the occasion of a retrospective at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, Moretti made a short film cryptically recounting episodes of his life as a filmgoer and inviting his audience to guess the titles, the prize being a holiday in Vienna including a guided tour of the city’s finest cake shops. As well as producing the films of other directors, he has also acted in them, most prominently the demanding lead role in the powerful drama Quiet Chaos, directed by Antonello Grimaldi and recently released on DVD, in which he plays a television executive who, on the sudden death of his wife, overturns his life to spend his days on a park bench outside his daughter’s school. Here, Moretti discusses the film, his career and the Italian political scene.

James Norton: Do you feel more or less responsibility when acting for another director as you did in Quiet Chaos? Do you take more or fewer risks?

Nanni Moretti: I’m more concentrated on the actor’s role. I’m less tired. When in my films I am both director and actor and even producer, I’m less concentrated on the performance. I’m more worried because I have to complete the day’s schedule, which is something I never do because even when I’m also the producer, I have never respected a budget. Before, I did. Before, when I directed a film with someone else producing it, when the schedule dictated that the film was to be made in ten weeks, I made the film in ten weeks. Ever since I’ve been the producer as well, the film has always ended up costing more than planned. Therefore, when I’m doing all those things, the time of the shoot is a very tiring, anguished time and that is reflected in my performance. On the other hand this time, in Quiet Chaos, I only had to act and therefore it was a pleasure. Although a lot in the film rests on the shoulders of this protagonist so it was no joke. It never crossed my mind during the filming to say “ah, I would have put the camera there.” I wasn’t interested. I trust Antonello Grimaldi and I concentrated on my role as an actor. Every now and then we had to battle to get another take, I had to battle with him because, unlike me who shoots lots of takes, he doesn’t do many so I had to ask: “Antonello, please let’s do a fifth take”. But he was right because for this film, his method worked well. I realised only at the end, after having made the film when I saw a projection of the rough cut, one of the things that struck me was the possibility that this character Pietro Paladini should have stopped and taken a rest, something I can’t do myself because on top of everything else I split from my production partner, so I’m busy with Sacher Film, I’m busy with my cinema and for the second year I am the director of the Turin Film Festival, I’m writing my next film, and with various other things, and I’m also a film distributor. But I can’t find a bench on which to, not rest, but sort out ideas and my life. But, the possibility the character in Quiet Chaos had, I think that was one of the things that struck me. Reading the book, I don’t know why, but I never thought “this could be my next film as a director” only that I could act in this story. In The Caiman for the first time I didn’t give myself the leading role, the protagonist was another actor. The two things together tire me out physically and psychically much more than they did twenty or thirty years ago when I was much younger.

JN: You’ve never made a film based on a book, have you?

NM: Yes, I had a small part in the Taviani Brothers’ film Padre Padrone thirty years ago. But my films, no, they always derive from original subjects.

JN: What was your contribution to the script of Quiet Chaos?

NM: I asked the producer if I could be present during the writing of the script, to be able to collaborate as a sort of self-defence. I know that as an actor there are certain things of which I am capable and others not. So, because I wanted to construct the character together with the other scriptwriters – though he was already there in the book – to construct and complete the character based on me or on the things of which I am capable as an actor. I remember one problem that occurred to me was that in the book the protagonist never had a breakdown, and this was really one of the original things about the book. But I was concerned about this, as an actor and for the spectators, to act in a film in which a protagonist whose wife dies but who never has a moment of weakness, so I said that we had to invent something so we created the crying scene in which he breaks down, he drives around Rome and then finds himself by chance, well, not by chance, in front of his daughter’s school and suddenly sees himself, that self that for weeks and weeks has been living in front of that school, and he bursts into tears.

JN: In The Son’s Room there’s also a death in a family in crisis. Is there a connection between the two films?

NM: They are two different ways of reacting to loss. In The Son’s Room there is a family which disintegrates or at least there are three people, the father, the mother and the sister who grow apart. In Quiet Chaos I’d say there is the formation of a family, there’s a couple that forms out of grief, father and daughter. Then there is the difference that in the former film, suffering and pain manifest themselves externally. Here, it doesn’t, here the protagonist, the husband and the daughter react in a very different way. In The Son’s Room we see the days following the death of the boy. Here, there’s a cut. There is the day of this woman’s death and then, it isn’t specified, but two or three weeks later, we go to the girl’s first day at school. So there is this passage of time, we didn’t see the husband and the daughter of this woman in the days following her death. I repeat, they are very different films but the male protagonists in both, naturally enough, can’t carry on working. In The Son’s Room, he abandons his work as an analyst because he can no longer manage to work with his patients, to have that simultaneous double movement of empathy but also of distance that an analyst must have, he’s either too close or too far away from his patients, so he stops, and we don’t know whether he will take up the work again. It’s the same in Quiet Chaos: Pietro doesn’t go to the office any more, and we don’t know what will happen after the end credits. I didn’t direct the film, but I think, and the spectators might think otherwise, but I think that perhaps he’ll start working again if he is able to work in a different way, dedicating more time and attention to things outside of work.

JN: Is the context of the television business important?

NM: No, I think it could have been a different business. Well, I think it could have been a different business, but Quiet Chaos was deliberately set at the time when they were collaborating with Telepiu. Telepiu was a kind of island of the blessed in Italy, because the owners weren’t Italian, it was owned by Canal Plus, it was the pay TV station in Italy before Sky. Now there is Sky which gives less importance to classic cinema, to art house cinema, it gives less importance to documentaries. Sky has a framework which it applies to every country in the world and doesn’t give a damn about the difference between one country and another.

caiman-nanni-moretti.jpgThe Caiman, 2006

JN: Let’s talk about The Caiman. Grimaldi acted in that film, and so did Paolo Sorrentino [director of Il Divo], Matteo Garrone [Gomorrah] and Michele Placido [Romanzo Criminale]. Was this casting a way for these directors to show their solidarity against Berlusconi?

NM: I thought of that afterwards. Let’s say that beforehand there were various motives. Firstly, there were certain roles for which I thought film-makers would be more suitable to play those roles which had to do with cinema. So there’s the old director who wants to make a film about Christopher Columbus, played by Giuliano Montaldo who is a director, he directed Sacco and Vanzetti. Antonello Grimaldi has a small part as a production manager. Michele Placido brilliantly plays the part of an actor. Then, I have, not many, but I have friends who are directors and as I like to choose non-actors for certain roles, for example for the role of the waiter in the ‘Cataratte’ film within the film, I chose Carlo Mazzacurati who isn’t actor but who was really good as that mad waiter. Or for the father of Teresa, played by Jasmine Trinca, I asked my director friend Renato De Maria. Then it became a kind of game for me, to get as many directors as possible involved. And I realised only afterwards, that I considered this film to be really important for me, and perhaps it pleased me to have the solidarity, the affection and the company of other Italian directors.

JN: With the success in recent years of these directors, there seems to be a new vitality to Italian cinema. Do you feel less alone now?

NM: I have never felt too alone because, anyway, when someone says they feel alone, they’re only pretending to dislike it because in reality they’re very happy. I’m happy for them. I’m happy for all of Italian cinema, and I have to say that last year, 2007-2008 was important because there wasn’t just Gomorrah and Il Divo but there were other non-commercial Italian films which found themselves a public in Italy. Days and Clouds by Soldini, The Girl by the Lake by Molaioli, Quiet Chaos by Grimaldi, Your Whole Life Ahead of You by Paolo Virzi. Basically there has been an inversion of the usual tendency, a change with regard to the past when spectators would say almost out of principle that they didn’t want to go and see an Italian film, even with pride they’d say that no, Italian films are always the same, boring, anti-cinema, presumptuous, pretentious, with uninteresting stories. Now, we’ll see what happens this year and next year. But the comforting, reassuring thing is that as well as new directors, there are new scriptwriters and new producers.

JN: Various satirical films have been made about Berlusconi which were never released. Was it very difficult to make a film about him?

NM: For me, no. For Teresa, the protagonist of my film The Caiman, it was impossible. But I was able to do it, also thanks to the fact that it was a French co-production, there was finance from abroad, and I didn’t want to ask Italian television, RAI, to participate economically. After the film was released, RAI, public television, bought it, but they still haven’t broadcast it, so the film was released in Italy three years ago but RAI have never shown it.

JN: The Caiman was released at about the same time as Berlusconi lost the 2006 election. Did you feel that the timing was unfortunate for the film because he was no longer prime minister?

NM: It was released two weeks before the election. No, as a citizen I was happy that he lost three years ago but since then he won again. No, my film was a success in Italy but, something that has never happened with my films before, its success was mostly concentrated in the first two weeks. Then, in the third week, the election was held. The left won by a very small margin, and in fact after two years the government fell, so people thought, mistakenly alas, that the film was outdated. But unfortunately the film is still topical. And anyway, it wasn’t only a film about Berlusconi; there were many other things in the film, there was the story of the end of a relationship, there was a hommage to the world of cinema, so there were many things in it.

JN: The film seems to be ahead of its time because at the end there is a vision of Berlusconi as a fascist. Does it seem to you that Italy is now turning in a fascist direction?

NM: I’d say that the expression, the concept, isn’t accurate. Not that it’s an exaggeration but the comparison isn’t exact. Unfortunately many things have already happened, such as the fact that already it beggars belief that for a democracy that a man who has the monopoly of private television should stand five times in elections as candidate for prime minister. Five times in fifteen years. In other countries such as Germany, France, Spain and England, not only would this be impossible but it would be impossible even for a man who didn’t want to be a politician to accumulate all this television, media and journalistic power. So, that has happened, and not only that, but it has also happened that many people, not only on the right, consider this to be normal. For example, a young person of twenty, or even of thirty, considers it normal that television is a monopoly and that this monopolist is a politician, because a young person in Italy today will have grown up with Berlusconi’s television and with Berlusconi the politician. So I’m not optimistic. And on top of all that, the left has been very lazy these years. It hasn’t been very reactive, but has always been behind culturally and politically, always two steps behind, while the right has aggressively moved three steps forward. That has happened in recent years so I’m not optimistic.

caiman-nanni-moretti-2.jpgThe Caiman, 2006

JN: You are very different people but it seems that artists who use humour such as yourself, Sabina Guzzanti [director and star of Viva Zapatero] and [satirist and blogger] Beppe Grillo, are the only real opposition in Italy.

NM: I don’t think so, but yes, I’d have to say we are very different! I don’t feel any affinity with them and when those involved in politics leave a void, that void is sometimes occupied by others. But I prefer that space to be properly occupied by professional politicians. I’m not against professional politicians in principle but I wish they would do their jobs well.

JN: Palombella Rossa is a meditation on the situation of the left. Do you think that that political model is no longer able to function against the right?

NM: I dedicated two films to the crisis of the Communist Party. Two films that in some way complemented each other. A fiction, narrative film, before the crisis, Palombella Rossa, and straight afterwards, a film during the crisis, a documentary film, The Thing, in which the process had begun that led to the end of the Communist Party at the end of 1989. But that was another way of doing politics. It was a party with a solid structure. I don’t want to idealise or mythologise the past, for goodness’ sake. I voted for it, but I never joined the Italian Communist Party. It had a Stalinist past in the fifties and sixties, the party was pro-Soviet for too long. However it was a party that had its place, that had roots, that had its own identity and was respected by its adversaries. The idea for Palombella Rossa was born from this, it’s as if over the past twenty years, whoever has been a communist in Italy felt they ought to ask forgiveness for everything, even for the good things that the Communist Party had done in Italy, and there were some. This difficult relationship with its own past is what then created the situation in which we find ourselves today, in which to call someone a communist today in Italy is an insult. And now the Italian Communist Party no longer exists, the Soviet Union hasn’t existed for twenty years now, and it shouldn’t be an insult because the Communist Party was one of the founders of this democracy, of Italian democracy. On the other hand to call someone a fascist is no longer an insult and in any case the left no longer say to fascists “you’re a fascist” because to do so makes them sound conservative. So there has been a real anthropological change in people, a cultural change, a very grave change in the political climate.

JN: At the end of Palombella Rossa did you decide to abandon Michele Apicella and to begin making more directly autobiographical films?

NM: Yes, it’s not that I decided that in Palombella Rossa but something I realised after having made it, that perhaps I had chosen a character that suffers from amnesia because as a director, scriptwriter and actor I didn’t want to carry on forever with this Michele Apicella character. I understood that I had chosen amnesia because I wanted to describe precisely this difficult relationship with the past, with the memory of the Italian Communist Party. I realised after having made the film that perhaps I had chosen a Michele with no memory because I wanted to move on. And that’s what happened because I wasn’t thinking of creating a diary but I then made not two diaries but two films in the form of diaries, Dear Diary and April, and then when I started making fiction films again, I played another character, the psychoanalyst Giovanni in The Son’s Room. A few years had passed for people, and also for me, and perhaps that is reflected in the characters that I wanted to play and write.

JN: The Michele Apicella character has different jobs in his various films. How would you define this character?

NM: The character or the diversity of my own personality? The character always arose out of my own characteristics, neuroses or hopes or weaknesses or obsessions and passions. Then when I started writing the script either on my own or with other scriptwriters, the character acquired his own autonomy. I’d say that after Palombella Rossa the characters that I played were more indulgent towards others, were less stubborn and less intolerant. My characters understood that others were as they were and not as I wished they were. Over the years my characters became more tolerant.

quiet-chaos-antonelo-grimaldi-2.jpgQuiet Chaos, 2008

JN: What are your current projects?

NM: I’m writing with the same scriptwriters with whom I wrote The Caiman but for the first time we have jumped from one idea to another. We have written a script. But three times we have worked for several weeks on one idea, then we left that for another idea. Now, there’s a third idea which seems to me to be the right one so I hope that will soon take shape as a script, but it has never happened before that I worked on one subject that became another. Usually when I started to work on an idea, that would be the next film, but I can’t tell you what the subject is.

JN: Is the Cinema Sacher doing well?

NM: With more difficulty, for various reasons. Firstly, luckily in Rome, compared to when it opened eighteen years ago in 1991, there are more cinema screens devoted to quality films, and that’s a good thing. The second change is that now films are released in numerous cinemas. When we opened the Sacher with Riff-Raff by Ken Loach, it was shown exclusively at my cinema, only at the Sacher. Now, luckily for Ken Loach and for cinemagoers, a film of his is released in six or seven cinemas. Yet another change is the films that are available on pay TV, which wasn’t there before, legal and illegal DVDs, the internet. And another thing is that for the kind of films that I programme at the Sacher there isn’t a generational change. The public for them is ageing in the sense that when we opened our spectators were twenty or thirty years old and now they are forty or fifty. The twenty year olds aren’t there for the films that I show. They go to see films in other cinemas.

JN: For the Locarno festival in 2008 you created a film quiz which was a great success and was a very original way of using a film festival. Would you do something similar again?

NM: I’d like to. I did it especially for Locarno. Unfortunately I don’t like going on holiday so I was in Rome in August, I had a free week and I thought, given that they were publishing a big book about me for the festival with Cahiers du Cinema, and they held a big retrospective of films directed, acted in and produced by me, I’d create a film quiz for them, eighteen minutes long, and it was great fun for me and for the public, though not for the journalists, who felt they were sitting an exam. But it was just a game, and it was won by a young person from Como who got twenty four correct answers out of forty films. It wasn’t a kind of exam, just me recounting forty episodes of my life as a spectator and they had to guess what the films were. And in the future I might make other films of that kind because it was lots of fun to do, and I made it very light-heartedly which is rare because every time I undertake a new project there’s a lot of pressure and tension around it, and expectation, while this was something that no-one knew I was doing. I made it with a lot of irresponsibility, in a positive sense.

James Norton is a researcher and producer working in arts television in London.