At the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement 2016 you’re showing Spira Mirabilis, a film in five movements on the theme of immortality. It’s taken you to sets in the four corners of the earth: in Japan, Switzerland, South Dakota and Italy. I’d like you to tell us something about how this ambitious project first came about.
Spira Mirabilis is a project that started in 2013, repeating what we’ve always done, which is to start the new film where the previous one ended. Materia oscura (Dark Matter) was a film that ended with death, raising questions about the stupidity of humans and about their ability to harm themselves. It’s a documentary about the test range at Salto di Quirra in Sardinia. For over half a century, Italians, Europeans, Americans, Libyans and Chinese have used the place to test the weapons of the future, as well as for blowing up stockpiles of weapons from the Second World War, inevitably poisoning the land. Materia oscura was yet another investigation of the conflict between the powers that be and the people, taking up from what we had started in our previous films. A sort of gloominess that remained with us throughout the shoot made us decide to create a film that would not be about conflict, and this is how Spira Mirabilis was born. The first idea came from an article we read in the New York Times, which spoke about this Japanese scientist and his immortal jellyfish. We decided we wanted to meet him, so we went off to Japan in the summer of 2013. We immediately started filming and the pictures were beautiful and evocative, but we realised that we shouldn’t be making a film about him alone. When we got back, we wondered how we could work on this study of immortality. We thought about the four elements of nature and, in a process of accumulation, we chose a number of situations that all shared a positive feeling about humankind. Unlike what we did in Materia oscura, we wanted to make a film that would illustrate the more majestic aspects of human beings, as seen by people who continue to seek, and who never stop trying to build something that can remain both for and in others.
FP: Yet I seem to remember that in one of the episodes, the one about fire, in which you filmed the rituals of a Lakota community, there is a return to this element of conflict.
MDA and MP: In actual fact, conflict crops up in all the movements of the film, but it’s something we did without realising it. In Spira Mirabilis, the conflict shifts from the confrontation between people and the institutions they have created towards an inner conflict. In our stories, this striving for immortality appears in scientific forms, in religious aspirations through the construction of huge cathedrals, and in art through the creation of very particular musical instruments. Lastly, it appears in something more mysterious, which has survived in Lakota culture and which is linked to an intuition of the unity of all things and of nature. Inner conflict appears in all these manifestations.
FP: So possibly we could say you’ve gone from a sphere of conflict to one of challenge.
MDA and MP: In our films we always engage in a fight, seeing what it’s like in challenging situations. On the weapons test site, it seemed to us that our exploration of conflict had reached a point of no return. But making a film like Spira Mirabilis is a far more complex challenge, partly because cinema is based on conflicts. Stories generally rely on conflicts, and on drama. We always try to twist cinema, because we believe that its potential is still to a large extent unexplored. Doing without something fundamental like social conflict means we have to take the potential of the story to its limit. Another difference is that in the other films there was an intrinsically powerful world, which we interpreted, while the process is reversed in Spira Mirabilis: it’s the exploration of a thought by means of real situations. And yet there’s continuity in the fact that, even though they are shot from a tripod with staged framing, they are also profoundly sentimental. It’s sentiment that binds us to the people and places we film, and it’s as though this time our investigations were going even further in this direction, pointing the camera towards the outside but also, and even more so, towards the inside.
FP: We could say it’s a eulogy.
MDA and MP: It’s a eulogy to action, a sort of symphony of work. A considerable part of the film shows busy hands, constantly working to shape metal and stone, but also the repetition of the Lakota rituals. To be more precise, we could say it’s a eulogy to controlled action, to the work of the craftsman.
FP: You’ve only made documentaries so far. Even so, in this film it seems to me you’ve entered more into contact with the history of the cinema. There are new formal concepts implicit in the appearance of Marina Vlady, a symbolically strong actress, and in the work on Borges’s literary text. I’d like to ask you to add something about your relationship with the history of cinema.
MDA and MP: We are two film buffs, and we trained as such. Watching as many films as possible, starting with the very earliest, was a fundamental part of our education. We’ve done it a bit less since we had our two children, but it’s still very important for us. So far, the approach required for documentary films has been the one that’s closest to our personalities and way of working. It’s the way we like to film, on our own and an artisanal manner, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t like the sort of cinema that needs seventy people on the set. We love Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, and we fully appreciate that that type of cinema is made in a different way. We feel we are artisans and we have our own method, which is one that is very similar to the films we make. Having said that, the years are going by and our methods are becoming more sophisticated, but now there’s also a desire to go a step further. The use of a script and an actress, which certainly point to a different type of cinema, is a direct consequence of this process, and our approach has also changed in other aspects. We’re moving away from telling reality as it is and, on the contrary, it is reality that is becoming representative of a thought and a desire. This shows how we are convinced that the cinema can be an analytical machine. We use our own images, trying to breathe new life into them. We feed off reality but what we create is not reality itself. Spira Mirabilis comes from this desire of ours to use real things to tell of an imaginary world. Partly because the real world is to some extent banished by the very act of filming. We start out from reality to discover the imaginary, with new ways of seeing and conveying the real world. We ask new questions about the way of making movies – even though we’ve seen some films from the 1920s and discovered many similarities between our approach and that of the cinema back then. The important thing is to stretch the art form to its limits and investigate the potential of cinema, which for us should be something that has to do with mystery. No documentary represents reality. And that’s not just true for us but for others too.
FP: So cinema for you is a means for revealing something else – something not tangible but equally real.
MDA and MP: Things exist in the eye of the beholder. As we see it, not just cinema, but life itself has to do with mystery. Every art form needs to deal with all that is darkest and most completely concealed. We try to sound out these areas in our films. If reality doesn’t encounter mystery, it’s not worth anything. And, at the same time, if mystery doesn’t face up to reality it can become something truly dangerous. It’s as if these two opposites always needed to interact. What we’re interested in is the middle ground, where mystery and reality meet.
- Spira Mirabilis will be presented end of January 2017, in exclusive advance showing before its cinema release, on the occasion of the finissage of the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement.