Wondrous Boccaccio/Paolo Taviani

Filmmaking icons Paolo and Vittorio Taviani pull from Boccaccio’s Decameron to create a vibrant extravaganza of life and death in plague-ridden Florence. To escape the Black Death, ten young women and men make their way to a country estate, where they distract themselves by telling stories, each more fantastic and entertaining than the last. Wondrous Boccaccio is as sumptuous as film gets, with a richness that enhances the humanity beneath. Availability:  On DVD from Film Movement and Amazon. Thanks to Virginia Cademartori, Sally Fischer PR, and the Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.


DT:  How did you conceive of such a beautiful film?  Were you listening to Puccini? Thinking about the plague? Or reading Boccaccio?

PT:  Actually the film was born out of our response to suffering. When we were children, we experienced World War II. When it was over, we thought it would be the last war like this, as Hitler and Mussolini were gone from the scene.  Instead, there have been other wars since then, and there are other horrors happening in the world today with ISIS, massacres in Africa. We feel as if we’re surrounded by a plague of sorts.  In Italy there is a plague of unemployment for young people.

The word plague made us think of Boccaccio, because the great plague—the Black Death of the fourteenth century—is the starting point of Boccacio’s Decameron.  We’d had this film in mind for many, many years. We kept postponing it for one reason or another, but this just struck us like a bullet to the head: we’re going through a plague today, so this is the time to do Boccaccio.  None of the other films that have been based on Decameron, including Passolini’s, represent the plague itself as the starting point, while that’s the driver of the Decameron: the horror of the plague. These young people, predominantly young women—and 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.

When we were working on this film, 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, when a distant aunt of ours, as well as many others we know, died of the flu. So there’s some of Boccaccio, but there’s a lot of us; while the Decameron is the starting point for the film, we take these stories in our own direction.

It’s a story of young people who are fighting to survive, through art.  Many critics have talked about how different it is from Caesar Must Die, but 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 the 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 and friendship, which, 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 Wondrous Boccaccio in particular?

PT:  It’s 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, Germany 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 I do?  How can I 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.’

You have to be 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 been invented and copied.  Copy, copy, copy, and then you will be free.


DT:  While not all the stories were taken from the Decameron, the ones that were, as well as the frame, remain very close to the text. Can you talk about adapting classic litereature for the screen?

PT:  The stories are both faithful and unfaithful at the same time. A literary work gives us a subject, and there are going to be affinities between a literary work and the film that’s going to be made from it. There might be a kind of spiritual affinity in that as well, but what we have to realize is that the literary work operates according to its own narrative rules, while cinema, which is an audiovisual medium, operates according to different rules.  We changed some of the details in some of the Boccaccio stories—for example, using instances of more modern plagues. Our general attitude was, 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 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 interveiw with La Repubblica, you said that today’s plague is disillusionment. I was very struck by the fact that when these young people set up their community in the film, they instituted a set of rules, like no lovemaking so the women who didn’t have lovers wouldn’t be jealous. For me, there was a strong connection between setting rules and creating hope as a counter to disillusionment. Am I reading into the film, or do you believe that was Boccaccio’s 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 lovemaking comes from Boccaccio; it’s not our invention. It’s certainly a result of the uneven balance of boys and girls and some people being left out, so to take this vow of chastity is a necessary thing. It’s right and just to have rules like this in terms of coming out of this alive.

In terms of sex in the film, however, we’re much more subtle in our approach. It comes out here and there, it emerges but it’s almost subterranean. Take, for example, 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 who’s had sex in the cell, but then in this sudden shift, she comes out and says, “God gave us two gifts; he gave us the gift of the spirit but also of the flesh and 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 against lovemaking was not to overplay sex or 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, for instance dying of the plague contrasting with the beautiful scene of the ladies in the lake.  Please talk about the role nature plays in your films.

PT:  In this film we instructed our cinematographer to emphasize the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, because the beauty of that landscape 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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