Born in Modica, Sicily, Alessia Scarso studied film editing at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. She has worked as an editor and post-production coordinator for investigative journalism stories, films and documentaries. She’s also directed several commercials. She shifted her focus to film directing with her debut short Uninstalling Love. It was shown at film festivals and won a whole slew of awards.
In 2015, she began a worldwide tour with NICE (New Italian Cinema Events) in which she presented her first feature film. Based on actual events, Italo is the touching story of a stray dog adored by a the people of a small village in Sicily. Italo first appeared in 2008 in the town of Scicli, located in the province of Ragusa. Nobody knows for sure where the dog came from but he most likely belonged to a homeless man that passed away. Upon his arrival in Scicli, Italo’s presence was felt by all the city. He frequented town meetings, masses, weddings and funerals. He greeted tourists. He posed for selfies and protected his beloved citizens. In 2011, Italo was hit by a car. He was able to recover from the incident but the trauma combined with other age-related health issues took its toll and he died shortly thereafter. He is buried in the town and his grave has become a famous site, always adorned with flowers and notes. Thanks to Scarso, Italo’s story has crossed Italian borders and after several screenings across North America, we, too, have fallen in love with this gentle, loving soul. Scarso deserves credit not only for telling the story so beautifully but also for managing to make an award-winning first feature with children and a dog as her main characters.
Scarso’s latest film, Madonna Vasa Vasa recounts an annual tradition that takes place during Easter week in her hometown of Modica, when the Madonna roams the city feeling sorrow. When she encounters her risen son, she embraces him. “Vasa” meaning kiss, references the Madonna being the only one that kisses the risen Son in the history of Christianity. There is no dialogue. The powerful soundtrack, captivating images and entrancing prayer hymns tell the story of this intriguing annual ritual.
I spoke with Alessia Scarso about both films and the challenges as well as the rewards of breaking glass ceilings as an editor and director in Italy’s male-dominated film industry.
Tell me about your desire to make a film about this annual religious rite.
The Easter celebrations in my hometown of Modica have impressed and moved me since I was a child. Holy Week, in those places once under Spanish dominion, holds a special fascination for writers, photographers and film directors. In Sicily, the liturgy reveals a mixture of influences deriving from Greek, Spanish and Arabian culture. The Vasa Vasa ritual of the Madonna as it unfolds in Modica dates back to at least 1645. On the day in which Catholicism celebrates the Resurrection of Christ, the townspeople of Modica gather in the main square at midday to witness the removal of the black mantle of mourning from the Madonna as she greets the Risen Christ.
The Feast of Easter corresponds with the arrival of Spring. Nature and Tradition are united in reminding us that what is destined to die can be reborn, that an end can have a new beginning. The message of this documentary is that Easter Sunday is the day on which everything can start afresh because anything can happen- even the dawn of a new life. In addition, not everyone participating in the ceremony is catholic. For me, this means that maybe not all of us need to look for God, but every one of us looks for a Mother.
The cinematography is beautiful. There are intimate close shots and contrasting panoramic, scenic views. Was the production complicated to shoot?
The documentary begins with the ritual clothing of the statue of the Madonna, a devotional moment from which the public is excluded (also me). It was my desire to communicate the sense of mystery. Alone, in the darkened church with the figure of the Madonna while a storm was raging outside, I experienced a feeling of emptiness, of absence, of bereavement. Mary is a woman who has lost her son. At that point, the simple piety of the elderly woman intoning the dirge in Sicilian dialect telling of lamentation, sorrow, tears and love, the wonderful original music of Marco Cascone and the incredibly moving performance of the singer Yasemin Sannino came to my assistance. Easter day was a very hard day. We started to work at 6:00 in the morning. We were a group of five people, and it was hard to show all the gestures of the ceremony from five positions. To protect our working space among in the crowd, we called on five local rugby players to help us in keeping our position and not to be pushed by anyone. We are talking about a crowd of thousands of people.
You mentioned to me earlier that the story of Madonna Vasa Vasa is a story about women. Tell me more about this point-of-view.
It is an innovative point-of-view, a female point-of-view of the history. And thanks to the typical fondness and sensitivity of a woman, with an intimate and moving gesture, Mary the Mother kisses and blesses her Son and assumes the role of mother of all those pressing around the benediction ceremony.
It took a lot for me to understand how to narrate this great point-of-view. Then one day I listened a song from Fabrizio De Andrè, called Three Mothers. There is an amazing verse where Holy Mary says to her Son: "If you hadn’t been the son of God, I would have you still for my child." So I started to think of Mary and Jesus simply like mother and son, and not like the Mother of God and Jesus Christ. Then I found a special dirge in Sicilian dialect, very very old, that an elderly woman played and donated to me. It is the Sicilian version of the famous Donna de Paradiso from Jacopone da Todi, a dialogue between the Mother and Christ under the Cross. In these verses the Holy Mary reproaches her son because he calls her “woman” and not “mother”. Jesus Christ replies “Had I called you Mother, I would not have died on the Cross”. This because a mother always saves her child. I found these verses very moving, so I found the key to narrate the whole Easter celebration.
Now, moving on to Italo, why did you want to tell the story of this stray dog?
Italo is the beautiful true story of a stray dog that lived in Scicli, Sicily. He made the headlines in 2009 because the mayor of the town launched an initiative to get rid of all strays in the city due to an attack on a child. The whole town came together and fought the initiative. So, Italo became a symbol of acceptance in the face of adversity. I just fell in love with Italo’s wonderful, collective story of love.
Was your childhood dream to become a director?
The first time I stepped into a movie theater, I was 12-years-old. I expected to see a larger television set. Instead, I found myself in front of a ritual. Everything was magical- the darkness, the silence of the room. Something happened between the screen and the audience. That day I decided that I wanted to have the power to communicate with the audience through that screen.
What are the challenges of being a female director in Italy?
Recently, I read that only 4% of films are directed by women. I think it’s a great pity that the female sensibility and point-of-view is so little used. But I don’t really think in terms of showing women’s issues. I don’t’ think in terms of men or women. I just think in general terms of the stories that I want to tell. I choose to work with other filmmakers based on their work not their gender, and I have never felt discriminated against or privileged because I am a woman.
Since you directed and edited Italo, how has your work as an editor helped you in the director’s chair and vice versa?
Having the eye of an editor is truly a privilege on the set because you know right away if everything you need for a scene is right there in front of you. It helps to save resources when you’re working with a low budget. However, the editor is the one that usually frees the director’s obsessions and puts his or her mind to rest. The editor is the one with the clear mind cutting and sewing the pieces together with a renewed freedom. This is what I lacked having already directed the film. So, that’s the other side of the coin.
Talk to me about your Sicilian pride.. do you want to tell more stories of Sicily?
There are no words to express my pride in belonging to a land so rich in beauty and absorbing its ancient knowledge. I hope to be able to adequately recount this. The story of Italo gave me the opportunity of documenting a true story of Sicily with my perceptions of some of its characters and traditions. I’m sure it will not be the only story of Sicily that I tell.
What is your dream as a filmmaker?
I want to move as many people as possible through my stories and really touch their hearts. I want to feel that we can always be a little bit better than we are today.
Madonna Vasa Vasa is only available on DVD only in a shop in Modica called Convento21. Italo is available in Italy on Netflix and Amazon. We’ll let you know when the films become available outside Italy.
By- Jeannine Guilyard
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