Italian Matteo Garrone Adapts Murderous Tabloid Tale in “The Embalmer”
by Joslyn Yang
Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, 34, got the inspiration for his new film when he first read a sensational tabloid story about the murder of a gay dwarfish taxidermist in Rome. Intrigued by the motif behind the murder, he and script writers Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso started to fill the blanks with their own imagination.
The result was “The Embalmer,” a well-received movie which became a hit last year in Italy. The film tells the story of a 50-year-old dwarf, Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux), who works as an embalmer to preserve dead animals and also disposes bodies for the local mafia. His lonely life turns upside down when he falls for his dashing male assistant Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo). Their amicable relationship becomes deadly when Valerio falls in love with a beautiful young woman (Elsabetta Roccetti).
Garrone started his film career in his early twenties, working as an assistant camera operator. After two years, he quit his assistant job and devoted himself to painting full time. In 1997, Garrone launched his production company, Archimede and made his first feature film, “Terra di Mezzo” (Middle Ground), a film about foreigners’ lives in Rome. In the same year, Garrone shot a documentary “Bienvenido Espirito Santo” on Pentecost traditions, set in New York.
Garrone helmed his following two feature films, “Ospiti” (Guests) a movie about two Albanians who crash in his apartment for months and “Estate Romana” (Roman Summer), about a screenwriter who shares his apartment with a woman and her children. The two films, which screened at various film festivals, set Garrone apart from other filmmakers because of his strong documentary-style of filmmaking.
In “The Embalmer,” Garrone departs from this documentary style by introducing erotic elements and sexual tension to increase the drama of the story. He successfully presents Peppino’s repressed sexuality and agony with murky images and a melancholy score, placing the audience in an ambiguous and uncomfortable mood.
The movie, which premiered in the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight last year, opens on July 18 at Quad Cinema.
indieWIRE: “The Embalmer” was inspired by a true tabloid story that happened in Italy. What fascinated you most when you first read the story?
Matteo Garrone: We were inspired by the story but we changed it lot. We didn’t want to recreate the story of how it happened or what the newspaper said. We reinvented the story with our imagination. I was a painter before I became a director, so image is very important for me. The idea of a taxidermist captured my imagination.
iW: The real man behind Valirio Foglia Manzillo’s character was behind bars for the crime he committed. From what you just said, does that mean that you didn’t talk with him for your script?
Garrone: I believe that he came out of jail one or two years ago. But like I said, we changed the entire story. We changed everything. We changed the people of their family, and the place. We didn’t want to talk to the boy because we created the character from our imagination, not reality.
iW: What was the process of casting the dwarf actor Ernesto Mahieux like?
Garrone: I found him from theater. I saw him in a play and thought he was perfect for the character. When I started writing the script I usually had the actors in mind and found them. When we worked on the screenplay, we already knew who would be playing the characters. That’s how the actors can stay (true) to their characters’ personalities in my movies.
iW: Valerio Foglia Manzillo is a model and had no acting experience at all. Why did you decide to cast him?
Garrone: I found him from a model agency. This was his first acting experience. This is my forth film (and) I always work this way. When I meet those non-professional actors, I always try to understand those non-professional actors’ personalities. I think it’s good for the characters. It’s not that important to work with a professional actor. Ernesto is a professional actor, but Valerio is not. Still, it worked very well.
iW: When Ernesto Mahieux was in New York for the New Directors/New Films Festival, he said he didn’t want to take the part at first? How did you persuade him?
Garrone: That’s true. He was very worried about playing the character because South Italy is not very (accepting of) homosexuality. Homosexuality is a taboo there. He worried about his mother’s reaction. He disappeared for about two weeks before got back to me.
iW: Did he call you back?
Garrone: No, I called him and met with him. He decided to take it. I think now he’s very happy with his decision.
iW: You said the idea of a taxidermist captured your imagination because it spoke to you of a fascination with beauty and death?
Garrone: I believe this is some way a very noir movie. It’s a classic noir. The feelings of death always fascinates me. At the beginning, we wanted Ernesto’s character Peppino to be a bit frightening to the audience. And later in the movie, he became some sort of a hero because he can die for his feelings. We like these kinds of changes.
iW: Ernesto Mahieux said he couldn’t eat after doing some scenes with those dead animals?
Garrone: If he said so, it was true.
iW: Did the Valerio Foglia Manzillo feel comfortable working with dead animals?
Garrone: Valerio’s father is a hunter, so it probably wouldn’t be a problem. There was a professional taxidermist who gave Ernesto suggestions on how to do the work.
iW: How did you work with the cast to get them into character and get them into the mindset of people who would actually be going through the dark journey?
Garrone: I talked to my cast members a lot before the script was done so their characters have a lot of their own personalities. After we started the filming, they usually found out they got very deep into their characters. I asked them if they felt good or bad feelings about their characters’ behaviors. Sometimes they gave me some suggestions so I would change the script a bit.
iW: Do you think the movie reflects people’s attitudes towards homosexuality in Italy?
Garrone: To me, the movie is a classic story. It doesn’t matter if you are a man with a woman, a man with a man, or a woman with a woman. It’s a story of love. That’s all.
iW: The audiences seem to have very different reactions to the movie?
Garrone: I think it’s good!
iW: During the New Directors fest, an audience member actually stood up and said publicly that Ernesto Mahieux should feel ashamed for taking this role that made dwarfs look bad. What’s your view on this kind of reaction?
Garrone: It think Ernesto’s character Peppino is a hero in the movie, not so negative. He’s someone who is a bit romantic. He’s willing to take a chance to love someone. He’s in a more difficult situation. I think Valerio’s character is actually more negative. I don’t see one character as a very negative and the other as a very positive one.
iW: Was it very difficult for you to get the funding for the movie?
Garrone: No, the producer Domenico Procacci saw my previous movies and he trusted me. He believed in the story. They let me do what I wanted to do for the movie. That also means if the movie is received negatively, it would be all my fault. I have no excuses for it.
iW: You just finished shooting your fifth film in Vicenza. Can you talk a bit about it?
Garrone: I would say it’s another love story. I can’t say too much at this moment.
iW: Will you go back to documentary soon?
Garrone: Yes, I love making documentaries. But feature and documentary films are not like black and white to me. In the fiction, a lot of times the actors act something coming from their own personalities. When I make documentaries, sometimes I ask people to act a little. So it’s like the fiction becomes the documentaries, and the documentaries become the fiction.