NEW YORK—Alberto Caviglia presented his debut film, Pecore in Erba (translated in English as Burning Love, although the title is a play on words in Italian), at the Venice Film Festival in 2015. Since then, he has been touring the world, screening the movie for as many people as possible.
Burning Love is a dark, yet humorous mockumentary about anti-Semitism in Italy. It tells the story of a young anti-Semite, Leonardo Zuliani, who dedicates his life to fight “antisemiphobia,” the fear of anti-Semitism. In one scene of the movie, a sociologist explains: “An anti-Semite is a person who loves to hate. Therefore, banning them from hating is almost like banning them from loving.”
Simone Somekh interviewed Caviglia ahead of his movie presentation at NYU’s Casa Italiana on April 26. The interview has been edited for length and clarity and translated from Italian.
Simone Somekh: How did you come up with the idea of making a mockumentary about anti-Semitism?
Alberto Caviglia: I spent some time trying to think of a new way to discuss anti-Semitism. I understood that it’s becoming increasingly hard to talk about it. I did not want to say something that had already been said. So one day I thought: “What if I reverse the theme?” I decided to start with an anti-Semitic main character, portray him as a hero and place him into an inverted society, where the fight is not against anti-Semitism, but against “antisemiphobia.”
What emerges from the film is rampant ignorance among the Italian people. Is there truly so much ignorance? Would you define Italian anti-Semitism as a result of such ignorance?
While the society portrayed in the film is specifically Roman, I actually wanted to convey a universal message. The movie is about ignorance and the way it leads to prejudice. Burning Love is not even a movie on anti-Semitism; the same concept could be applied to many other similar phenomena. Ignorance can generate very dangerous prejudices.
Your main character, the hero, Leonardo Zuliani, never speaks in the movie. Why?
Unlike the other anti-Semitic groups shown in the film, which use masks to justify their anti-Semitism in a hypocritical way, Leonardo is the only one who is a “pure” anti-Semite. He was born anti-Semitic, and he does not need those superstructures that the other ideological groups use. The groups that I show in the film, from the Catholic boy scouts to the Holocaust deniers, need to explain their anti-Semitism. Leonardo doesn’t.
The theme of the Holocaust (in Hebrew, Shoah) is always in the background, yet you never discuss it directly. Was there a specific reason?
I think that, throughout the years, the Shoah has almost become a synonym of anti-Semitism. In my opinion, anti-Semitism is a broader phenomenon. The Shoah is just one—maybe the worst—chapter. Burning Love is one of the few movies that investigate the causes, rather than the consequences of this discrimination.
Tell me about the creative process behind all the witty inventions we see in the movie, from the perfume “Eau d’Aryen” to the board game “Scarebreo.”
The creative process was very fast. Benedetta Grasso and I wrote the screenplay in less than two months, with the help of Paolo Cosseddu. I love satire, but I never thought I would be able to make such a satirical movie. When I thought of the concept for the movie as a reversed society, I realized it would be a great container for ideas, jokes and thoughts.
You made the movie two years ago, and yet some of its aspects seem to be even more relevant today. One of the characters is a professor who teaches “Relativity of modern history” at the University of Rome. Could you have predicted the rise of fake news we are witnessing today?
This movie is the result of an underlying pessimism. It’s a tragic and dramatic film, where anti-Semitism becomes a universal value that unites everybody. But the aim was to mock the commonplaces.
Among the many Italian celebrities who star in the film, there is Carlo Freccero, introduced as a “media expert.” What kind of message did you want to convey through this character?
All the celebrities in the movie made the documentary more believable. I was very happy to have Carlo Freccero on board. I wanted to express the impact that my character had on society and on the media. It’s a critique of the media, a system that often creates monsters and glorifies dangerous things.
After premiering it at the Venice Film Festival, you presented the movie around the world. What were the different reactions?
I presented it in China, Germany, France, Russia, Sweden, Israel … In its foreign versions, the film loses its Roman side; people abroad also cannot recognize the celebrities. These are small limitations. Yet, abroad I had reactions that I would have never imagined. The younger viewers are those who have appreciated it the most, because of its modern language. When I presented it in Jerusalem, two ladies, in their seventies and eighties, came up to me, thanked me and told me they thought it was “enlightening.”
I spent the last year writing a new story. Unfortunately this is a very hard moment for the Italian movie industry. It’s going through an unprecedented economic crisis. I’ve started looking for a producer. I thought that once I presented a film at the Venice Film Festival it would be easier. Instead, it’s just as hard as it was before, if not even harder.
Photo: Alberto Caviglia (right) on the set of “Burning Love” (Courtesy of Alberto Caviglia).