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Tilda Swinton’s Favorite Director On Developing Arab Cinema

Italian-Algerian film director Luca Guadagnino. Photo by Alessio Bolzoni

With the release of the poster for the highly-anticipated cover of the 1977 horror film, Suspiria, spotlights Caterina Minthe’s feature interview with the Italian-Algerian film director, Luca Guadagnino, in this month’s issue of Vogue Arabia magazine.

“To me, cinema is like having a comfortable blanket across your knees for warmth,” says Luca Guadagnino from his stately 17th century palazzo-style apartments outside Milan, where I imagine him reclining under the shade of his Lebanese cedar tree. Over a two decade-long career, the 45-year-old director, screenwriter, and producer has harnessed some of cinema’s most talented actors (Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton has starred in four of his films), covetable clothing, striking locations, and universally humanist storylines to create movies that keep your mind churning long after the credits have rolled.

With the Italian-Algerian Guadagnino’s coming-of-age drama Call Me By Your Name (set on the Italian Riviera) out later this year and a cover of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film, Suspiria, (starring Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, and Chloë Grace Moretz) out in 2018, he continues to lay the groundwork to cement his status as an international cinema director to watch.

The cast from Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 film, Io Sono l’Amore

When Guadagnino’s breakout film Io Sono l’Amore (I Am Love, 2009) was released on silver screens, viewers were delighted with a feast for the eyes. Against a backdrop of Italian gothic architecture and cypress trees, Swinton, in the role of the bourgeois heroine, trotted through Milan in tailored dresses by Raf Simons for Jil Sander and clutched Hermès totes. Actor Marisa Berenson was regal in full-length furs and palazzo pants and succulent prawns on porcelain dishes were passed around like golden eggs. The film – with all its colors, sounds, forms, and food – felt intimate, sensual, and alive.

A few years passed and Guadagnino propped open his director’s chair once again in Italy; this time on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, which served as the jagged backdrop to A Bigger Splash. In the film, Swinton, alongside Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, and Matthias Schoenaerts, play interlocking characters who slowly slip into a murky, moral abyss. Swinton mastered the role of a vacationing rock star, and was dressed exclusively in Dior by Raf Simons. Her nostalgic-looking resort wear – shirt dresses, full skirts, straw hats, and Dior’s signature mirror sunglasses – inspired a shopping feature on Johnson’s teen-angst character flitted around in Rolling Stones shirts, cut-off jeans, and circle shades so cool audiences couldn’t help but reminisce about their rebellious years. “I love the creativity behind fashion,” says Guadagnino. “It is a discipline because it goes hand in hand – not with commerce – but with the idea of society.” The clothes had as much visual gravitas as the Sicilian island, and both became central elements to the sensuality of his film.

Tilda Swinton on the set of A Bigger Splash in Dior by Raf Simons

It’s Guadagnino’s fine aesthetic, coupled with his investigation into the human condition and prismatic perception of society (which took root when he was a child), that draws an audience in. “After I was born, we lived in Ethiopia, where life was idyllic. It was multi-language and multi-world. I was raised without bias. When we returned to Sicily, seven years later, I realized that the island was not an open place,” he recalls. “My mother was born in Algeria, and in a way, I look very Arab; I have a specific skin color. I’m very
 proud of it,” he adds. He remembers being bullied at school and immediately realizing that he was different from others. Accordingly, Guadagnino explains that his mother chose not to raise her children to know her Algerian roots. “It was an act of survival. She felt that she had to protect
 herself from any possible backfire – to the degree that she didn’t teach us Arabic,” he says. “It’s something that I regret immensely.”

“My mother was born in Algeria, and in a way, I look very Arab; I have a specific skin color. I’m very proud of it”

Regardless of his regressive surroundings, the young Luca’s curiosity about people and their innate uniqueness flourished. The third child in the family, growing up, Guadagnino was often left to his own devices. “I wasn’t scrutinized. That gave me the freedom to not care much about what other people thought of me,” he says.

A desert scene during a screening of Lawrence of Arabia sparked his interest in moving images and the young Luca grew to become an ardent cinephile. He instinctively gravitated towards the work of directors Nagisa Oshima, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Roberto Rossellini, and Jean-Luc Godard, which formed his cinematic parameters. Guadagnino eventually left Palermo for Rome to study literature and film history and critique movies for the newspaper Il Manifesto. Within a few years, he was directing his fellow artists in guerrilla works and boldly writing to Swinton to collaborate. At first she did not answer, but he persisted, and managed to spark a working relationship that endures to this day. “The quest of my life has always been the pursuit of kindred spirits,” he says in a clear voice. “I am friends with artists because I understand individuality, diversity, and ambition. I am very flexible about people’s narcissism because I recognize those kinds of personalities.”

Yet, Guadagnino does not condone that experience should be hand-fed to anyone. “I didn’t have a mentor, at least not in the literal sense. [Many of his contacts were made with industry types at social events.] I believe in the effort of wanting to listen. You have to starve!” Guadagnino growls the Rs with heightened passion. “Make sure that curiosity, wonder, and capacity for listening are the driving forces to any growth.”

Director Luca Guadagnino on the set of Io Sono L’Amore with Marisa Berenson and Tilda Swinton

Guadagnino seeks to work with his actors to understand what is beneath a character’s facade and then plunge head first into the dark waters of the unconscious. “Psychoanalysis is a wonderful and amazing science that I am interested in,” he says, citing the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and political philosopher Wendy Brown’s works as sources of perpetual study. “Maybe one day I will do a movie on Godard…” Guadagnino’s voice trails as he says the name of the French director whose own work is imbued with insights of psychoanalysis and political philosophy. He shares that he hopes to do more documentary films on cinema directors in the future (Guadagnino produced the critically acclaimed Bertolucci on Bertolucci in 2013). I imagine the ruggedly handsome man tugging at his unruly curls as he tries to cram all his passions into a calendar year. “I work all the time,” he says. “I hope I will change this habit. It is important that I have time for myself.” I ask him if he ever gets writer’s block. “No, and I hope I never will because then I will retire.”

On the subject of today’s cinema – split between “save the world” blockbusters and character indie films – I wonder if he considers it to be experiencing a downturn or an upturn. “Neither,” he responds. “However, there is a sort of dictatorship of ideology terrified by complexity,” he says. “The belief that we need to see things through the prism of simplification has to do with the demagogic times in which we live.” In layman’s terms: populist voyeurism can be something of an intellectual dumb down. Though Guadagnino will not be pigeonholed as a pessimist: “I think that there are extraordinary examples of cinema today. Only now, how much complexity an audience is afforded to understand, support, and sustain, is limited. I think we have to take into account that the radical change of form and language to a simplified one sometimes puts at stake the sense of mystery that cinema can achieve,” he says. He comments that films like Marnie and Vertigo, both psychological thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock, would probably not be made in today’s simplistic cinematic landscape. He continues, “I think that history has a recurrent way of changing all the time; we’ll see what happens next.”

Regarding the future of cinema, Guadagnino motions that he looks to the Arab region for a beacon of intellectual renaissance. In 2011, he was named president of the jury of the Beirut International Film Festival. “I saw some beautiful films and I became enamored with Arab cinema,” he says. “Though I didn’t grow up in the Arab world, I have a very deep connection to it, which is almost ancestral,” he comments, adding that he feels a strong sense of brotherhood to fellow Arabs. “I want to make a fund to contribute to financing Arab cinema,” says Guadagnino. “I hope someone will read this interview and say, ‘OK, I trust Luca. Maybe I can help him raise the money to give the chance to young Arab directors.’”

Numerous film funds exist in the Arab world to support nascent talent. Certainly, our homegrown burgeoning film directors hungry to learn from international industry professionals can only evolve further from access to Guadagnino’s curious spirit, open mind, and almost primitive desire to connect with his Arab roots. “If someone is available. I am available,” he says. “I would make it a priority.”

Originally printed in the May 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.

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