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In the delightfully mischievous short film Le Pupille, which earned Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher her first Oscar nomination, a rebellion is brewing within the confines of a Catholic girls’ school in Italy on a chilly Christmas Eve in the midst of World War II.
Young Serafina (Melissa Falasconi) attracts the ire of Sister Fioralba (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister), the stern mother superior who rules her boarding school with an iron fist and steely gaze. As the schoolgirls prepare for the evening’s festivities — stoically re-creating the Nativity — they listen to a radio report that offers somber news from the battlefield. But when Serafina accidentally changes the station, inadvertently filling the hall with the sounds of a love song with a lyric like “kiss me on my little mouth,” the girls erupt into song and dance and, as punishment for their jubilant misbehavior, are rewarded with mouthfuls of soap at the hands of Sister Fioralba.
Even Serafina, who refrained from joining in on the fun, has her mouth washed clean. And when she finds herself unable to get the cheery song out of her head, Serafina has no choice but to believe the nun who accuses her of wickedness. Posed with a sudden existential dilemma, the young girl soon will learn that sometimes it’s necessary to break the rules.
The project began when Alfonso Cuarón — a four-time Oscar winner for 2018’s Roma (as director and cinematographer) and 2013’s Gravity (director and editor) — reached out to Rohrwacher about a series of short films he was producing. “He said he was thinking of producing short films linked to the end-of-year holidays, and he asked if I wanted to make a short film about Christmas,” Rohrwacher tells THR via translator. “When he asked me, this story came to my mind — it happened all of a sudden.”
Rohrwacher was inspired by a piece of correspondence from Italian novelist and poet Elsa Morante to her friend and fellow writer Goffredo Fofi. “Just as this film wouldn’t exist if Alfonso had not asked me, it would not exist if Elsa Morante had not sent the letter to Fofi,” explains Rohrwacher, who introduces the letter in the film in the form of a song sung by the young girls. “Morante is a writer I really admire, and I think [her] presence was really important because I wanted her words in the film. I decided to create a song with the letter because the most beautiful way to [perform] the words is to sing them.”
In Morante’s letter, she recalls a story in which a Christmas cake is delivered to a Catholic boarding school, but there’s one naughty child who unluckily goes without a slice as a form of punishment. That became the plot of Le Pupille, as a woman living near the school brings an eye-popping red cake — called English soup, a concoction that required 70 eggs to make (an extravagance in the war-ridden country) — as a Christmas gift to the nuns and their wards, only for the strict mother superior to compel the young girls to sacrifice their slices of the cake to God.
The film was shot during the pandemic, and casting was done via Zoom. But after selecting 17 young actresses, Rohrwacher admits she wasn’t sure who would play her lead. “The casting director had some ideas, but I didn’t agree with her,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Everyone can play Serafina — everyone has something [of her] in them, and we will only get it out if we work with them.” It wasn’t until the last day of rehearsal that Falasconi earned the role, but the selection came with a caveat to the entire cast: “I always told the girls that there is no protagonist. The other girls are all equally important, and I hope you can feel it. We were really careful with everyone who took part in the film, so everyone is equally important.”
There is, however, a notable antagonist in Sister Fioralba. “When I was younger, I was afraid of her,” says Rohrwacher of her older sister Alba, who also appeared in the director’s two previous features, 2014’s The Wonders and 2018’s Happy as Lazzaro. “I immediately thought of my sister for the role of mother superior, maybe because we had never worked together on a very severe character.”
The director also notes that non-Italian audiences may not catch the era-specific language her sister employed in character. “It was in tune with the time, and in some moments, you can feel that moment in history.” She adds that the pair had a lot of fun creating the role together and that the actress stayed in character on set, spreading “natural terror” among her young co-stars.
But by the end of the film, the “wicked” Serafina succeeds at brushing off any fear of the cruel nun. When she dares to claim a slice of cake for herself instead of giving it away as a sacrificial offering — and drops bites on the floor for the convent dog to enjoy — the mother superior banishes the girls to their bunks, ultimately offering the cake as payment to a local chimney sweep. Serafina, meanwhile, sneaks away a handful of the cake to share with the other girls. “Destiny works in mysterious ways,” says Rohrwacher, quoting Morante’s letter. “I like that sentence because the girls don’t know they are fulfilling the will of destiny. Fate has it that the cake will be shared with everyone.”
Stories of Humanity, Told Briefly
THE RED SUITCASE
A veiled 16-year-old (Nawelle Ewad, left) arrives in the Luxembourg airport. On the precipice of a potential new life, a sense of terror overcomes her as she must make a decision on how to move forward alone in the world — with just her suitcase offering a connection to her past.
In Eirik Tveiten’s short drama, Ebba (Sigrid Husjord, far right) is fed up waiting for a tram to take her home at night, and eventually steals a vehicle for herself. But on her way home, she picks up passengers and becomes a bystander to a group of men harassing a woman (Ola Hoemsnes Sandum, right).
A young girl (Mila Heilmann Kreutzmann, right) traverses the bitterly cold terrain of Greenland in search of her missing sister, whose name gives this short its title. Directed by Pipaluk K. Jorgensen and Anders Walter, this emotional adventure is based on a graphic novel by Morten Dürr.
AN IRISH GOODBYE
Seamus O’Hara stars in writer-directors Tom Berkeley and Ross White’s short about two estranged brothers who reunite on their family farm in Northern Ireland after their mother’s death. Their strained relationship is further tested when they discover a list of their mother’s unfulfilled wishes.
This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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