Locarno: Director Felipe Hirsch on ‘Severina,’ Jorge Luis Borges, Women

Steeped in Latin American literature, Hirsch’s feel-good film about imagination and women world premieres ar Locarno, produced by RT Features


LOCARNO, Switzerland — If the Locarno Festival were to draw up a list of candidates for next year’s Raimondo Rezzonico Prize, given to an outstanding independent director, it could bear a thought for RT Features’ Rodrigo Teixeira. Just this year, two of his productions, Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” and Geremy Jasper’s “Patti Cake$,” were among Sundance Festival’s biggest hits, Jonas Carpignano’s “A Ciambra,” first fruit of RT Features’ emerging director fund with Martin Scorsese, won at Cannes. RT Features also has James Gray’s “As Astra” in pre-production.

But RT Features also produces an exciting generation of young Brazilian and Latin American directors such as Marco Dutra (“Era el cielo”), Gabriela Amaral  (“Friendly Animal,” “A Sombra do Pai”) and Felipe Hirsch, whose second feature, “Severina,” after “Sunstroke,” which played Venice Horizons in 2009, world premiered this weekend at Locarno.

Adapting a novel of the same title by Guatemala’s Rodrigo Ray Rosa, it turns on a would-be writer, a bookstore owner whose social life occurs only on his own premises and who remembers, imagines or experiences his love story with Severina, a young girl who sometimes drops by his shop. Her mere arrival at his bookstore inspires in him a mix of awe and incredulity. We only know one thing about her: She loves to steal books. A femme fatale, hiding her true name – she has multiple passports, all false – she soon embroils him in petty theft, fraud and murder. Severina’s literary kleptomania may of course be a meta metaphor for the art of creation itself. Few films at Locarno will be so steeped in literary tradition as “Severina,” which pays heartfelt homage to Borges, the dean of modern Latin America literature, to fantasy and to women. Having met Severina, the bookstore owner is very much a better person, even if she is just fruit of his imagination. The memory of her even helps ji, to venture out into the larger world. Or at least walk down his street.

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Director Hirsch fielded questions from Variety at Locarno.

“Severina” is inspired by the novel of the same name in 2011 by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. What are the basic differences and challenges of an adaptation?

My desire was to find the same delicacy, the same sensations. And these also proved the biggest challenges because Rey Rosa is known for his poetic accuracy. But, at the same time, I wanted to make a film placed out of the zeitgeist, a work that would not hark back to Latin America’s political tragedy. Something that resisted that time and would be remembered by someone at another moment.

Severina, aka Ana, feels like a meta-mujer, a compendium of characteristics which make female figures attractive to male writers, whether they should or not: Could you comment?   

Yes, “the best muses are those of flesh and blood,” Ana says. But Severina, the film, is a learning journey, inferring that the woman, the female universe is definitely the most fascinating, the one that saves us, that can make us understand the value of forgiveness and the false value of established morals. What begins as a film about jealousy and revenge ends up as a rites of passage.                      

The major influence, mentioned time and again, and indeed supplying a plot twist, is the towering figure of Borges. No writer in Argentina can create without going into the ring with Borges: Deciding to what extent, if any, to reflect his world, his traits, his ludic play of philosophy fantasy and reality. Would you agree and what is the influence on you – a Brazilian , but steeped in Latin American literature, and the film?

Borges is undoubtedly a classic with strong roots, support for several trees of various different fruits. It is not the only one, but it is undoubtedly one of the greatest. Here, his work “Zahir” plays a key role. It speaks, among other things, about obsession, like the movie itself. I am particularly influenced by Latin American literature. Lima Barreto, the modernists and Brazilian concretists, Borges, Onetti, Sada, etc.

“Severina” Is set somewhere which could be anywhere in Spanish-speaking Latin America. It features actors from multiple countries. Why this pan-Latin American identity.

I began to write this screenplay in the middle of a project on Latin American literature for the 2013 Frankfurter Buchmesse in Germany. Over the past five years, this project has expanded to include six plays, cinematographic works (like “Severina”), and a TV series written in collaboration with 20 contemporary Latin American writers. All of this has also made me plunge even deeper into the ocean of authors from the continent where I live, and engage with them, write with them.  Also, I had the chance to work with actors from all around Latin America. And in this manner Severina was conceived and made: among Uruguayans, Argentines, Brazilians, Chileans, Peruvians, Guatemalans, and also the Portuguese.

You have carved out a reputation in Brazil as a theater director, a founder of the multi-prized Ultraliricos, which creates on stage experimentation. So when it came to directing a film, what were your guidelines for directing?

To not shoot in studios, to not work with stuff that is too heavy and suggests scenography; to think twice before breaking realistic cinema rules; to not make the camera work present or to aesthetize it within the scene, to give time and room for the scenes to breath and to conduct them with fluidity and sinuosity,; to not rehearse or to draw storyboards, etcetera etcetera. I feel I am the same artist whether it is in the theater, the cinema or the opera. I have no prejudice in blending these frontiers. An artist cannot belong to one single thing. But it is important to conquer and develop languages, ways to translate your ideas.

What are you working on now? 

I’m in a research process for a great project on documents from the history of Brazil. I’m also writing a mini-series about the early 60’s in Rio de Janeiro, and preparing a low budget feature film about a frustrated and perverse left wing intellectual.