I have noticed that we’ve lost the ability to stand up for ourselves. But, perhaps more tragically, we’ve forgotten how to stand up for the weaker and more vulnerable in our society. I believe that’s part of the reason why we crave violent entertainment where big burly men stand up to other big burly men and win after a blaze of car chases, noisy fights and assorted fireworks. They do what we can’t manage anymore.
To paraphrase the great Nelson Mandela, courage is not the lack of fear, rather being able to work through it and triumph above it. We all feel afraid of something, somewhere, just as we all possess courage. But the ultimate question is which will win in this eternal struggle within ourselves?
That’s exactly what Italian filmmaker Vincenzo Marra asks in his latest ‘Equilibrium’ (’L’equilibrio’ in Italian) which world premiered in Venice and I watched at the BFI London Film Festival. The story revolves around a somewhat disoriented priest Giuseppe (played by Mimmo Borrelli) a former missionary, who decides to leave the small diocese he runs in Rome to return home to a larger yet more problematic one on the outskirts of Naples. There, he comes face to face with the problems we Italians hear too often in the media, yet never do anything about. The status quo of organized crime which has filled the gap left by the corrupt Italian government. Giuseppe, in his zeal to help the people of his congregation, also comes to a head with the diocese’s current priest, Don Antonio (played by Roberto Del Gaudio). Both seem to want the best for their flock, yet what that best is differs depending on the viewpoint.
What makes ‘Equilibrium’ so brilliant is the fact that even though the point of view of the film is clearly Don Giuseppe’s, and Marra’s use of long shot camera sequences following him reinforces that, we can’t help but understand Don Antonio’s way of thinking too. In fact, there is a rumor going around that both actors, in real life respected, wonderful writers and directors as well, argued on the set during filming as to which character’s viewpoint made better sense. That duality, Marra’s cinematic search for a balance — an equilibrium, to quote the film’s title! — makes for perfect viewing.
I caught up with Vincenzo Marra, in person a calm, somber figure who clearly conceals some serious courage of his own, and from our interview I walked away with a sense of hope. The kind of hope that filmmakers like Marra manage to infuse into their work, which takes movies out of the aimless blockbusters arena and turn them into true works of art.
For those in NYC, the film screens on June 3rd at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, part of the Open Roads series on New Italian Cinema.
There is this kind of legend out there, of one Vincenzo Marra, Neapolitan, who lived in Chile and learned English in Ireland. Is it true?
Vincenzo Marra: OK, Vincenzo Marra is Neapolitan, Italian, Marra’s parents, one is still alive and one isn’t, they were always passionate about travel and knowledge, and the problems of the world… I actually didn’t learn English because I was traumatized a little. My mother sent me to England when I was too small, at eight years old, to spend a month in a college. Then when I was ten she tried one more time, and sent me to Ireland, where I also didn’t learn English but I fell in love with the country. That led to me coming back countless times, I traveled across it and back and studied the history and culture. I’ve also entertained the idea — and maybe one day who knows, it will happen — of making a film there.
Then life brought me to another part of the world, South America where I still feel a bond, because my parents in the 1970s were providing support to political refugees who were escaping from dictatorships. For the past nine years, I’ve been living almost half the year in Chile and I speak Spanish quite well. At least that language!
As an Italian who’s lived in another country, I see the problems of Italy flashing before me as bright as a neon sign. Is it the same for Vincenzo Marra?
Marra: For example, I can tell you something I’ve been talking about lately, to coincide with the release of the film. Traveling back and forth, with one foot in South America and one in Italy, I hold the belief that I can see problems in a clearer manner. Because we get used to things, be they good or bad, in life. One thing I’ve noticed, that’s changed, I mean it has developed, is the concept of fear. We, in Italy, hold certain fears as in any other place in the western world. Typical things, like we are fearful of our future, we are fearful of death, of losing dear ones, of getting sick, we are fearful of terrorism...
But in the last ten years I’ve noticed this concept that has been growing under our collective skin, people’s emotional fear of small things. We are afraid of relationships, we are afraid of talking about religion, of talking about sex, we are afraid of expressing our feelings. We are also afraid of not being “cool” and of being inappropriate. We are afraid of everything! We are even afraid of defending our own rights. If your boss puts his hand on your ass, I mean not you but some hypothetical girl, she will think twice about it because she’s afraid of losing her job. And perhaps she’ll keep his hand on her ass.
This is fear which then creates an immobility which prevents us from living our day to day lives.
In my life, in my small way, I’ve always thought that if you are ready to pay for the consequences of your actions you’ll live a more intense life. And that’s why I made this film, which is the Christ-like path of a priest, with the idea of retracing through metaphors and allegories of Christ’s journey. This priest is not afraid, he moves forward and conquers his fears through courage so this theme doesn’t only deal with religious sources but also human ones…
It is this courage we discover in the film, of your protagonist of course but also of its filmmaker, which makes the film so wonderful. It made me love it because it’s not often seen on screen, and even less in Italian films, this concept of a quiet courage, courage of our own actions. But also of seeing profound ideas showcased on the big screen. Do you feel courageous yourself?
Marra: I can only speak for myself but there is also the courage to hang in there. These kinds films have a very short life, because they stay in cinemas a very short time and they don’t make money, there is a whole world pushing you towards the concept that there is no sense in making these films… My film after two weeks is no longer in Italian cinemas. A lot of strength is needed to survive in this world of the movies where maybe the guy next to you who is making different choices from yours has a more successful result, and more media coverage. The courage lies not only in telling these stories with commitment, truth and sacrifice, but also stating their important value. It’s like if I can manage to make this film I’ll have won somehow. Even if not many will watch it.
How much of Vincenzo Marra is in Giuseppe?
Marra: Oh, in all my movies there is a lot of me. From the fisherman, and I don’t even know how to fish, to the priest, I’m there totally. I can’t seem to close my eyes, I’m not one who delegates.
And the idea of having to protect the children?
Marra: Certainly since I’ve been a father the idea is a very strong theme. The first time I held my child into my arms when he was born, I saw him so small, and I thought “if something were to happen to me, what would happen to him?” For me children always have priority.
What would you want an audience member who watched your film to take away from it?
Marra: Certainly the doubt, the possibility to discuss it and take it home to reflect about it. But also paradoxically, satisfaction about their own life. People who go to the movies are people who have the financial means to do so. I don’t agree with the idea that only vulgar entertainment justifies going to the movies. I think watching films featuring situations that hit closer to home, which deal with the periphery of our homestead, can help us reevaluate what are the small and big dramas in our own lives.
And finally, how would you describe yourself?
Marra: A good person.