Interview with Pupi Avati Italian Film Director

ROME — Pupi Avati is one of Italy's only practicing Catholic film directors. He writes and directs all his own films, which have won awards at the Cannes and Venice film festivals. Avati has won best director, best screenplay and best art direction at Italy's version of the Academy Awards (which are called the David of Donatello awards).

His current film, Enchanted, won Italy's Donatello Award for best director in 2002. Avati is president of Cinecitta, Italy's version of Hollywood. He also produces programs for the Italian bishops’ conference.

Enchanted is about Nello, a brilliant schoolteacher, beloved by his students but hopelessly awkward around women. He meets Angela, a beautiful blind woman, at a dance, and she feigns affection for him in order to make another man jealous. Their subsequent romance, doomed to failure, hurts him deeply and causes him to lose his job. Nello's ultimate victory is that he manages to maintain a positive attitude toward life, begging the final question: Who was really the blind one?

Avati spoke to Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi in Rome.

Has being a practicing Catholic hurt your career?

My faith has helped my career, not hurt it. It is helpful when identifying a director. You have to differentiate yourself from the rest.

In this field, it's hard to have a singular point of view. To be different — going to Mass, having ties to the transcendental — this has given me strength. Some people have laughed at me. But it has helped me because it isolates me. I needed to fight for interior strength.

The element that helped me was the sense of Providence. My mother taught me that. She was wonderful. She always said that no matter what happens, the situation would always get better. Someone was always protecting us. She had this sense of optimism. My profession is made up of many victories and failures. If you don't have optimism and confidence that you are loved by something bigger than yourself — it would be difficult to do this job.

Are there certain elements that you avoid in filmmaking?

I have a certain modesty with regard to violence and sex. I believe these are used as instruments against the audience. Many times, sex has nothing to do with the story.

It doesn't add anything. I know that I can sell more tickets by including a strong love scene, but I feel a great responsibility. It seems dishonest to me. A story must not speculate on these aspects. It doesn't educate the young. I always keep in mind that I have nephews and nieces.

I don't have anything against sex. I think sex is a good thing. But I don't want to exploit it for ends outside of the story.

Why has the Italian film industry — once known for its great directors and films — deteriorated so much?

First of all, we make far fewer films than we used to. During the ‘60s, they used to make 350 a year. We now make about 100 films a year. This decrease is due to a flagging interest in Italian films by Italians and people around the world. We used to have a stronger identity. But we've become colonized by a strong American culture. We lost the characteristics that were the reason why our films were loved.

Today, the quality of Italian films has deteriorated. The great Italian directors of the past — of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s — disappeared. America has a film industry with great technology and enormous budgets, which we can't compete with. What they lack in ideas, they make up with special effects.

What do you try to transmit to the audience in your movies?

I try to talk about normal human beings. I try to tell stories that show my understanding of these human beings in their most intimate part — their aspiration to happiness. I make normal people heroes. People who see my films will think, “I am like that, too. Maybe the world is better than I thought.” I reassure the weak that they aren't alone.

What about trying to transmit the Catholic faith?

Here in Italy there has recently been a trend in making movies about the lives of saints. I think it is better and more effective to make movies about ordinary people and give examples of how to act — telling stories about people who act positively.

What was the main message of Enchanted?

The important message is that despite all the bad experiences that my main character has, he remains coherent at the end.

He will never be someone who sings in the choir — who will be like everyone else. But his personality, his purity and naivete remains integral at the end of the movie — he is not contaminated. He is able to be happy and autonomous, and ready for the next experiences in his life.

Are there certain themes or topics you look for?

Actually, the themes find me, not the other way around. Stories find me. It is normal this way. I am a receiving instrument. I find stories in my life; I write and bring them alive.

Tell me about the programs you are producing for the Italian Bishops?

I produce programs for the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI). We do a talk show on the Church's point of view. We are currently doing a program on how one enters the seminary — we try to show what kind of man goes in. It is really fascinating.

As for yourself, where did you first learn the faith?

My family has strong roots in the Catholic tradition, especially on my mother's side. Her family was made up of farmers from the countryside. Catholicism was seen as something which gave strength, especially during WWII when I was born. It was a way of teaching during my childhood in Bologna, and it has been imprinted in me since those days. This culture and education was very widespread. Families without this were rare in the 50s and 60s.

People from my generation began to rebel against this tradition and embraced an agnostic/atheistic culture — rejecting the Catholic culture. I represent an exception among my friends and colleagues, especially in the film industry. All have abandoned the faith.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Rome.