n the eve of the new millennium, Italy’s Mediaset television empire agreed to produce a film on the life and times of Padre Pio, the 20th century Capuchin friar who remains an integral part of the country’s Catholic identity.
The year 2000 not only marked the start of a new century but also coincided both with Padre Pio’s beatification — his official elevation to sainthood — and a Vatican Jubilee year, in which believers are invited to make a faith-affirming pilgrimage to Rome.
Mindful of the circumstances, the Padre Pio producers sought a highly recognizable and reassuring actor in the role of the visionary friar.
They picked Sergio Castellitto.
Considered among the best and most acclaimed Italian actors of his generation, the Rome-born Castellitto began his career in 1981. Since then, he has made more than 70 films covering a wide range of genres, regularly preferring drama to comedy — unlike many Italian mainstream stars.
His performances in 2004’s “Non ti muovere” (“Don’t Move”) and the 1993 “Il grande cocomero” (“The Big Watermelon”) earned him David of Donatello awards for best actor, the Italian equivalent of the Oscars. In 2006, he was also named best actor at the Venice Film Festival for his work in director Gianni Amelio’s “La stella che non c’è” (“The Missing Star”).
He has also been active in French cinema, both as an actor and also as a judge at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2008, he was cast as a villain in “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” a big-budget Hollywood fantasy film (The New York Times hailed his “malignant grandeur” in the role of Miraz.)
After the Padre Pio role in 2000, Castellitto began increasing his level of involvement in filmmaking. He directed as well as starred in “Non ti muovere,” a controversial film about a hard-knocks love affair between an Albanian immigrant woman (played by Penélope Cruz) and an affluent Rome surgeon (Castellitto). The film, which husband and wife co-authored, was based on the novel of the same name by Castellitto’s wife, Margaret Mazzanetini. In 2002 the film won Italy’s top literary honor, the Strega Prize.
Though “Non ti muovere” met with mixed reviews — a rape scene involving the Cruz character generated controversy in the U.S. and UK — most critics praised its production values and pacing. “It is a beautifully made film — decorously composed, meticulously acted, cleanly photographed,” wrote New York Times cultural and movie critic A.O. Scott. Some said the film confirmed Castellitto as the heir to the late Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s favorite actor.
Castellitto has already enlisted Cruz to work on the film version of his wife’s latest novel, “Venuto al mondo” (“Into the World”), a project still in its early stages. “It’s set in Rome and Sarajevo and will be filmed in two languages,” he says. “I’ll have a small role.”
Castellitto’s close creative kinship with his wife is an anomaly on an Italian film scene, where tumultuous personal lives often dominate tabloid headlines. Rome fixture Castellitto and Mazzantini — born in Dublin to an Italian father and an Irish mother — married in 1987. They have four children. “She basically gave up acting to be with me,” says Castellitto. “She then found her vocation as a writer.” They are working parents.
Castellitto recently completed work on another husband-wife project, the Tuscany-set family drama “La bellezza del somaro,” scheduled for Italian released at Christmas.
Wearing a dapper blue suit and white oxford shirt (“I think all actors should have a signature style. I always wear blue”), Castellitto met with Katie McGovern in his large and airy film studio in the posh Parioli district of Rome. These are excerpts from their conversation.
You’ve been married for 23 years and have four children, which you agree is outside the norm. But why? Why is the Italian birth rate so low? Particularly in a country where family is so important.
Western birth rates are generally low. There are cultural and psychological reasons. Women often don’t want to give up other aspects of their lives, including their careers. Families themselves are together less often.
There’s also an aesthetic dimension. Women don’t want to have children because they don’t want to gain weight. Now, women can give birth later. My wife Margaret, for example, had Cesare, our youngest child, when she was 43.
We’ve stuck together all this time above all because we love each other, but also because we’re naturally predisposed not to put one person’s needs above the other person’s — even though we’re individualistic, as artists are. We were lucky to have found one another.
How do you balance being a father of four and your acting work?
I really don’t make a distinction. Acting is my work and has been for 20-25 years. My career has been marked by good fortune. But I’ve never really talked to my children about what I do. They’ve been on film sets, and Pietro, the oldest who is now 18, has even been in some of my films. But I never made them feel that they had to be involved.
Our children also face another problem: Having two well-known parents who are fulfilled and have accomplished what they wanted. Our children could be stuck with the burden of living up to the legendary image of their parents. We try to downplay this.
Is it hard raising four children in Rome?
Enormously so. My own view is that Rome isn’t a very welcoming city when it comes to growing up. But it’s our city, the city where we were born and grew up. It presents major difficulties with regard to schools, the lack of green, and the fact that it’s just not very well taken care of. It has never been. This is not the fault of one mayor or another. There’s general carelessness that fits into the character of the city. That can also have its charm. Frankly, I’d prefer to live in a Swiss-style city, one that’s more organized. To me, an overly disordered city authorizes its citizens to be similarly disordered in the way they go about life.
You gave all your children the middle name “contento,” which means happy or content. What makes you angry and impatient?
Happiness might be an unattainable state. But being content is trait worth striving for.
What bothers me is the same as what I’d think irritates most people of good sense: vulgarity, lack of respect for others, and ingratitude. Ingratitude offends me. There are fewer people willing to say “thank you.”
As a young actor, what made you aware of the difference between Hollywood moviemaking and the European tradition?
When I started out, television didn’t have the output that it has now. Theater, which I studied, as did my wife, was more prevalent. Overall, there were fewer productions, but the quality was higher.
As for movies, American films and the best Italian Neo-realism helped form me more than anything else. We watched Al Pacino and the early Robert De Niro films by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Copolla. They revived and changed acting styles.
International interest in Italian filmmaking has diminished since the Fellini-Mastroianni days. Is this because the Antonioni, De Sica, Rossellini period was so collectively brilliant or because Italian filmmaking has lost its punch?
The Neo-realists represent an unrepeatable generation. There were great directors, set designers, screenwriters, and costume designers.
They came out of a terrible painful time of war and literally rebuilt Italy, also using film. That was the last great generation. They worked together and tried to create a collective future.
It seems to me that while there’s more individuality now, Italian cinema lacks a cohesive sense. I don’t feel like I’m part of a movement.
What is it about cinema that you love?
The work itself. The trade. To be on a set. It’s a laboratory. To work with the soul, with physicality, with perception; to work on the body and on relationships. Both as an actor and a director.
You worked on a comedy called “Italians,” but what does it mean to you personally to be an Italian? Is it the same as being a “European”?
Being Italian no longer means anything. Actually, nationalism annoys me. It even bothers me to talk about Italian cinema. Film is industrial, in the sense that you need a lot of money to make movies. You can scrawl a poem on a wall with your fingernails at zero cost.
Italian cinema was great when it was more provincial. Fellini was a “provincialist” in the best sense of the word. Dialect mattered to him.
These days I do see more of a European dimension. I don’t go to a film because it’s an Italian film. I go because I’ve heard about it or find the director interesting. It bothers me to talk about “our cinema,” as if we were doing something in particular.
What role do you most remember turning down?
I’ve refused a lot of roles, but I won’t say which ones out of respect for the actors that took those roles. It’s very important to know what you don’t want to do.
There are a lot of criteria. Sometimes you just don’t like the role. Other times the pay isn’t high enough or you just don’t want to work with specific actors or directors. You can also disagree with the story the film wants to tell. I’ve turned down parts because I didn’t want my children to see me in those particular roles.
I trust my instincts. That doesn’t mean that I’ve always picked right. If I had it to do again, I might have turned down some of the movies I ended up making. What matters is that your intentions are honest.
Are you nostalgic for the Italy of your youth?
No, I have young children. I welcome the new.
Aside from your specific political beliefs, do you think a figure such as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi would have thrived in your formative years?
Berlusconi represents “the Italian.” He’s now a traditional part of the country’s cultural and sociological fabric. The reason for his success — because you have to admit his success — can’t just be — and this is one of the Italian left’s mistakes — because he abused power to get where he is.
We live in a democracy, and not a place where guns are pointed at your head. While I didn’t vote for Berlusconi, I find myself more at odds with the party I did vote for. Why? For a decade, they compelled me to think that Berlusconi was the only negative, the “enemy,” but without proposing an alternative.
True, Berlusconi’s TV has done terrible cultural damage, though that’s far from being just an Italian problem. TV reality shows have changed people’s tastes. They’ve simplified relationships, aesthetics, and good taste. When you watch the like of Big Brother, you begin thinking that all human relationships are like that. They’re not. People are better than those who appear on Big Brother. They have good intentions, dreams, joys, disappointments, pain, anxieties — loftier goals than the shit you see on TV. Worse, RAI hasn’t offered much better.
At the same time, I’m not among those people who think that Berlusconi is Italy’s only real problem. It would be nice if it were that easy, but it’s not. The success of the Lega Nord (Italy’s Northern League) should make us reflect.
You’ve been prolific and successful over three decades. Is there a “secret”?
Talent. I always tried to represent the characters I portrayed using something of myself. I tried being truthful in my portrayals while always keeping in mind that acting isn’t real life but the representation of fiction. Maybe audiences recognized this.
Is there an actor you admire?
I have enormous respect for Clint Eastwood. At a certain point in his life he practically stopped acting and turned instead to writing and directing. It’s another way of looking at your work.
In “Non ti muovere” you worked with Penélope Cruz. How was that?
I was lucky. Even though Penélope is a star, she works hard. She knows how to be directed; she’s easy to work with. She gets her hands dirty emotionally; she studies her roles; she takes risks. We had a good, strong, direct relationship.
How do you prepare for challenging roles?
All roles are both easy and difficult. Every time I’ve done a role, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. At the beginning you always feel a bit inadequate. And after the third or fourth day of filming, you begin to feel that something’s working. You create an umbilical cord between you and the character. You put your personality in the character. You’ve found him. It’s as if you’ve waited under his house and finally you grab him. From then on, you’re on the trip together.
Are you in any way involved in your wife’s writing?
Margaret tells a good story. I do the first round of editing [on her books]. It’s my way of helping, since I tend to see things a bit more visually. Our two styles of working overlap well.
Has writing and directing, as well as working with your wife’s books, given you more freedom to shape films to your liking?
The pleasure of being a director is creating your own world. Like a child playing with a Lego set. You can also offer your own opinion.
We’re both interested in movies that tell stories about people. For us, special effects are human relationships.
What’s it like for you to direct?
I get panicked, but not afraid. I ask myself, “How can I fix this?” It’s fun to have the risk of failure hanging over your head. When kids play, they’re fearless. They get mad, use their imagination, laugh. It’s when they don’t play that fear kicks in.
What fuels an actor?
All actors are malcontents in some respect. An actor is a horse that can run only if he’s allowed to. Otherwise, he’s a madman babbling in a room. An actor is born neurotic and often dies depressed. That’s why I say it takes courage to stop.
When I was a boy, I was neurotic. Like all actors, I was basically unbearable. Ambition plays a role. Only one person can be Hamlet. Neurosis can turn into bitterness or depression. I was neurotic, but thankfully I wasn’t depressed. I always thought that if all else failed, I could go back to school, which gave me a sense of freedom.
Also, I don’t chase things. Every time I really wanted something, I didn’t get it. Don’t battle. Let it come to you. My children really helped me in this. They gave me the sense of a future.
What advice would you give aspiring actors in Italy?
Talent is work. Writing a page a day. Work. Work. Work. If you have talent, it’s like water, it’ll flow out. But determining if you have talent isn’t easy. An actor must be presumptuous. If you aren’t, you won’t get the part. At the same time you have to be humble, feel inadequate.
If you weren’t in film what could you imagine yourself doing?
Some sort of manual work. A carpenter. I’m not good with my hands, but I’d like to learn.
How important is being backed from the inside — the so-called “raccomandazione“?
Very. But I never came recommended. I have a lot of people to thank for picking me.