Matteo Garrone is reluctant to admit that he admires Fellini. Too many Italian directors have fallen into the trap of imitating Fellini, he says. He adds that while working on his last film, LImbalsamatore (The Embalmer), which had a successful run in Rome at the end of last year, he watched Rainer Werner Fassbinder and David Lynch, but that studying film makers is not his principal preoccupation. The important thing for a film maker is the individual gaze, something original. That cant be imitated.
The 34-year-old Roman director is in Vicenza working on his fifth film. A love story, Garrone refuses to reveal any of the details save the fact that he has made his protagonist a gold-hunter because of the tradition of mining in the local mountains. This is how Garrone likes to work. I start with an idea, he says, and build from there, trying not to lose myself.
I started from one particular idea in LImbalsamatore. How does a man, who isnt especially rich or good-looking, manage to seduce another man? And one who is young and handsome, and not even homosexual.
Inspired by true events that occurred in Rome, LImbalsamatore paints an unexpected Italian landscape, one populated by nocturnal meetings, rootless characters and cheap hotels cloaked in darkness. The films hero a tragic hero, adds Garrone is a middle-aged dwarf who earns a meagre living by embalming animals, or taxidermy, and by occasionally doing business with the local mafia. When he finds a young man who shares his fascination with animals he takes him on as his apprentice and, in an ambiguous way, as his lover, until the arrival of a woman unbalances their relationship.
The theme of the film is what many might call the quest for beauty, says Garrone.
The woman, also somewhat grotesque her lips have been excessively enlarged by plastic surgery desires the young man passionately. She trips the taxidermist, Garrone explains animatedly, and sets him further along his journey towards a tragic finish. At times uncomfortable in its portrait of unglamorous, unhinged lives, the film is also allegorical.
The son of a theatre critic and a photographer, Garrone was disposed toward the arts from a young age. He worked as an assistant camera operator for two years in his early twenties, when he learned, above all, what not to do, especially when working with actors.
Then he decided to dedicate himself to painting full time. Painting was a really good school, he reflects. To tell a story with one single image is a challenge. When I picked up the movie camera and got 360 images per second it was exciting.
He arrived at his trade aged 26 when a close friend of his mother offered him several hundred feet of film. Unsure of what the result would be, Garrone set about making Terra di Mezzo (Middle Ground), a film about the lives of foreigners in Rome told in three episodes, which he financed himself.
His next two films drew extensively on autobiographical material. Ospiti (Guests) was based on an experience with two Albanians who stayed with him for several months. Estate Romana (Roman Summer) was about a screenwriter who begins an uncomfortable apartment share with a woman and her child, and was inspired partly by the offbeat circle of his father, the theatre critic.
LImbalsamatore was a shift from his earlier work, which had been essentially documentary in style. I wanted to tell a story that was outside of time, universal. If you notice, there are no cellular telephones or televisions in the film. I didnt want anything too modern interfering. He adds that the pictures success at the Cannes film festival, where it premiered last year, led him to believe that he had achieved this.
In another change from his earlier work, Garrone drew the idea for the story from outside his own personal experience he read about a similar triangle in the crime news. I was attracted by the image of this very short man, and his pursuit of something which was totally outside the mores of his society.
Film is images, he repeats. The idea of a taxidermist captured my imagination as well. It spoke to me of a fascination with beauty, and also with death.
His first decision was to move the setting of the film from Rome (the real-life story took place near Termini train station) south to the area around Naples. The presence of a relatively unknown coastline appealed to him, and he began by working with images of the sea, trying to establish a suitable atmosphere for the film. The finished product contains many foggy roads and misty vistas.
He also wanted to take the film to the heart of the camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. A classic of film noir which was the scheme we had decided to work from is some presence of the malavita (underworld) that adds to the tension of the film and also brings the protagonist closer to his tragic destiny.
Garrone and his crew stayed in the area around Caserta for six months before starting to film. As they worked they got to know the local landscape better (I create working, he emphasises) and discovered that there was a local cocaine trafficking route from Caserta to Calabria. In the film, the taxidermist coerces the young man to go with him on a trip to Calabria from Naples. It is there that the young man meets the woman.
When asked about his choice to use so much Neapolitan dialect, Garrone replies: Why not?
Its true that I may focus in particular on people that could be classified as on the margins. But this is not because of any pre-meditated political intention on his part. Ive never believed in art as politics, he concludes. My objective is simpler: I tell stories. I just happen to do it through people who are on the margins.