Childhood revisited

Daniele Luchetti on Those Happy Years.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Those Happy Years (Anni Felici) director Daniele Luchetti: "I love improvisations on the set."
Those Happy Years (Anni Felici) director Daniele Luchetti: "I love improvisations on the set." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Daniele Luchetti's autobiographical reckoning Those Happy Years (Anni Felici) about a boyhood in the Italy of the 1970s, starring Kim Rossi Stuart, Micaela Ramazzotti, Martina Gedeck, Pia Engleberth, Samuel Garofalo and Niccolò Calvagna, opened this year's Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The afternoon of the luncheon at Barbetta, hosted by the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, I spoke with Luchetti about artistic upbringing then and now, the three faces of autobiographical filmmaking, how all movies need an evil, and his two upcoming projects on Pope Francis and a comedy on Berlusconi, who could be played by Tilda Swinton.

In Those Happy Years, Kim Rossi Stuart plays Guido, an artist who feels undervalued and misunderstood. He makes plaster pieces with naked women, lectures at the academy about Yves Klein and Vito Acconci and teaches his two young boys how to appreciate art by holding up postcards and letting them decide which one is better. In his opinion, they mostly get it wrong with their inherently conservative childhood taste, as do most of the critics who find Guido's work contrived.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema luncheon at Barbetta in New York
Open Roads: New Italian Cinema luncheon at Barbetta in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: There is a scene in Those Happy Years where Guido, the artist father, holds up postcards to teach his sons about art. Is that autobiographical?

Daniele Luchetti: Yes it is. Our father used to show us art books and we were always in love with the art which had gold and Madonnas and baroque works. Compared to him who loved mostly contemporary art. For us it was impossible to understand why for example a cut in a picture was modern, was interesting instead of this beautiful baroque Madonna. And now I understand why. When I was a child it was impossible for me to understand.

AKT: You show it as a game, a way children like to learn. They get to pick a picture and have it explained.

DL: I've had art classes at home with my father. And now for my son it's the same. When he was very, very little we brought him to art galleries. He was four years old and he was at the Tate Modern in London. He was acting in a strange way and we asked him what he was doing and he said "I am in a performance." He was four years old. This kind of transmission of contemporary art arrived at my young son.

AKT: Making an autobiographical film, what were some of the difficulties for you? Choice, I suspect, because you had your life to choose from?

Those Happy Years in Trastevere: "The area of Rome where artists used to work."
Those Happy Years in Trastevere: "The area of Rome where artists used to work."

DL: Distance is the most difficult thing. What for you is moving and interesting would not be the same for the audience. You need distance to consider your parents and yourself as a character. You have to invent. The narrative material in this film is something true, something I was afraid to happen, and something I would have liked to have happened. These three things are the material of my movie - the real, the feared and the desired.

AKT: Can you give me an example for each of those?

DL: For instance, the ending when my father finds a way for his life and his art - a real inspiration, that's a desire. My father didn't find it.

AKT: You came up with a beautiful concept for him - art created from absence.

DL: For instance, my parents never split. It is a fear that I had all my life. My father died when he was my age now. They never broke up but were every day on the verge of breaking up. It's a fear I show. For the real - there is a lot. The set-up of the characters. They were all real.

AKT: Some of the scenes puzzled me. For example, the old broken-down car that is parked on the street in front of the father's studio and the girl who seems to be guarding it. She reminded me of a Fellini character. Was there a reference?

Serena, Guido and Dario in Those Happy Years: "What for you is moving and interesting would not be the same for the audience."
Serena, Guido and Dario in Those Happy Years: "What for you is moving and interesting would not be the same for the audience."

DL: No. This is Trastevere life. You know, Trastevere is the area of Rome where artists used to work. Now these are very trendy streets with lots of restaurants. At the time, [in the mid-Seventies] it was a quite poor area with a lot of workers and prostitutes and artists. The girl you talk about is losing time.

AKT: Losing time?

DL: Yeah, she is doing nothing. Just walking. It is an improvisation. She was an extra on the movie and I asked her to improvise something with the children and she did. I have a lot of material that I cut. I love improvisations on the set. I asked the art department to put an old car in the street for me because I remember when I was young, what a beautiful thing it was to find an old car to destroy. The young actors in my film felt the same. In the film you see the improvisation with three elements - the boys, the old car and the woman. There is no other project behind it.

AKT: I was thinking of a study I once read about abandoned cars on the street. As long as the car is pristine, nobody touches it. Once one window is broken, people feel free to destroy it and wreck it in no time after that.

DL: I was not making any reference. It came out of improvisation.

AKT: In a very strong scene, the father defends his son against his own mother, the boys' ever critical grandmother. In which of the three categories of your autobiographical filmmaking does this belong?

DL: Desire! No, my grandmother wasn't so rude with us. She was cold but she wasn't so violent. I enforced the character because the narration needed a negative character. I think that evil must be somewhere in a movie and she is the evil. She is the reason for all of Guido's problems. So the turning point for the character is to find a way to be a rebel and go against his mother and he defends his son. He can afford her behavior with himself but not with his son.

Kim Rossi Stuart as Guido with Micaela Ramazzotti as Serena: "You don't change the feelings that you have for your parents."
Kim Rossi Stuart as Guido with Micaela Ramazzotti as Serena: "You don't change the feelings that you have for your parents."

AKT: The placement of that scene works really well. We suddenly get emotional background on Guido we didn't have before.

DL: Yes. Maybe when he was a child. I think there is no change in your life. If you hate your mother because she failed to do something when you were a child, it's the same when you are 40. You don't change the feelings that you have for your parents. Even if you are old and they are very old. If your mother hurts you, it's the same if you are 40 or 50.

AKT: The little boy, your alter-ego on vacation with his mother plays the role of Snow White. Speaking of evil mothers…

Little Dario (Samuel Garofalo), the filmmaker's alter ego, is given a Super-8 camera by his grandma. He will use it on vacation with his mother and brother in Camargue, filming wild horses, wild French girls and the shifts of unexpected summer happiness which include his own performance of Snow White.

DL: There is an inversion of sexes. He [Dario] plays the role of the woman. This is typical game playing of the Seventies - changing sexes because of women's liberation and emancipation. Even in theatre we had a lot of that - a female Hamlet in a dress and even in children's games. I remember that when I was a little boy we didn't fear the idea. Now, for instance children could say 'no, I don't want to seem homosexual when I play the role of a girl." At that time, it was so normal. We were encouraged to play with dolls, my mother said there's no problem, it was just a boy playing with dolls. I didn't like them anyway. But I felt free to make a choice. Playing games not considering my sex, I think of as a teaching of liberation.

A Kodak moment in Those Happy Years: "You started selling yourself young."
A Kodak moment in Those Happy Years: "You started selling yourself young."

AKT: Were the Super-8 movies you made as a teenager picked up by Kodak for a commercial? Or was that part wishful thinking?

"We'd lost our innocence - or better we found it," sums up the experience of mother and son in France that summer in Those Happy Years. Dario's holiday footage is so good that Kodak want to use it for their TV commercial. "You started selling yourself young," judges the boy's paternal grandmother (Pia Engleberth).

DL: That was wishful thinking! The desire category.

AKT: You said you do have a brother in real life. Did he see the film?

DL: Yes. He loved the film. You have to consider that all my family has grown in a desire of liberation from a conventional way of life. To us it's normal that one of the family makes a movie about the family in such a way. Not the family of my mother. My mother's family was quite angry. Me, my brother and my mother were really happy to have the courage.

AKT: It does take courage. A sense of your life is up there on the screen and people react to it, not only as a movie.

DL: I wasn't aware during the shooting. Maybe when I was in the editing process. I didn't want to finish the movie. This is the only moment when I was aware that maybe something was important to me.

AKT: What are you working on now? You continue with the personal?

DL: No. I am doing two completely different projects. You know that Berlusconi now is in Social Services? [Think of Tilda Swinton in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom] I'm trying to make a comedy about this story. At the same time I received a proposal from television to make a movie about the life of Pope Francis.

AKT: After your own life, the only logical next step is to make films about the Pope and Berlusconi?

DL: It's an escape from me. They are so far from me.

2014 Open Roads: New Italian Cinema runs from June 5 - 12, organized by The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, in partnership with Istituto Luce-Cinecittà, and with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, the Italian Trade Commission, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU and ACP Group.

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