Love & Loss in Sicily: Giulio Poidomani Salutes Antonioni and Classic Italian Cinema with His Short Film 'Mai'


Flavia Ripa

On a quest to reconcile with her lover, Anna, Claudia travels from Rome to the Sicilian city of Modica by bus. Coldly rejected, cloaked in a poncho and large sunglasses, she roams into the Duomo di San Giorgio. Later that evening, a handsome man named Sandro approaches while Claudia nurses her broken heart with a glass of wine. Eager to lose herself in a conventional romance in which she can openly express love, Claudia slips into a fantasy. The following day, Sandro takes her to the historic city of Syracuse and tells her the myth of the nymph Arethusa, unwittingly forcing Claudia to face reality and accept who she is.

Shot in black and white, Mai (or Never, which also serves as its English title) is largely influenced by the 1961 Michelangelo Antonioni film L’Avventura. Written and directed by Giulio Poidomani, Mai was conceived as an Italian story to be shot on location in his hometown from the very beginning. Over coffee one morning in New York City, Poidomani talks about the journey that led him to making his latest movie.

Alessandro Gangi and Ripa

Living in the U.S. on and off for five years, the Sicilian native studied screenwriting at UCLA Extension and worked on several productions and feature films during his three years in the City of Angels. Although Poidomani learned English as a student in Italy, it wasn’t until he arrived in the States that he could make sense of the everyday lingo of native speakers. After the first three weeks of full immersion working on the set of 2011’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, he was able to grasp the language. Since those days, Poidomani not only understands, but also writes his scripts in English. “I guess that pain was useful to me,” he laughs.

Poidomani was not too keen, however, on life in Los Angeles where Hollywood dreams and aspirations are the main topic of conversation, and going to parties can be more of a chore than a fun night out. Eager to move to a place where artists tend to make things instead of merely talking about making them, he packed up and left for New York. Before heading east, he wrote and directed two short films in English. The first, Disruption, shot during those early days in LA, helped Poidomani work through his dislike of the city. Pots & Lids, shot shortly before leaving, enabled him to make peace with a place that had helped him in realizing his filmmaking dreams. “The first [movie] was very sad and the second was full of hope. I had to show the good side of LA. I didn’t want to leave without doing that.”

“It was so powerful the way those two characters connect. It is so sad I cannot get through it without crying. Those were the kinds of characters I wanted to write about.”

Behind the scenes: Giulio Poidomani with Ripa and Gangi

Together with girlfriend and producer Isabella Roberto, he formed Purple Road Pictures in 2013 and wrote the script for Mai. Currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, it was shown at the Santa Fe Film Festival earlier this month where it was met with great enthusiasm. Mai first screened in Sicily at the Festival Internazionale del Cinema di Frontiera. Having its world premiere near the location where the film was shot was a serendipitous occasion. Poidomani was raised in Modica, a Baroque town perched on the Hyblaean Mountains, the outline of which is featured in the film’s poster. The beauty of his hometown plays a pivotal role in the love story. The landscape and architecture are seductive and stand alone as characters who help propel the story.

Poidomani shares an anecdote from his childhood in Sicily, something that helped fuel his desire to become a filmmaker. As a kid he would often watch movies with his family, but never finish them because he had to go to bed before they were over. In the mornings over breakfast, his mother would rehash the ending of whatever film they had watched the night before, but it wasn’t the same. However, the experience of having to mentally piece together the plot and imagine it for himself was vital to his creativity. At sixteen, Poidomani saw the film that cemented his desire to become a director: Federico Fellini’s 1956 neorealist drama La Strada. The story of an impoverished young woman (Giulietta Masina) sold by her mother to a circus strongman (Anthony Quinn) “was so powerful, the way those two characters connect. It is so sad I cannot get through it without crying. Those were the kinds of characters I wanted to write about.”

After high school, Poidomani left Modica and moved to the center of the Italian movie industry, Rome. He met his leading actress, Flavia Ripa, while studying at Sapienza University. Speaking of their eleven year friendship, Poidomani says he wrote the role of Claudia with Ripa in mind: “I think she’s a wonderful actress. I always thought of her.” Anna, Claudia’s object of affection, is played by Ilaria Ambrogi. She and Poidomani met in New York while Ambrogi studied at the famed Susan Batson Studio in Manhattan.

Ilaria Ambrogi

Rounding out the cast, and the only member whom the director had not met before filming, is Alessandro Gangi. An up-and-coming actor making waves in Italian films and television, he has worked with notable artists like Emma Dante (A Street in Palermo). Isabella Roberto had seen Gangi in a short film and thought he was “the perfect man” for the part. After speaking on the phone with the actor, who was unable to audition in person due to a busy shooting schedule, Poidomani was equally convinced that he would be perfect as the smitten Sandro: “Alessandro asked the right questions and had the same ideas for the character as I did. He really got it.”

“There are so many people who are afraid to show who they really are. You shouldn’t. You should be yourself.”

In L’Avventura, Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti star (in the roles of Claudia and Sandro, with Lea Masari as Anna) in the classic film about a boat trip gone awry and the unexpected romance that forms in its aftermath. Poidomani pays homage to the auteur with a replica of the iconic hotel scene where Vitti playfully sings the song "Mai." The hotel Palazzo Failla, where the scene in Poidomani's film takes place, generously gave the production access to its biggest suite for the shoot. The antique decor was important in its resemblance to the aesthetic of Antonioni’s era. Even the costumes, although modern, hark back to a time when men and women dressed elegantly in everyday life. The visual aspects of the film are also very important to the story, and Poidomani makes excellent use of shadows.

Le ombre: Claudia and Anna 

“Everything the characters say is very important. Every single word has meaning,” says Poidomani. Not the type of director to over-rehearse for fear of losing the magic, the cast ran lines for three or four hours the first night on location. The shoot lasted five days, four in Modica and one day in Syracuse, where Mai’s last pivotal scenes take place. The historic city could not be substituted: “It would be impossible.”

Location was not only crucial to elements of the story, like the myth of Arethusa which serves as a metaphor for “what’s going to happen to Claudia,” but Poidomani wanted to shoot in a place that has been largely forgotten by the industry. With most productions shooting out of Rome and Puglia these days, Poidomani says, “I felt like Sicily was a forgotten place. There are so many things you can do, but nobody was going there to shoot anything interesting.” Grateful for the local support in Modica, Poidomani “wanted to capture the spirit of [the neorealist and classic Italian cinema] to remind people what is there.”

“Claudia is a character that is lying to herself and the people around her. The other characters are really honest.”

The director and actors on set in Syracuse

Coincidentally, Poidomani's film does have a direct link to the cinema of the past. Foley artist Italo Cameracanna, the man behind the sound of the infamous ringing telephone in the Opium-fueled scene in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, also created the sounds in Mai. It comes as no surprise that working with Cameracanna was "amazing” and “a great moment" in the young director’s life. Mai also found a lot of inspiration from Poidomani’s personal history. There is a quintessentially romantic moment in the film where Sandro takes Claudia somewhere special and tells her how his grandfather picked fresh jasmines for his wife every morning. That special place was Poidomani’s grandparents' real home. “I always thought it was magical.”

Claudia is partly influenced by an incident a friend shared with him. She and her girlfriend were at a pizzeria in Rome when they were kicked out for offending a man who didn’t want his son to see them holding hands across the table. “I wanted to show how sometimes you have to go through a phase where you have to hide yourself,” Poidomani says. Claudia thinks that being with Sandro would make life easier, but in Syracuse can no longer deny that rejecting who she is to follow cultural norms will make life more difficult. Claudia says of Arethusa, "She wants to be free and she never will be." Up until then, Poidomani says, "Claudia is a character that is lying to herself and the people around her. The other characters are really honest."

Mai does not focus on the fact that Claudia is a lesbian, nor does it try to preach diversity, a word bandied about in the U.S. Poidomani says, “This is not a good concept.” Labeling communities and individuals divides people by stressing social and cultural differences instead of emphasizing their similarities. His film is about showing experiences as universal: “I think you can apply what Claudia is feeling to any kind of person. There are so many people who are afraid to show who they really are. You shouldn’t. You should be yourself.”

In July 2014, Poidomani won Premio Mattador's Best Feature Film Screenplay award, one of only two screenwriting prizes in Italy. After making, Mai, he is ready to direct his first feature film and has multiple projects in the works, including two screenplays written in Italian, one he's working on in English and a script he bought from a friend. In filmmaking, "there's a difference between what you want to make and the final result." For the first time ever, Poidomani saw the movie he had visualized in his mind captured onscreen just as he had envisioned it. "When I saw Mai, I was so impressed. I felt like I made a step forward." If Poidomani's work thus far is any indication, audiences will have plenty to anticipate in the near future.

View the trailer for Mai here.


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