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Italian Director Liliana Cavani on Her St. Francis Movies

Liliana Cavani is a rarity among Italian directors: Throughout her career, she’s worked with many international stars, including Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde in “The Night Porter” (1974); Mickey Rourke and Helena Bonham Carter in “Francesco” (1989); and John Malkovich in “Ripley’s Game” (2002). Cavani’s first mention in Variety was Feb. 15, 1967, when her telefilm “Saint Francis of Assisi” won the UNDA Catholic Prize at the Intl. Monte Carlo TV Festival.

Do you remember winning that prize?

No, but I remember how important the Vatican was in getting state broadcaster RAI to put “Francis” on the air. Even though RAI produced it, they weren’t going to air it, because Marco Bellocchio’s “Fists in the Pocket,” which also starred Lou Castel, had just been released. A right-wing politician had thundered in parliament that St. Francis could not have the same face as the (depraved) character Castel plays in Bellocchio’s film. But the open-minded monsignor who headed the Vatican film office gave it the go-ahead.

Before Monte Carlo, “Francis” had also gone to Venice, in 1966.

Yes, I ended up spending time there with Roberto Rossellini, who was on the Lido with “The Rise of Louis XIV,” while we weboth waiting to be interviewed. In those days, it took a long time to prep the lighting for a TV interview. He told me his whole life story.

You’ve now made three movies about St. Francis.

I’m not a religious person; I’m an atheist. But I was struck by the adventure of this kid, who 800 years ago had intuitions and an ecological vision that’s ahead
of its time even today. It really took the current pope to make the figure of St. Francis real.

It was a bold choice to cast Mickey Rourke in “Francesco.”

I had loved him in “The Year of the Dragon.” He was very generous; Mickey worked on “Francesco” for ridiculously low pay. He came from the Actors Studio, (but) since he’s always had a thing for boxing, some people thought he should have been a boxer instead of an actor. But he’s really one of the greatest actors ever.

You worked with John Malkovich in “Ripley’s Game.”

What really pleased me about that movie is that the Patricia Highsmith society wrote me to say that this was the Ripley movie truest to the spirit of her books. She was not a thriller writer. I think the ending of Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which is well made and well acted, falls short because it accentuates the thriller aspect rather than the psychological one.

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