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By Jason Anderson
Simone Rapisarda Casanova says that there is a Borges story so deeply embedded in his brain that only a lobotomy could remove it. Such a surgery would be suitably Borgesian in and of itself, but he should be safe from it in the meantime. The story, he explains, is “The Aleph,” a typically enigmatic tale about an unusual feature of the cellar of an ordinary house in Buenos Aires. Upon lying on the tile floor and fixing one’s eyes on the staircase’s nineteenth step, one may peer through the darkness to behold a point in which all the places and all the moments of the universe are visible in a single simultaneity. Though the narrator is initially skeptical, he too witnesses the soul-quaking spectacle promised by the house’s loquacious owner: “The microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our proverbial friend the multum in parvo, made flesh!”
Rapisarda Casanova believes he can find places like this in real life, more modest versions of Borges’ Aleph where “elements of the past could resonate with elements of the present and future.” In the Italian-Canadian filmmaker’s feature debut The Strawberry Tree (2011)—a beguiling and largely unclassifiable blend of documentary, ethnography, reverie, and unabashed celebration of its subjects’ bold, bawdy spirit—that site is an isolated fishing village on the northern coast of Cuba, already in its dying days, captured in tableaux that were largely filmed a year before a hurricane finished it off. For his new feature The Creation of Meaning—which earned Rapisarda Casanova the Best Emerging Director prize in Locarno’s Filmmakers of the Present competition—he discovered a semblance of it in a rugged patch of the Apennine Mountains, where the legacy of the atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers in the last months of WWII intermingles with the sad farce begot by the failures of capitalism and democracy in postwar Italy. The next place may be in Haiti, where Rapisarda Casanova has begun work on a project with a group of his former students at the Cine Institute, the tuition-free film school in Jacmel whose illustrious benefactors range from the Coppola family to Arcade Fire.
These travels reflect the nomadic nature of Rapisarda Casanova, who grew up in rural Sicily and worked as a computer scientist and freelance photographer before coming to Canada to study film production at York University, in the same program that has recently produced such talents as Nicolás Pereda, Luo Li, and Igor Drljaca. (Officially based in Montréal, Rapisarda Casanova has spent the past year teaching in Haiti.)
Yet he also understands that the notion of a quest for Alephs risks sounding as cringingly pretentious as the English title of his second feature. He notes that the original Italian title—La creazione di significato—is less rigid and more reflective of the various means by which the people in the film make sense of the circumstances and histories they share. And much like Borges’ original story, Rapisarda Casanova’s films are too full of wry humour and too rich with unexpected pleasures and marvels to feel overburdened by their headier ambitions. The Strawberry Tree owed much of its unruly vitality to the director’s eagerness to present himself (albeit off-camera) as a figure of fun and fascination to the villagers of Juan Antonio, who continually rib and tease the would-be ethnographer as he documents their daily and nightly activities.
In The Creation of Meaning, Rapisarda Casanova displays a similarly playful sensibility by juxtaposing the traditional toils of his primary subject—an elderly but still tough-as-nails Tuscan shepherd named Pacifico Pieruccioni—with everything from the nattering of students in visiting school groups to nature-film-style close-ups of the area’s wildlife to a hilariously vociferous rant in which a talk-radio-show caller rails against Berlusconi’s prosecution using nearly every conceivable cussword. There’s even an excerpt of a film featuring a group of actors who re-enact the deaths of partisan fighters, their noble sacrifices newly rendered with Chinese-made rifles and digitally generated bursts of blood.
In another droll sequence, a magnificent vista of misty mountaintops is situated over a shot of Pacifico and a local woman as they argue good-naturedly over whether or not the face of a boy is visible in the rocky features above. Pacifico remains unconvinced. “Anyone can see what they want,” his friend concludes, thereby providing a handy summary for the film’s wide-ranging take on a place that can seem both unchanged over the centuries and threatened with extinction by modern pressures. In fact, The Creation of Meaning often addresses the imminent end of the way of life that Pacifico represents, most explicitly in the scenes in which Pacifico discusses the future of his land with the man who’s about to purchase it. (That this very thoughtful new owner hails from Germany is an irony that escapes no one’s attention.)
The many references to the Nazi massacres of long ago and the more recent suicides of financially destitute locals provide another dark undercurrent to a film that is otherwise remarkable for its vibrancy and generosity. While the Aleph that Rapisarda Casanova discovers in the northern edge of Tuscany may not always boast the “almost unbearable brightness” of the one in that humble Buenos Aires cellar, it can often have the same dizzying effect. Under the rustic relics of the past and the calamities of the present, Rapisarda Casanova uncovers a few traces of the infinite, as well as some fresh iterations of a decidedly cosmic sort of joke.
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Cinema Scope: For all the serious themes and complex strategies at work in The Strawberry Tree and The Creation of Meaning, they’re both suffused by such a spirit of joy that they end up feeling very warm and appealing. You’ve used the phrase “experimental comedy” to sum up what you achieve. How did you luck upon such an unlikely prospect?
Simone Rapisarda Casanova: The spirit of the films is determined so much by the people who inhabit them. When I set out to make The Strawberry Tree, it was going to be a much darker film. People who know me say that I joke all the time and don’t take things very seriously, but my early short films had been very, very serious. But that didn’t happen with my first longer film because it was about these people who have an amazing sense of humour and because my own sense of humour resonated a lot with theirs—that’s why we’re exchanging jokes back and forth. So yes, I didn’t think it was going to be this idea of “experimental comedy” at the beginning but I was glad it became that. I enjoyed the fact they were laughing at me and I played the kind of idiot visitor—I thought it worked well. Working in a process-driven way and living as if all doors were open allowed for this thing to happen and I just loved that. I still try to write as little as possible. A friend of mine was asking me, “So, where is the screenplay for The Creation of Meaning?” And I said, “You want to see the screenplay?” And I showed him my notebook, which has just three pages of notes. That was the script!
Scope: Another element that connects the films is the essentially solitary and hermetic nature of their making. Why have you preferred to work alone?
Rapisarda Casanova: There were several factors that came into play. I needed two things that were important for me. One is the intimacy with the people involved in the films. Another thing I felt that I needed strongly was freedom in terms of not feeling the pressure of having to answer to anyone, to deal with a production schedule or all of the other things. The more people you get involved—especially when there is money—the more pressure you have to deliver something in a certain way and at a certain time.
I also wanted this intimacy and freedom because of the insecurity I felt while working on my shorts. I didn’t want to continue working in that professional way—I wanted to start exploring new avenues and new ways of telling stories in which I would be more comfortable. I didn’t have to answer to anybody if I wanted to do that with both these films. If one day I wasn’t feeling sure about how to frame a certain angle or how to approach a scene, I could take the time to just sit and chat and walk around with my protagonist and nobody was going to be pissed off about it.
That’s a luxury that only very big, very important filmmakers have had in their careers. If Fellini or Bergman didn’t feel like shooting one day, then they didn’t. So this luxury can only be available to very important or extremely poor filmmakers like me! All the people in between have to answer to a certain structure and a certain way of doing things. That was very empowering and it’s still helping me feel more comfortable about finding my own voice.
Scope: Hearing about that shift away from the more conventional model of your shorts reminds me of how Pedro Costa abandoned much the same thing after his first few features and headed toward a similarly process-driven and unhurried approach. Do you feel a kinship there?
Rapisarda Casanova: In a way, I’ve been isolated from other things in my approach to filmmaking. I’ve approached it more with literary and critical theory in mind—I’ve been reading and studying but not watching many films. I discovered Pedro Costa in the funniest way. When I finished editing The Strawberry Tree, I showed it to my friends and they’d be, “Hey, you know this guy Pedro Costa?” “No, who’s he?” So I was introduced by friends who have a much bigger cinematic education than I do! This was how I found the work of Lisandro Alonso and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, too.
They didn’t influence me in making my own films but I felt like I wasn’t alone. I was able to see their work and go, “Yes, there is space for films like this.” I would have never imagined that. The Strawberry Tree was my master’s project at York and I wasn’t even thinking of sending it to festivals. I thought, “Nobody’s going to be interested in this.” Their commitment and their incredible talent have opened so many doors and made it easier for me to do what I do.
Scope: Do you feel as if you share some of Costa’s methodology?
Rapisarda Casanova: We work in different ways. For him, it’s very important to find something very, very precious in the performance. It’s like an onion—with every take, he peels off another layer of artificiality and gets to the kernel of it at the end of 20 or 80 takes. I work in the opposite way—I try to prepare a lot beforehand and if I don’t get it right the first take, it’s gone. I wasn’t able to include some scenes at all just because the first take didn’t work and this means that I fucked up. So all the scenes where you see characters speaking dialogue are all first takes.
Scope: Is the challenge then a matter of coming up with a whole other way to get to whatever idea was lost in the failed scene?
Rapisarda Casanova: Yes. I think I’m getting better at it but it’s really annoying when it doesn’t work! I have to reschedule everything. I’ve tried before to do it in several takes but already with the second take, I’m losing the things I wanted. So I have to devise a completely new approach so the actors—well, they’re not actors—they have to be in a completely new scene. Then it works.
Scope: Pacifico certainly seems game for it. It’s also so amazing to see how this figure who initially seems to belong to this ancient world is actually so astute when it comes to assessing his place in modern Italy.
Rapisarda Casanova: There’s not much white noise in the place where he lives. He can observe the situation in Italy or Europe because it’s a very good vantage point from which to see or listen and then take the time to ponder it. It’s not just that, too. He’s a very unique human being. And he’s been able to integrate the present into his life. For example, he uses a cell phone but at the same time, he won’t use pesticides like a lot of the people there. That’s a very conscious decision—he doesn’t refuse it because he wants to stick with tradition, but because he understands that pesticides aren’t good for nature. He understands the same about genetically modified plants. In a way he’s one of the last freedom fighters that we have there; the sad thing is there are less and less like him. He himself doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to stay there and take care of the animals. His children don’t want to follow his path. They enjoy life in the valley, they have a car and go out Saturday night, etc.
What I like about him is his awareness about progress. In a rural country like Italy, progress has been incredibly fast, so fast that there was no time to think, “Okay, what do we save of the past? What do we keep?” Because there must have been something worth keeping from the last three or four thousand years. Instead, we embraced technology, mass industrialization, and capitalism so quickly, especially after WWII, and so much was lost. You can see that in the beautiful films that Vittorio de Seta shot in the ’50s and ’60s. He was aware of these dying rituals as Italy was going through these drastic changes and there was no one interested in preserving or documenting this past. Everyone was embracing this future, this terrible future that was presented to us and sold to us as a paradise. Only now are we beginning to understand what it really was.
Scope: There’s certainly a simmering rage within the film about the quagmire of Italy’s wider political and economic woes. Was that what you hoped to express through the use of that talk-radio rant?
Rapisarda Casanova: I couldn’t find anything else that was working as well so I took the risk of including that scene. I was worried that the film would seem too provincial. When I shoot anywhere else in the world, I can make something that is not provincial, but this is my first Italian film and just being where I was born and grew up, I felt like I was pointing the camera more at my navel. I thought people in Italy might appreciate the film and maybe nowhere else and now it looks like the opposite. I’m probably the worst judge of who will want to see the movie! I was surprised people were laughing so much while watching that scene in Locarno. I don’t know if the subtitles give you enough of what is being said—in the end, it’s just a big curse-filled rant!
Scope: Why were you interested in the Gothic Line and this region in general? Was there any connection or similarity with the area where you grew up?
Rapisarda Casanova: My films usually deal with “the others,” with colonialism, even if only cultural, thus in the encounter and dialectic among two different cultures and people, of which one always ends up dominant. The Gothic Line was a border, even if only a temporary one, and like every manmade border, it was conflict-generated and conflict-engendering. (You just need two ingredients for a war: borders and religions.)
Scope: How did you first meet Pacifico? What methods did you use to prepare or conceive scenes with him?
Rapisarda Casanova: My mother lives in the village below. She first told me about him, his story and his emblematically beautiful name. As for the preparation, I first shared with him my ideas on what I wanted the film to be and we came up together with ways to make it happen. He was just playing himself in a context—the one of losing his house and fields—that he hadn’t experienced personally but that he thought it could have likely happened to him, given that Italy is such a Kafkian state. I don’t like to give much direction to my actors—I just try to prepare extremely well with them the context in which they are playing. Then I set them free to do and say what they want.
Scope: How did you luck upon the actors playing the partisans?
Rapisarda Casanova: Again, it’s all process-driven. After I met this amazing character of Pacifico and decided a film there was possible, I spent time with him going up the mountain many times. It takes an hour-and-a-half to go up to his place from the village. So most of the people you see in the film are people who somehow I happened to meet on these trips or around there. I would say, “Okay, it’s probably not just by chance that you’re passing by today. Would you like to be in the movie?” They’d say yes. In that case, these people are from a cultural association—they’re like historical re-enactors who go into schools and work to keep alive the memory of the partisans in the Second World War. Pacifico brought them to see some places they wanted to see and I just followed them as they were doing the re-enactment that was filmed. When they sent me what they had shot, I thought, “That’s so wonderful—that’s got to be a part of my movie.” I was impressed by what this kid did with his little camera. And I didn’t know you could put all these digital effects, with bullet holes and everything.
Scope: That’s also one of several moments that signal your presence in the film even if your subjects don’t directly acknowledge it, as in The Strawberry Tree.
Rapisarda Casanova: Yes, you’re right. I didn’t want to make another Strawberry Tree but the reflexive aspect of my films is very important so I wanted to find other ways of addressing that. I tried to take a step back and explore other avenues. I did it that way in The Strawberry Tree because I was filming the others and I knew I was like this sort of ethnographer who goes to a developing country and plays that role. But reflexivity can be portrayed in very different ways and I tried to find a way to do it as organically as I could in this context. It’s a very important thing to me, especially here in the 21st century because everything is an image and every image connects to other images. The stories that interest me have to address that aspect of reflexivity because it’s part of the questions that I’m asking myself.