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Monday, October 31, 2016

Interview: Karen Di Porto of Rome's Festa del Cinema Sleeper Hit- Maria per Roma

Another great edition of the Festa del Cinema di Roma just wrapped up and what a diverse celebration of cinema it was. From documentaries to book presentations to Hollywood stars to Italian cinema maestros and newcomers, there was definitely something for everyone.

Among my favorite selections this year was a sleeper hit for me.. a film I knew nothing about beforehand. Karen Di Porto's thought-provoking comedy, Maria per Roma follows a 30-something Italian actress struggling to make ends meet with small roles and her job as an Airbnb host along with her dog, Bea, who never leaves her side. Her chaotic days consist of running to auditions, taking calls from tourists, meeting them at their vacation apartments and occasionally receiving a pep talk from her father's ghost.

I loved this film and I believe that you have to relate to the struggles of Maria and her friends to truly feel the same way. With that said, you will be especially moved by this film if you have one of three things..
A beloved pet
A deceased father who you feel is still watching over you
An infinite affection for Rome
And... Zero interest in going along with the crowd or meeting society's expectations

Since I possess all of those qualities, this film made me emotional, to put it lightly. I was the last person in the theater after the press screening. I was brought to tears after the final appearance of Maria's father and also by the last line of the film.. "Roma.. wherever you look, everything is beautiful."

After talking with the Karen Di Porto, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, about this endearing character she created, I learned that in presenting this slightly neurotic free spirit, she was trying to show the weaknesses of someone who really doesn't know how to play the game.

I sat down with Di Porto the day after her premiere at the festival. She speaks great English, so we had a nice open chat about this story, her inspiration and women working in film.

With Karen Di Porto at Rome's Festa del Cinema
Where did this character come from?
The work that I did in the movie during a time in my life when I was taking acting classes and studying drama in a school and I was trying to both... Doing that job and trying to be an actress. At one point, I thought that that job is good to tell a story because it's a job that doing that you cannot really focus on anything else because it's a job based on the phone calls that you receive all the time, and so it interrupts your concentration all the time, you talk to strangers all the time. ... The life that we do In our society, it's often difficult to have a focus and do what you want because you have to do something else (to make a living). Actors know that.

A scene from Maria per Roma
The aspect that I really liked about your character is that she's not 22-years-old. There's one scene where she's in the bathroom at a party trying to conceal the signs of aging under her eyes. Tell me about this person over 30 who refuses to give up on her dream.
I think it's important first of all to do it forever. It's not just a dream. It's very important to try to do what you like. It's not just a dream. It's not just something that you have to become. It's really about living the kind of life that you want to live.. which is really hard but really worth it. So for me as a person, that was the first thing. It was important that I had the talent already there, so I just kept doing my thing. For a long time, though, I was very confused. And so everything was a mess. So I think that first, you have to change inside. Then you can really reach your...

How do you change inside?
I think that you have to decide to follow your heart. But the movie has a feeling, which is the emotional part and that part, the emotional journey of the character is to grow. So the relationship with the father, the dead father, is really important for her and it's something that she has to give up.

Where did the idea of the father figure come from?
Even if my father is still alive, in a way, I think that everyone loses a father at one point. And for me, in this story, the father represents the idea of having someone taking care of you instead of your own self... So if you have the illusion of someone always helping you, you never end up realizing your own potential. So that was the inside journey of the character for me and it's not so much shown in the movie but maybe the next stage can be different. And you start with a little change inside.

Maria's endearing affection for Bea
I felt echoes of classic Italian cinema in this film, especially filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica and Ettore Scola. Tell me about the influence of these Golden Age directors on you as a filmmaker.
I saw those movies many many times and I love the way they combine tragedy and comedy and the honesty in that kind of movie. They are very simple. Of course they're played by giant actors. I'm not saying than now, we don't have any more of those giants, but in a way, it's true. Maybe we don't have them because society changed a lot. Those people were coming from war and from other times. I am Jewish, so my family has been through some hard times. My mom is from Libya. Her family was kicked out of the country in 1967. And my father is from a Jewish family in Rome. The people who really suffered know how to play with tragedy because they have a pure sense of tragedy. They don't need to make tragedy. They have it inside and that makes everything bigger, more honest. But on the other end, I wanted to talk about something real and something that I know, something simple. That's why I made this movie.

And this is the first feature-length film you directed?

Was it difficult to direct yourself as the lead actress?
It was difficult because it was my first time. But since it's a low-budget movie, it was good that I didn't have someone that I needed to talk with, and explain this character. I wrote the script in about two years, and I know the feelings of the character in the different situations, and I've done the job. So I knew how to react to simple things, which I think would have been the difficult part of having someone else in that role. We have great actresses in Italy that could have done the dramatic part. It's the practical part, the easy way of living and the way the character moves in this reality. I really knew and so I thought it was easy. And Woody Allen helped me because I saw the documentary on his life and films. At one point, he said that someone told him that it's not twice as difficult to act and direct. He said it's twice as easy. I really kept that for myself and it might be true. I've done two shorts. I acted in one of them. I'm not thinking in terms of the next movie, and 'Oh I need a role for myself, but if there is something that I know very well and I think I can do it, then why not?

Bea.. the latest woman in film poses for her closeup
Regarding the role of women in Italian cinema in terms of both acting and directing, do you feel there is more opportunity now than before?
If you look at this edition of the festival, the three Italian movies in the official selection, which I have the honor of being one of them, are stories based on women.. it can be a very good vibe. The stories about women are on the same theme. You can get a more warm, intimate feeling if you talk about women.. and I think this can generate more interesting roles.

Tell me about the scene in your movie when the director and producer were talking with another actress about the role your character auditioned for.
Maria tries hard but she doesn't really belong to the world. If you remember at the beginning when the fake director was talking about this character, a woman who seemed to belong to the world, but she doesn't.. that's why she's so fascinated by the role. Because in a way, she's not inside society. She works, she runs, but she doesn't really belong because she doesn't really know how to do it. So, I didn't want the other actress to seem evil because she's just smart. She's just doing it. She's a real actress. She knows how to do it. Maria is like a child even though she's grown up. That's why I used those expressions of shock. It's like a child's reaction- 'Oh no, she's stealing my part' rather than trying to get the part back. Then she plays the fool, talks about the dog and goes off to the bathroom. So, that's a weakness inside her. It's not society that's bad. So I'm talking about that weakness. She may be strong. She works and has to be strong to do it.. like running all the time and dealing with many people. But in the end, she's weak because she bases her confidence on something that doesn't exist. For example, the idea of the father... someone that is not even there. She puts her trust in ghosts.

Speaking again of the father, I felt you found a good balance with the presence of Maria's parents. It's a very realistic portrayal of the relationship between someone of her age in her situation.. especially with the conversations she has with her mother about her father that passed away many years ago.
I like to think about my character as someone who lives in the past and in the future. And she doesn't know how to deal with the present. So the past is present and the present is not working.. and the future is something that you can never get.

How did your collaboration with the Lazio Film Commission come about? The location shots around Rome are spectacular.  
I originally contacted them for support at a time that was very close to when we were about to begin shooting. We had a lot of help from people all over Rome with the locations. And also with my friends.. all the friends of my life were in the movie and helping in every way. I'm so happy about the love that I received, which is probably the biggest success of this movie. So the Lazio Film Commission loved the project and really wanted to be part of it.

Check back here for updates on the distribution for this film. I have a feeling we'll be seeing Maria per Roma in the lineup of the 2017 edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema in New York.

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