Interview with Ferzan Özpetek, “Magnificent Presence”

If you’re interested in ghosts and specters, you’re sure to be intrigued by Ferzan Özpetek's Magnificent Presence. The newest film from the award-winning Italian-Turkish director—which is tonights Opening Film in our Open Roads: New Italian Cinema festival—ebbs and flows with the bitter and sweet, happy-go-lucky life of Pietro. A croissant baker by night and actor by day, Pietro moves into a new apartment only to find out it already has tenants, ones that only Pietro (and perhaps Özpetek) can see. Özpetek is interested in ghosts in a way seemingly unique to non-Americans. His film explores the question: What is the spectral reality beyond the reality that we see?

Having arrived in New York just yesterday from Italy, Özpetek looked surprisingly refreshed in jeans, a black t-shirt and a striped blazer. He and his translator, Carsten Siebert, sat down in the lobby of the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South with cups of coffee…

How do you like your coffee?

Black, yes. I love it; it’s only in the United States you have this. They make espresso in Italy—it’s very very strong.

What is the story behind this film, because it is based loosely on a true story?

About 20 years ago, one morning a friend called me and he told me this strange story: he had seen a woman who was looking at him all the time and he continued to see spectoral presences in his house, this new house he had moved into. But the strange thing was, he was not afraid at all. We were all a little worried at the time because he must be really lonely if he starts seeing people.

This whole story stayed with me for a while and a few years went by and at some point his housekeeper left at short notice without giving a lot of reasons. Then his mother was supposed to come up from Sicily to stay for quite a while, but after a few days she packed and went and we were all wondering what happened. Apparently they heard strange noises. They didn’t see anybody, but there was clearly some presence there and they just couldn’t take it. So we all started to look into this whole thing and found out that in World War II the house he was living in had been bombed. Apparently a mother and her daughter threw themselves out of the window in an attempt to escape and died—it was suicide, almost. That was certainly one vein that went into the film.

Something else is that I have a room very similar to the one in the film, one of these half-rooms, these tiny little rooms, and in the case of my apartment they used to hide dissidents there during fascism, during the war, and that also made its way into the film. There were always presences tied to rooms and for me it’s a clear sign that sometimes there’s a lot more than we can actually see that makes up space—that makes up the atmosphere.

These days something really strange happens all the time, perhaps because I’m a certain age, but I keep losing friends and people I’m very close to. In fact, two of the people connected to this film have recently died, the screenwriter and the sound mixer, and to me those are quite heavy blows. In Loose Cannons, my previous film, there’s a scene in the end where the characters in the film and people who are long dead are dancing together. That was extremely beautiful to have the dead and the living mingle in some non-threatening way. I wanted to make a film about this. The older I get the more I ask myself: What’s beyond death? How do you confront that? And it’s not necessarily age, it’s just I keep losing my points of reference—people who are my points of reference—to death.

What is the significance of Pietro’s collection? The Garibaldi stickers?

This collecting is a very common thing to do, really, but mostly for children. Normally it’s football players or baseball cards. When we were shooting it was the 150th anniversary of the Italian Unification and so one of the things that came out were these collecting albums with images related to the history of political unification in Italy. This is a very contested issue in Italy because the Leganalt, the political party mostly in Northern Italy, was a little against that because they have separatist tendencies and I wanted to sort of put that in the film in contrast to that position. The other thing is some people actually do collect them. I do, I have to admit. And the Garibaldi, of course—the character that makes an appearance in the film—is the big leader of Italian Unification.

The scene where they are all helping him find the stickers for his album is a great scene. Very funny.

You’ve touched upon something that I like in the final film. Originally in that scene the group is supposed to talk about film titles and, re-reading that, I thought: I’ve seen that before. Then I thought of these albums and isn’t that something that shows more of a connection?

Another connection between Pietro and the ghosts is the acting connection. Where does this dialogue between fiction and nonfiction come from?

This whole idea of what is acted and what is real, fiction versus truth, had me thinking for a long time. When you talk about acting in the ‘30s in Italy, this confusion between what’s real and what’s acted comes up. This happens to Pietro because it’s never quite clear what’s real with what he sees. Or when he meets the transsexuals, that’s another world where it’s never quite sure where truth lies and where fiction starts. That happens in life a lot. When I’m experiencing a specific moment, is it real or am I imagining it?

A good friend of mine who is also a critic told me, when you find ghosts in your house there are two ways you normally react. You either try to arrange yourself with them or you try to get rid of them. But to take them on the tram and take them to the theater, that seems a little odd. I love Pietro.

Elio Germano (Pietro) has a small role in another Open Roads film, Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood. He’s a dramatic actor normally.

He’s very realistic. He makes a movie where he’s realistic, neorealistic, or a normal workman, so to speak. This is the first time where he plays a lost child. I liked pushing him into that new direction.

Did you know that you wanted him to be in the film?

Si, si, si. When I started to write the subject I had him in mind. I generally have people in mind when I write and I was thinking of Elio, but at the same time I thought: He’s never going to accept this because it’s so strange. I did have in mind a few other people, but he was my first choice. The child, for example, we were taking coffee in a bar and that child walks in and I was like: Get that guy’s number, I want him in the film.

On the other side is Cem Yılmaz, who is a Turkish comedian.

Yes, he’s very famous in Turkey. I like him because in the scene where they talk about the collecting cards, it’s actually Yılmaz who came up with the name Garibaldi and not one of the Italians. Here’s a Turkish man who quotes Garibaldi. Of course I love that, being Turkish myself. Garibaldi lived in Istanbal because he was exiled from Italy and that’s another reality-meets-fiction thing. Yılmaz is a huge star in Turkey. He moves around with a huge entourage of 40 people and a trailer, but when we were filming he sat on the set like everyone else and that was a huge change, but I really admire that a lot in him.

Life is Beautiful and Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession comes to mind a little bit, are either of those influences?

Magnificent Obsession is a film I absolutely adore. It’s a great film. I can see why you’d think of Life is Beautiful, but it wasn't on my mind so much. What you’re saying is interesting because I’m really thrilled to see how a U.S. audience will receive this film. In Italy reactions were bipolar. I like that reaction a lot because it apparently triggered some extreme emotions in people.

Magnificent Presence screens Friday, June 8 at 6:15pm and Monday, June 11 at 4:00pm as part of our Open Roads: New Italian Cinema festival.

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