Ferzan Özpetek Unveiled

With Naples in Veils, being distributed in the theaters in the U.S., the American public is rediscovering the master of Italian cinema.
By Tommaso Cartia

Thank you to Sally Fischer Public Relations NYC for the coordination of this interview.

A kind smile, a deep and inquisitive look, and elegant manners, signs of a certain refinement of the soul. That’s how Ferzan Özpetek welcomed me during one of the presentations of the movie here in New York. That’s how you perceive him, open and welcoming like his movies, always including and never excluding. The filmography of the Turkish-Italian director, screenwriter and writer, is a part of the history of the Italian costume. And it has often anticipated forms of emancipation, trying to put prejudices to rest and to break cultural taboos. But what’s really behind the magical veils of his movies?

Özpetek films are an institution; either if you like them or not, they are a guarantee of unique aesthetic and narrative. His poetical universe is always very recognizable, and it tells us a profound and complex humanity of characters that you can never take for granted. They are never afraid to unveil themselves, they are even irreverent at times, naked with their bodies, naked with their spirit. Özpetek’s humanity is light, dramatic and surreal at the same time, like life itself.

With every new movie the director hands us a key to open mysterious worlds. Worlds that are seemingly far away, but in truth are so close. They speak to us of what could be hiding behind an ordinary alley of Rome, a church in

Poster of Naples in Veils (Napoli Velata). Courtesy of Istituto Luce Cinecittà

Naples, a coffee-shop in Puglia, or in front of our Facing Windows. A world where the extraordinary is there in our ordinary life, if only we would allow us to unveil it…

In Naples in Veils (Napoli Velata), Özpetek guides us inside an occult, magical city, animated by the strong contrasts of the Neapolitan culture. There’s the depiction of the Christian religiosity living side by side with the pagan symbolisms. Like the infamous smorfia, that is a form of lottery taken from the cabala tradition, or, all of the superstitions exorcising death. There is the sun, the sea, the effervescent of the Neapolitan people shining against their darkness, their intrinsic sense of the melodrama, and the subterranean dark side of the city, as disturbing as the eruptions of the Vesuvio volcano.

Also, the director takes us inside the mechanisms of the Neapolitan cultural elite that is far away from stereotypical depictions. It is a very liberal community, very outspoken and free, even sexually. The Neapolitan high society, in fact, reveres androgyny, the alchemic fusion in between male and female, as a key to access eternity. That’s why Özpetek tells us about the ancient tradition of the so-called femminnielli, that represented men who were not ashamed of embodying their feminine nature, and would show it while also turning it into a ritualistic form of art.

Naples in Veils is the director’s homage to a city that had completely charmed him to the point that today he has become an honorary citizen. The American public has now the opportunity of an insight, a privileged look on this city, that is a very popular traveling destination. And it also has the chance to understand that Ferzan Özpetek is not only a LGBTQ+ director making gay-themed flicks, like some American film critics quickly labelled him, to his big disappointment.

Tell us about your fascination with Naples and where did you find the inspiration to tell this story

“The idea came from a real story that I lived in Istanbul. But then I was doing La Traviata in Naples six years ago at the San Carlo Theater and so I had the chance to live there for two months. During that period, I came to know a city that was so very charming aesthetically. I was interested in his both Christian and pagan rituality. Some scenes in the movie are theatrical, because Naples is like that. Any convivial occasion, Neapolitan transform it into a ‘mis en scene’, a storytelling. I stayed far away from the stereotypical depictions of the city.”

Talking about ‘mis en scene’, it is very relevant in this movie the work of Deniz Gokturk Kobanbay, the Turkish Set Designer who collaborated in prestigious productions such as the Academy Award winner Argo by Ben Affleck. Can you tell us about it?

“She asked me a fundamental question: What strikes you so much about Naples?“ I immediately thought, “Well her staircases.” The staircase of Palazzo Mannajulo came to mind. It worked perfectly because it has an elliptical form that reminds of an eye but also of a uterus. They are all important symbols in the movie.”

Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Alessandro Borghi. The Two protagonists of the movie. Courtesy of Istituto Luce Cinecittà

The theme of the eye and of the veil, to see and to veil something is recurrent throughout the movie as we follow the protagonist Adriana (played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a morgue doctor, who is investigating in the sudden, violent, death of her lover.

“Yes, and in fact, the eyes of the victim have been snatched, like the eyes of the “Cristo velato”, the spectacular sculptor from the Museo della Cappella di Sansevero in Naples. At the beginning of the movie, I show the ritual of “La Figliata”, a ritual that I’ve seen performed by the femminnielli, simulating a childbirth behind a veil. It is an ancient practice that is considered to bring good luck. The character who pulls the veil on the scene tells us that is more important to listen, to see through, not to clearly see what’s happening. Because the veil is blocking our view, we make an effort to see better, to bring our attention to what is behind it. The “Cristo velato” is like that as well. His face, his veins are even more visible because of the relieves and the creases that the veil emphasizes over the face and the body. The veil doesn’t cover, it actually uncovers. When I then visited the “Farmacia degli Incurabili”, a deputy place of Neapolitan mason culture, I found another veil there hung by two angels over the ceiling, and the “Utero Velato”, the veiled uterus that you see in the movie. I call these symbols the “fairytales” of the movies. They are epiphanies, they come to you, you can’t put them in the writing.”

What’s behind the Naples’ veil and behind the mystery of this film?

“The beauty of Naples is that it is such a magical city that you don’t have to try to understand it, you should just love her. And so I did, I observed her through a veil, I love her but I don’t try to explain her. Anything can happen in Naples, that’s why I could have made some extremely dramatic decisions in the movie, but I allowed myself that because I talk about Naples. The city lays on the Vesuvio’s gown, an active volcano, a constant threat for the city. That’s why Neapolitan have such a strong relationship with death and everything that lies underneath and that they try to exorcise, like I do.”

Your work with the actors is always particularly intense. How was working again with Giovanna Mezzogiorno after fifteen years from “La finestra di fronte (Facing Windows)”, and how it was this first encounter with Alessandro Borghi?

“No one else could have played this role like Giovanna did, she had the right intention and the right maturity for the part, and also, she is not aware of how good she is, and that is a healthy approach to acting. After I finished writing the subject of the movie, I knew the role was hers. Alessandro is a very caring actor, very detailed driven, he pretends a lot from himself. They were both such generous actors, with me and with their audience. The sex scene was such a difficult thing to shoot, I’m very prudish, I have to thank them for helping me with that. My movie sets are like that, it is a team effort, a choral one, an alive organism.”

Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Alessandro Borghi on the set of the movie. Photo Credit: Gianni Fiorito.

How did your narrative and aesthetic evolve through the years? Is there a fil rouge in between all of your movies or does every new film mark a new challenge?

“I am a maniac with it comes to the aesthetic of my movies, from the angles, the shots, the colors, my work with the actors. A lot of people tell me, “You know I’ve seen two minutes of a movie and I could tell that it was an Özpetek one.” This comes to me instinctively. It of course ends up to be refined at some point, like when you want to cook a dish and you know exactly what kind of flavor you want the dish to taste. I also love to cook, is a big passion of mine, along with painting. Very few know for example that the painting in the movie Le fate ignoranti (Facing Windows), I did!”

Ferzan Özpetek. Photo Credit: Emre Yunusoglu

What is your relationship with the American movie industry and your movies distribution here?

“The first time that I came here it was with Il bagno turco (Hamam). It did well and it was out in the theaters. Same thing with Le fate ignoranti (His Secret Life). I was also featured in The New York Times. Than I had the honor of a retrospective of my movies presented at MoMA. But I think that those movies were perceived as ahead of the times from the point of view of costume and society. It was necessary for the American critics to label them as gay-themed movies. This ghettoization irritated me and made me suffer. Today it is no longer like that. My storytelling is universal, it isn’t linked just to a single gender. It is obviously very difficult to be distributed nationally in the U.S. and penetrate the market. But I make movies because I love sharing something. I can have an audience of 5 million people or of 5 people, it doesn’t matter, what matters is that I’m sharing something with someone.”

A tireless genius, Özpetek is now working on his next movie La Dea Fortuna, shot in Sicily, starring Edoardo Leo, Jasmine Trinca and Stefano Accorsi. He recently received the laura honoris causa in art and performing arts and the honorary citizenship from the city of Palermo. He is currently presenting his version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the San Carlo Theater in Naples and the Fox network is producing a TV series based on Le fate ignoranti (His Secret Life).

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