The politics of fantasy and the radical power of love | Antonio Piazza on Sicilian Ghost Story

One of the best things to emerge out of my admittedly truncated run with an MA in Film Studies at my alma mater was being introduced to filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia. Not just introduced, but being put under a filmmaking wringer they helped crank up with inspiration and relish.

With the help of other equally acclaimed European masters in the field, the award-winning duo — of Salvo and latterly and spectacularly, Sicilian Ghost Story fame — helped us beat a script for a short film into shape, and eventually shepherded us through its production phase.

dramaturgy

Fabio Grassadonia (front) and Antonio Piazza (back) teaching ‘Screenwriting and the Art of Dramaturgy’ at the University of Malta (October 2015). Photo by Kenneth Scicluna

If nothing else, it made for a revealing look into the process of filmmaking. It certainly helped my writing from then onwards — their thorough, no-compromise understanding of the dynamics of story created helpful subconscious voices in my head that hammer through whenever I’m faced with a knotted plot problem or unclear character motivation.

So it was with great pleasure that I caught up with one half of that duo via Skype to talk about their compelling, harrowing and gorgeous sophomore feature, Sicilian Ghost Story, on the occasion of it finally reaching our shores on general release. Though I’d actually seen it just over a year ago when it made a ‘soft’ premiere in Malta as part of the third edition of the Valletta Film Festival, and I did not hesitate to subsequently name it the best film of that year.

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Star-crossed, never lost: Julia Jedlikowska and Gaetano Fernandez in Sicilian Ghost Story

We spoke about the film’s enthusiastic perception in the “Anglo-Saxon world” and how this denotes something of a cultural divide between that region and their native European south, about how ethical responsibility plays a big part in the duo’s representation of the mafia. But most importantly and urgently — at least, as far as I’m concerned — we discussed how misunderstood and misrepresented the fantastical mode often is in contemporary cinema and perhaps Western culture in general.

“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares… hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation.”

Check out the interview on MaltaToday by clicking here

Red Right Hand | Hellboy & Crimson Peak

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey in the video for Henry Lee (1996)

Not quite a case of cover versions I prefer to the original, but the recent trailer for Guillermo Del Toro‘s upcoming Crimson Peak (yay!) showed us how Nick Cave’s haunting ditty Red Right Hand is etching itself into the Mexican director’s oeuvre as a musical placeholder, albeit as ventriloquised by different musicians.

A version by Pete Yorn was heard in the original Hellboy (2004), also directed by Del Toro. Something of a logical choice given the subject matter, even if the connection is a shallow one (i.e., limited to the song’s title). Yorn’s jauntier version certainly strips the song of its atmospheric sense of foreboding. Which is just as well in this case, because even though Hellboy – and Del Toro’s films in general – may have its creepy gothic touches, it remains a quirky superhero romp at the end of the day.

PJ Harvey’s version, originally commissioned for another audio visual project – this time the British gangster TV series Peaky Blinders – feels right for gothic melodrama Crimson Peak, at least insofar as the trailer suggests. Harvey’s pained vocals offer a nice contrast to Cave’s hard, stark imagery.

It’s a dynamic that matches my expectations of Crimson Peak itself. It appears to be a ghost story of the Victorian variety and as such, one that would by definition rely on subtle scares, rather than the outre, primary-coloured flourishes Del Toro is known for, and which he doesn’t appear to be shying away from here. I anxiously await to see how the twain will meet – if it does at all – come October.

Monstrous Indulgences | Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities

 

Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities

This volume may be the epitome of indulgence, and the tone of Marc Scott Zicree, Guillermo del Toro’s interviewer – and effective co-writer in this endeavour – can come across as a bit sycophantic at times.

But really, a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ can’t help but be a gloriously indulgent exercise, and you don’t come here to read a sober dissection of del Toro’s life and filmography.

No, you come here to luxuriate in what is probably the ultimate ‘behind the scenes’ look into Del Toro’s oeuvre, as presented in a gorgeous coffee table edition crammed with photographs and studded with mini-essays by Del Toro’s friends and collaborators (the book is framed by tributes from James Cameron and Tom Cruise, respectively).

The book introduces us to Del Toro’s eclectic imaginative landscape with a bit of a tour of Bleak House – his second home and studio, which gives the book its organising principle, as the house itself is something of a cabinet of curiosities writ large – more than just a working space, it is arguably also the geeky man cave to end all geeky man caves.

Bleak House

 

Stuffed with original art and sculptures (some of them taking an extravagant bent, like the statue of Boris Karloff getting the final touches of his Frankenstein make-up done), each room in the house is themed around a particular genre or artistic milieu – like the ‘Steampunk Room’, the ‘Manga Room’…

But above all, the ‘cabinet’ is really about del Toro’s colourful and frenzied notebooks, which the director has been keeping from the beginning of his career and which reveal the inner workings of his genre-melding chiaroscuro parables, from Cronos through the Hellboys and Pacific Rim.

Guillermo del Toro's notebooks

The pages of the notebooks reproduced in the book often have a drawing at the centre – usually a portrait shot of a character in one of del Toro’s films, or a close-up of some grotesque prop or monster – which would be surrounded by (multi-lingua) marginalia. These notes will probably be the most pleasant discovery for a del Toro fan as they leaf through the book, revealing, as they do, the inner workings of the writer-director’s mind, often as he’s tackling and trying to figure out several projects at the same time: practical concerns (about props, costumes and loose story threads) jostle alongside philosophical musings and personal anecdotes.

Reaper statue from Blade II

As an extra, readers also get a glimpse into projects of del Toro’s that never came to fruition – an easy pitfall for a filmmaker with a tendency to multitask various media and juggle a number of projects at any given time.

The most prominent – or at least, the most recent and infamous – of these is of course del Toro’s – ultimately thwarted – adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

That project might just see the light of day, however, as del Toro recently announced that he’s cool with going for a PG-13 rated version of his film, under the wing of his recent collaborators Legendary Pictures (insisting on an R-rating proved to be the deal-breaker with the film’s previous studio-home-to-be, Universal).

But even before this announcement – which arrived some months after The Cabinet of Curiosities hit the shelves – hope already burned for a renewal of the project. “While this project we were so passionate about didn’t work out the first time round, I know that it’s going to happen one day,” Tom Cruise, who was set to star in At the Mountains of Madness (alongside Del Toro regular Ron Pearlman) writes in the Afterword to the ‘Cabinet’.

“Why? Because Guillermo will never stop creating, no matter what. He will keep at it against all odds. And when it finally happens, it will be infused with all the things that make a Guillermo del Toro movie so distinct and unforgettable: images, emotions, vistas, and characters that no one else creates.”

Schwabing

The Death of the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe

The Death of the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe

“In this day and age, we confuse hip smartness that does not fully endorse any idea with intelligence, and consider callousness the product of an experienced point of view of the world. Naturally, this attitude leads us to value artists who seem to know it all. But Schwabe and the rest of the symbolists were the exact opposite: They celebrated not knowing, the twilight of our knowledge. To them, the supernatural was absolutely real, and mystery was the supreme goal of art.” – Guillermo del Toro

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