Being the first Italian director to have a film in the Sundance Film Festival’s main dramatic competition proved starting out in America was the right decision. Now, Emanuele Crialese is finding going back to Italy to make film No. 2 was equally a good move.
Respiro, which is now making the arthouse rounds across the country, is a good-looking film set in an Italian seaside fishing community, where small-town values depend on conformity. When an unusual woman, Grazia (Valeria Golino — best known in the United States as Tom Cruise’s girlfriend in “Rain Man”), proves too much to handle, the village begins to turn on her, putting pressure on her husband and two sons. It’s a very different film than “Once We Were Strangers” (1998), a romantic comedy set in the multicultural neighborhoods of New York.
“I was at this turning point,” Crialese said recently at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “Either I could stay here and continue my career in the United States, or I go back. And that was exactly the right time to make a decision.”
After “Once We Were Strangers” played out its string, he went to a small island in Italy, a place as far from New York City as possible. That was the inspiration
for Respiro. “The lifestyle of an island is very simple, very routine, very human,” he said. “I felt really, really peaceful there.”
He wrote the treatment, went to Rome and met with a producer and sold the project pretty easily, thanks to his Sundance success.
That validated a decision he’d made years before, to leave Italy and basically, the way he puts it, get away from his parents. Both are lawyers, and Crialese says in Italy there is tremendous pressure to follow the family business.
“My parents were not very happy for me to become a film director,” he said. “They are very conservative. They didn’t think it was a serious job; they thought it was for a clown that just wanted to get in touch with girls — a very strange idea they had, and understandably so, as they come from another planet!”
He enrolled at New York University and joined the film school. When he got the idea for “Once We Were Strangers,” he became a waiter in a restaurant on 46th Street in NYC and raised $60,000 from customers in six months.
“That’s a miracle that happens only in America, because it’s tax deductible. Before the end of the year, I was in production.”
Crialese says he still has an apartment in New York, which he is subletting, and is currently living in Italy, but will move to Paris — scene of many more international film financing companies — where he believes he’ll have more options. He doesn’t mind mastering a new country or a new language — with his differences with his parents and adjustment to New York City, he’s always felt like a fish out of water, which shows in his work.
Like “Once We Were Strangers,” which has a Sicilian illegal immigrant and an Indian who dubs porno films, Grazia in Respiro is outside her society. Crialese says he’ll keep making films that poke at society’s teflon structure.
“I’ve always empathized with people who are different,” Crialese said. “We can call them black sheep, or we can call them enemies. To push this concept, communities, groups of people — society in general — need to invent enemies.
“The reason we need to invent an enemy is that sometimes it’s easier to look outside, because we are afraid to look inside. We define normality against those who are different. By blending, we kind of forgive ourselves.”