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Interview: Alessandro Borghi on Suburra, Italian Cinema Across the Globe and the Ties of Friendship

Actor Alessandro Borghi is emerging as one of contemporary Italian cinema’s great talents. Battling 4-for-4 in the hit film department with a whopping five projects currently in production, Borghi was born in Rome in 1986. He began his acting career 20 years later with the television show Distretto di polizia and went on to make numerous other appearances on popular TV series, including regular roles in the recent 2013 series L’Isola followed by the 2015 series Squadra Mobile

The same year, he transitioned to film with Claudio Caligari’s posthumous hit Non essere cattivo (Don’t Be Bad), which was also Italy’s entry for Oscar consideration that year. Caligari’s tragic story of the bond of friendship between the two main characters, Vittorio and Cesare captivated American cinephiles when it premiered at Cinema Italian Style - an annual showcase of contemporary Italian cinema in Los Angeles. With Borghi as Vittorio and Luca Marinelli as Cesare, the two team up to explore a dark road too often traveled when young people lack the foundation and guidance needed to stay on the right track. Set in the 90s in the Roman seaside town of Ostia, the film focuses on a band of six close friends led by Vittorio and Cesare. Living in a world dominated by quick money, nightclubs, crime and drugs, they struggle with overcoming the odds in the face of addiction and temptation. But overall, it’s a story of friendship- friends never giving up on each other even in the darkest of days. Borghi's character demonstrates how easy it is to make mistakes along the way and to fall into bad situations just trying to make money to get by. And though he achieves some measure of success through the love that binds him to his friend, he learns the hard way that love isn’t always enough to save you.

Luca Marinelli as Cesare and Alessandro Borghi as Vittorio in Non essere cattivo

Borghi’s sophomore effort, Suburra was released in Italy and Netflix simultaneously in October of 2015, and the trailer for the upcoming series was just unveiled at the Venice Film Festival. His fierce performance in the role of Number 8 has been praised by audiences and critics all over the world. The story is set in the Suburra quarter of Rome, which in ancient times was the quarter populated by taverns and brothels where senators met with criminals in secret to do business. Fast forward two thousand years later and not much has changed, with corrupt politicians and unscrupulous powerbroker conniving industriously in the shadow of the Vatican. Basing his film on the novel of the same name by Giancarlo De Cataldo and Carlo Bonini, director Stefano Sollima tells a realistic, modern-day tale of a deeply entrenched underground world. Borghi’s No. 8 is partnered with Viola, his drugged-out, head-over-heals-in-love girlfriend, played with equal intensity by actress Greta Scarano. The pair steals the film with suspenseful scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat.

Greta Scarano and Alessandro Borghi in Suburra

Borghi explores the other side of the acting spectrum in his November 2016 release, Il più grande sogno directed by Michele Vannucci. His free-spirit character Boccione is a faithful friend and comic foil in a mind-blowing film inspired by true events. The story is based on the life of actor Mirko Frezza and is set in the La Rustica quarter of Rome, which is located just about 10 minutes away from Cinecittà. An ex-con who wants to turn his life around, Mirko grew up surrounded by drugs and crime with a father who made his son an accomplice. In the end, however, it was his father who saved him from the brink of despair. Borghi takes a salt-of-the-earth approach to Boccione, conveying a sweet innocence as a dialect-speaking contadino with a crush on the building co-ordinater whose mission is to provide the poor residents of the neighborhood with government-subsidized cheese and bread. In this feel-good story about an ex-con with a big heart, Borghi reinvents himself with a passionate performance as the loving friend.

Mirko Frezza and Alessandro Borghi in Il più grande sogno

I caught up with Borghi during the Rome release of Il più grande sogno. He had just finished shooting Sergio Castellitto's film Fortunata and was in the process of shooting the Netflix series Suburra. We talked about a number of topics. I found him to be just as friendly and passionate about films as he is in his spectacular performances. Our conversation was in Italian, so both versions are included.

Thrilled to meet the real-life Boccione at the Rome premiere
Speaking to your character Boccione in Il più grande sogno, he is much lighter than the characters you have portrayed up to this point. Was Boccione a welcomed relief?
Well, surely I needed it. I needed to portray a character that was a bit lighter because the characters of Suburra and Non essere cattivo were two similar people very connected to their relationships and especially to their darker, more problematic sides. Boccione is a character that really exists, and it's the first time I portray a character that is drawn from a person that really exists in reality. So I met him, I tried to take the elements that in my opinion were the most interesting ones and then added others that were the most cinematic. So from those experiences came this character that I love very much because it is a character that is very related to values ​​like friendship and the values of his neighborhood. It is a character that is very much in the game, but above all is an extremely ironic character who never misses the chance to take things lightly, to think that everything is resolved. So I like it, I like to think that I have been able to create a character different from others because each is Roman, but with a very different soul.

Parlando del tuo personaggio Boccione nel film Il più grande sogno, lui e' più leggero degli altri. Hai voluto interpretare un personaggio più leggero?
Sicuramente ne avevo bisogno, avevo molto bisogno di fare un personaggio un po’ più leggero,  perché i personaggi di Suburra e di Non essere cattivo erano due personaggi molto molto legati alle relazioni e soprattutto ai loro lati più oscuri, quelli più problematici. Qui, innanzitutto Boccione, che è il personaggio che interpreto, è un personaggio che esiste davvero, è la prima volta che faccio un personaggio che è tratto da un personaggio che esiste davvero nella realtà, quindi l’ho conosciuto, ho cercato di prendere gli elementi che secondo me erano quelli più interessanti per poi aggiungerne altri che erano quelli più cinematografici, tra virgolette, e quindi è uscito fuori questo personaggio che io amo molto, perché è un personaggio che è molto legato ai valori come l’amicizia, i valori del suo quartiere e però è un personaggio che si mette molto in gioco, ma soprattutto è un personaggio estremamente ironico che non perde mai la possibilità di, ecco, prendere le cose con leggerezza, di pensare che tutto quanto è risolvibile, quindi mi piace, mi piace pensare di essere riuscito a fare un personaggio diverso dagli altri, perché sempre romano, ma con un’anima molto diversa.

Do you draw inspiration from your own life when creating and building a character?
Yes, I always try. When I decide to make a film and research the character, I look for things that are as close as possible to real feelings. This is because in Italy, sometimes we make the mistake of describing characters from a perspective, which only means that if you are bad, you are just bad, if you are kind, you are only kind. For example, my character in Suburra- Number 8 is a character who is bad, certainly, but then also has a strange way of showing his love to Viola, but for Viola's love, he gets killed. And in Non essere cattivo, as the friendship is the fundamental theme as it was also in Il più grande sogno, I believe that in everyday life, all of us are mainly moved by these two feelings- love and friendship. They are the ones that cause us to make choices, the ones from which we grow and they form us as human beings. So we have had the opportunity in these movies to talk about the characters who are in touch with their true feelings of being human. It's something I really enjoy and I hope to continue doing. In the other movies I've done, I've been very careful about this, because the value of friendship is the most universal love and the closest one to reality.

Prendi ispirazione dalla tua vita quando crei un personaggio?
Si, io cerco sempre, quando decido di fare dei film, di ricercare nei personaggi delle cose che siano il più possibile vicine ai sentimenti; questo perché: perché in Italia a volte, per un po’ di anni è stato fatto l’errore di descrivere i personaggi soltanto sotto un punto di vista, vuol dire che se eri cattivo eri soltanto cattivo, se eri gentile eri soltanto gentile, invece per esempio il Numero 8 di Suburra è un personaggio che è si, cattivo, determinato, però poi, ha anche un modo strano di dimostrare questo suo amore a Viola, però poi, per l’amore che ha per Viola, si fa ammazzare – no? – e in Non essere cattivo invece quello dell’amicizia è il tema fondamentale come lo era anche ne Il più grande sogno, che è, cioè io credo che nella vita di tutti i giorni, tutti quanti noi veniamo mossi principalmente da questi due sentimenti che sono l’amore e l’amicizia, sono quelli che ci fanno fare le scelte, quelli che ci crescono e che ci formano come esseri umani e quindi avere avuto la possibilità in questi film di raccontare dei personaggi che erano molto a contatto con i loro sentimenti veri, di esseri umani, è una cosa che mi piace molto, spero di continuare a farlo e in realtà anche su altri film che ho fatto sono stato molto attento a questo, perché il valore dell’amicizia e più universalmente dell’amore è quello che dobbiamo stare sempre attenti a raccontare in ogni personaggio perché è sempre quello più reale, sempre quello più vicino 
alla realtà.

Watch the trailer for Non essere cattivo (with English subtitles)...

Watch the trailer for Non essere cattivo (with English subtitles)...

Having grown up in Rome, did you feel inspired as a child and teenage by the history of cinema that took place there by filmmakers like Pasolini, Fellini and Scola.. just to name a few?
I must tell you.. not particularly because I've always experienced more than just the "popular Rome." I've always spent time in the neighborhoods and outskirts- not just in the center or historical part of Rome. I remember the first time in my life I went to a New York, in 2009, I did not go to see the monuments of New York, I went to see the neighborhoods of New York. So before I saw the Museum of Natural Science, I went to places like Brooklyn and Queens because I've been a lot more inclined to see what people do in their daily routines, which I'm interested in. I'm interested in other countries, and I'm particularly interested in mine. So I've always experienced Rome through the way people live in the city. Sure, I've had some cinematic inspirations that obviously had to do with Fellini, but to which I honestly never paid particular attention. I knew there was something important that had been done before when I studied filmmaking and I understood what I liked and what I did not, but then I left it in a cassette and I forged my own my path.

Mentre crescevi a vivevi a Roma, sei stato inspirato del cinema fatto qui dai maestri come Pasolini, Fellini e Scola?
Devo dirti non particolarmente, ma perché io ho sempre vissuto molto di più la Roma popolare, ho sempre vissuto molto di più i quartieri, ma non soltanto di Roma, io ricordo che anche la prima volta nella mia vita in cui sono andato a New York, nel 2009, io non  sono andato a vedere i monumenti di New York, sono andato a vedere i quartieri di New York, quindi prima di vedere il museo di Scienze naturali, sono andato a Brooklyn e Queens perché io sono molto più, sono stato molto più portato a vedere quello che le persone fanno nella loro routine giornaliera, quello mi interessa vedere, mi interessa negli altri paesi, e mi interessa in particolare nel mio. Quindi ho sempre vissuto Roma attraverso il modo di pensare delle persone che abitano la città, quindi in realtà avevo delle ispirazioni cinematografiche che riguardavano ovviamente Fellini, ma alle quali sinceramente non ho mai prestato particolare attenzione. Sapevo che c’era qualcosa di importante che era stato fatto prima, l’ho studiato, ho capito quali erano le cose che mi piacevano e quelle che no, però poi l’ho lasciato in un cassetto e ho fatto il mio percorso che era diverso, insomma.

Alessandro Borghi.. down-to-earth and loving his craft

What do you think about Italian cinema throughout the world? Since I started writing about it back in 2004, the interest worldwide had definitely grown.
What I can tell you is that I never thought I'd be in Los Angeles talking about an Oscar movie. When this thing happened with Non essere Cattivo, (Italy's 2015 Oscar submission) I remember waking up at a Beverly Hills Hotel. I was so excited and it made me think a lot about the fact that sometimes in Italy, Italians- also for their own mentality, tend to make us believe that certain things are impossible. Then you make an independent movie with little money and at some point, live this dream that takes you to Los Angeles and you have the opportunity to talk to the Academy. That was a huge thing for me, and it made me realize that all those barriers that someone wants to make us believe exist will slowly disappear. For example, I am currently doing a series (Suburra) produced by Netflix and I know that it'll allow me to be seen by 90 million people and that's probably the main reason I'm doing it, because to have the awareness, to know that you are doing something that will be seen on the other side of the world, is huge for us. Italy is a small country. It has an important influence, especially from a cinematic point-of-view. Sometimes I wonder when I see American films with important casts... In these movies, there are Americans, British, Germans, Spanish, French... but there is never an Italian, and that is why it is a problem for us. We must start to think in a more international way, and when this happens, things will happen. My generation of actors is taking steps to make this happen. We are all studying English, trying to get to an English level where we can compete with international actors. I mean, Javier Bardem, who is an extraordinary actor, was born in Spain and now he does all the American films. So if he succeeds, we can probably do it ourselves and then this barrier would not exist.

Quali sono i tuoi pensieri del cinema Italiano nel mondo?
Io quello che posso dirti è che mai avrei pensato di ritrovarmi un giorno a Los Angeles a parlare di un film per gli Oscar – no? – quando questa cosa è successa con Non essere cattivo, io mi ricordo che la mattina che mi sono svegliato nell’albergo di Beverly Hills, io ero talmente emozionato soltanto al pensiero e questa cosa mi ha fatto molto riflettere perché ho detto: a volte in Italia, gli italiani anche per la loro mentalità, tendono a farci credere che ci sono delle cose che sono impossibili, che non possono accadere e invece tu poi fai un film indipendente, con pochi soldi, e a un certo punto vivi questo sogno che è quello di portarlo a Los Angeles e avere la possibilità di parlare con l’Academy che è una cosa per me enorme, quindi quella cosa mi ha fatto capire che tutte quelle barriere, che qualcuno vuole farci credere che esistono, piano piano andranno scomparendo. Per esempio io in questo momento sto facendo una serie (Suburra) prodotta da Netflix e so che questa cosa mi permetterà di essere visto da 90 milioni di persone e è probabilmente il motivo principale per il quale lo sto facendo, perché avere la consapevolezza, sapere, che tu stai facendo una cosa che verrà vista dall’altra parte del mondo, è una cosa enorme per noi, perché l’Italia è un paese piccolo, che ha la sua importanza, si ha un’influenza importante soprattutto dal punto di vista cinematografico e quindi io spero che, io vorrei tanto vedere – no? –certe volte mi chiedo quando vedo dei film americani con dei cast importanti, beh cavolo in questi film ci sono americani, inglesi, tedeschi, spagnoli, francesi, ma non c’è mai un italiano, e questo è perché è un problema nostro, non è il loro, siamo noi che dobbiamo cominciare a portarci a pensare in maniera più internazionale. Nel momento in cui questa cosa avverrà, succederanno delle cose e io e la mia generazione di attori questo passaggio lo sta facendo, tutti noi stiamo studiando l’inglese tutti i giorni, per cercare di arrivare a un livello di inglese dove possiamo andare a competere con gli attori internazionali, anche perché, voglio dire, Javier Bardem, che è un attore straordinario, è nato in Spagna e adesso fa tutti quanti film americani, quindi se ci è riuscito lui, probabilmente possiamo riuscirci anche noi e questa barriera non esiste.
Watch the trailer for the Netflix series Suburra directed by Michele Placido.


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