Italian Filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher on the Sacred, Politics, Cultural Genocide

Alice Rohrwacher
Courtesy of Festival Lumière/Loic Benoit

Italian director Alice Rohrwacher presented her latest short film on Tuesday at the Lumière Film Festival in Lyon, where she was guest of honor.

The filmmaker was visibly moved as she took to the stage of the 100-year-old Comédie Odéon theater, where the 9-minute short she made with French artist JR, “Omelia Contadina” (“A Peasant Homily”), was screened.

“It’s not really a film, it’s not art either – you could call it a cinematic action,” she explained about the short, which features two of JR’s signature giant cardboard cut-out figures being carried to their graves by a group of farmers as part of a kind of funeral rite, symbolizing the burial of traditional farming.

“I saw how difficult it was for them to explain what they are going through. With images, it’s sometimes easier to describe a battle,” said Rohrwacher, who would like to show her film in schools. “We shot it with the same farmers who were in [her last feature] ‘Happy as Lazzaro,’ they are my neighbors.”

Rohrwacher’s third feature, which picked up best screenplay in Cannes in 2019, is based on true events and tells the story of a group of villagers tricked by an aristocrat into working on their land in feudal conditions.

Speaking of “Lazzaro,” she said, “I wanted to make a film where you see, through his eyes, the world changing without ever really changing: it’s about medieval and contemporary feudalism. […] I wanted to make a film that helps liberate farmers, that restores accountability: there are those who decide and those who suffer.”

Asked whether her films are political, Rohrwacher was unequivocal: “Yes. ‘Lazzaro,’ in particular, talks about those who are the victims of history. […] It’s about people who don’t know what they have lost because they don’t know what they had. The tragedy of ‘Lazarro’ is about people who have the illusion that they are fighting for the poor, but in fact they are fighting for the privilege of the rich.”

Rohrwacher grew up under populist Silvio Berlusconi in what she describes as an atheist family. It was her curiosity about religion that gave birth to her first feature “Heavenly Body” (2011).

“I wanted to learn so I signed up to catechism classes. At that time, the genocide of the Berlusconi culture was devastating Italy. And I was surprised to find that the codes being used to convey the sacred were the same that were being used in TV shows. So I wanted to make a film about our strange relation to the sacred.”

The near-sacred nature of reality TV is also the background to Rohrwacher’s second feature, “The Wonders,” which won the Cannes Grand Prix in 2014. A brilliant satire of Italian TV, it features a goddess-like Monica Bellucci as a glamorous, fairy-like TV presenter.

“[My films] are true stories but also fairytales. I strongly believe in fairytales, they help me face the tragedies of life. Making films is an answer to the world you live in, the only world you know. All I can do is create images that encourage freedom of thought, that’s the only way the world will get wiser. I’m not sure there is a political movement in Italy today which supports freedom of thought.”

Never one to follow the crowd, Rohrwacher shoots all her films on 16-mm celluloid, which enhances both the magical quality and the realism of her work.

“Working on celluloid is beautiful. You think you can control everything, but you can’t. […] I’m always apprehensive: sometimes the result is beautiful, sometimes it’s not, it gets the adrenaline going but it also commands respect. With digital technology today, you can do anything, but with 16mm, you have to be very concentrated. That’s why I want to continue working that way.”

Asked whether it would it be fair to call her filmmaking revolutionary, she concluded: “You can be revolutionary if you get rid of one sentence: the end justifies the means.”

“No,” she says. “It’s the means that expose the end – be it violence or power. So let’s start by making films that are microcosms where we seek to find means that are more just. We are like insects in a field: we must leave the world, if not better, definitely not worse off.”