Rules of nature

Salvatore Mereu on tragedy, tourism and Assandira

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Marco Zucca as Mario and Gavino Ledda as Costantino in Salvatore Mereu’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema highlight Assandira
Marco Zucca as Mario and Gavino Ledda as Costantino in Salvatore Mereu’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema highlight Assandira

Two of the highlights of the 2021 virtual edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema are Daniele Luchetti’s The Ties (Lacci), adapted from the novel by co-screenwriter Domenico Starnone, and Francesco Piccolo, which stars Alba Rohrwacher and Luigi Lo Cascio, and Salvatore Mereu’s adaptation of Giulio Angioni’s Assandira, starring Gavino Ledda (author of Padre Padrone, turned into a movie by Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani) with Anna König, Marco Zucca, and Corrado Giannetti. Film at Lincoln Center and Istituto Luce Cinecittà’s festival opens with Damiano D'Innocenzo and Fabio D'Innocenzo’s Bad Tales (Favolacce) this Friday.

Salvatore Mereu in Sardinia with his son Francesco Mereu (our translator) in Bologna and Anne-Katrin Titze in New York
Salvatore Mereu in Sardinia with his son Francesco Mereu (our translator) in Bologna and Anne-Katrin Titze in New York

In 2013, before the New York Open Roads Italian Cinema luncheon for the Rome delegation of filmmakers, which included Marco Bellocchio for Dormant Beauty and Daniele Cipri for It Was The Son, Salvatore Mereu and I had met at Lincoln Center for a Pretty Butterflies conversation.

In slowly, carefully paced episodes of discovery, Salvatore Mereu’s Assandira goes back in time to expose what happened and hints at the why. Nothing is what it seems. Fire and torrential rain during a night of revelation destroy what Costantino (Gavino Ledda) knew as his life only a short while ago. His son Mario (Marco Zucca) is dead, his pregnant German daughter-in-law Grete (Anna König) is in the hospital. The ancient farm in Assandira, which had become a Sardinian agritourism hub, is no more. Told in retrospect to the inspector (Corrado Giannetti) who tries to make sense of the tragic events, Costantino reveals a tale of shame and passion, blindness and compromise.

Grete, with a polaroid camera as her constant companion, had hatched the master plan to turn her husband’s family legacy into a profitable attraction for a brand of foreigners who want to embrace a folkloric past, no matter how fake, as long as it’s gritty and engrossing. It works; people in garish clothing arrive in Assandira to experience an authentic rural life that never existed in the first place.

Salvatore Mereu on Costantino (Gavino Ledda) in Assandira: “Costantino has an empathy towards nature because he knows the rules of nature and he wouldn’t betray them at all.”
Salvatore Mereu on Costantino (Gavino Ledda) in Assandira: “Costantino has an empathy towards nature because he knows the rules of nature and he wouldn’t betray them at all.”

Costantino has a problem. So does Mario. And so does Grete, who transcends the forceful Teutonic stereotype she embraces and represents so well. Assandira has great impact because of its idiosyncratic point of view. Are traditional ways of life more meaningful than a quick, cheap, flashy photo op? Of course they are. And when a beloved’s dress is defiled, much more than fabric is at stake. It is a cruel game that has respect compete with money. Nobody wins when communication becomes impossible as candour has gone up in flames.

From Sardinia, Salvatore Mereu joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Assandira with Salvatore’s son Francesco as our translator.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello! Nice to see you again, Salvatore, nice to meet you, Francesco.

Salvatore Mereu: Our pleasure!

AKT: Great to see you again, Salvatore! The structure of your film is beautifully connected to film history. The crime has happened at the start. Everything has happened. The disaster is over and we go back in time.

Grete (Anna König), with a polaroid camera as her constant companion.
Grete (Anna König), with a polaroid camera as her constant companion.

SM: The book already had this structure and I wanted to respect it and didn’t change it. I like the fact that as you go on watching the movie, you find out more and more about what’s happening. Until you get to the heart of the problem. It’s just as it is in our own life, when you meet new people and you visit a new place. It takes time to find out how they really are and you have to live on to comprehend the soul of the people you are actually meeting, the place you are visiting or experiencing.

AKT: There are many surprises unravelling throughout. Let’s go to the casting first. The casting of Costantino is brilliant. You have the writer of Padre Padrone as your main character! How did he come on board?

SM: At the beginning, he wasn’t convinced to take part in the movie because he has a kind of conflict with cinema. He has not a perfect relationship with cinema in general. He liked the Padre Padrone movie, but he thinks it’s not as good as his book and it’s not faithful to the book. He’s suspicious towards cinema and movies in general. He’s not a lover of movies at the end of the day. So I went to his house, trying to convince him to take part in this movie because I think that behind his face there is the history of these people, of people like Costantino. I was encouraged by the fact that he never acted in a movie before, because I’m used to working with non-professional actors.

Grete (Anna König) with Mario (Marco Zucca) in the dress that used to be so special, meant for special occasions …
Grete (Anna König) with Mario (Marco Zucca) in the dress that used to be so special, meant for special occasions …

AKT: He is perfect because you sense how much is going on behind his face. The film is about agritourism and its perversion of traditions. The perversion and cheap thrills, taking what is history and what could be so meaningful and turning it into some cheap tourist attraction.

SM: Agritourism is just like TV. It uses people and exploits them without thinking of the history and the stories behind, just like Truman Show.

AKT: When we talked about Pretty Butterflies, I mentioned the cat. In this film again, how you use the animals is very telling. The ostriches and especially the horse. Costantino has this fantastic line; “You don’t know what’s going on?” He knows what happens, nobody else does. His connection to nature is beautifully shown through the animals.

SM: Costantino has an empathy towards nature because he knows the rules of nature and he wouldn’t betray them at all. Whereas Grete and Mario don’t, because they draw the line higher and higher and at the end of the day nature always wins. Costantino is the only one who has empathy towards nature and knows its rules.

AKT: There is a line after the fire and the rain that “Assandira has returned to nothingness.”

Mario (Marco Zucca) introducing the opening of their agritourism business in Assandira
Mario (Marco Zucca) introducing the opening of their agritourism business in Assandira

SM: Yes, Assandira has returned to nothingness, meaning that nature had its win over Assandira, because what happened in Assandira is just nothing. Nature gets back to its own place, to the place where it belongs.

AKT: Two things about clothing I noticed are very important in the film. One - the inspector’s shoes. I love Costantino’s care, offering the inspector boots. Everything is in turmoil, total disaster. And he thinks about the offer of boots and in the end brings him back the shoes. It’s a wonderful moment that tells us all about this man’s character.

SM: You noticed lots of things in the movie! It’s almost like he gives himself up to the inspector. But not actually. He needs someone to comfort him in this situation he is in. He doesn’t have a conflict with the inspector, he tries to have comfort from him.

AKT: The second point about the costumes is Costantino’s wife’s dress. The dress Grete wears that used to be so special, meant for special occasions, symbolized the very very interesting relationship between Costantino and Grete.

SM: For Costantino the giving of the dress to Grete is demonstration of the passion he has towards her. Because this dress is the most sacred thing he keeps in his house. So as he gives it to her, which at the beginning he didn’t, it shows how the relationship between Grete and Costantino has changed and how he has developed a passion towards her.

Costantino (Gavino Ledda) with inspector Giudice Pestis (Corrado Giannetti)
Costantino (Gavino Ledda) with inspector Giudice Pestis (Corrado Giannetti)

AKT: And a fascination! Her name - of course it couldn’t be more German. You think of Hansel and Gretel and you think of Faust - Grete, Margarethe. The actress is great, by the way. The personality is so German. The tourists represent the most ugly German tourists imaginable, the way you dressed them! Can you talk a bit about these horrendous German tourists, interrupting life there?

SM: This may be a weak point of the movie, because the representation of German people in that particular way can irritate a lot of people. Maybe has irritated some people.

AKT: But it’s true!

SM: But you cannot represent the population of a country, like German people only through a few characters.

AKT: I don’t think you do! This slice of a type of German tourist does exist. It’s the truth. Don’t apologise for that!

SM: The movie wasn’t taken in any Northern European festival, probably because of the representation it gives of German people. The world is complex and we have to catch all of the shades.

Francesco Mereu on Costantino (Gavino Ledda) with Grete (Anna König) and Mario (Marco Zucca): “For Costantino the giving of the dress to Grete is demonstration of the passion he has towards her.”
Francesco Mereu on Costantino (Gavino Ledda) with Grete (Anna König) and Mario (Marco Zucca): “For Costantino the giving of the dress to Grete is demonstration of the passion he has towards her.”

AKT: I don’t know, it felt true to me because of where the film is progressing towards. You have those underground caves, the discovery near the end. It speaks, maybe metaphorically, of German history. It speaks of shame. I had to think of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Charlotte Rampling’s relationship with Dirk Bogarde. There is this Teutonic underbelly. Underneath the touristy surface. You put your finger on something that is very much present.

SM: The cave scene, where there is that sort of party that leads Costantino to [do what he does] to Assandira, that part is different from the book.

AKT: So that is you?

SM: With that scene I took some liberties. That scene is also inspired by Eyes Wide Shut. With the right comparison, of course.

AKT: Kubrick! But, there you go, Kubrick’s film is based on the novella by Arthur Schnitzler, who is Austrian!

SM: True, true!

AKT: About a similar kind of tourism, there was a recent French film, called My Donkey, My Lover And I.

German tourists in Assandira
German tourists in Assandira

SM: I don’t know it.

AKT: It’s an unusual journey on the Stevenson trail from a woman’s perspective. I noticed that you dedicated your film to your father! That’s quite a statement.

SM: My father is the same age as Costantino, was the same age, and he comes from the same world. A world with solid values. They saw them changing throughout the years. Dedicating the movie to him and to all the people with that background was the right thing to do. I’m not a moralist. I don’t want to put a bad light on the new customs, the new way of people and tourism, the new way people live right now - contemporary culture. I’m not a moralist.

AKT: But they deserve it! They deserve that close look!

SM: What a storyteller has to do is telling and showing the complexity of the world without picking sides. Although it’s clear which side you pick most of the time. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be clear.

AKT: Perfectly said. Thank you so much!

SM: Grazie, let’s hope we’ll see each other in New York!

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema is organized by Dan Sullivan, Film at Lincoln Center; and by Carla Cattani, Griselda Guerrasio, and Monique Catalino, Istituto Luce Cinecittà.

The virtual edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema runs from Friday, May 28 through June 6.

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