How Alice Rohrwacher Fashioned a Christmas Tale That Takes the Cake in “Le Pupille”

There was always bound to be a little mischief in “Le Pupille” when writer/director Alice Rohrwacher began thinking of assembling a group of young girls to fill out a Catholic boarding school for a story set in her native Italy in the midst of World War II, but one thing that no one would be messing around with would be the original letter that inspired the film, Christmas-time correspondence from the renowned author Elsa Morante to the literary critic Goffredo Fofi about a coveted cake that would require creativity on the director’s part that Morante would surely appreciate.

“For me, [Morante’s] a goddess,” Rohrwacher said, following a recent screening of the short at AFI Fest in Los Angeles. “So I have the respect of her words and I thought the best way to respect words is to make a song because when you make a song, you never change the words.”

It was just one challenge that Rohrwacher would place on herself after being issued one by Alfonso Cuaron, who had set about reaching out to directors for a series of films about the holiday season for Disney. There were no mandates other than a connection to Christmas, but when the pitch immediately conjured images of the pink confection that was at the heart of Morante’s letter in Rohrwacher’s mind, a story set in 1943 started to open up and the writer/director hoped to work within the limitations of the period, making any visual effects achievable the same way they were in the era and building the story around the letter, which she put to music sung by the children in her cast with the help of her friend Norina Liccardo and the Finnish experimental trio Cleaning Women.

The marvelous result is like opening up one present after another under the tree as “Le Pupille” finds delight in a place where the fear of God is ever present, taking the form of a Mother Superior (Alba Rohrwacher) impervious to the (considerable) charms of the girls she’s charged with caring for or the impending “Buon Natale.” Although it was always Rohrwacher’s intention to make a festive celebration of the season, it doesn’t take much of a leap to see the Mother Superior’s iron-fisted rule in line with that of Benito Mussolini, who had lost the confidence of the country after aligning with Nazi Germany in the war, but was still recognized by Hitler and others as its leader after being ejected as prime minister in the winter that “Le Pupille” is set in. The director shrewdly uses this backdrop when the failure of the nation’s military effort started to show to have the wives and mothers of soldiers on the battlefield arrive at the school in the belief that the Catholic schoolgirls’ prayers could help their loved ones safely find their way home.

“I think maybe we have a stereotypical imagination of the past and to break this, it’s always very important to see from another point of view [where] if we look at the past, we’re trying to take out that stereotype from it,” said Rohrwacher, with the help of a translator. “It’s exactly the stereotype that fools people and makes the past come back. For example, if we were able to describe the pain that was felt during the fascist period well, then perhaps in a deeper manner, then we’d understand fascism better.”

However, rather than make a film explicitly about the insidiousness of evil, Rohrwacher spreads joy in observing a group of girls reveling in their freedom when left to their own devices, with the story eventually coming to focus on Serafina, one of the youngest in class who resists defying the Mother Superior unlike others in the flock even when her commands become contradictory.

“I really wanted to make a movie about a girl that is so good she becomes bad,” said Rohrwacher, who did not know who she would cast as the exceedingly polite prepubescent protagonist until after bringing a group of nonprofessional actresses to the set as her ensemble, only deciding who would play who closer to filming. Ultimately, Melissa Falasconi would emerge in the workshops she held with the first-time thespians as Serafina when she could express “a transparency in [her] eyes, able to reflect everything [she] sees and somehow a reflection of what we are as well.”

“I always look for girls that don’t want to be actresses later. Just make one movie – with me,” Rohrwacher laughed, with just enough conviction to make one think she wasn’t joking. “I explained to them that it’s very important to make a movie only one time not only because you will be an actress, but because you’ll look at movies in a different way, so it’s a very beautiful experience for them. And I think when we work, the movie is not the most important thing. The most important thing when we work is that we are sharing the fact of our lives and the fact that this is an important time for the children. They will remember it, [so] it has to be a good time and that they will become friends. I think when you work like this, the movie can also be good.”

Rohrwacher says she knew there was real talent in her midst when the film called to have all the students have their mouths washed out with soap by the nuns and acted accordingly with disgusted “Yeechs,” even though the white substance on set was actually chocolate. She also knew she could bring in a ringer to play the imposing Mother Superior, putting in a call to her longtime collaborator — and blood relation — Alba Rohrwacher, who wouldn’t take it personally to be thought of as the heavy.

“This is because you are not her sister,” Rohrwacher said with a devious smile, when asked if she was implying anything by asking Alba to play the ostensible villain of the piece, though it was the nuance her sister can always be counted on to bring as an actress that actually clinched it. “[The Mother Superior] was quite maleficent, but very refined in the way she expressed herself, and for those who don’t understand Italian, you might’ve caught the fact that her pronunciation is very exact, very precise and that brings us back to another era where language was used differently. In the end, it’s not that she’s a nasty or a mean person. She actually has the destiny of these children in her hands, so she’s very productive. She’s thinking about what the right thing to do is and she’s thinking in practical terms.”

Such a considerate turn was necessary when Rohrwacher was balancing the tone of a story so gregariously told yet so subtly sophisticated in its evocation of a tragic time in Italy’s past, and though “Le Pupille” was always first and foremost meant to be an entertainment in the celebratory spirit of the season, the director couldn’t overlook its religious underpinnings.

“The movie that Alfonso asked me to do was about Christmas, so of course, it has to be related to the religion because Christmas is a religious celebration, so it was not possible to do something about another thing,” Rohrwacher said, returning to the milieu of her debut feature “Corpo Celeste” in setting if not time. “I’m not in any religion, but I came from a country where religion has very big political power but also very big spiritual power, and I always found myself in contrast with these two religious energies — the political and the spiritual. On the one hand, I can’t really accept what the Catholic Church has done, but on the other, I love that people have faith and therefore, you can see this contrast in all of my films and that’s something very important.”

If anything, “La Pupille” reinforced Rohrwacher’s own long-held faith in how art can bring a community together, creating a particularly jubilant atmosphere for the production when the shoot only convened after it was deemed safe to film as the spread of COVID waned. Filming in and around her village, the director invited locals to participate in the production and she was elated that her first major studio project had the same regional roots as any one of her films before, noting that she made the day of Luciano Vergaro, a maker of gravestones in the area, when she offered him a bit of cinematic immortality along with the part of a chimney sweep looking to collect payment from the Mother Superior to little avail.

“He is a very special person and when I asked him to do this, I said, ‘You can imagine you are the new chimney sweep of Disney. After the one we all know, it’s you,’” Rohrwacher joked about ensuring Vergaro’s place alongside “Mary Poppins”’ Dick Van Dyke in the Magic Kingdom. “Doing this little movie during the COVID time, it was very beautiful to spend time together with people we love and that are very close to us. Everything was so hard for everyone of us, I tried to call my friends and my neighbors to work with them.”

“Le Pupille” will start streaming on Disney+ on December 16th.

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