Confessions of a film director

Roberto Andò on his latest film: money, religion and the end of time as we know it.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Confessions (Le Confessioni) director Roberto Andò with Anne-Katrin Titze: "So Toni Servillo and I both read this book about Italian monasteries ..."
The Confessions (Le Confessioni) director Roberto Andò with Anne-Katrin Titze: "So Toni Servillo and I both read this book about Italian monasteries ..." Photo: Michael Moore

Roberto Andò, the director of Long Live Freedom (Viva La Libertà with Toni Servillo, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Valerio Mastandrea) met with me at his hotel on Central Park South for a conversation on his latest film The Confessions (Le Confessioni), co-written by Angelo Pasquini, shot by Maurizio Calvesi, and starring Servillo with an exceptional ensemble cast including Connie Nielsen (Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman), Marie-Josée Croze (John Michael McDonagh's Calvary), Daniel Auteuil (Michael Haneke's Caché), Moritz Bleibtreu (Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run), Lambert Wilson (Jérôme Salle's The Odyssey), Pierfrancesco Favino (Roger Michell's My Cousin Rachel), and Johan Heldenbergh (Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown).

Toni Servillo is Carthusian monk Roberto Salus
Toni Servillo is Carthusian monk Roberto Salus

A luxury resort with unfading allure and an illustrious guest list throughout its tumultuous history lies like a strand of pearls tossed along the coast of the Baltic Sea. One of Europe's oldest seaside spas, founded in 1793, Heiligendamm is the perfect setting for Roberto Andò's shimmering end-of-time-as-we know-it religious finance thriller. What better place to summon the ghosts of the past, the mysteries of today, and the uncertainties of the future?

During a fictional G8 summit (a real one took place in the same hotel in 2007) that more or less decides the future of Western civilization, a Carthusian monk (the superb Toni Servillo) is invited by the host, Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil - his past role as Benoît Jacquot's de Sade looming in the shadow of our minds) - prime mover, puller of the world's business strings, a "man who can crush nations."

Along for the ride to join the eight are the super-successful children's book author Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen) who is seeking redemption and a rock star (Johan Heldenbergh) who doesn't seem to know what the word redemption means and looks for some sexy time instead. When "the economy must destroy what is superfluous," questions of truth and conscience better arise.

Rolf with Roberto Salus in Heiligendamm
Rolf with Roberto Salus in Heiligendamm

Anne-Katrin Titze: I want to start with Heiligendamm, the location of your film, which is such a fascinating place, because of its legend, because of the history. Was that the starting point? Did you have the location and then the story came? Were they always connected?

Roberto Andò: No, I had written the story before I found the location. And then in looking for the location, I started looking at different pictures of actual G8s that had taken place on the internet. And that's when I came across Heiligendamm. I was very struck, first of all just by the physical appearance of the place, by the look. And then when I went to the site itself, I discovered some very interesting things about it.

First I found out that during the Nazi era it had been a psychiatric clinic for Nazi leaders. Later on, it became a sanatorium for communist leaders. And now, today, it's become a luxury hotel. It has a very interesting history and I thought that that lent itself beautifully to the story. At the same time, there's a great deal of glass in it so it works really well in the relationship between the internal world and the external world which is underlying the film.

AKT: I've been there, so I know the religious legend that is the background of Heiligendamm which fits so perfectly with your story. The town was saved from a hurricane by the monks praying during the night. Also the Nazi connection you brought up - Goebbels in his diaries mentions a meeting with Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl there on the beach.

Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil) confesses to Roberto Salus
Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil) confesses to Roberto Salus

Rilke loved to visit, the family of the Tsar spent their holidays there. That history links to one of your main points, which is "time doesn't exist, it is only a variable of the soul".

RA: It's true. I thought it was really the perfect place to build a bridge between reality and imagination. Both because of the legend that you have mentioned and the various transitions in its history. It was a great place then to invent a story whose protagonist is a place. It is this hotel, which is kind of a terminus, an endpoint, a final station in Western history.

AKT: That's an excellent observation.

RA: Very much like our own time as we're moving toward an uncertain future. A moment in which all of the passions are sort of being burnt up, as well as the ideologies of the last century. And I think, then to have a G8 there, which is something that is trying to sweep away everything that has been accomplished into that moment - it all seemed right.

AKT: I felt a sense of endpoint in the place and I feel it also in your film. A Faustian pact is unfolding. There is the dog - he is not a poodle as in Faust. The black poodle being the devil in Faust is in contrast to the very friendly Rolf. Hitler's Blondie may also come to mind. Can you talk a bit about the animals in your film? There are also the birdsongs, bird drawings, and the kitten that Daniel Auteuil picks up next to the plastic bag.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

RA: As a starting point, I wanted to do research on the central character by reading up with one book in particular on the reality of monks and on the reality of monasteries. So Toni Servillo and I both read this book about Italian monasteries and the type of person that live in it that they attract. And we found that these are all men who made a very specific choice. And once they made that, they kept to it in living pretty much by themselves and in very close contact with nature. This is not a negligible aspect of their lives.

It certainly connects to St Francis who saw a human soul of sorts, who saw animals as human beings. And animals and human beings alike belonging to the created world. In this sense, animals should be considered in the same light as we consider men, women and children. Within the film itself, having the animal makes it a very important gesture.

I think that I use animals both in this sort of very serious Franciscan sense but also in an ironic way. In different countries, as I travel with the film, the animals have been interpreted differently. For example, one person asked me whether the dog was a symbol of Europe. And I said, "Well, that could be true."

Le Confessioni poster
Le Confessioni poster

AKT: In which country was that?

RA: It was in Germany. And as a further irony, I had the dog rebel against his master. In rebelling against his master, a German, and choosing a new master, the new master is someone who is a friend, with whom he can have a more friendly relationship. And this is also a very appropriate metaphor, I think. But an open metaphor that you can interpret as you like.

AKT: And the bird?

RA: The Upupa [Hoopoe] that you see flying off and appearing during that final sermon that the monk gives, the funeral oration, I had in for one reason but a very well-known scholar of Italian, Silvano Nigro, said that it is also the title of a poem by Eugenio Montale, the Nobel laureate for literature in 1975, I think. And in the poem by Montale, the Upupa is a bird that suspends time.

AKT: Wow!

RA: It's certainly a sense in which I conceived it but also a much more ironic take on the bird which you see in the drawing that the monk does - which the finance ministers are all convinced is some kind of secret message about the contents. And I thought it was funny to sort of have them contemplating the animals, the bird in this case, as secret messengers that better understand things than human beings themselves.

AKT: Yes, the codes that aren't really codes. The black swan-ness of it all. Also the German minister's name is Fuchs, which means fox. The fox and the bird!

RA: I like to think of the film as - there's an old definition, actually it was the title of a series of short essays by Leopardi, the Operette Morali, Little Moral Works. And I wanted to use the animals not so much as symbols but as kind of a go-between. It is an important part of the story.

Coming up - Roberto Andò on Heiligendamm, a bluff, basing a character on JK Rowling, his international cast, resisting the idea of evil, and Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess and Torn Curtain.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2017 co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Istituto Luce Cinecittà at the Walter Reade Theater runs through June 7.

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