Interview: Andrea Pallaoro Talks About His MEDEAS

Andrea Pallaoro's Medeas, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, is a strong and true piece of cinema, dealing with topics like alienation, desire, family and violence.

In his first feature film, the Italian director explores the life of a family in the California desert in a way that makes the drought-stricken landscapes appear as inner images of the characters. A slow-burning, menacing conflict emerges between the religious father and his deaf-dumb wife who betrays him. In between are four children with their own needs and conflicts. Their daily life is captured with beautiful cinematography, an attentive ear to sound and a way of acting that gives room for our own interpretations.

Pallaoro tells his story with cinematic means; there is not much dialogue needed to express emotions. It is really a rare piece of pure cinema, bringing to mind a master like Michelangelo Antonioni. Therefore, I was truly happy to sit down together with the director who was presenting his film during the Viennale 2013.

Yesterday, in the Q&A after the screening you said that your film is about the disability of communication. Yet, I had the feeling that your images strongly communicate with the audience.

Andrea Pallaoro: The film explores the theme of alienation. And you feel the need of the characters, their desire to communicate. But ultimately you see their inability to communicate. I think that this is in line with my own need. I think I am a film director because I also need to express myself. In my film I am trying to find the language, the cinematic form that allows me and my vision to express itself in the most honest and raw way possible. Sometimes that is very hard to do, because there are so many compromises making a film. But since of you could see many things that I wanted to express, I was somehow successful.

While watching your film for the second time I realized that sometimes characters are looking at objects without any further explanation. For example, a boat in the desert or the mannequin inside the shop...

I really love the use of iconography. It is just how the presence of the object can contribute to the character's stories. A parallel can be created with the whole mise-en-scène. With that I mean everything: Location, staging, weather, objects and so on. Every element can mirror the internal world of the characters. And I am very glad that you mention the boat because it was a very hard to process to actually get it there. (laughs)

Yeah, and you also have this POV-shots just showing the dessert or a power pole. Are those also inner images of the characters?

Yes, and it is also about the sound. Sound and image work as inner moods. If you take the shot of the electricity wires, It is not intellectual, it is emotional. I would say that Medeas is motivated by images that are strictly emotional, perceptual, and instinctual.

And at the same time you use very symbolic images. They are not symbolic in a way that says: Ah, I understand everything. But you have images like the trapped bird in the house or a baby in the foreground when the mother has sex in the background. Do you think about those images while writing the script or is that something that just comes up in staging?

When I am writing I don't try to be too concerned about what everything means. I just follow my imaginations and instincts. But when I start to put together the film I begin to be part of the audience, I try to watch my film as an audience. Suddenly all these connections appear in my script. But what I really like is that even if you write about something specific, you end up having different layers in your film. That's what I love cinema for. It is a process that allows you to get to know yourself better.

I had the feeling that often there are more things going on off-screen than what is really visible. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that. In how far do you imagine what is going on off-screen?

What is left out of the frame is as important to me as what is inside the frame. In fact every scene, every frame was constructed with this thought in mind. We often cut certain parts of the body or the landscapes off. To generalize it I think that this method helped us to deconstruct, not only the characters, but also the landscape. This gives us a possibility to pursue the exploration of alienation.

But maybe your film is a tiny bit too constructed, too well thought of? Do you think about getting more life, more coincidence in your pictures?

That is a very interesting comment. I think that this sense of construction comes from the tableaus in the film. It is always frames, rarely movement. You have this construction: Boom! Image! Boom! Image! Boom! Image! And so on, together with the specific framing I think the sense of construction comes naturally. But this was essential to us. We wanted to be as observational as possible. We didn't want the camera to have its own life. Many films do that but we wanted to achieve something else. For some people that might seem a little bit disconnecting. I cannot rule out that for some other project but for the one I am preparing right now I will use quite a similar style.

This style brings to mind the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni. Since you are Italian yourself I wanted to know in how far Antonioni can be regarded as an influence?

Thanks for mentioning him. If I had to choose one filmmaker that is actually Antonioni without doubt. There is something he is able to tell through the relationship between characters and landscapes that feels magic to me. You can watch his films over and over again and you would always get something different. That is what cinema can reach.

In the Q&A you also mentioned that your idea for MEDEAS really came from your last shot, the mother running in the rain. I want to know how precise this image was in your head. Was there always rain?

I will tell you a secret. Art first there wasn't rain, there was snow. There was this really strange thing happening in the end. This surreal response by nature, you know. I have thought a lot about this image. Looking at her running from far away, all surrounded by white colors. I wanted first rain that slowly transforms to snow. But unfortunately that wasn't working. It just would have been too expensive.

That would have been amazing, I think. Well, I have also been talking to Albert Serra about his STORY OF MY DEATH and we talked about innocence in cinema. With your observational style and your way of filming children I had the feeling that you were aiming for some kind of innocence. Do you think that innocence is achievable at all in cinema?

Do you mean innocence as a theme to explore or as an approach?

I am asking myself if you can film innocence, the innocence of a person.

Ah, well, I think that you can. I think cinema has the power to portray the internal world of characters. It is an art form that really can capture thoughts. And innocence is a relationship. It is the quality in a relationship that a character has with the world around him. I think it can be achieved. Especially with a very specific kind of directing that allows the actors or non-actors to inhabit their environment and character in a free way, you know. With the youngest kid we tried to film him while he wasn't aware.

That is something I wanted to ask you anyway. How did you find those kids and how do you work with them?

With the adult actors it was very easy. We just send the script to them (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Brian O'Byrne) and they agreed. With the kids we went through a very long casting process. We had loads of auditions. We looked for certain nuances in their personality, a certain way of being. They should bring their own essence to the characters. There are four kids in the film and I had to work differently with each of them. With the youngest one I made it appear like a game, he was the least aware of what was going on whereas the older kids I even had intellectual conversations about the film. I am very grateful for their extraordinary performances.

And they don't follow any good kid or bad kid stereotypes. They are just human.

I didn't want them to be shown as stereotypes. I aimed for their fears and desires. I am allergic to a kind of cinema where black and white characters are presented.

But still you work in the USA. The movie industry has basically invented a black and white dramaturgy. Why don't you work in Italy?

Yes, of course black and white characters are a trademark of Hollywood pictures. It serves an entertainment purpose. I don't get out much of that. I am interested in a different cinema but this cinema also exists in the USA. There is a cinema that has the same intentions as I have. And after all I did not come here to direct cinema the first place. When I started directing it just felt right staying here.

I have one complaint about yesterday's Q&A after the screening. You explained almost all remaining questions to the audience, gave a meaning to everything you had shown in this beautiful ambiguity before and somehow destroyed many of my own thoughts. Why?

Well, I realized that. First I tried to leave room for the audience and I did not want to answer everything. But somehow I felt under pressure, everyone seemed to expect some kind of explanation. But I just gave my interpretations. Even though I am the director my interpretation is not more important than that of any audience member. Everyone should make his own assumptions. But to be honest, once I said all this things I felt like betraying my film, it felt cheap. I try to avoid giving that many interpretations next time

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