Interview: Emma Dante on the Making of ‘The Macaluso Sisters’

Following a family of orphaned sisters through the decades, Emma Dante’s The Macaluso Sisters is a delicately touching drama about family and loss. Adapted her own play, the film explores the ripple effects of an unexpected tragedy, when one of the siblings dies during a trip to the beach. In a recent interview with Awards Radar, Dante explains the inspiration behind the story and her filmmaking process.

Shane Slater: What was the inspiration behind this film and the original play?

Emma Dante: I wanted to make a film about time passing that erases everything and changes bodies and creates mutations. But I also wanted to make a timeless film. A film that perceived life as an unconventional experience, not tied to fashions or events. The Macaluso Sisters could also be set twenty years ago because it doesn’t talk about something strictly contemporary but focuses on a universal and timeless theme: death. It is about a nest, a house where, in three acts of life, five sisters live.

SS: What were some of the challenges or benefits of adapting the story to film?

ED: First, I was supported by different visions, those of Giorgio Vasta and Elena Stancanelli, who helped me to get away from the play’s theatrical structure by reviewing the story in light of a completely different form of expression – the cinema. Also I was quite clear that the film would be something different, and from the beginning I didn’t fight to stay true to the play. I knew that—in order to make a credible transposition—I had to betray and modify the play. In fact, the film is very different from the play; I would say that they are two totally autonomous works. It was quite a challenge, I never felt I was forcing the issue or a sense of loss, the experience was powerful and necessary.

SS: The central tragedy weighs heavily over the narrative, but for the most part, it is left to the audience’s imagination. What was your thinking behind this understated approach?

ED: I chose to omit Antonella’s death scene because she doesn’t actually die. She remains in the house and the heads of the other sisters. She is next to Pinuccia when she puts on her makeup, on Maria’s lap when she unwraps a bar of chocolate and crouched in the dovecote as she caresses her beloved doves.

It’s the story of how one tragic event can impact the lives of the surviving sisters, of the strong and loving union between these women that lasts a lifetime, the incest between the living and the dead, the unbreakable bond accompanied by remorse and guilt.

SS: The sisters’ apartment has such a strong, lived-in atmosphere. How did you go about ensuring such an ideal set?

ED: The house of the Macaluso sisters is an existential labyrinth that we tried to describe in great detail starting from the writing phase. Nothing was left to chance. The house is as much a protagonist as the sisters. Noises, objects, rooms are landscapes to shoot, fragments and segments of life that converse and age along with the sisters from childhood to old age. The rooms are full at the beginning of the film, and empty at the end. Especially at their old age, the house shows its flayed walls, with stains and cracks.

SS: The Macaluso Sisters premiered in competition at Venice, in a lineup that achieved a rare level of gender parity for a major international festival. Do you think this is reflective of major progress in the industry or is there still a long way to go (globally and in Italy)?

ED: I believe we are still at the beginning, but something is definitely moving. There is an awareness, there is the courage to denounce, but there is still a long way to go. With globalization, change will be worldwide. Now it’s still necessary to force the hand and think about what is discriminatory and what is not. We need to educate our children and grandchildren about equality. History teaches us that it takes time to make big changes.

SS: The film also premiered in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having a significant impact on cinema worldwide. Has this affected your short-term filmmaking goals?

ED: It has definitely influenced my work in the theater, where audience presence is key.

As for film, preparing a movie takes a very long time. From the writing phase to when you actually shoot, at least in my case, about two years pass. It certainly changes the way we shoot. But it’s an experience I haven’t lived in the short term. I’ll be able to tell you next year!

SS: Are you currently working on any projects for us to look forward to?

ED: I’m writing my third film, from a play of mine called “Mercy.” It’s the story of three whores adopting a disabled boy, the son of their partner who was kicked and punched by one of their clients. Before dying, the woman gives birth to Arturo, who is the protagonist of the story.

The Macaluso Sisters is now playing in select theaters.


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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