Cristian Patanè, director and screenwriter

My gaze tries to mist the crowd as I long for a quiet place after crossing the neighborhood over and over again for a double birthday celebrated at a natural wine fair.

They introduce me to Cristian Patanè.

This meeting does not arrive by chance in the eternal city of chaos and cinema – increasingly Pasolini-esque. To tell the truth, in some ways, we would no longer find PPP because Pigneto has lost its mean face, its pockmarked and greasy skin, the dull gray furrow of the divisive tracks. Becoming an obvious, yet another cool hangout where you never sleep.

Cristian sends me one of his last short movies to continue the conversation. His online presence is engraved in every step with news and articles that inform of his very early career but he is not on social media (you can only find him on LinkedIn).

I see the short Corpo e Aria (Daniele Ciprì signs the photography) and it strikes me as a freight train at night that shatters the tracks in the silence of an increasingly impalpable but dystopian country.

It is a very upbeat portrait of a sui generis death officer that offers a reflection on death and separation that has no similar or equal.

It has traveled overseas, including to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and is an incredibly mature work from the young Italian director and screenwriter. In the conversation of the party night, he tells me that he is working on his first feature film, all about holiness.

This conversation tries to take stock, once again, of writing for cinema. And in the ‘Stories’ section you will find a screenplay signed by several hands, including by Cristian, and taken from his latest work, Ardore.

Your life in a few, or many, lines. Take your time and tell me about the many lives you carry with you

I was born in Avola, Sicily, in 1991. A rural society which, in those years, allowed me to have a bucolic childhood between the sea, the mountains and untouched nature.

My grandmother had a delicatessen and there was a photographer next door: my fascination with lights, flashes and optics stems from there.

It was the era of the film which made everything even more mysterious and fascinating. I was a very lively kid, my curiosity made people nicer with me.

The photographer next door gave me a camera very early on and later his son put a camera in my hands.

At 13, 14 years old I filmed the first weddings. I discovered later that I wanted to be a director, I liked acting because enabling me to immediately connect to something profound and instinctual.

Weddings have allowed me to film all possible scenarios in very few shots, when you are at the altar there is such an intense condensation of life that a whole life truly passes from those close-ups between the groom and the bride.

Eros, death, desire, fear: at the time I didn’t understand everything because I wasn’t emotionally ready. First the weddings, then the short films were a channel of expression to try to understand myself.

A bereavement in my life, a foundational experience in my journey, made me escape from my native land. I moved to Rome, the capital immediately seemed like a kaleidoscope world for a seventeen-year-old from the province, from the village. A rich place for a young man hungry for knowledge even if at the beginning I wasn’t lucky with the meetings. The wrong ones allowed me to understand how strong I am. When you have very high energy – and a mission: I’m very romantic and I still see cinema as a mission – you don’t lose your bearings.

Consider that at 23 I transformed into a digital entrepreneur and then opened my own production company a few years later (which I had to leave after Covid). I’ve produced some things that I’m very proud of. I didn’t become rich, but the goal was to achieve another type of wealth, let’s say less material. They are paths, mine was quite unconventional.

Was Rome a choice linked to the film industry, to an educational future at the Centro Sperimentale (Experimental Center for Cinema) or was it meant by other reasons?

Rome was a very crazy choice dictated by age. Where is cinema made? There, in Rome, caput mundi… I had made a very artisanal short film where I also acted – not in Giffoni, where I worked later and which in any case arrived early and gave me a critical look at language.

There was no high definition yet and the light became mixed, recalling the pictorial gesture: mine was an attempt to enter into a relationship with the writing elements of light. I was awarded in some festivals, not important ones, but whose juries included already established directors. In one of these I met some producers who invited me to move to Rome as their assistant when I came of age.

All Sicilians need to escape Sicily in order to love it, I was no exception. Quickly, I left high school (I took the diploma not attending to it) and I showed up at their place, to work on the first day of set when I turned 18, with actors, film and sound stages. At ease: everything seemed to have always belonged to me. It was my short film The White Nights based on a Fedor Dostoewskij’s story, the producers were amazed at my precociousness and my character, perhaps they were worried, but I started working with them on the sets.

I couldn’t attend the Centro Sperimentale, I come from a humble family: I had to paid the rent with work on the set otherwise I couldn’t afford to stay in Rome. However, I found my way, the beginnings were turbulent but I made it anyway.

In my first years in Rome, the principal of the Centro was the great set designer Andrea Crisanti: I met him by chance at a dinner at a friend’s house where he very honestly told me what the Centro was, reducing my expectations with respect to that school, despite him talking greatly about it. He advised me to let it go, I was already finding a way in my own way. As a naive and wicked person, I had already faced a cast of real actors and a professional crew and I had survived. I had to realize that I was already working on my potential.

After that dinner I had a brief moment of work on TV with dramas and I understood that it wasn’t my path, I felt like a fish out of water. Crushed by something bigger than me, I was still a child. I didn’t have enough tools to understand it, I always wanted to work hard, showing confidence and hiding anxiety and dissatisfaction.

I was always in a state of overacting and so I left.

At the age of 20 I traveled to America thanks to an internship financed by the Ministry of Youth (then managed by Ms Meloni): at UCLA I understood that Rome was not for me. I then embarked on my second love and enrolled in Philosophy in Naples, two languages ​​that have always intertwined in my life. Some films helped me understanding Heidegger, while Kant made me understanding Terrence Malick, just to name a few random masters!

These studies have meant a lot for language and for serious work on aesthetics and imagery.

So did studying philosophy lead you towards screenwriting or was it already essential for you as a role to take care of in addition to directing?

I have always considered myself a terrible screenwriter, only recently have I acquired the confidence and ease in dealing with writing. My internal censor was always too big, constantly seeking confirmation. I limited the screenplay only to the territory of scene writing. I wrote but then I delegated a lot to directing and editing. My short films, which are experiments done through trials and errors, are affected by this.

I fill this gap and this insecurity thanks to a screenwriter who I respect and who I met thanks to the director with whom I worked for a long time and who for an important period of my training related to me as a mentor, Piero Messina.

Andrea Paolo Massara, a Calabrian boy with a rare talent, made me write with him and in that authentic, true and profound process, I discovered who I am as a writer. He helped me discover my talent. Then with him I won a prize at Solinas’ which gave me further confidence. This award is beautiful because it brings out something as intimate as the writing, which is read and discussed by directors, producers, editors, screenwriters, in short, the whole industry makes you critically understand what the unknowable strength of the writing is.

It’s an important moment, I think for anyone, when your films manage to speak beyond the director’s personality. With its own voice.

At Solinas Prize I met Ilaria Macchia, who joined the writing group. The artistic comparison with her was further important: we started working together starting from a solid draft; thanks to her, we boys (Andrea and I) were able to discern even more deeply the heart of the story and to make the journey of our protagonists jump emotionally, as well as aesthetically, onto a level of clear revelation, in which, however, the mystery that we want is to harness. An artistic ambition that shaped the writing and that made us find unexpected coordinates full of beauty. I can’t wait to work on it with the actors…

Is La Suorina, with which you won the Solinas, a bit of a prelude to the film on sanctity that you are building now? Or are they two completely separate and distinct works?

La Suorina is still, let’s say, my attempted debut in cinema – even if yesterday’s certainties have become today’s uncertainties.

Today it is called Ardore, like a feeling and like a town in Calabria.

The theme of holiness is something I stumbled upon as often happens in my paths of discovery. It was a very long job.

I felt shrouded in darkness with a light no more than three centimeters from my nose. After a long time in which I got lost, I find my way into very deep issues of my life, my family and my land.

My film is about a girl who has a Marian apparition. Our Lady entrusts her with a real mission.

My mother, with whom I have a strange and strong connection, has always been one of my first readers: it is bizarre that in this case she only made her read the screenplay on the second draft. My family witnessed an apparition and perhaps a small miracle in the past. I discovered this much later than I started working on the topic.

Writers, philosophers or other masters – if there were any – who guided you or who you found along the way in this complex tale of holiness?

Many writers, even cinema: although it is an obsolete word, I believe that a great deal of all this has worked unconsciously inside me. I can tell you that perhaps it was more the meetings with people that led me to this topic. The suggestions of art are external and work internally but they need time. Rarely are there images or experiences that can lead you so radically to the bottom of the material.

I studied philosophy: Kant, Marx, Hegel and other philosophers were my cosmos. Then I met a great artist, Livia Vitale, who introduced me to Buddhism and accompanied me in this revolution.

Martial arts also taught me breathing, thanks to my beloved master Kwak. In short, with meditation and prayer I discovered an ancestral and primordial connection with an extraordinary world, an infinite source from which to draw.
It’s like a metaphor for talent: if you believe in something you will inevitably transform what’s around you, a bit like a miracle.

In Syracuse (I come from its small province), there is a sanctuary, a concrete phallus that rises upwards, where in the 1950s the painting of a Madonna cries tears of blood and everyone goes to ask her for a miracle, in fact today there are display cases with the guardians and ex-votos of the miracle workers.

Science flounders and begins to lack language on these matters. Faith, if you believe in the miracles, makes you react starting from the bone marrow matrix. It is faith that heals you.

When I went to Ardore with my screenwriter, I felt all this very strongly at the sanctuary of the Madonna di Bombile, which collapsed due to a landslide in 2004. It is the point where our story starts. Speaking with devotees of this Madonna, I understood that the relationship with the saint is on daily basis. You talk to him, you argue every day, and he talks to you. Grace is not a request, it is an accident that has more of a teaching function. Grace is granted because that spiritual dialogue is solid. It is therefore not an extraordinary appointment, nor does it therefore become a particular request.
For Bombile devotees it is almost a given to have a miracle in the family. Saints are friends you can trust, present in your need as much as you are there for them.

You spent a lot of time in Naples, where the cult of the dead (the ‘beggarly’ souls) is very strong. The same thing happened: the devotees went every day to visit their souls/skulls and caressed them, looked after them. The official Church found itself banning this cult in the 70s. Is it possible that Corpo e Aria is affected by this? And therefore this is also in some way a prequel to the theme of sanctity?

I don’t know, I’ve stopped psychoanalyzing myself, I should go to therapy and I still don’t know why I don’t. The reading of myself on that territory of magma which is the belly, the root, is not very broad, I can grasp a small part of it, just enough for the other. Do open the channel, the world is infinite, I would say. I would give you a partial and perhaps false answer.

It is an extremely mature work, leaving aside the exceptional photography of your compatriot Ciprì. It’s an original story, how did the writing of that story come about?

It comes from a gesture like all the images I work on. Things happen and project me into another world that coexists parallel to conscious life. 

The gesture was quite simple, I was working on a set of others in a very well-kept university morgue (of a now closed Roman hospital, the Fornarini, where many films are shot). Sanitary tiles are meant to absorb bacteria and after so many years you still smell the death. 

While I prepare the actor for the scene, I drop his arm to see if his weight was “dead”. That gesture made those certain strings of mine vibrate which then became that danse macabre techno ballad that is the short film.

There is also another image, that of Bergamo, of the military trucks transporting the corpses of those who died from Covid who would not have had a funeral (this image was repeatedly broadcasted during lockdown days on all Italian medias, note of the editor).

Our history, as humanity, is born when we begin to express the sacredness of burial which establishes a connection between the living and the dead.

Even during the wars, there is a pause of a few days just to go to take the bodies. Shocking things have happened during Covid, which should be investigated. My short movie was an immediate response to the historical moment, I felt its urgency and probably the fact that it is still in festivals is because this theme still needs to be processed.

Corpo e Aria has had some success at festivals, what do you think of the fact that in Italy, apart from the professional circuits, there aren’t many festivals (or events dedicated to short films) aimed at non-professional audiences?

It is a more general problem that has always been there, that of homologation. The language changes, the aesthetics change but there is always homologation in the use.

At Italian festivals I have always had difficulty presenting my works. There is always this vice of not wanting to put the spectator too much at stake. It’s like when you watch an average Netflix series: everything is always exposed, the photography is all the same, the direction follows a bible of very codified behaviors.

But if this wasn’t there there wouldn’t be the opposite either. It’s the nature of dialectics, I belong to those who argue against it, to those who have to resist and fight hard. If there were not this struggle, the expression would not be able to be as specific, intimate and therefore powerful. In this dialectic, the need emerges.

What productions are you working on now?

Now we are in the great quagmire. There is a big crisis (yet another), there is a lack of dialogue between artists and the public and we are trying to resolve it from the outside. Public recognition is lacking. Today the cinema, the offspring of the cults of authorial personalities, has lost its strength and its following.
My friend Ciprì says that desperation works miracles. We will see.

When Berlusconi was alive, our culture was changing and we didn’t realize how much that figure of power was affecting us. Now that we have all become Berlusconi, we have also forgiven him for his misdeeds, in fact there is already an inevitable process of sanctification.
It’s a problem of cult, of custom: if we hadn’t reached such negative excesses, the exact opposite wouldn’t be able to happen either. I feel like saying that the worst is happening now that most of us have been overwhelmed by the desire for autophagous production, now that the horizon of desertification seems to be approaching. From there we will be reborn, history teaches us. I am therefore very confident about the future. Not of cinema but of cinematic expression.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years, given that you are very young?

I learned a lot about living in the here and now. Now I have the desire to emerge, to be a film director and I am struggling to make it happen. No one really helps you, it’s a very lonely path. Today I write for other directors trying to maintain an authentic voice. I write about films that I don’t know if they will be seen, I navigate by sight.
In 10 years I would like to make a science fiction film. We will experience a good part of what we are talking about today, perhaps in a prototypical way.

I would like to know, in 10 years, what our cosmogony will be. And I think technology is becoming a part of our abstractions. AI can now write and create screenplays, but I’m not just talking about technique.

I’m interested in imagining what we could be like. How we could be. If we evolve even more, if we evolve. And in what terms.

From Metropolis to Dune we now code the imagination of the future as grey, desert-like, with a single great authority that governs and homogenizes our individual freedoms. We know that humanity (or rather a certain lifestyle) is already in serious danger.
I’m interested in imagining what will happen after the definitive disaster of this kind.
We hope to get there.

In addition to living here and now, it seems to me that you have already lived many lives to the full: what have you learned so far?

I learned something that has to do with both my job and life and it is very precious: listening, so I consider myself very lucky.

Listening, not only in an artistic sense, connects you with the other, makes you discover the world through the other and you also manage to see yourself in your smallness (Schopenauer says that the world is will and representation: if we didn’t exist, the world would not exist. I have learned to overturn this paradigm).

Listening is a crucial theme for all artists, even more so for emerging ones.

Listening allows you to connect with your authentic nature, it allows you to be a good director and a good writer.

Listening reverberates in the life of others: I have many fewer but much stronger and deeper relationships.

By listening I developed the ability to overcome the sabotaging obstacles of the ego.

I learned it, listening to it, from the people I love and have loved.

I consider myself a pretty decent human being thanks to listening.

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