The woods hold an unmistakable allure, familiar yet unknown, idyllic, yet fraught with peril. They are the heart of Happy Times Will Come, shot in natural light, which often means that viewers are abandoned in darkness to develop our senses. Indeed, the film thrusts us into the stark indigo night where a pair of fugitives scurrying up a steep hill are long heard before they are seen. Once the sun peeks out, dappling everything in its midst to beguiling effect, it’s not difficult to acclimate to the sights–the crooked crags aside a crisp brook or a verdant curtain of trees. Meanwhile, the young men, peculiarly unplaceable in time, forage for mushrooms or tussle in the high grass. Combining personal history and fabricated folklore, Italian director Alessandro Comodin imbues the alpine setting, already easy on the eyes, with a spectral glow and timelessness. The effect extends to a brief interlude of talking head interviews, cozy café-side recounting and refuting of local legends that exude a bed-time story warmth. Shortly thereafter the film skips, as if turning the page to a new chapter, to a wan young woman with a twinkle in her eye, enchanted and urged deeper into forest in what soon feels like a dramatization of some of the townspeople’s stories. The mythical seeps into reality as Comodin’s segmented narrative builds onto itself, each section unlocking the previous one and informing the next. Comodin and Happy Times Will Come Soon will draw comparisons to other filmmakers and films that prize obliqueness and resist explanation. His bewitching film becomes both more abstract and accessible after speaking with the director who doesn’t work to withhold answers, but prefers to defer the mystery to the woods, so lovely, dark, and deep.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a particular order to the film. One could almost connect the end to the beginning. Did you conceive of the film in the order that we see it? How did you piece it together?
COMODIN: Everything started with this story of a friend of my grandfather’s who went to Russia. It was a war story. He was a soldier with the Italian army and they went to Russia with Nazis to fight against the Soviets. All the people died, frozen. He was about 21 then, in 1941, and he escaped and lived there for a few years and then he declared that he was Italian and they put him in jail. He came back after the end of the war and nobody was expecting him. So in this story, I have the structure for my film. You have the escape, teenage errants in the countryside, and then to come back as a man you must pass through jail before you return. This is the very first story I thought about when writing.
After that, between the teenagers and the jail at the end, I had to construct the middle part of the story. I wanted to work with a particular actress [Sabrina Seyvecou] and so I wrote with her in mind. I had to think about a way to tell the story to justify that, with all the non-professional actors and then to have a professional actor coming from France. I thought the character had to be ill; I thought of fairytales for the children that begin ‘Once upon a time, there was a very sickly girl who was going to die,’ and so that became the second part. I tried to justify all the pieces from a standpoint of my desire to make this film—the story from my grandfather, to work with the actress, and find a coherency.
I also wanted to give homage to two films, which I did with the first and last shot. The first came from Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night, and the last is from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. There is also a donkey, but that was not supposed to be Balthazar.
NOTEBOOK: You were impelled in part to work with Sabrina and constructed your narrative around that, but it worked out quite well. Because the segment that she’s in is a dramatization of the rumors, it highlights the contrast and distinguishes that portion of the film from the rest, which has non-actors. Could you speak a little bit about that?
COMODIN: I wanted to work with non-professional actors. I worked with a friend of mine who worked with Arnaud Desplechin. He’s a very good non-professional caster, so we went casting in the region, in schools, in concerts.
NOTEBOOK: What kind of direction did you give them? When you first see Tommaso and Arturo, the two young men, you notice a sort of animal-like quality. My mind automatically thought of Romulus and Remus, which this obviously was not.
COMODIN: I was not looking for a guy with animal-like features, but in casting I did ask them to act like animals, just to see how they would move naturally. I remember one shot with Erikas Sizonovas,who plays Tommaso,and it was wonderful because that shot in particular made me choose him for the film. He was 17, very young, very tall, with very distinct shoulders. I liked him because he was child-like, but tall. I had the feeling he didn’t know how to manage his long legs and arms and I asked him to be an animal trying to catch his prey, which was me with the camera. He moved little by little trying not to make noise and it was very interesting. I was looking for people who don’t think too hard when they act.
NOTEBOOK: Because initially this sprouted from personal history, your grandfather’s story, were there any specific fables or fairytales that informed your story?
COMODIN: I wrote that part of the film during the location shooting. It’s a very regional story, I think, one that comes from my region, Trieste, in particular. Where the little brother of Pier Paolo Pasolini was killed, I wanted to shoot there. You can feel that something happened, so I was looking for a place like that. In Trieste, you have a lot of holes in the ground where during the war people found lots of bodies.
My story is very regional, but I also wanted a place that had the wolf, because I wanted to work with people who actually saw wolves, lost sheep because of wolves, were affected by them, and in my region, there aren’t any. So I wanted something that looked like Trieste, but with wolves. In the end, it was Valdieri, part of Valle Gesso in the Cuneo Province of Piedmont. The hole is really there. I wanted to shoot during the summer, but it was too late. We shot in September, which was a little chilly, but I think that makes the film darker, more wet. It was here that I asked people to tell stories about the wolf. It was interesting, but I didn’t find a good enough story. It was actually Milena [Magnani, the co-screenwriter] who found the story and I don’t know where it came from, but it sounded good. After that, I wrote it down, asked the townspeople to read it, and then tell it how they would remember it, so in the end hopefully you have the impression that they know it firsthand.
NOTEBOOK: In your previous film, Summer of Giacomo, nature plays an important part. The landscape becomes its own character, as it does here.
COMODIN: If you want to shoot in a house, you have to ask people to make the house. Shooting in nature is perfect because you are free. There are no cars, you don’t have to stop cars, or things like that. You can shoot the film with three friends. It’s practical. Also, you can imagine everything behind these trees. Even if you work in a documentary style like I do, without saying anything you always have an impression that something is going to happen, and I’m working with that to my advantage as best as I can. It’s also a place where the audience can feel comfortable with sounds—and stop thinking. It’s an adventure film; it’s not intellectual. On my flight I watched Mad Max [Fury Road]. You don’t need a script, it’s people fighting.
NOTEBOOK: Parts of it could be almost be a silent film.
COMODIN: Yes, I really want to make films like that, but you have to be a big child in a way. What I’m trying to do is something very reachable. You don’t have to think about many things.
NOTEBOOK: So you don’t consider yourself an intellectual filmmaker? There is a sort of innate art-house appeal to the film.
COMODIN: It’s nice because when I showed my film in the countryside, or if you go to a little cineclub in the country [in Italy], you have a very average person who is used to watching different movies with different ways of telling stories. They’re just prepared for the fact that cinema is not only what they watch on TV, and when you show them the film, they’re very touched because they reconnect and recognize something in it, and they accept the fact that it’s a different film, that it’s not conventional with its actors, score, music, which are all social codes in a way.
NOTEBOOK: The moviegoers in Italy sound like a receptive and ideal audience.
COMODIN: When I show the same film in Paris, where people know all the directors’ names and filmographies, and who’s a good actor or director because Telerama says that’s what a good actor or director is, the film doesn’t work and they don’t understand it because it’s not conventional. I don’t have actors, I don’t have score, the shots are very raw, you don’t have the lighting like you do in television, and then after that they don’t have the cultural, intellectual context. Maybe they’ve never lived or experienced the countryside.
NOTEBOOK: What directors do interest you?
COMODIN: I admire a lot of directors nowadays. I’m a big fan of Kaurismaki. Nothing to do with my films, but I love him. I love Hong Sang-soo, Lav Diaz, and I liked a lot of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who all the Parisians say I’ve copied. He’s a friend, but Miguel Gomez, and João Nicolau. I have a problem with American directors. I don’t understand what happens in the United States with cinema. Very strange.