Cristina Comencini sees movie-making as an outgrowth of her love for prose and the product of family genes. “Writing was my first passion,” she says while relaxing in her Rome apartment near Via Salaria. “I wrote a children’s story and a producer asked me to make a movie out of it. So I started making movies by chance, and then the two careers continued.” That movie was the 1989 “Zoo,” based on her novel about a 12-year-old girl who lives in Rome’s zoo. The girl, Martina, was played by 14-year-old Asia Argento.
Since then, novelist-playwright-director Comencini has made seven more films, including “La Bestia nel Cuore.” (“Don’t Tell”), the story of a woman’s intricate family secrets that earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. Her play “Due Partite (“Two Rounds”), which focuses almost entirely on the lives of four Italian women over four decades, has been adapted into a film scheduled for release in March. It is directed by Enzo Monteleone and includes Italian stalwarts Margherita Buy, Isabella Ferrari and Claudia Pandolfi. “[Monteleone] usually does male-driven films, so he was interested in doing a movie with all women,” says Comencini.
Though she considers herself foremost a novelist and story-teller, Comencini has a deep cinematic pedigree. Her father, Luigi Comencini, who died at 90 in 2007, wrote and directed some 50 films between the late 1930s and the early 1990s. He was considered a master of a genre known as commedia all’italiana, witty, bittersweet takes on Italian life and foibles that helped make the careers of actors such as the comedian Totó, Ugo Tognazzi, Vittorio De Sica, Nino Manfredi and Alberto Sordi. Two of Comencini’s sisters work actively in film.
“Part of movie-making is its artisan side,” says Comencini, “and that’s the part that’s most often passed from father to children.”
The prolific Comencini is now busy filming “L’Illusione del Bene” (“The Illusion of Happiness”), the film version of her eponymous 2007 novel about a troubled, once-idealistic journalist struggling to come to terms with life after the Cold War, itself a dark variation on commedia all’italiana themes. Her latest play “Est, Ovest” is expected to debut in October.
Comencini disputes the commonly-held view that the Italian film industry is stagnant, a notion that has gained traction since the 1994 death of Federico Fellini, Italy’s last internationally celebrated director. Bernardo Bertolucci, another major Italian filmmaker, has worked from United States and France for decades. Gabriele Muccino, another Italian veteran, has attained recent success by moving to Hollywood and teaming with American superstar Will Smith. None of this devalues the Italian scene, Comencini insists. “Italy is cinema,” she insists. “Italy has always expressed itself through movies that are very popolare — blue collar — and never overly intellectual. They can be dramatic and intelligent, but they’re still aimed at a general public.” It’s what makes Italian movies Italian, she says.
Comencini’s own life is that of a chic and affluent Rome mother who balances home life with work. Her hair is highlighted but she wears no makeup. She is svelte and fit. (“I take Pilates, but today I went for a jog in Villa Borghese. I realized in the nick of time that the villa stairs were icy.”) Double glass French doors divide the spacious apartment she shares with her husband, producer Riccardo Tozzi, with silver-framed photographs of children and grandchildren sitting atop packed and carefully-arranged bookcases.
Comencini chatted with Katie McGovern. These are excerpts from their conversation.
You treat sensitive subjects at times. Race relations played a key role in “Bianco e nero, for example. Is this a conscious choice?
I am interested in probing the borderline between the good and the bad. I want to understand behavior that seems remote from us but in fact is closer than we think to the norm.
Dealing with race emerged from a trip that I made to Rwanda with friends [Editor’s note: The trip resulted in the 2007 documentary “Il Nostro Rwanda,” “Our Rwanda.”] In Italy, most people say that they are not racist, but it is not often that you find people of different races who are close friends.
How did coming from a family of directors and people involved in cinema affect your work?
In a major way. My father was a director, my sister Paola is a photo director, and my younger sister Francesca is also a director. I breathed movies since childhood. For me, writing is natural, but directing a film is hard. It stresses me, anguishes me… I started later in life.
How does the Italian overlap between politics and culture affect cultural progress?
Italy has a strong Communist history. Culture and politics were integrated. That’s changing. It’s important that culture speaks freely and can criticize politics. In Italy, that’s still difficult. Culture still isn’t completely free from the influence of politics. It’s a long process.
Why does Italy, or some of Italy, like [Prime Minister] Silvio Berlusconi so much?
Even before the current economic crisis, Italy faced an organizational crisis. Everybody who lives here feels that people can live well in Italy, but that the organization of social services, schools, and so on, doesn’t work the way it should. Italians know this. They also know that no government, liberal or conservative, has adequately tackled the problem. A small majority, since Italy is politically divided, decided the conservatives could deal with the issue better. I don’t agree politically, but I can understand the reasoning. The negative side is the demeaning of culture. Italy has great creative traditions that have been crisis-stricken over the last decade. Some sectors haven’t been touched — fashion, for example — and even cinema. But TV has simplified everything and put a premium on easiness. Italians followed this path. So did Berlusconi. He personified simplification, and Italians voted for him.
It’s like asking why the Americans once voted for George Bush. A country that voted for Bush simplified things. Bush saw the world very simply, whereas in the world everything was changing. Populations often think that people who offer the simplest solutions should be elected. And then they see that these people fail and realize that maybe things weren’t that easy. The man on the street has simple questions: “What will my children eat, where will they go to school,” very precise questions. If liberals don’t have answers, people will vote for someone else.
The world idolized the Italian sex symbols of the 1950s, Virna Lisi, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida. Was it the movies, Italy of that time, or something else? It’s certainly never been the same since.
It was the star system of the 1950s and it’s finished. I do think Italy could use more well-known actors. Not better actors, because Italian actors are very talented. Just ones who are better-known internationally. We need to be able to export our cinema. This isn’t just an Italian problem but a European one. To have a diva, for example, you need to be able to promote information. Nobody in France or the U.S. knows Margherita Buy, who is a great actress. There’s also the problem of language.
How is Italian film doing domestically?
Much better over the last decade. In 1990, only 12 percent of the movies releases here were Italian. That figure is now about 35 percent. We’ve reacquired our audience. People want to see movies made in their own country. American films aren’t doing quite as well domestically. Even on TV, Italian shows are well-received while most American ones are mostly on cable.
Do you see European films regularly?
Yes, though there are only few that arrive in Italy. European films aren’t well-distributed. Few Italian films go to France and vice versa. And when they do, they don’t make much money. There is not much of a common market.
How difficult is it to combine your jobs as a writer and director, and mother? Difficult but stimulating. I’ve raised four children. Through them, I’ve been able to live a normal life and go grocery shopping and see people, meet people, and understand women’s problems. These observations give you stories to tell.
I wrote a book, “Matrioska,” about women’s creativity, the sensation that you have drawers in your head that you have to close quickly because you have to turn to other things. It’s hard because you’d like to work but you can’t. It’s a women’s problem. Men don’t face the same.
What would you wish for your children in growing up in Italy?
First, that they’re able find jobs that they are interested in and passionate about. Second, that work doesn’t massacre their feelings, that there’s space for feelings, for love. Often, young people don’t start families because they believe they won’t be able to keep working. Or couples just break apart. There’s a major conflict between work life and private life. People have few children and have them late.
Who do you admire in world cinema?
I like Roman Polanski. “The Pianist” was a beautiful film. Paolo Sorrentino (L’Uomo in Piu, L’Amico di famiglia, Il Divo) has a great eye and great talent as a director. I’d like Bernardo Bertolucci to make another film because he is a great director and hasn’t made a film in a while. I also like the Coen brothers. And Martin Scorsese, of course. I always see his films.
As for actors, among Italians there’s Buy, Isabella Ferrari, Paola Cortellesi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Luigi Lo Cascio. [Among Americans] I think Brad Pitt is a fantastic actor. I like Michelle Pfeiffer. I also thought Anne Hathaway was excellent in “Rachael Getting Married.”
Where do you do your best writing?
Like many women with children, I’ve never really had my own place to write. I used to have a studio outside of the house where I could write, but truthfully I’ve never really had that famous “room of my own.” But it’s fine all the same. It’s the life of women. I was married at 19 and had my first son before I turned 20. At age 35, I became a grandmother. I’m used to being flexible.
Rome is the seat of the Catholic Church, which wields considerable power. Does this affect you?
My situation is unusual because my father is Protestant and my mother is Catholic. I started out as a Catholic and then became Protestant. I met the pastor of my father’s church and I really liked the Protestant interpretation of the Bible.
Catholics help Italy with solidarity. But there’s a price. Secular culture is very limited. The Vatican has a strong presence and influences politics. This limits Italians. It certainly doesn’t facilitate secular society. We won divorce and abortion, so Italy is more of a lay nation than some might think, but the Vatican remains a strong force.
Do you ever work together with other directors?
It’s hard. But there’s a new organization called “100 Autori which allows directors and cinematographers to meet on assigned Thursdays at the “Libreria Del Cinema” in Trastevere. It started spontaneously and has become a new kind of association and solidarity that brings together creative figures from inside the film industry, not producers. We all know each other. We all belong to the same generation, even if we don’t usually work together.
What sort of direction do you like to give as a director and what do you instead leave up to the actors?
I don’t allow actors to improvise. I prefer they take a bit of distance from the character. I don’t like hyperrealism, common in the United States, where the actor gets lost in the character. I like that an actor maintains his or her identity and doesn’t disappear completely into the character.
I also try not to explain everything to the actor. It’s like when you are speaking in real life, and don’t know why you’re saying what you’re saying in that moment. I’m bothered by actors who ask too many questions. My idea is that we’ll figure out the “why” of the project together, while filming. Not everything has to be clear.