Paolo Taviani/Wondrous Boccaccio

Wondrous perfectly describes the Taviani brothers’ stunning, fantastical film set in plague-ridden Florence in 1348, where ten young people flee to the countryside to escape the black death. There they structure their time and their impromptu society by telling each other stories, charmingly enacted on screen. A loose combination of tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron and stories of more modern-day plagues, the film is a sumptuous paean to the human spirit and redemptive power of art. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015.


DT:  As I was watching the film, I kept asking myself, How does one conceive of such a beautiful film? So that’s my first question:  How does one conceive of such a beautiful film?  Were you listening to Puccini, or thinking about the plague, or reading Boccaccio?


PT:  I wasn’t listening to Puccini.  The film was actually born out of our response to suffering.  When we were children we experienced World War II, and when it was over, we thought it would be the last war like this and Hitler and Mussolini were gone from the scene.  Instead since then there have been other wars, and there are other horrors happening in the world today, with ISIS, things happening in Africa.  We feel as if we’re surrounded by a plague of sorts.  In Italy there’s a plague of unemployment for young people, which is so high. The word plague made us think of Boccaccio, because the Black Death of the fourteenth century is the starting point of Boccacio’s Decameron.

We had had in mind for many, many years to do this film, but we kept postponing it for one reason or another. This just struck us like a bullet to the head—this idea that if we were going through a plague today, this was the time to do Boccaccio.  None of the other films that have been based on Decameron, including Pasolini’s, however, represent the plague itself as the starting point; instead, that is the driver of Decameron. These young people, predominantly young women—this is very much a feminine film—decide they’re going to say no to the plague and no to death because they want to live, they want to survive through art, through telling stories to each other.  We took the Decameron of Boccaccio as inspiration. Some of the stories are taken directly from Boccaccio; others are inspired by stories that we know instead from other plagues, in particular the Spanish flu of 1918–1920, where a distant aunt of ours died of the flu; and we know of many other stories of people who died of that epidemic and others, so there’s some of Boccacio, but there’s a lot of us.  Boccaccio and the Decameron are the starting point for the film, but then we take these stories in our own direction.

It’s a story of young people who are really fighting to survive through art.  Many critics have talked about how different it is from Caesar Must Die, but while we were making the film, Vittorio and I felt as if we were working on the same film, because they both take as their starting point a very painful reality.  In the case of Caesar Must Die, it’s the reality of a life sentence in prison without parole, the hardships of prison life, regardless of whether someone is innocent or not, but for this one moment, through the aid of art, through Shakespeare, through the pleasure of acting and putting on a play, they know what it’s like to feel free and to feel alive, after which they have to go back to this painful existence. In the Decameron, the starting point is this horror of the plague, and their reaction to that is to seek relief through art, to survive. After telling these stories they have to go back to Florence, but through this experience of being together and telling stories, they have found new force and new energy, friendship, that, like art, will help them battle the suffering they’re going to find.


DT:  You’ve said that Rossellini’s Paisan was the moment you recognized your language.  How did Paisan influence your cinema in general and this film in particular?


PT:  I think it’s really thanks to the vision of Paisan that Vittorio and I realized the power of cinema as a way to tell our own stories and to realize how much force it had.  We said, “If cinema has that kind of force of truth telling, then we want to make cinema.”  So Paisan influenced us, but so did Rome, Open City, Year Zero, other films of Rossellini, the films of Visconti, the films of De Sica as well. All of our predecessors have influenced us in that way.  Picasso, just to cite a great artist of our time, said, “I don’t invent anything in my art.  I copy my predecessors and try to make them better.”  When young directors come to us asking, “What should we do?  How can we become a director?  what I always tell them is, “Take five films that you love, love, love, and sit down and watch them as many times as you can until they have entered into your head. And then sit down and try to rewrite them all.”  What you have to be is a kind of thief who’s trying to break into a bank to rob its secrets.  You have to stake out the bank, you have to pick out the right disguise, you have to get a map to the safe, open the safe, and take everything out of it, and then spend it as much as you can, however you want. This is what you have to do in cinema. As far as Vittorio and I are concerned, there’s no such thing as originality.  You can only invent what has only been invented and copied.  Copy, copy, copy, and then you will be free.


DT:  Though not all the stories were taken from Decameron, the ones that were remain very close to the text.  So does the frame of the story. Can you talk about adapting classic literature for the screen?


TP:  They are both faithful and unfaithful at the same time.  A literary work gives us a subject, and there’s going to be affinities between a literary work and a film that’s going to be made from that. There might be a kind of spiritual affinity as well, but what we have to realize is that the literary work operates according to its own narrative rules, while cinema is an audiovisual medium, and it operates according to different rules.  We changed some of the details in some of the stories from Boccaccio, we used other instances of more modern plagues. Our general attitude was to say, Thank you, Boccaccio, for what you have given us, but now we’re going to take our own road.  Sometimes what Boccaccio did comes back to us. The story that’s closest to Boccaccio is the story of the nun with the underwear on her head, which is a great comic invention of Boccaccio. In other cases, for example, we changed the ending of some of the love stories.  What we set out to do was not to illustrate a literary work that we’re adapting.  What we did was put everything together in the same pot and remove some of those things that are Boccaccio and some of those things that are Taviani, so it’s a mix of certain elements of Boccaccio but also certain elements of Paolo and Vittorio.


DT:  In an interview with La Repubblica, you said that today’s plague is disillusionment.  I was very struck in the film by the fact that when these young people set up their community, they set rules, like no romancing so there would be no jealousy between the women who don’t have lovers.  For me there was a big connection between the rule setting and creating hope as a counter to disillusionment.  I was just wondering if I was just reading into the film, or if that was your intention.


PT:  These young people make a choice to survive and to discover through art a means of surviving, but they’re living in a community, and a community needs rules in order to survive.  The rule regarding no lovemaking or romancing comes from Boccaccio. It’s not our invention, but to take this vow of chastity is a necessary thing, and it’s right and just in terms of coming out of this alive that they have rules like this.  In terms of sex, however, in the film, we’re much more subtle in our approach to it.  It sort of emerges here and there, but it’s almost subterranean—for example, in the episode of the bread, where he says, “I wish you were underneath this instead.” This is running throughout the whole film. Where it’s most explicit, perhaps, is the scene with the nun. She’s had sex in the cell, but then she comes out and in this sudden shift, she says, “God gave us two gifts;  he gave us the gift of the spirit but also of the flesh: Go out and also enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.” Or the scene where the Roman says, “You taught me how to love, but I know what sex is and I want to enjoy that.”  Our approach to sexuality in terms of that rule was not to overplay sex or to make it overly explicit but to feel it in a subterranean fashion.


DT:  The film conveyed a deep relationship with nature as something both destructive and redemptive. Can you talk about the role nature plays in your films?


PT:  In this film we instructed our cinematographer, in his takes of Tuscany, to really exaggerate, to emphasize the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, because the beauty of that countryside is a response to death. It gives you the force to say, “I want to live!” We deliberately had a very exaggerated approach to the beauty of the landscape in this film as a response to death.


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