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Death, Regret And Family Ties Explored In Emma Dante’s ‘The Macaluso Sisters’

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 4, 2021

Emma Dante sets her latest film in her native Sicily but the story about five orphaned sisters takes place in a weather-beaten apartment building abutting an unromantic industrial coastline rather than the suburban residential neighborhood in which she grew up. Yet the story could have set almost anywhere at any time because it’s about sibling relationships over a span of eight decades.

The Macaluso Sisters is based on Dante’s award-winning play Le sorelle Macaluso, and marks the noted playwright’s second feature film, after 2013’s Via Castellana Bandiera. The heartbreaking drama premiered in competition at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival where it won the Pasinetti Awards, given by the National Union of Italian Journalists, for Best Film and Best Actress (awarded to the ensemble cast playing the sisters), and has since won the association’s annual prizes for Best Film and Best Director.

The film begins with the girls living in their cluttered but homey apartment. (There is no mention of what happened to the Macaluso parents.) Ranging in ages from 6-18, Maria, Penuccia, Lia, Katia and Antonella support themselves by renting pigeons and doves that they keep in a dovecote on the roof of their building for festivities like weddings. On a rare day off, the siblings travel to a nearby resort where they frolic in the water near a pier. The almost-perfect day of fun, relaxation and even a bit of romance ends in tragedy, though, and the event impacts the survivors for the rest of their lives. The now-four Macalusos suffer feelings of guilt, regret, anger and blame on the loss of their beloved youngest sister, Antonella. Like the birds they raise that instinctively return to their nest holes on the roof of the apartment building, the sisters remain for years near or within the family abode as illness and age take their toll on the family until, eventually, no one is left at the home except the shadows of the girls themselves.

The Macaluso Sisters will open on Friday, Aug. 6 exclusively at New York’s Film Forum and in select theaters nationwide (including NY and LA) throughout the month. 

Dante explained through a translator the idea behind her film, its symbolism and meaning and casting the 12 main actresses who play the sisters at three key moments of their lives.

Angela Dawson: This is set on your home island of Sicily. Are any of the locations you used near where you grew up? Do they hold special meaning to you?

Emma Dante: The film is set in Sicily but in places that aren’t connected to my childhood. I grew up in a residential neighborhood. The film, instead, is set in a suburban area of the city in front of an industrial beach where waste that has been there for years lies on some stretches. Some of the furniture featured in the film was found in front of the house of the Macaluso sisters.

Dawson: What were the challenges as well as the advantages of adapting your play for the screen?

Dante: First I was supported by two outside perspectives: those of (screenplay co-writers) Giorgio Vasta and Elena Stancanelli, who helped me get away from the play’s theatrical structure by reviewing the story in light of a completely different form of expression—the cinema. Also, I was quite clear that the film would be something different and, from the beginning, I didn’t fight to stay true to the play. I knew that in order to make a credible transposition, I had to betray and modify the play. In fact, the film is very different from the play. I would say that they are two totally autonomous works. It was quite a challenge, but I never felt I was forcing the issue or felt a sense of loss. The experience was powerful and necessary.

Dawson: This is a story of guilt and blame and how each of the surviving sisters cope (or don’t cope) with the tragedy of their sister’s death. And how this one tragic event impacts the rest of their lives, even as they become young adults and then elderly adults. What inspired this?

Dante: I wanted to make a film about time and therefore timelessness, a film that perceived life as an unconventional experience, not linked to fashions or events. The Macaluso Sisters could even be set 20 years ago because it doesn’t tell a strictly contemporary story but one that focuses on a universal and timeless theme—death. It’s about a nest, a house, where, in three acts of life, five sisters live.

I was interested in the sisterhood—the strong, loving union between these women that lasts for life, the link between the living and the dead, their undissolvable bond accompanied by remorse and guilt. In my opinion, the most dramatic line of the film is Pinuccia’s in the kitchen, when she whispers to Katia in tears, “It was such a beautiful day. We could all have gone to watch the fish…”

Dawson: Antonella is such a focal point for the family. She’s the glue that keeps them together and when she is gone, that glue comes undone.

Dante: Antonella dies, but actually she doesn’t die; she remains in the house and in their heads. The Macaluso Sisters was not in any way supposed to be a ghost story. That was not our intention, but in writing it, we could not solve the problem because whatever we had the dead sisters do was likely to be aestheticizing or too intellectual. I knew where the dead were when I shot the scenes of the living. The dead are in the shots of the living, who need the dead to give them courage. They’re immortalized there forever.  When Antonella dies, the house begins to empty, the sisters slowly go away, but the auras remain behind the furniture, and the looks of the child in the corners of the rooms.

Dawson: Could you talk about each character as an “organ” of the body with Antonella representing the lungs, Maria the brain, Lia the heart, Katia the stomach, etc. Do you yourself have siblings? If so, what organ are you in your family?

Dante: I had two brothers. One died at the age of 24 in a car accident and the other is seven years younger than me. I never had sisters. In the amputated body of my family, because of the tragic mourning, I always felt as though I were the belly—the container where all the pain was ground, to be digested or rejected.

Dawson: Bickering Lia and Penuccia seem to have this lifelong co-dependent connection. They say the nastiest things about and to each other and even getting physically violent with each other, but does that mask their other emotions?

Dante: Actually, Pinuccia and Lia cannot do without each other. In fact, they are the two who separate later than the others and, thanks to their bond, resist until old age. They love and hate each other, but they’re the closest. The smile between the tears of old Pinuccia at Lia’s bedside, in the last phase of their life, is, for me, a moment of infinite tenderness, their moment of conciliation.

Dawson: There is a lot of symbolism in the film, especially involving the birds. Can you talk about what they represent?

Dante: Pigeons always go back to their dovecote of origin because they were born and lived there and even if someone with cages takes them to the other side of the world, they will go back to their dovecote. For me, it was important to bring this call of the doves to the place of origin with the history of the sisters and the house where they return over a period of 80 years. The pigeons are “the little people” (as Italian author Anna Maria Ortese defines the animals) who accompany and protect the sisters, like real parents. The doves always will be there. They’ll always come back to the house even when there’s no one left.

Dawson: Can you talk about casting this film? For most of the characters, you needed to cast multiple generations (with the exception of the Antonella character).

Dante: My casting director, Maurillo Mangano, was fundamental: his incessant and meticulous research opened up many ideas for me … even afterwards. With great patience, he scoured Italy to find 12 actresses who, from girls to old women, make 90 percent of the film. The time that passes and creates changes in faces and bodies was the thing I was most interested in. I wasn’t looking for doppelgangers. I really wanted different actresses who looked alike. Thinking about the time-distorted bodies has been one of the stimulating things we’ve done.

With the 12 actresses, we rehearsed in the house—still empty—for about three weeks before filming, building a common vocabulary of gestures, looks, sounds to help the young adult and older women resemble each other in the various stages of life. Throughout our lives, we are multiple bodies and, above all, there is a time (around age 50, maybe) when we stop resembling each other. This is what the film speaks of—this freedom to tell the metamorphosis of a body without tricks. I was interested in showing the radical change that time, that great surgeon, brings to our bodies.

Dawson: The shots of the empty rooms after the furniture has been removed and everyone is gone with ghost images of the picture frames on the walls is chilling and unforgettable. Is this a commentary on how swiftly life passes and about the shadows we leave on the places we’ve been?

Dante: The dismantling of the house is the funeral of the film; the farewell to the spectators. Lia empties the rooms, de-flowers the house, puts holes in it, destroying and throwing away the things she doesn’t want to survive for fear that they will be profaned by others. At the end of the film, the rooms are completely empty, like shrunken wombs, but the sisters reunite, together and young, turning their backs on us as they watch the sea.

Dawson: There is no mention of what happened to the girls’ parents and there appears to be no other family members in their lives. Was that intentional and why?

Dante: We never knew where to put the parents. We wanted a family of sisters. I don’t miss having a father or mother. I feel it is a complete family, with a surname and a precise origin—a family that organizes itself from within with women and the animals.

Dawson: What are you working on now?

Dante: I’m writing my third film, from a play of mine called Mercy. It’s the story of three prostitutes who adopt a disabled boy, the son of their partner who was kicked and punched by one of their clients. Before dying, one of the women gives birth to Arturo, who is the protagonist of the story.


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