Alfonso Cuaron Interview: Supporting ‘Le Pupille’ and Alice Rohrwacher
The support of filmmaker “Le Pupille” and Alice Rohrwacher is the latest step in his crusade to reach awards season globally.
When Alfonso Cuarón reached the awards campaign for “Roma” in 2019, he turned it into a bigger mission. “I grew up on foreign-language films,” the Mexican filmmaker said when he won the Oscar for what was then called best foreign-language film, before mentioning films like “The Godfather” and “Citizen Kane” in his speech. .
Message received: The following year, the Oscars went global. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has said goodbye to the word “foreign” and changed the name of the Best International Feature Film category. A few months later, “Parasite” became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. As the Academy continues to work to globalize the Oscar race, Cuarón’s own crusade to support non-English language cinema continues as executive producer of the nominated “Le Pupile.”
Cuarón played a critical role in helping Italian author Alice Rohrwacher earn her first nomination of the year. The Cannes-acclaimed director of understated and ethereal dramas like “The Wonders” and “Happy as Lazzaro,” the festival circuit has celebrated Rohrwacher’s work for years. However, his new 37-minute short film, nominated for best live-action film, has received more attention worldwide than his films distributed worldwide on Disney+. This came as Cuarón struck a deal with the streaming service to put together a series of short films about the holidays. Since then, he has approached directors such as David Lowery for future installments, but Rohrwacher was his first call.
“When you make an offer to filmmakers, they usually say, ‘That’s a great idea, let me think about it,’ and then you never hear from them again,” Cuarón said in a recent phone interview. “I thought he was going to be another filmmaker saying that. Then the next morning he called me with these ideas.
Rohrwacher conceived “Le Pupille” as a playful story set in a Catholic orphanage in the middle of World War II. There’s a stern mother (Rohrwacher’s sister Alba) who forces young girls to attend nativity scenes while imposing strict behavioral expectations. Their resolve is tested when the school receives a cake as a special gift, and the film becomes a light-hearted tale of religious rebellion.
The film has a gentle touch like all of Rohrwacher’s work, with deeper depths about coming of age within the confines of tradition. “I don’t have a Catholic family, but I come from a Catholic country,” Rohwacher said on Zoom. “The greatest visual impressions in my life—and my respect for images—are tinged with religious sentiment, even though I’m not personally Catholic. I connect to a spiritual world because I tell stories through pictures.”
Cuarón sought to show a larger platform as an extension of Rohrwacher’s work in international cinema. “I think the cultural aspect is more important – to be exposed to different cultures and different approaches to film,” he said. “Each culture has a different and very specific approach to filmmaking. Alice’s films are undeniably Italian. They draw on a very specific cultural context to create tales, almost like psalms, usually involving working-class people. It’s the tremendous sense of human potential to transcend normal perception. This is fantastic.”
US Disney+ subscribers may be surprised to find that when they pull up “Le Pupille,” the movie automatically starts with the English dub. Rohrwacher defended the decision. “The dubbing connects with a young audience who can’t read,” he said, noting that the short has been dubbed into many other languages. “When they showed us the language in which this film was translated from all over the world, I was very touched. I couldn’t believe it, because it’s incredible to get to these remote places.”
Cuarón was more controversial. “If it’s going to help the films get seen around the world, that’s fine, but it’s very, very far from ideal,” he said. He was adamant that “Roma” would never get an official dub.
“Look, if you’re an adult, reading subtitles isn’t going to hurt you unless you have to move your lips while reading and you’re really tired by the end of the movie,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I grew up with subtitles, but it’s so great to hear the unique sounds and music of each language.”
Despite his reservations, Cuarón has repeatedly embraced the opportunities offered by the streaming landscape. In addition to the Netflix production of “Roma” and the Disney+ deal supporting “Le Pupille,” he recently wrapped production on the AppleTV+ miniseries “Responsibility.”
“There are pros and cons to streaming,” he said. “It has gentrified cinema in a very dangerous way, which is the way of the algorithm. It’s about the product, not the discoveries.” However, he remained enthusiastic about their global reach.
“Because of the global nature of a lot of these platforms, you’ve produced films and even shows in different countries that have proven to travel very well,” he said. “It makes me very optimistic. This means that audiences around the world are very open to facing films and shows from other countries. They are very comfortable to watch.”
Rohrwacher’s own global profile will continue to grow as his international co-production “La Chimera,” starring Josh O’Connor as British grave robber, looks set to hit Cannes in May. (In the early predictions department, he will be the first filmmaker to win an Oscar and a Palme d’Or in the same calendar year.)
Rohrwacher, who lives most of the year in a rural Italian village, said she really wants to stick to her roots. “When I think of a story, I think of a story set in Italy because I’m so passionate about the landscape, the history, the art, the culture,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not curious about travelers.” So far, the stories I have seen and made into films have been related to this country.”
Even when his work travels, he added, it always retains a distinctive Italian character. “I come from a volcanic village,” he said. “Whenever you pick up a stone from the ground, you can see many layers over the years. I’ve always had the idea that I live on one layer, but there’s so much more underneath. This stratification is related to my country.”
Rohrwacher is not the only filmmaker to bring an international flair to his category: all but one of the nominees for best live-action film are in languages other than English, and none of the filmmakers are American. “Real progress is being made,” Cuarón said. “I really believe that the film is not about the spoken language. The film is the language.”
“Le Pupille” is available to stream on Disney+.
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