aura Muscardin’s second feature length fiction film, Billo: Il Grand Dakhaar, screens twice next Monday afternoon, near the end of this year’s “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” series at the Lincoln Center in New York City. But this dramatized true story of a Senegalese tailor with a foot and a wife in each of two worlds—who plays himself—comes to Walter Reade Theater with a reputation already underway.
Billo is a modestly made film. Muscardin swapped bit parts for free use of shooting locations, and in one busy street scene, in order to pay one less extra that day, she herself appears in a trench coat, buying bootleg CDs from the hero. But this film’s persistent festival circuit has taken it from Rome to Mumbai to Glasgow and beyond. Billo took the Critics’ Prize at France’s Villerupt Festival last November, then the Jury Prize at Pierre Cardin’s Italian Film Festival in Paris just before its late April US debut, well north of Manhattan, at the Syracuse International Film Festival. Nominated there for best feature, it won best musical score for its sparkling sound track—the first by Senegal’s prolific pop star Youssou D’Nour, also one of the film’s producers.
The Rome-based Muscardin, who is forty and earned a graduate degree in modern history from the University of Rome, for years mostly made documentaries and shorts. In those genres she developed a deftness at moving narrative along by visual juxtaposition, an elegantly fluid camera and a razor-sharp comic timing that has served her story-telling well in expanding to feature films, beginning with Days (2001). Though Muscardin has sometimes shared writing credits, doctoring scripts along with directing, she manages to coax physically nuanced performances out of her actors’ interactions that leap past mere dialogue.
Muscardin’s calling card DVD show-reel, put together last year for Billo’s festival run, suggests the range of her projects over the last eight or nine years. There are clips from Billo and from Days, and from five shorts that move from the quietly horrifying (a young man sets himself on fire in 2005’s Bruciami) to tender lovers’ banter in Il Trasloco, raucous comedy in Carla, sentimental heart imagery turned to meat on a marble slab in Le Coeur, and a school girl’s revenge fantasies in Charlie and the Serpent. Then, helpings from four of her documentaries—besides her 2005 homage to Rossellini, Children of Rome Open City, Muscardin has chronicled Bollywood in Tea On the Set, mingled among Soweto cab drivers in Black Taxi and ventured on a witty, Fellini-tinged river tour of Rome’s backside from a speed-boat in Love and Kisses from Rome.
Of this past work, US audiences can easily access Days, one of the most unsentimental, grown-up and tender films about relationships you’re likely to find—its title references a prognosis of imminent death for an end-stage AIDS patient (versus weeks or months remaining)—via Netflix and many rental shops following its prize-winning appearances at Los Angeles’ Outfest and Seattle’s LGBT Festival.
It’s also possible to see Muscardin’s absorbing making-of documentary about Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist landmark, Rome, Open City. A son of Aldo Venturini, the wool wholesaler who stepped in to finance Rossellini’s production after the ever-precarious shooting had started, suggested gathering other “children” of the 1945 production—from the Venturini clan, some Rossellini off-spring and Anna Magnani’s son Luca. Muscardin sets interviews with them next to scenes from the original film, other archival footage, walks through present-day Rome to sites in the story, remarks by film scholars and movie colleagues about Rossellini’s work and 1945 filming conditions in Rome. The writer Tag Gallagher, whose work on Rossellini was massive, is especially lucid. Actor Aldo Fabrizi, who played the priest Don Pietro, recounts in an archival clip how a streetcar passing the shoot one day halted because passengers wanted to rescue the actors in one scene from “attacking” Gestapo, since some Fascists still prowled the city.
Muscardin also visited the apartment building, with its classic central courtyard and arching tunnel passageway, from which Magnani’s Pina ran after her arrested lover and was shot by Gestapo in the street. Perhaps tellingly, Muscardin’s account of her film in this interview focuses on returning to that building. She took with her the frail, debonair Vito Annichiarico, who sixty years ago had played Magnani’s little boy Marcello. There, she films Annichiarico’s chance reunion with a tenant who played the boy embracing Marcello in the final scene. Children of Rome Open City screened at 2005’s Tribeca Festival in its original, much longer version. Arrow Films released a digitally restored DVD of the Rossellini in Britain later in 2005, with Muscardin’s documentary as an extra at 47 minutes. You’ll need a zone-free DVD player or laptop, but it’s affordable on-line.
Billo: Il Grand Dakhaar is the first joint Italy/Senegal feature film project and also the result of an independent, non-studio system of film production where all participants are co-producers and owners. Aptly called The Coproducers, this small, relatively young company was founded by four partners including Marco Bonini (who plays Paolo 1, of the gay couple Paolo and Paolo, and Laura’s brother in the film) and the producer Jacques Goyard.
After the Syracuse festival, Muscardin returned directly to Rome and more work. Though expecting to teach a 15-day shorts production workshop in late June in Cape Town, South Africa, a new Paris offer has quickly immersed her in 15-hour days. She may not attend Open Roads, but she took time to talk with Stylus in Syracuse over coffee about getting started in movies, making Billo, what she likes to watch herself, and the example that Roberto Rossellini has been.
Tell us a little about this film and how you came to make it.
It’s about a guy from Senegal who has the dream to become rich and make fashion. He’s in love with a cousin whose family is richer. So from his childhood he thinks about how to marry her. So he came to Italy. I say “he came” because it’s based on a real story, though we made some changes. There are immigration problems but the main thing is he finds himself between two families. He has a woman in Italy and a woman in Senegal. As I discovered, this happens to a majority of people who come from Senegal to Italy—to Europe also—because they live for years in Europe without going back. Marco Bonini was a friend of Theirno Thiam—Billo—they play soccer on the same team, and Marco and a Senegalese writer living in Italy wrote a script. They were looking for a director. Even though the initial script was too long and the scenes didn’t have details or dialogues yet, I thought I would love to shoot in Senegal and the co-producers method sounded very interesting.
You had an earlier production company that you formed too, called Golden Mist?
While I was working as an assistant director I started doing my own documentaries with Giovanni Piperno. After some reportages for TV we went to India to do a doc about a Bollywood movie—Bollywood was not as fashionable as today. We were staying at the family house of a friend and the building was named Golden Mist. We came out with Tea On the Set. We had no money for a real company but we picked the name. Venice Film Festival selected the documentary so we kept the name.
What is it about Billo that you feel the best about as a filmmaker?
I’m very pleased because I was not doing a movie in the classical way. I mean that we were not the Europeans going into Africa, taking a crew and doing things. We were hired by the Africans, in a way, because they co-produced. Youssou D’Nour co-produced the movie. It’s based on the real story with real people. They’re half actors, half real people. I was using people who were there—also in Italy—because I needed the places to shoot.
And it’s not about Europeans going to Senegal.
Well, in Rome the Senegal story begins to be a Roman story. And there is a very strong issue about women. I was trying to tell a story in which women are not taking the position that I suppose to be the right position. I’m not judging them—there are different approaches to the fact that he has two families and both women. I’m not talking just about the two main characters, the wives—but also the mothers. There are many women in this film. The mother of the girl in Italy, the mother of the boy in Senegal, and other wives and friends. There is also the mother of Laura, the Italian girl—a traditional woman that we discover has been aware that her husband betrays her. She has an attitude—it’s not one that I share, but I see that attitude exists.
Why do you make films? Why do this?
When I was at the university I studied history, but I wanted to make movies. But my family wasn’t in the movie world. In Italy, particularly at that time—in the 80’s—it was very difficult if your family was not in the movie world. Mine were doctors—my mother has been teaching forensic medicine at the University of Rome and my father was a dermatologist. In Italy, if you are from a family that does something, you tend, usually, to do that—because people can help you out. Now with the coming of television production and the decline of cinema it’s a little easier. I started as an assistant on the sets. Then, day-by-day, I grew up professionally. I started being an assistant director. I started doing my documentaries. And then I’m getting to direct my films. At the beginning I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker. Usually they offer me things that other people are not so keen about doing. Or because there is no money. Or the subject is difficult. But I like these things. Hopefully my third movie will be based on a script I wrote. That will be the first time. I just wrote a script with a very big writer in Italy. Hopefully they will produce it in a serious way—[laughs]—but you know, hopefully. We don’t know.
Can you tell us about it?
It’s a story about reconciliation. I want to do stories in which you laugh and you also cry. A woman goes to South Africa to see her niece after eight years because the girl’s mother—the sister of the protagonist—was dead. So the protagonist and her sister’s husband obviously had some problem. And it’s based in South Africa—the land of reconciliation, because of political events, though that isn’t part of the story. It’s a very intimate, familiar story.
You have a great interest in Africa?
Yeah, even though South Africa is very different from the classical Africa. I was really doing this movie in Senegal because I thought it’s a chance to be on a set with a Senegal crew. So I thought, yes. I like Africa. I am curious about the world. Africa is very difficult to describe because it really takes your heart. I know it sounds very banal, but there is no anxiety there. We depend on anxiety, you know, in our culture. So when you are there and you find yourself in a very difficult situation and anxiety’s not there anymore, you don’t know why.
There is another reason for doing this movie in Africa. When you read in the newspapers about Islamic issues and terrorism, I myself—I’m very scared, like everybody. I found myself very divided—now when I read about those terrible things I still feel very scared and very far from Islamic countries and ways of seeing things. And then if I do think about reality, I was a white woman with a very small crew of two people—there were two other white women, the director of photography and the sound engineer—and we were working in a black Islamic crew and they were very funny. I don’t mean they were laughable, but different from grim and serious, very—elastic. If you stay with them you get light-hearted. The real Islam in Senegal is very different from the Islam portrayed in the newspapers.
So, you learned filmmaking by doing it. You didn’t go to film school?
I didn’t feel I wanted to go to a film school. Now there are more schools but then, there was one—this famous school in Italy. They just take four people and they didn’t take me. So I thought, okay, I will continue my university in history, I will do historic films. I was saying this to myself. But I was upset and then I started understanding things. I wanted to have some film school, so I went to a summer class at USC—University of Southern California. Here in the United States, if you pay for something, you should have everything—I was paying for a semester, reduced in the summer, so they did one class to cover all the problems of a semester in a few weeks. We couldn’t miss anything, we were working twenty-four hours continuously! But I was very willing to learn. I learned a lot.
You’re very drawn to film? It’s what you’re supposed to be doing?
What does it mean?
Well, that you were training to do something else and your family had done other things—there was something about cinema that was very powerful to you.
Yes! Yes, I think so. Then I discovered that it’s true, that cinema really can be something. I made this documentary about Rossellini. I knew his work, but I didn’t know the man. I was looking through the archive and it’s amazing. Even when you are tired and you have been pushing and sometimes you feel that cinema—okay, it’s not worth all these problems. Then you discover that also, for the very big ones, there were so many problems. You feel relieved. And you think, okay, maybe I do want to do this, even though it’s very crazy –
And he made Rome, Open City right after the war.
Yes, and without paying people, in incredibly difficult conditions. If you hear him speaking now, you understand why Ingrid Bergman left everything for this fat, chubby, unknown Italian director. He was so curious and interested by people, by the human being. I was very lucky—my documentary was about a little kid who now is an old man, following him in the same places that Rossellini shot his movie. There is also some magic about this kid who’s now grown up, who was a stage actor later in his life. You know, those people gathered to do this incredible movie that changed the history of—at least Italian cinema, I don’t know about the rest.
Rome, Open City
That scene at the end where the kids are walking, they look out over the city of Rome and see St. Peter’s dome—it’s so much about reconciliation and about the future.
Yes, there is a very moving scene in the documentary related to that. We went to the same building in which the Nazis come and arrested people and Anna Magnani is killed. It’s the main scene in the movie. We went with the kid—now seventy years old—to look for somebody who was living there, and we spent hours. And nobody from the film was there. Everybody had changed homes. At the end, when we were ready to go, there was this old guy who asked to pass with a shopping cart. And so we made some space and while he was passing by, we said, “By the way, have you been living here for a while?” Well—shortly said!—he is the kid that embraces the other kid at the end of Rome, Open City. So they got together after sixty years. You know, there is a god of documentary that put his hand on our head in that moment. It was very sweet. They really look at each other and say, “I was there.” “Yes I was there, so you were the one?” “Yes I was the one.” Well, it’s a real reconnection—now you know the surprise, so maybe you shouldn’t see it.
That’s very American—that you can’t know the ending.
I don’t know, because my movies, they never have endings.
It’s very difficult for me to say that one thing is—in Billo, the ending is up to everybody. Because nobody knows what’s going to happen. And in the first movie—in Days—the protagonist wonders if it’s what he thought, or if something else happened. I think life is like that. It’s too much, so you reassure yourself. All those movies that we see now, they have to give us an end, a happy end usually. This makes us not think about things. It makes movies less interesting, less potentially an instrument of thinking and changing yourself and posing questions and getting—to be a better person maybe. Maybe it’s too much for art. Maybe it’s just that I cannot decide. The people who go out, after the movie—me, also –they are disappointed. You go there, you pay the ticket, you do want an ending. It’s an issue. So we should consider each film. [laughs] So in my case in this last movie there is not an ending because there is no ending. You can understand why, because there is no solution for somebody who finds himself with two families.
It’s a dilemma for many immigrants.
Yes. After the movie I asked the people from Senegal I met in Italy. They were confessing to me that most of them have this situation. It’s not something that you say, because obviously it’s not something that makes your life easier. Another thing they told me—that for the person from Senegal—to be in a country and not have a family is like not being in this country. It’s like passing by but not being there. So that’s the spiritual reason they gave me.
Will this film play a lot of festivals?
It’s playing at some festivals. We just got a very nice prize in Paris, given by Jeanne Moreau who was the heroine of Jules et Jim, and I was very grateful. It’s not a big movie in the sense that we don’t have distribution yet, so it’s doing many festivals, but it’s just starting.
Are you going right back to Italy after this festival or are you going to stay here for a while?
No, I’m going right back. Hopefully to work. It’s funny, because for a director you always have to struggle to work, so you can complain that you are working. Because if not, you can complain that you are not working. If you work, you’re always very tired. If you don’t work, it’s—not possible. You live in anguish.
Anything you want to say about going to these festivals?
I like to see the independent movies grow in the States. They’re very important. There is so much power in this movie business, really—making the people working on movies all the same. It’s very scary. It’s the same if you’re the director. You have to follow such a strict role. It’s good to have blockbusters, but it’s also very bad to already know what will happen in the movie. Big strong industrial movies makes us passive—we don’t have to think about anything. We just go inside to be reassured.
They’re formulas, clichés?
Yes. But I myself love them, because they don’t threaten. You know exactly—you will pass through difficulties with the hero and then you will solve them. And that’s very reassuring. Still you feel something underneath is not working. My favorite movies are Lord of the Rings. You see them like a child. But my friends really tease me. I always make many telephone calls to convince people to come with me to see these movies. Also, I like X-Men—I started watching them because I thought I should know what my nephews and my niece are looking at. And maybe science fiction can arrive at things that normal comedy is not able to. I’m mean, I’m not defending them. I know what they are.
You think you’ll ever make a film about terrorism?
Well, Billo is arrested because they think he’s a terrorist, so in a way I have. I think if it’s important, it will come across. I know that we don’t choose so much. It’s not that I am Oriental, it’s just that I know life is like that. You decide you’ll go somewhere and then something happens and you find yourself in another street with other people. It’s the same with movies. I’m trying to have a vision, but it’s not so easy [laughs]
Maybe you’ll only have a vision to do the next film.
Yes, maybe. Rossellini said the difficult thing was not to become a director but to become a good human being. He was talking about this like it’s a hard job—to learn how to be a good human being. Not good in the sense of a saint, because he was doing very many things!—but in the way of learning how to live. And this sounds rhetorical but it’s not, really—it’s the main issue. And then I think you are a good director if you can pass something on in the way you work.
If you’re in NYC for Open Roads, Rossellini’s Un Pilota Ritorna/A Pilot Returns (1942) also screens 6/15 & 16 as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s 5th annual film preservation festival, June 1-18 (including Pastrone’s 1914 epic, Cabiria, on the 11th). Also, the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester County runs Classic Italian Cinema June 1-20 (one block from the Pleasantville stop on Metro North/Harlem Line from Grand Central).