‘Black Bread’ Director Agustí Villaronga Plumbs One of the Most Ghastly Shipwrecks in History

Agusti Villaronga
Courtesy of Testamento

The background to “The Belly of the Sea,” the new film from “Black Bread” director Agustí Villaronga, is arguably the most ghastly shipwreck in the history of seafaring.

On July 2, 1816 French frigate Méduse ran aground on the Bank of Arguin, off the coast of present-day Mauritania, with 400 passengers on board.

147 men were forced onto a makeshift raft, only 66 feet by 23 feet, cut adrift on the open sea. A storm swept many overboard; others, rebellious, were shot by officers; as rations dwindled, some resorted to cannibalism. The weak and wounded were thrown into the sea. Only 15 men survived.

The disaster was immortalized by Théodore Géricault’s painting “The Shipwreck of the Medusa.” It also inspired the “second book” of “Ocean Sea,” a 1993 novel by Italy’s Alessandro Baricco, which frames two monologues, one from the Méduse’s surgeon, Henri Savigny, another from a common sailor, both survivors. That proved the point of departure for Villaronga’s “The Belly of the Sea,” which world premieres in main competition at the Moscow Film Festival on April 23.

A format-blender, mixing back and white and color cinematography, “The Belly of the Sea” was shot in a near 100-year-old wine cellar where Savigny and Thomas, the sailor, contrast their memories of the shipwreck in a kind of boxing ring surrounded by sea.

The film contains scenes from the subsequent court trial of the ship’s incompetent captain. There’s footage – photos and video – from Francesco Zizola’s “In the Same Boat,” shot from the a modern ship, the Bourbon Argos, documenting the rescue of African migrants adrift on the open sea in the Mediterranean in 2015.

Also making the mix are the so-called sea sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor, where the barnacled bodies of the drowned sit on the ocean floor moulded into human coral.

Produced by Barcelona’s Testamento, Link-up and Turkana Films and Mallorca’s La Perifèrica Produccions, “The Belly of the Sea” is backed by the Catalan and Spanish ICEC and ICAA film institutes, It stars Roger Casamajor (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and TV actor Òscar Kapoya (“Bounds”). Variety talked to Villaronga just before its Moscow world premiere.

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The Belly of the Sea Courtesy of Testamento

What attracted you to Baricco’s “Open Sea”?

I’ve always admired Baricco. I’ve tried to adapt him before. From “Ocean Sea,” the confrontation between two characters who experienced the same situation from completely different human points of view. That brutal face-off has elements of class warfare and an extraordinary event, to which spectators can easily relate a pandemic, which brings out the best and worst in people in a ghastly environment.

The adaptation was originally imagined as a stage play..How did it become a film?

The play was postponed when COVID-19 hit Spain, though we managed to stage it in September in Mallorca. Confined there from the outbreak, we felt a sense of rebellion and the need to still create culture, to make a film which drives to the heart of the face-off between Savigny and Thomas, without making a big-budget production shot entirely in open sea…. With confinement, many extras from the play were still on Mallorca. They played a decisive role in the film. Several had migrated from Africa and had experience similar episodes to those in the film.

What were the challenges of this new adaptation?

The most difficult: Juggling theater play, literary influence and cinema while preserving the poetic essence of Barrico’s novel. To do that we built new structures. There’s the court case – the most realistic part – but also Savigny and Thomas’ recreation of the past in their court testimony, and also the two’s symbolic memories of events once the trial is past.

In “The Belly of the Sea,” you mix different styles, genres, formats…

I like it. The eclecticism makes for a more complete vision. Zizola’s images of African migrants are eloquent and tell the same story. It’s happening now, under different conditions, but it is the same though neither the novel nor the film are protest works.

Would you trace a through line from other films you’ve made, such as the study of evil of “Aro Tolbukhin in the Mind of a Killer”?

I’m not sure evil’s the right word. People didn’t eat each other on the raft out of evil. Savigny can seem implacable, but he had his principles.

So what is the film’s heart?

There’s an observation in the film. “Whoever has truly discovered truth remains always incapable of consolation. The film talks about human beings, and how incapable of consolation they remain having lived such hard lives and also about an unwavering search for the truth and and how truth is somehow associated with misfortune. These ideas are, I think, at the heart of Baricco’s text.