As far as contemporary Italian cinema goes, you might be hard-pressed to find two filmmakers that push the big-red-button with the style and finesse of Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo. The twin brothers have in some circles been referred to as the ‘Italian Safdies’—a nickname no doubt intended to flatter. The Safdies are two of the boldest contemporary American filmmakers working after all, but there might be a slight injustice in lobbying them in with their supposed American counterparts, if anything because it suggests a falsehood that what they’re doing is anything less than singular.
Like any modern filmmakers, DNA traces of those that came before can be found in their work. Though, in truth, the D’Innocenzo brothers are Italy’s most excitingly divisive and increasingly original filmmakers, likely due to their ability to see through the various masks and illusions projected by modern Italia, and to interrogate them accordingly. Their first three features differ wildly in their respective cinematic styles, ranging from the gritty realism of La terra dell’abbastanza to the polished yet skin-crawling dark absurdism of Favolacce, but share a through-line of biting social commentary of contemporary Italian life that is sometimes found lacking amongst their industry playmates.
Now in pre-production, gearing up to shoot their first TV show, the twin prodigy’s reflect on masks and masculinity, their creative relationship, anticipated future projects, and love for fashion.
LG: I watched La terra dell’abbastanza and Favolacce back-to-back recently and found them to be an extremely effective double bill. Your films revisit different variations of repressed identities in the face of society. In La terra dell’abbastanza, Mirko and Manolo attempt (and ultimately fail) to shed their empathy and guilt and wear the image of remorseless killers. In Favolacce, wealthy suburban fathers suppress a sometimes-sadistic resentment for their families and lives, while their kids very much struggle with their own bubbling frustrations. Even in America Latina, our protagonist seemingly enjoys a perfect life but hides behind his own mask. Why is this a theme that you feel compelled to return to, and why is it so continuously relevant?
Fabio: I think the main reason is that we really believe in the game of false illusions. Our first three films are part of a trilogy about the rules of being ‘a man’ in the worst definition possible, or rather the idea of being a man as Berlusconi was: fake status quo, predatory instincts, the search for alpha male status, the mortification and the commodification of the woman. Silvio Berlusconi was the real black hole of morality for the country but with our films we don’t want to judge him: time will give us all the answers. We prefer to show characters that are absorbed in that type of masculinity. Clearly, hoping that this masculinity is just a mask we put on to hide the fragility that fortunately we all have.
Some say you created a new sub-genre of Italian Neorealism, described as ‘suburban neorealism’. How do you feel about that term in relation to your films?
Damiano: Suburban Neo-Realism is at least a precise definition. Even if I don’t believe in peremptory definitions. I’m also afraid to say ‘my name is Damiano D’Innocenzo’. I’m never really sure. We’ll see what happens now when shooting our first television show. Maybe critics will start to call us ‘classic’. Certainly, a film and a TV show are two very different things. A film is like flirting. A TV show is like a wedding.
I noticed while watching Favolacce a kind of dark absurdism that brought to mind Yorgos Lanthimos, although very much executed in its own unique way. Who are some of the filmmakers and artists that have influenced your evolving style?
Fabio: Sure, we have a lot of influences before starting the pre-production of a movie, but with the knowledge that to copy you need a skill and a talent that we sincerely don’t have. Lanthimos is great, for sure. But when you read critics of your movies and people compare your work to the work of a very spread out names of very different filmmakers, from Pasolini to Lynch, it is a good indication that you are on the right path to be just yourself. We love the work of so many artists: Marco Ferreri, John Hughes, Antonio Campos, Carlos Reygadas, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni, Lee Chang-dong, Catherine Breillat, Lina Wertmuller. It’s a pity to name only a few directors.
What’s the dynamic like between you as co-directors on set and overall creative partners?
Damiano: The dynamic is love. Fabio and I are not just brothers. We are twins. Love between twins is different. It’s such an honest love that it becomes violent, just like the most beautiful poems. Shooting on set, our confrontations are ocular rather than verbal: we have to be very fast. A good director is just the one who knows how to shoot great scenes in the agreed time, without running over.
You’re about to take on a very new challenge in the form of television storytelling. How has your approach to storytelling changed compared to writing feature films? Have you had to adapt in any way to this new format?
Fabio: Writing six episodes for your own series is a fantastic experience. We are grateful for the freedom we have right now and feel totally free in terms of themes and language. I guess the long storytelling experience will help us even for our next movie. We start as writers rather than screenwriters and the scripts of Dostojevskij are more connected with literature. Thank god we are ambitious. Here in Italy there are so many people who pretend to be humble while being terribly mediocre.
There are whispers that you’ll be helming an all-female western set in the 1800s. Is there some truth to those rumours? On paper that sounds like a huge departure from what you’ve made before in a very exciting way.
Damiano: We wrote the script for this concentrated and mature atypical Western. We’ve not yet been able to make it happen ‘cause it requires an important budget, which is difficult to get in Italy. We will probably shoot it in the United States. It doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen or done before.
You seem to have great chemistry with Elio Germano, who appeared in Favolacce and America Latina. Tell me a bit about your creative relationship with him.
Fabio: What we do by working together is we look each other in the eyes and start to pull out all our mistakes. Then we talk about it together, we try to analyse these errors—it’s all very funny because we trust each other and there is no judgment. We try to understand what we have in common with the characters, with the frightening awkwardness of their obsessions. We tend to be empathic: no matter how distant the characters are from us, if you want to reach them you can. We don’t care how great Elio is. We don’t ask him to act, we ask him to understand.
Over the last few years, you’ve collaborated closely with Gucci and Alessandro Michele, working on campaigns with them, releasing Night Pharmacy, a fantastic photo book that remains my favourite work of yours outside of the movies. You’re both great lovers of film, poetry, literature, photography; what is it about fashion that inspires you?
Damiano: Fashion is the most childish form of expression we have and it’s something we all do, every day. Everyone gets dressed every day. Every day we choose how to show ourselves to the world. Poor, rich, unusual, formal, frightened, outrageous. With Alessandro Michele of Gucci (and his boyfriend Vanni Attili) we share the happiness of constantly crossing the arts: poetry, photography, cinema, drawing, music. Who says that in this life you shouldn’t have fun and that as adults you can’t play anymore? In fashion we feel this way: free to have fun, play, re-imagine this life.
What was the last great film you saw?
Fabio: Sundown by Michael Franco. A film proud of its flaws that tells the inertia in the only possible way.
Damiano: Producer Dan Guando advised us to see Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers. A rigorous film, very well designed, with a real tenderness and care towards human beings.