Americans know her as Rosa Napolitano from The Golden Door, Emanuele Crialese's heartfelt story of immigration in America at the turn of the 20th century. Italians know her as a diverse contemporary actress always mesmerizing audiences as she wondrously transforms herself into her characters.
Born in Palermo in 1981, Isabella Ragonese studied her craft in her hometown with theater director Michele Perriera. Her studies included interpretations of his work whether it'd be writing, directing or starring in adaptations. Upon graduating, she received her first big break in Crialese's Nuovomondo (The Golden Door) and just two years later, headed the all-star cast of Paolo Virzì'sTutta la vita davanti (The Whole Life Ahead). She went on to appear in numerous productions on both the big and small screen. Then in 2014, she teamed up again with her Tutta la vita davanti costar Elio Germano for Mario Martone's award-winning Leopardi.
All three of Ragonese's 2017 releases were featured at Italian film festivals in North America in June- Open Roads: New Italian Cinema in New York and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival in Canada. The latter showed Edoardo Falcone's ironic comedy about an unlikely friendship, Questione di karma and Fabio Mollo's Il padre d'Italia, the story of a carefree singer (Ragonese) searching for some stability with a retail worker (Luca Marinelli), recovering from a hard breakup and in need of someone to love. The two set out on a road trip to the south of Italy. They manage to find some happiness along the way, even if it is short-lived.
Daniele Vicari's Sole, cuore, amore was shown at Lincoln Center. The film reflects contemporary Italy and the challenges that young Italians are facing in the job market. Ragonese becomes Eli, a loving wife and mother forced to endure a tiresome daily commute and unforgiving boss (Francesco Acquaioli) just to make ends meet while her husband (Francesco Montanari) searches for work. Through Eli's relationships with her friends, coworkers, customers and family, we understand the burden she carries and the responsibility she feels for the people in her life.
I spoke with Isabella Ragonese while she was in New York presenting Sole, cuore, amore at Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. We talked about her role in the film and why this story is so relevant today. She also gave me her take on the improvement in the roles being offered to women.
Tell me about your role in Sole cuore amore and what you did to prepare.
My character’s name is Eli. She’s a woman that works just like so many others that at the same time become heroines balancing family, work and everything at once. She’s an empathic person that works in a café. So at the beginning of preparing for this role, we learned how to make coffee and cappuccino very quickly while at the same time having friendly relations and talking with the typical clients of a Roman café. You have to do a bunch of things at the same time and very quickly while making the patrons feel warm and welcome. So we tried improvisation. My character has a husband and four children, so we had to build memories and make them seem as true as possible.
Would you say that Eli exemplifies the strength of a modern Roman woman?
She is a Roman woman but she could really be from any part of Italy. So many women can identify with this character. Not being Roman myself, I tried to give her Roman qualities. She’s a woman who takes responsibility for her decisions and doesn’t place the blame on others. She pulls out her inner strength and tries never to seem tired. She always goes through life with a smile. This is what motivates her. Despite just getting three hours of sleep a night, she faces life with a smile and is always positive. So the strength of a woman comes through and dissipates the fatigue.
Did you enjoy playing this character Eli?
Yes, so much. She is one of the most beautiful characters I've ever portrayed. It was really a gift.. above all because the most beautiful compliment I have received is that you forget that you're watching an actress play this character.. it really seems like her. For me, this gives sense to my work. I like to confuse myself with a character, to forget that it's me playing a role and to think that I'm going through another person's life.
Tell me about the relevance of this film and the conversations it must be generating in Italy given the current situation with jobs and the economy.
I thinks it's a film that had to be made. Beyond the emotional story, it creates a line of communication among us, speaking about problems that would otherwise not be talked about. In this case, it's the subject of jobs and the fact that there are no more rights in the workplace. There are few jobs and it seems that the more you work, the less you earn. Many jobs offer few euros a month. So little money makes an impossible life but many people are forced to live this way. And so you often see in the outskirts of Rome, they're always talking about gangs, criminals and drug dealers.. people are getting shot. It's reality but I prefer the people who work hard and honestly.
What do you think of the roles being offered to women now? It seems like things are improving and actresses are portraying more interesting characters, not just supporting characters like the wife or mother.
I come from the generation that is responsible for actually making this change. I am always seeing more films that are telling stories from the point-of-view of a woman and fewer films when the woman is just the girlfriend of the lead character. It's great because it gives actresses the opportunity to do what they know best. So I'm very happy because we are able to create deeper, more profound characters and have more enthusiasm for what we do. It's not a matter of being the lead character.. it's about being a multidimensional character.
By- Jeannine Guilyard
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