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Morra Never Dies: Introducing Isabel Pagliai

Discovering a new French talent, who made one of the best films of 2015, and discussing it with the filmmaker.
My favourite short film of 2015, Isabella Morra is a 22-minute epic by French newcomer Isabel Pagliai. It world-premiered—amid minimal-to-zero fanfare—at the gigantic International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November, as part of the 'Paradocs' sidebar devoted to edgy/experimental material, mainly shorts. "Cinema verité portrait of a French suburb that demonstrates how the threat of deadly adult violence lurks below the surface of child’s play," the IDFA website drily noted.
"Isabella Morra", wrote Paradocs programmer Joost Daamen, "was the daughter of an early-16th-century Italian baron. When he left his wife and eight children to amuse himself at the French court, Isabella fell under the authority of her two narrow-minded, jealous brothers. They decided she was getting too familiar with their neighbour and punished her by death. Six years later, Isabella’s sonnets and songs were published, which made her into a well-known Renaissance poet.
"Twentieth-century novelist André Pieyre de Mandriargues was inspired by her life story and wrote a play about her, and director Isabel Pagliai’s documentary is loosely based on this work. The main character isn’t an isolated noblewoman, but kids from a children’s home in Boulogne-sur-Mer. The camera follows them as they roam the streets, attempting to penetrate their glazed expressions. But Pagliai mostly shows the way the children  interact, in a sober and direct cinema verité style. This is characterized by a lot of swearing, language-use that’s advanced for their age, and a constant exploration of power relationships. The poetry lies in the alternation of murmurs, shouting, animated talking and silence."
I only caught the last third of the film on the big screen in the Pathé Tuschinski multiplex, as it showed at the start of a shorts programme which overlapped with another screening. But what I saw piqued my interest considerably, and I prevailed upon Daamen for a link to view the picture in its entirety. I did so a couple of days later, around midnight, a little "merry" with drink—and was utterly bowled over by the picture's beauty, its bracing lack of sentimentality, its intense sociological focus, its precision and its four-square confidence. Further re-watchings in more sober states over the next couple of days confirmed that my enthusiasm wasn't just a by-product of the Dutch brewing industry, and I'd now have no hesitation in placing Isabella Morra among the top two or three 2015 premieres of any length. For my money, it is most emphatically the real deal.
Pretty good going for a 27-year-old "debutante" whose sole previous credit of note was as co-cinematographer on Damien Manivel's pleasantly minor, sun-kissed character-study comedy A Young Poet. Her off-screen collaborators on Isabella Morra also deserve mention, of course: co-DoP Julien Guillery, producer Natalia Trebik (from Lille contemporary-arts university Le Fresnoy, where Pagliai is currently enrolled) and editor Mathias Bouffier. The latter is a relative veteran, with credits dating back to 1999—he was assistant editor on Rithy Panh's landmark documentary The Missing Picture.
But Isabella Morra is all about raw, youthful exuberance, as incarnated by the juvenile protagonists of   Pagliai's gripping, elegant genre-blurring miniature. These are kids from the wrong side of every kind of track, in a film which can be compared with—but, for my money, is even better than—Jean-Charles Hue's hard-knock, fiction-documentary studies of his family's cash-strapped Yéniche community in Beauvais north of Paris. La BM du seigneur  (2010) was Hue's international breakthrough; Mange tes morts (2014) won him the Prix Jean Vigo, awarded to the most promising younger French director of the year.
Pagliai is a full two decades younger than Hue, and is just at the very start of what I reckon could be a   major career in cinema. Isabella Morra has its French premiere at another behemoth-sized festival, Clermont-Ferrand, next month. After that, I predict that "the ball" will start well and truly rolling...
I conducted this email interview in an attempt to shed a little more light on Pagliai's background and her film's tantalising complexities. Judith Revault d'Allonnes was kind enough to help me out with translations from French. Any linguistic mis-steps are, however, mine and mine alone.

NOTEBOOK: So, who is Isabel Pagliai? Please introduce yourself. 
ISABEL PAGLIAI: I'm from the French provinces; I grew up in Haute-Savoie [eastern region bordering Italy and Switzerland]. At 18, I went to Paris to join a contemporary dance school which was very open to cross-disciplinary approaches. After a time, however, I hurt my back and had to stop dancing. But this enforced immobility allowed me to discover other things which interested me. I turned to theoretical studies of literature and art history at Paris' Diderot University, where I researched the child's place in art and society. Meanwhile, I started doing photography, self-taught, and "staging" these images started to become a passion for me.
Then I met Damien Manivel (director of A Young Poet), who had also studied dance—we have that in common: paying attention to how the body moves in space. I started film-studies at Saint-Denis [University of Paris 8], and every summer I helped Damien on his films, initially with production-design and writing, and later with visuals. Gradually, our artistic collaboration strengthened my wish to achieve on my own, and I decided that Le Fresnoy could be a good place to develop my film-work.
NOTEBOOK: What was the background of your coming to make Isabella Morra? I've read that it's in some way based on a play from the 1970s but I can find few details.
PAGLIAI: The starting point of the film is actually the play written by André Pieyre de Mandiargues [1909-1991, author of novels adapted as Walerian Borowczyk's The Margin {1976} and Jack Cardiff's The Girl On A Motorcycle {1968}]. The play is inspired by the true story of Isabella Morra [Italian poet, c.1520–1545]. While I was making researches about Pierre Klossowski [writer/artist, 1905-2001]. I fell by chance on a presentation of Pieyre de Mandiargues’s book, and the few lines I read I liked a lot. He is a surrealist writer who's a bit forgotten today, mainly known for his noir novels and erotic poems. Isabella Morra is among the very few plays he wrote, a fact which made de even more curious.
So I got hold of the book, which is very hard to find indeed. The story is that of a Renaissance young poet who lives secluded in her castle during the Inquisition. Faced with a world of violence, she dreams of a different place and has to cope with her family’s rejection of her passion and poetry. Out of jealousy or rancour, her brothers will end up murdering her. To me, this tragic story bears the beauty of a myth, and I liked Pieyre de Mandiargues’s language, his ambiguous universe... highly visual. I wanted to adapt the play and make it a film in which children would be acting. 
NOTEBOOK: What was the next step? 
PAGLIAI: Working with institutions or in schools didn’t seem to me appropriate to the project. Constraints would have been too strong: the story in the play is not an easy one (even though I wanted to rework it for children, of course) and I didn’t want to supervise a workshop. Besides, I was looking for a place where I could spend time with the children I wanted to film, be part of a community, share the everyday life. It was also important to work with children who had somehow experienced violence, so that Isabella’s story could echo their own.
By chance, I was taken to Boulogne-sur-Mer [a coastal town in north-east France], at the "Cité" [housing estate/project], and when I saw the place, I was fascinated and decided I wanted to shoot there. I was supported by the imaginary of the play and there was a perfect match when I discovered these kids left to their own devies, who where playing in the Cité, a dilapidated housing-estate on the city's heights.
Bit by bit, the project changed (of course), then shifted totally, so that the important thing wasn’t to adapt the play any longer but to find resonances with its universe in this very environment, to draw threads together. 
NOTEBOOK: How did you integrate the Pieyre de Mandiargues story into the real world?
PAGLIAI: In my shooting system, I turned the story of Isabella Morra into a rumour. The little girl who speaks in the film, Adriana, is the "storyteller" of the Cité. She is the only child to express herself, to tell stories literally. So when she tells the story of her friend, the one who has been killed, it is her way of appropriating Isabella Morra’s story, with her imagination. She makes up her own contemporary version of Isabella’s story. That’s the narrative principle which is the most identifiable strand of the film, the "red thread" (fil rouge). 
Furthermore, what also interested me is this idea of enclosed space. The children live in a space that's very much "outdoors" but which is also enclosed, which allows one to create a kind of stage. A stage where the children circulate: they come and go, like in a theatrical space. It's like making a stage-play, and there's a "frontality" in my way of filming which furthers this impression. The stage-directions by Pieyre de Mandiargues helped me to think about the film and to build a formal structure.
NOTEBOOK: How do you now describe the results? 
PAGLIAI: In the end the film is not an adaptation but rather a reinvention of Isabella Morra. And the most important thing is that Isabella is any of these children. They are beautiful, very alive. These children are mini-adults, they have strength because of their relation to their environment, something bigger than themselves. There's a tragic destiny at work here, a loneliness. What will they become? They carry a true poetry, strength, a liberty that may be threatened by society. Isabella had a poetic force that others were jealous of—her mother and brothers. We find something similar with these children, who have this vital and poetic force that the world might try to extinguish.
NOTEBOOK: How important is it for film-makers in France to get away from the usual middle-class concerns we often see on screen and depict what is actually happening in poorer areas?
PAGLIAI: In my circle, each person films what he or she feels close to, and where they are carried by their desires. I can only speak for myself—I don't know how to film a middle-class milieu, because I don't have stories to tell about that environment; I don't know the "codes." My artistic work is directed more towards people who are more in need of representation. We know that often they end up in works made full of good intentions, but where the artistic process is sub-standard. So for me it's important to film them in another way, with real aesthetic concern and endowing them with stature. Choosing as a canvas this play, the story of Isabella Morra, is also a way of giving them a certain nobility. I think particularly of Pedro Costa, whose work I admire, and which is connected with that mode of filmmaking—a very assertive approach, a "plasticity," with a desire to truly showcase the people who he films.
NOTEBOOK: How careful were you to ensure that the film "works" even for those who know nothing about the play or about Isabella Morra?
PAGLIAI: I insisted that the film should be entitled Isabella Morra, as it has a symbolic charge which means a lot to me. If some people are intrigued by this element, they can go and seek information on the story, heading down other tracks, finding other perspectives. But we can sufficiently understand the film without prior knowledge of the play or Isabella's story—it exists as an independent object. The title is like an archaeological trace, reflecting the processes by which the film was made.
NOTEBOOK: In terms of the cinematography, what approaches did you take to achieve such a hard, clean, austere look?
PAGLIAI: What interests me is that a film can be beautiful with very minimal means. I usually shoot in a very casual way, in that I go around solo and I just take my camera with me as I walk. It allows me to be very mobile. But I like this idea of constantly anticipating what might be about to happen in front of me, to be fast, to respond to all this—while maintaining the framing's rigour. I'm trying to find a condensation of feelings in the image, while also prioritising off-screen space. I like to construct my shots in a quite "frontal" manner, which produces a constraint on the editing process: if I don't work with the classic shot/reverse-shot format, that obliges me to create a "lacunary" space, which leaves more room for everyone's imagination. I think that my way of making the image joins up with fictional approaches even if it derives from documentary processes. 
NOTEBOOK: Did you rely on natural light? 
PAGLIAI: Working in natural light... that's a happy constraint. We must be attentive to the changes of light that can affect the look of each situation. It corresponds perfectly to my aesthetic and my economic way of filming, even if this way of filming is a bit unusual.  
NOTEBOOK: Did you use "natural" sound or is the audio-scape manufactured or altered in some way? I'm specifically thinking of the ice-cream van which is faintly audible on a couple of occasions before it appears in the final scene... 
PAGLIAI: I spent two months only recording sound, and then for five days I had a team of friends who came to help me (an assistant, a sound-engineer, etc.). The film is a combination of this shoot involving four people and moments when I filmed alone. The fact of being part of a team allows one to film in a more fixed way (there are fewer things to arrange outside the mise en scène) and to record audio more accurately. I am thinking of the little girl who narrates the story off-screen, which we recorded when the sound-engineer Jerôme was there. It also allows for sound elements that I would not have known about if I had worked alone. Sometimes there were exceptional acoustic details, such as the way the sound reverberates on the façades of the buildings.  
During the editing, we had very different approaches in different scenes. Sometimes we worked with natural sounds—no sound effects, except for minimal filtering in post-production. As for the melody of the ice-cream van, I wanted it to be like a nagging presence, even disturbing, although it appears very discreetly. So I actually added it in during a few sections, like a leitmotif. For the "portrait" shots, we did very little to the sound at all, I just elected to shoot on the edge of a busy road, keeping the off-screen sounds. In other sequences, I worked with the editor to render things as "choreographic" as possible. For example, with the wide-shot involving the girls and the pram/stroller, we played with the rhythm of the entrances and exits into and out of the shot, and worked on the echoes of the voices and the sounds of the neighbourhood. This is another way of "re-fictionalising," in post-production, what were originally documentary shots.

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