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Director Gianfranco Pannone on his film "The Smallest Army in the World"

The history of the Vatican's Swiss Guard can be traced back to the 16th century. In 1512, Pope Julius II declared the troops "Defenders of the Church's Freedom." Since then, they have been stationed at the Vatican to protect each and every pope. 

Gianfranco Pannone’s documentary “The Smallest Army in the World" (L’esercito più piccolo del mondo) explores the training that goes into preparing the Swiss boys to become soldiers of the Vatican. 

Pannone begins in Switzerland where the journey commences for the young recruits. He continues inside Vatican City as they are trained and fitted for their famously colorful uniforms. The young men, who come from all walks of life, offer their thoughts on how the Catholic Church should change with the times in order to stay relevant and modern. There are tender moments in which we see Pope Francis greeting people and one scene in which he is just calmly walking by himself.

Thanks to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Luce Cinecittà and the Italian Trade Agency, the film recently made its North American premiere at Lincoln Center's annual series, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. Pannone traveled to New York to present the film and participate in a Q & A. The film is scheduled to be shown at other venues throughout the United States in the coming months. 

I've been connected with the director for years on social media, so it was great to see his work reach American shores. I enjoyed the film and learned a lot about the Swiss Guard. I talked with Pannone about the making of the documentary and what it was like to work with our beloved Pope Francis. Our interview was originally done in Italian, so both versions are included.

Why did you want to make this film?
The “Smallest Army in the World” was brought to me by the Vatican Television Center. The great thing about it was instead of just commissioning me to make a film, they gave me a lot of creative freedom in telling the story of a group of Swiss boys who go to serve the Church and the pope. It was a great privilege and I enjoyed the freedom I was given during the eight months of filming and then during post-production. In the end, I felt the film was my own, perhaps because of the long and intense path, which I found both informative and entertaining. It was Don Dario Viganò, the Secretary of Communications for the Vatican that asked me to maintain a secular feel to the film so that it would also be understood by the average layperson. 

In making this film, did anything surprise you or change your way of seeing the Swiss Guard?
The goal of the film was to create a sort of behind the scenes look into the Swiss Guard, not just limited to the beautiful uniforms and ceremonies, but to tell, rather, fragments of the lives of the boys who are, by choice, in the face of centuries of history. I’ll be honest that in the beginning there was a bit of prejudice in me that they could send me only boys who by faith decide to become these soldiers of the Pope. But I soon realized that that wasn’t the case and that these young people are in fact very different from just being beautifully-placed statues at the Vatican. The protagonist, René, along with the two other officers we followed for over a year, were the ones who made me realize this. René is a young theologian and almost not at all afraid to express his doubts about the meaning of the Swiss Guard and therefore, to question its purpose.

Speaking of René, why did you decide to focus on him and Leo? 
René and Leo are very different from each other, if not opposite. René, as I said, is going to become a theologian. He is an intellectual. Leo, however, is the son of a forester, which is a profession of peasants. Choosing them was almost natural when I went to meet six of the boys in Switzerland before they left for Rome. Then, I really liked the friendship that developed between the two of them. It was very human and sincere. Humanity and sincerity accompany us throughout the whole movie in the spirit of that great pope who is Francis. 

It was beautiful to see candid shots of Pope Francis. Tell me about the scenes you shot with the pontiff.
My crew and I crossed paths with Pope Francis three times and it was very nice to see his smile. I enjoyed an advantage. Alongside me and my director of photography, Tarek Ben Abdallah, was Cesare Cuppone, who is the papal cameraman/photographer and therefore could meet up with the Holy Father with relative ease. I was very impressed by the simplicity of Pope Francis' gestures. For example, in one scene, after he greeted the Swiss guards, he got into a small car and sat in the passenger’s seat next to the driver rather than having a whole convoy. It’s these things that impress me and give a different perception of men with power. There is no doubt that Pope Francis is an inspiration to all, believers and non-believers. 

I’d like to talk a bit about the soundtrack, which really stood out to me. With the magnificence of the Vatican and its rich history of art and culture, you could have used dramatic music but instead you chose simple piano notes. What was your reason for this?
With Stefano Caprioli, who wrote and directed the music for the documentary, a beautiful tune was created. He understood that to show the everyday life of the Swiss Guards, but also the magnificence of the Vatican manned by the young soldiers who wear colorful uniforms of 500 AD, there was no need for heightened rhetoric, but rather the soundtrack should serve another function, and that is to show great respect for ancient history, in a secular way without sacrificing the power of imagination. That was the alchemy I felt while we were editing. I asked Stefano to limit the tools and we worked together in the studio, relying primarily on the piano and then the odd percussion instrument, which is the tongue drum, subtracting rather than adding. It was great and inspiring to work with him. 

Did you receive any feedback from the Vatican?
I perceived everything entirely positive, except for a few elements by the most conservative fringe of the Vatican. I know that Pope Emerito Ratzinger also saw it and appreciated it. Now, the Vatican will produce other documentary films, which I think could be pigeonholed, so to speak, into popular pastorals. It is not by chance that you could see during this time, a film about Pope Francis made by a director of Wim Wenders’ caliber. 

"The Smallest Army in the World" will soon be released in Italy on home video.  There will be a screening on October 18 at the United Nations in New York and another in Washington D.C. We’ll keep you posted on future dates. In the meantime, check out the trailer..

Versione Italiana

Perché volevi fare questo film?
"L'esercito più piccolo del mondo" me lo ha proposto il Centro Televisivo Vaticano. Ma la cosa più bella è stata quella di non essere stato cercato per un lavoro su commissione, ma di concedermi, piuttosto, un bel po' di libertà creativa nel raccontare la storia di un gruppo di ragazzi svizzeri che va a servire la Chiesa e il Papa. Ho avuto un grande privilegio e non poco mi ha sorpreso la libertà di cui ho goduto lungo otto mesi di riprese e poi nel corso del montaggio. Il film, infine, l'ho sentito mio, forse perché ho intrapreso un percorso di lungo respiro e molto intenso, oltre che istruttivo e divertente. Ed è stato proprio Don Dario Viganò, oggi Prefetto per la Comunicazione in Vaticano, a chiedermi di mantenere uno sguardo laico. 

C'era qualcosa che ti ha sorpreso delle guardie Svizzere dopo aver appreso la loro storia?
Obiettivo del film era quello di realizzare una sorta di "dietro le quinte" della Guardia svizzera, insomma, di non limitarsi solo alle belle divise e alle parate, ma di raccontare, piuttosto, frammenti di vita di alcuni ragazzi come ce ne sono tanti altri, ma che si trovano, per loro scelta, al cospetto di una storia millenaria. Non nascondo che all'inizio c'era un po' di pregiudizio in me: cosa avrebbero potuto trasmettermi dei ragazzi di provincia che per fede decidono di diventare "soldati del Papa". E' andata poi diversamente, perché ho compreso molto presto che questi giovani sono ben diversi dall'essere delle belle statuine. E chi mi aiutato a capire tutto ciò, insieme ai due ufficiali che mi hanno seguito lungo un anno di gestazione, è stato proprio il protagonista del docufilm, René, giovane quasi teologo e per nulla timoroso di manifestare i suoi dubbi sul senso della guardia svizzera e, dunque, di mettersi in discussion. 

Perché hai deciso di concentrarti su Leo and René? Cosa c'era dei loro punti di vista che volevi dimostrare?
René e Leo sono molto diversi tra loro, se non addirittura opposti. René, come ho detto, sta per diventare teologo, è un intellettuale. Leo, invece, è un figlio di contadini di professione guardaboschi. Sceglierli è stato quasi naturale, quando sono andato a incontrare in Svizzera sei di loro, prima che partissero per Roma. E poi mi è molto piaciuta l'amicizia che si è creata tra loro due, umana e sincera. Un'umanità e sincerità che credo accompagnino tutto il film, nello spirito di quel grande Papa che è Francesco. 

Raccontami le riprese con Papa Francesco. Com'è andata?
Con la mia troupe ho incrociato il Papa tre volte ed è stato bello avere in regalo il suo sorriso. Godevo di un vantaggio, ad affiancarmi insieme al mio direttore della fotografia, Tarek Ben Abdallah, c'era Cesare Cuppone, che è l'operatore del Papa e che, dunque, ha potuto riprendere il Santo Padre con una certa facilità. Mi ha colpito molto di Francesco la sua semplicità dei gesti. Per esempio, in una scena, una volta salutate le guardie svizzere, si allontana su un utilitaria sedendosi di fianco all'autista, non dietro, e senza che alle spalle dell'auto ci sia qualcuno che lo scorti. Sono cose che impressionano, che danno finalmente una percezione diversa del nostro guardare agli uomini di potere. Non c'è dubbio, Papa Francesco è un esempio per tutti, credenti e non.

Vorrei parlare un po' della colonna sonora. Con la grandezza del Vaticano ..con la ricchezza  dell'arte che dispone. sculture, dipinti afreschi e tutta la testimonianza della Chiesa cattolica,  potevi utilizzare un tratto di musica impegnativa e forte ... Perché hai preso la decisione di semplici note uscite da un pianoforte?
Con Stefano Caprioli, che ha scritto e diretto le musiche de "L'esercito più piccolo del mondo", si è creata una bella sintonia. Ha capito che per restituire il quotidiano di alcune guardie svizzere, ma anche la magniloquenza del Vaticano presidiato da giovani militari che vestono variopinte divise del '500, non ci fosse bisogno di calcare retoricamente, ma che piuttosto la colonna sonora dovesse servire ad altro e cioé a restituire un'emozione mista al grande rispetto per una storia millenaria, in modo laico e partecipato; beninteso, senza rinunciare all'evocazione. E l'alchimia io l'ho sentita al momento del montaggio. Ho chiesto a Stefano di limitare gli strumenti e insieme abbiamo lavorato in studio, affidandoci prima di tutto al pianoforte e poi a quello strano strumento di percussione che è il tongue drum, sottraendo piuttosto che aggiungendo. E' stato bello e stimolante lavorare con lui.

Quali sono i pensieri del Vaticano sul film?
Quello che ho percepito è del tutto positivo, salvo poche resistenze delle frangie più conservatrici del Vaticano. So, per esempio, che l'ha visto anche il Papa Emerito Ratzinger e che lo ha apprezzato. Ora il Vaticano produrrà altri docufilm, che non credo saranno solo incasellati in un ambito, per così dire, divulgativo-pastorale.  E non è un caso che a realizzare in questo periodo un film su Papa Francesco sia un regista del calibro di Wim Wenders.

- Jeannine Guilyard


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