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Using your own life as material for your films is powerful, but it can also be embarrassing, as Pupi Avati explains to Andrew L. Urban during his Sydney visit to launch the Italian Film Festival with his new award winning film, A Heart Elsewhere.

Since early 2003, Pupi Avati has been chairman of the historic Cinecitta Studios in Rome, a position of some power in European cinema. But it was as writer and director that he came to Sydney for the premiere of his latest film, A Heart Elsewhere, which launched the 2003 Italian Film Festival. The film has deep personal resonances for Avati, as he explains to Andrew L. Urban.

We’re sitting at a table on the Western boardwalk of a waterside hotel on Sydney harbour, Pupi Avati just back from a long, Italian lunch with his hosts, the senior management at Palace, who run the Italian Film Festival. Avati has just flown up from Melbourne, and after the long trip to Australia, he’s feeling tired. But well fed.

The man’s 30-plus year career would tire most people, never mind the flights. Among several other accolades, he has had three films in Competition at Cannes, two of his films (including A Heart Elsewhere) have won David di Donatello awards in Italy, and in 1995 he was honoured there by a Luschino Visconti Award for career achievement.

"sense of mischief and fun"

His sense of mischief and fun has remained, and his devotion to cinema is as strong as ever. The diversity of his work is perhaps underlined by the combination of his (uncredited) writing with Pier Paolo Pasolini on the still-banned Salo - Or The 120 Days of Sodom, and A Heart Elsewhere, his sweetest film, a classic romantic melodrama.

In 1920s Italy, Nello (Neri Marcore) the 35 year old quiet, immature bachelor son of the papal tailoring family in Rome, is sent to teach a school in Bologna. He is awkward and shy with women but a brilliant Latin teacher. In the boarding house for men he shares a room with a womanising young barber from Naples who takes him to a dance at the local institute for the blind. Nello meets the blind and beautiful Angela (Vanessa Incontrada) and falls madly in love with her. Angela, a notorious femme fatale, lures Nello into a pretend-affair to make her ex-lover jealous, and Nello goes along, blinded by love. He almost convinces her to marry him (to the consternation of his parents) but then Angela leaves for Zurich to extend a promising treatment that may restore her sight. Nello is afraid her sight will cost him her love.

You’ve said there is quite a bit of you in this film….
Yes, about my youth. I was very a very shy guy, and spent my youth being in difficult situations. I was not a handsome man and didn’t have money….and not sympatico; the girls preferred other people! This was a big problem for a long period of my life. And a lot of things the protagonist of this movie says, are the result of what I said many years ago, maybe 45 years ago in Bologna, when I was very young, to the girls. And there’s something I have to say. When I gave the script to Neri Marcore, I tried to explain that this was a very peculiar script about myself. Read this carefully. After two two hours he called me and said: ‘It’s me!’ [laughs] And after the first few days on the shoot, he was exactly the protagonist. 

So is Nello a hero figure for the shy and innocent, perhaps?
Sure, he’s my hero! And for people like me. Very naïve, with the ability to be surprised, to marvel at the world. He dreams about life…and every night he puts his heart elsewhere. He’s waiting for something great to happen to him. But in Europe you don’t have this kind of people anymore; they’re extinct.

How did you cast Vanessa Incontrada?
I saw Vanessa for the first time on a television commercial and I felt something special about he wonderful smile – a lot of energy. After auditioning about 85 other women, I decided to meet her. When I met her, I discovered exactly the kind of woman I was looking for: because she’s beautiful, but she’s full of great energy. She changes every day five or six times! So she’s like my wife! I tried for 40 years to understand her! [laughs] I’m exhausted!

How did Vanessa deal with playing a blind character?
She prepared herself with a blind girl – she stayed with her for two months. But I don’t think it matters… for a start, she is always wearing dark glasses, except in one scene. It was more a psychological situation than a physical one.

As a filmmaker, do you hope to change people’s perceptions about the world, or about humanity? Is that one of the things that drives you?
It’s the only thing. Because in the past 34 years or so, I’ve made 31 films about these kind of people, a normal man with a lot of dreams and hopes about his happiness, but without the possibility to reach that. With this kind of movie there’re a lot of people in the audience who recognise themselves. I try to explain that every individual counts – that he has to be proud to be alone, to be unique, to be something. I don’t know about here, but in Europe everybody wants to be like everyone else – it’s dangerous to be different! To be yourself.

Can you trace your own personal development through the films you’ve made?
Yes, sure; I started making movies in 1968 and I was exactly a director of 1968, very involved in the ideologies of 1968. In the 70s I was involved in the ideologies of the 70s … Only after several years did I try to be myself. In 1978 when I shot something for tv drama about my life – about a jazzband, I was a clarinetist for a while – there was something so personal, nothing political, the story of my friends and family, it had a great success. From then on, I tried to make movies that were equally about my experiences … and sometimes, looking at my past has been very embarrassing! It’s what I was – not what I am!

Published December 18, 2003

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Pupi Avati in Sydney for the Italian Film Festival premiere of A Heart Elsewhere in October 2003


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