scar-winning Italian director Gabriele Salvatores makes you feel at home. He lounges in a swivel chair at his Rome-based production company, Colorado Films, looking comfortably Colorado: Hooded sweatshirt and jeans. Can he get you a glass of water? he asks. Some coffee, maybe? Anything at all?
The Naples-born Salvatores is quick to smile and laugh. The spacious office itself has an airy, dorm-lounge room feel, its white walls decorated with framed movie posters and a clip of Stephen Holden’s flattering New York Times review of “Io Non Ho Paura” (“I’m Not Scared”), Savatores’ 2003 film about two boys, one of them kidnapped, set in the Italian rural south of the late 1970s. The film is narrated from the point of view of one of the boys, Michele. “The golden desolation of summer wheat fields in southern Italy is filmed with such visual intensity … that its brilliance is almost blinding,” wrote Holden, who praised the movie’s “integrity” and “warmth.”
Salvatores, 58, was precociously successful. In 1991, he won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for “Mediterraneo,” a movie about a group of misfit Italian soldiers dispatched to Greek island as lookouts during World War II. They soon become the life of the island. The movie helped make the career of the popular Italian actor Diego Abatantuono, who also starred in Salvatores’s 1997 cutting edge thriller “Nirvana,” about a video game designer and his imprisoned “virtual” character. The movie foreshadowed themes covered a few years later by the “Matrix” franchise.
In the 2000s, Salvatores turned to more intimate themes, including family relationships (“Io No Ho Paura” and “Come Dio Commanda,” 2008) and crime noir (“Quo Vadis Baby,” 2006). To make movies, he says, you need to “live on the streets.” Stories emerge by being in public places, watching, listening, he says. “Quo Vadis Baby,” for example, is about an weather-beaten female private detective played by Bologna rock singer Angela Baraldi.
Along with two other prize-winning Italian directors, Ernmanno Olmi (“Tree of Wooden Clogs,” 1978) and Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo,” 2008), Salvatores recently shot several Internet short subjects funded by Italy’s Banca Intesa. The campaign, called “PerFiducia” (“Have Faith”), wants to use Web shorts to emphasize the “positive and vital forces that animate our country,” according to the site. Salvatores signed up because he admired Olmi and Sorrentino as well as the spirit of the campaign, a “keep-the-faith” effort during a financial downturn. “When Italian banks were hit by the recent crisis, instead of doing commercials, these people decided to create short films to inspire trust. It was nice that someone asked me to tell a story.”
Salvatores sensed the power of the Web long before most mainstream filmmakers. “Nirvana” fared poorly, at least in Italy, because at the time the public was clueless about Internet and video game themes. Even now, Italy has the lowest Web usage rates of any European Union nation. “That was the problem. At the time, the audience didn’t understand ‘the net’ or ‘a virus,'” says Salvatores, who won’t rule out a return to science fiction. He shared his views on Italy, movie-making, and the United States with Katie McGovern.
Visually, your films alternate between lots of sun and nature (“Mediterraneo,” “Io Non Ho Paura“) and rainy and dark (“Quo Vadis Baby,” “Come Dio Commanda“). Do you have a preference?
I was born in Naples on July 30. I’m a Leo. I have a sunny personality. But my ascending sign is Cancer, and that’s darker. The two are at war within me. Over the years, both my own life and Italy’s realities have changed. I’ve become sadder, which is connected to success and superficiality. I’ve lost a little bit of my love for life.
How did you start directing movies?
I worked in show business early. I wanted to be a rock star and started playing guitar at age 15 in 1965. I liked Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles. In 1968, I started thinking that maybe music wasn’t enough and turned to theater. With two friends, I helped found Milan’s Teatro dell’Elfo, which still exists today. I was 20 when I directed my first play, and I directed theater there for 16 years.
I only started with movies at age 38. At first I was mostly attracted to comedy, but it changed as I matured and love affairs ended. I learned more about the darker side of life.
I think of what Joseph Conrad wrote in “The Shadow Line,” about a child playing with a ball in the sun who loses the ball in the woods. The child goes to find it and gets scared by the dark. He goes back to playing in the sunny fields but never forgets the experience in woods.
Drugs, poverty and children coming of age are central themes to many of your movies. Why?
In all my films, the characters are never too happy or bourgeois. They are usually people who could be called “losers,” who don’t have access to happiness. I like films that show character evolution.
You divide your time between Rome and Milan. Do the cities themselves modify your mood and approach to life?
Rome puts me in a better mood than Milan. I’m very influenced by the weather, and Rome has better weather and is more similar to Naples, where I was born. Milan’s beauty is more hidden. If you see Milan from above, it’s very green; there are many private gardens inside apartments complexes whereas Rome is lived on the streets.
Every so often there’s groundbreaking material about Naples, such as the book and movie “Gomorra.” Do you think Naples can “change,” or is that criminal side just a part of the city?
Good question. Naples has a very specific history. It was always invaded by someone: the Greeks, Arabs, French, Spanish. It’s like a beautiful but poor woman always being taken advantage of by someone. So she learns to adapt. One way to survive is to become autonomous. In Naples, there’s little trust in the state and laws, because there have been too many states and laws.
Until 1800, Italy was broken up into many states with its own princes, kings, traditions, dialects, and cuisine. At a certain point the Savoia royal family decided that, for economic reasons, Italy needed to be unified. The south was richer because it had its own railroad lines. All of southern Italy, from Rome south, resisted unification.
Once the Italian state took the south, it forgot about it, abandoned it. For example, my family had to move north to look for work. And so the south thought, “If you don’t care about us, we’ll take care of ourselves, illegally.” So the Mafia and the Camorra are like states that continue to resist the official state.
The official government, instead of destroying these underworld states, aligned itself with them. There is powerful collusion. For example, recently [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi used the underworld to recruit voters. As a result, it’s hard to imagine resolving this problem.
How important is sex in Italian cinema? Where do you draw the line?
I don’t like it when sex scenes are too edited, so that you see a hand or a fist that squeezes a sheet. That’s fake. I believe that sex is one scene, without cuts. For example, in “Quo Vadis, Baby” the sex is filmed from one camera angle. The camera gets closer and the actors continue and gradually move out of the frame.
Italy is a Catholic country, so sex is still taboo. If there’s a sex scene, there’s a sudden hush in the theater because the subject matter is touching something that’s very intimate. At the same time, sex is often used to commercialize film.
I don’t use many women in my films. Not because they don’t interest me but because they interest me too much. I’ve never known if, as a man, I was capable of telling women’s stories. I did in “Quo Vadis, Baby,” but the scriptwriter was a woman, which helped me tell the story.
What about violence?
Violence is one of the things that scares me most in life. The lack of respect for others. Film is a way for me to work out some of my fears.
You employ lots of suspense. What’s your technique?
I get scared easily. I also like kidding my friends by scaring them. But you have to forget technique and think about what might scare you or make you anxious. Like the young boy in “I’m Not Scared” who peers into a big hole. He sees something move. He’s curious and gets closer and closer until suddenly something jumps out at him.
When I watched the movie with an audience in the United States it was nice to see that the reaction was the same as in Italy — they were scared. Which means I did the scene right. Fear isn’t cultural. It’s the feral side within us.
Many of your films are based on novels. What do you see in a novel that makes you say, “I have to make that into movie!”
It’s like when you fall in love. You identify with something in the other person. It’s not rational. You say, “I can walk down life’s street with her.” But like a love story, like a wedding, you have to work on it. It’s tiring. You have to adapt. Only slowly do you discover if it is possible to make the story into a film.
Did you have mentors?
Not really. My father was a lawyer, and I also started studying law. But there was a lot of energy on the streets in 1968. There was great music and a wish to change the world. I couldn’t imagine myself as a lawyer, unless it was like Jack Nicholson in “Easy Rider” or Sean Penn in “Carlito’s Way.”
At the time, moviemaking wasn’t possible in Milan, so I went with theater. When I told my father, he was pretty upset. He had already put my name on the letterhead. But he understood, “It’s your life. Even if you want to be a plumber, that’s fine. But try to be the best plumber in the neighborhood.” He suggested I go to school, so I spent three years in theater school in Milan.
Life in Italy was better in the 1960s. Young people didn’t feel so alone. You had a collective vision of life, like a tribe. If you were rehearsing a play in one basement, in another a group of young people were practicing with their band. Today’s young people are more isolated.
Turning to politics, some outsiders see Italy as a theatrical production. Do you pay attention to political trends? Could a Barack Obama be elected here?
Politics here is theater. But it’s not very interesting. A politician should be someone who dedicates himself to the Latin “polis,” the people. Here, this privilege is abused.
No, I don’t think Obama could have won here. Every country gets the politicians it deserves. And, unfortunately, we deserve Berlusconi. Emotions also helped elect Obama, and we do have plenty of that. But to paraphrase the Coen brothers, Italy is “no country for young people.” They just stopped calling me a young director a few years ago, and I’m nearly 60.
So how do you feel about Italy?
I love it for its beauty and its sense of imagination, but honestly I don’t like it very much. We aren’t a country. We make fun of the United States by saying it is only 200 years old, but we’re even younger. We only became a country in 1861. We are too individualistic. We don’t have a sense of state or of living in a community. It’s “Every man for himself and God for everybody.” Look at Berlusconi’s response to allegations of philandering. In any other country he’d have to quit. Not here. He’s “simpatico” because he’s a “playboy.”
You like the noir genre. Could you tell me about the authors that influenced you most growing up?
I adore Raymond Chandler and his character Philip Marlowe. Noir allows you to tell a story as if you had a somewhat deformed lens. You don’t have to be too realistic or too banal.
How did the Oscar affect you?
I was very lucky to win. There was a beautiful film that year which was objectively much better than mine, Yimou Zhang’s “Raise the Red Lantern.” But Academy members may have connected more with “Mediterraneo.”
So while I was very happy to get the Oscar, I felt I didn’t totally deserve it. Getting it made me want to give back as an artist. It also allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed to do, “Nirvana,” for example. The producers thought, “We don’t know what he’s doing, but he won an Oscar, so we have to do it.”
Do you think the Internet, digital techology, and computer movies could ever replace the film (and reading) experience?
I think movies should come out simultaneously in theaters, DVD and pay-TV. DVD sales would benefit from the publicity. The public is no longer “one audience” but many different ones. For example, kids can download movies but might not watch them — they see trailers to decide if they want to go to the theater or pick up the DVD.
At the same time, I think there will always be people who go out to movies. This holds true for book and music audiences. People download music but still go to concerts.
But there are other possibilities [with technology]. You could write scenes, shoot them, show them on the Web or on “Myspace,” get feedback, and then change the scene based on the feedback. Which is the way its done in theater. That way a movie would be composed slowly. I’m not afraid of technology. It depends on how you use it.
Would you return to science fiction?
Yes. “The Calcutta Chromosome” is a beautiful book by novelist Amitav Ghosh, whom I met in India. I’d like to make that movie. It would be an expensive production and would have to be done as an American co-production. It’s set in New York and Calcutta in the past, present, and future. They liked the idea in the States but insisted that lots of aspects of the story be clarified. I instead prefer letting some things remain mysterious.
What’s your next film project?
A comedy called “Happy Family.” It’s about two families, one rich, aristocratic, and Milanese, the other middle class. Their teen children decide to marry, so the two families meet. One of the characters is a scriptwriter, and as the movie goes on, the audience realizes that the story they’re seeing is the one the scriptwriter is writing. It’s based on a play.
Why do you make movies?
Because I have fun.