"Francesca e Ninziata"
If you want to know how to spell CLASS, sometimes you have to go all the way
to Montreal. It is spelled S-O-P-H-I-A.
©Photo by Lois Siegel
Montreal World Film Festival
At the 25th Montreal World Film Festival - that open-eyed, wide-ranging annual
Off-Broadway of cinema roundups - the 400 entries long and short included
three raffish stabs at the New York downtown scene and one Grand Prix of the
The three takes on downtown Manhattan are "Acts of Worship," a Lower East
Side cinedrama of drugs and loyalties, written and directed (her first) by
Rosemary Rodriguez; "Chelsea Walls," set within the angst-ridden rooms and
corridors of the Chelsea Hotel, where else, with direction (his first) by
Ethan Hawke; and Leon Ichaso's "Pinero," a portrait of the difficult life
and times of Miguel Pinero, the Nuyorican poet/playwright who gave us "Short
The Grand Prix of the Americas? That was awarded mid-Festival to Ms. Sophia
Loren at a press conference, or mob scene, or zoo, straight out of Nathanael
West's "Day of the Locust."
The press, an ever-swelling rugby scrum several hundred strong at least, was
kept cooling its heels at a glass barrier for upwards of 45 minutes until
allowed to charge in like a herd of wild buffalo. In the next instant this
pack of raging beasts would be rendered breathless at sight of the serene,
gorgeous Ms. Loren taking her seat at the head table beside her friend and
colleague Lina Wertmuller.
Together, Loren as star, ultra-nonconformist Wertmuller as director and co-writer,
they had made "Francesca e Ninziata," the 130-minute saga of an
Italian family pasta-factory empire ruled over by tough-tender Francesca,
who, after she has disposed of the Prince her husband,
and already the mother of nine children, cannot resist adopting one more: an 8-year-old orphan girl
destined (of course) to become mama's favorite. The film was at
Montreal in the category "Hors Concourse: World Greats. "Now, here they sat,
facing the animals, this odd couple
who have made three films together over the years: short fiery Wertmuller
with her shock of white hair against coal-black eyebrows and white trademark
dime-store plastic sunglasses, next to tall, cool, exquisite Loren, in a trim
coral pantsuit that magnificently understated her scarlet fingernails and
bold wheat field of red hair.
"Miss Loren," came the first question. "Welcome. How
long will you continue making movies?" Speak of blunt.
"I have really no idea," said la Loren in graceful English just barely touched
by the accent we all know by heart. "I think this is my profession, and I
would like to continue forever. But who knows?" A shrug. "In life,
you never know."
The questioner had the grace to murmur: "You are fantastic!" before a shot
was fired from another quarter: "Why did you make this film?"
"From the day I read the first pages of the book [a novel by Maria Orsini
Natale], I became so involved in what this character [her role] was giving
me emotionally and everything else. First of all, she comes from Naples,"
said Sophia Scicolone Ponti, the "Toothpick" (so skinny!) who, born and bred
in Pozzuoli, a Naples slum, burst from the screen at age 19 as the scrumptious,
unskinny, laughing pizza vendor of "L'Oro di Napoli" ("Gold of Naples") opposite
Vittorio De Sica in 1954.
"And then, she is the mother of nine children," said this mother of just one,
Edoardo Ponti -- who at 27 has now written and directed his own first
film, "Between Strangers," starring, among others, Sophia Loren and Gerard
"My son wrote it, in English, and directed it, and everything. It is for me
an earthquake of emotions, if I can say that," she said. "Listen, I
think the role of the mother has always been something important for me, my
role" -- a moment later adding, in answer to another question, that the performance
of her own that she likes best is "maybe" her Oscar-winning mother in "Two
Women," and the actor she's never worked with and would most like to is Sean
To a loud boorish Francophile demand as to why she didn't speak in French
at this press conference in Montreal, she calmly replied: "When I am in a
film, I speak French, yes."
by Lois Siegel
Montreal World Film Festival
Then came the ultimate dumb inquiry in, I am afraid, unmistakable American
twang: "You've been a star your whole adult life. How have you seen
change over your long career?"
Loren drew a blank. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't understand. What do you
want to know?"
"Well, hasn't stardom changed?" the questioner persisted.
"I don't think so," Sophia Loren said. "Star means star," she said,
each word a
separate drumbeat. "Either you become a star or you don't Nothing has changed
essentially. Nothing," she said.
And that, my friends, is why you have to go to Montreal to learn how to spell
"Francesca e Nunziata" is a considerable achievement, but it is
not all that adventurous as a movie. There were, this year as always, many
adventurous films at Montreal, and the one I wish I could have brought home
with me to New York was "Scheherazade," an incendiary bilingual (English and
German) unpeeling of forbidden truths all taking place in 84 minutes
of running time on a small private yacht in the middle of Lake Zurich.
Filmed on that lake by two remarkable young Swiss filmmakers
- producer Simon Hesse, director Riccardo Signorell - it plunges more daringly
and openly into father/daughter (plus screwed-up brother) incest than
even Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." (That masterful exile showed to full brilliance
at Montreal in a 49-minute British ITV interview in which, among much else,
Polanski informed his too-smart-by-half Scottish interrogator: "If 'Chinatown'
had had a happy
ending, we wouldn't be sitting here talking about it.")
The daddy's girl in "Scheherazade," is played by luscious, sulky, golden-haired
and she and Hesse and Signorell are each a story unto themselves. Here's hers,
as Hesse and Signorell tell it:
In May 1999, many months before the making of "Scheherazade," all Switzerland
was blanketed by some 6,000 billboards displaying a golden-haired unknown
young woman and the legend "WHO IS ANGIE BECKER?" Perhaps inspired by a wonderful
old Judy Holliday/Jack Lemmon film called "It Should Happen to You," it was
actually just a campaign to promote the billboard company, and there was no
Angie Becker, just a Zoe Mikulecszy who'd posed as her.
"The whole country was saying: 'Who the f--- is Angie Becker?' And then, when
we started to cast our film," says director Signorell, "we wanted someone
very sensitive and innocent to play the daughter. I was looking for a princess
. . . "
"Then in came this girl from the model agency," says producer Hesse. "Full
of attitude, carrying a beer at 11 o'clock in the morning, in boxer shorts,
armed with" - he gestures a plenteous bosom - "God's gift . . . We thought
it was the wrong person for the part, especially since the other four actors
[Jurgen Brugger, Antonia Beamish, Philipp Stengels, Siegfried Terpooten]
were all our friends."
But they took her anyway. God's gift indeed, as the movie camera, and the
movie itself, make clear.
If the name Hesse rings a bell, it should. Simon Hesse, born in Zurich on
Dec. 8, 1972, is the great-grandson of Herman Hesse, the novelist whose works
("Siddhartha," "Steppenwolf," etc.) have spiritually nourished several generations
of young Americans.
by Lois Siegel
Simon Hesse with Jerry Tallmer
Montreal World Film Festival
Simon's father is architect and city planner Silver Hesse, and Simon himself
apprenticed for four years as an architect before coming at 21 to try his
luck in New York. "It was too fast, too lonely." He lasted a month. Now, of
course, he wants to come back - preferably for a New York premiere of
Yes, he has read some of his great-grandfather's writings. "The essential
thing is I like it - but," the grandson says, wobbling his hand and warbling
like a bird. "it's too flowery, a beautiful world." There is nothing flowery,
be it said, in what happens between daddy and daughter and the others on that
Riccardo Signorell looks like a poet, an artist, a lithe, half-shaven creative
but in fact this creative soul, for all his no more than average
height and weight ("exactly the size of Wayne Gretzky," he keeps saying),
is also, six months of the year, a champion European hockey player, left wing
on the Zurich Grasshoppers. Immediately after the Montreal festival he would
be heading back home for the start of the 2001 season. The places he has played
Son of plumber Meinrad Signorelle and boutique owner Christina Signorelle,
Riccardo was born March 5, 1970, in Chur, a Swiss provincial capital. He has
been playing hockey for 24 years now, since he was seven; has been a pro for
the past 13 years.
He too was once an architectural apprentice, in an office where "this guy
named Peter Zumthor showed me everything, music, books, how to write, how
to paint, all those things I didn't know." Riccardo broke into film
work in 1993 as a "best boy," a go-fer job that he rates as "a kind of Teddy
The Zurich Grasshoppers' left wing and the Herman Hesse great-grandson next
hope to make a picture called "Le Canadien." It's based on the true case of
a hockey player "who gets body-checked, and injured, and dies, and they send
his body home with no brain and no heart, so that there can be no autopsy."
No flowers, no warbling birds, no incest, no yacht. And nothing like the mock-prison
out-of-control sadism laid bare by another socko motion picture at Montreal
25, Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Das Experiment," in which a Stanford University
research disaster is transferred all the more terrifyingly to
Germany. None of that. But if Hesse and Signorell pull it off,
it will be enough.