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Cannes Q&A: Director Alice Rohrwacher Explains Mix of Languages ‘Le Meraviglie’

Italian director Alice Rohrwacher at 32 is the youngest Italian to vie for a Palme d’Or in recent memory, with her “Le Meraviglie,” which screened Saturday, only her second work. Her debut “Corpo celeste” was in Directors’ Fortnight in 2011.

How do you feel about being in the Cannes competition so young and with your second work?
We thought we were going to be in Un Certain Regard and we were very happy about that. Then the night before the lineup announcement we got the call. It was a really great surprise. I’m particularly happy because we all worked really hard in complicated situations involving things like bees and a camel, which aren’t easy and might make you wonder whether it’s worth it.

“Corpo celeste” had a child protagonist. But in “Le Meraviglie” there are lots of children from whom you managed to draw such powerful performances. How did you do it?
The set was a big adventure. I’m not a very strategic person, but I’m very curious. Basically, we did lots of rehearsals. And that doesn’t mean just blocking scenes, it means spending a lot of time together with me and also with acting coach Tatiana Lepore (who worked with me on “Corpo celeste”). It’s sort of like a theater workshop that creates long-lasting relationships, and this impacts what you see on screen.

You mix languages in this film. There is Italian, of course. And German, because some of the characters are German. But the thing that intrigued me the most is that the Italian-German couple in the film speak French with each other.
The different languages are my way of explaining the backstory of this family without resorting to too much exposition. It’s a way of telling the audience that they have a past. We know that the father doesn’t speak any language well. The mother speaks a very eloquent Italian that tells you she’s probably well-educated, and they speak French with each other, which becomes their common ground. I’ve lived a lot with people who speak different languages.

You made your first film with the great French cinematographer Helene Louvart, known for her work on Wim Wenders’ “Pina,” among other films. And now, with “Meraviglie,” the collaboration continues. How is it working with Louvart?
Right now I could not fathom working with someone else. We are both very sensitive in our work, just like celluloid film stock is very sensitive. We listen to each other very closely. But never fall into a habitual way of doing things. That’s probably the best thing about Helene, she’s not a creature of habit. Every day we both have to discover the scene that we are going to shoot.

The film is dedicated to “Baumi,” the late Karl Baumgartner, co-founder of Germany’s Pandora, who died in March and was one of its co-producers.
We would have preferred showing him the film rather than dedicate it to him. “Baumi” really insisted that I write this movie. It fascinated him both because of the contrast between present day and tradition and also what happens in families with mixed nationalities. He followed what we were doing very closely. As a producer he changed the way movies are made. It’s thanks to his way of making movies that I work the way I do. He was much more than a co-producer.

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