Luca Guadagnino is putting a brave face on the sudden pulling last month of new movie Challengers from the prestigious opening slot of the Venice Film Festival, after the actors’ strike grounded its U.S. cast led by Zendaya.
The Venice regular – who won its Best Director award in 2022 for Bones And All, having also premiered A Bigger Splash and Suspiria in Competition; I Am Love in Orizzonti and first feature The Protagonists in the now defunct New Territories sidebar – considers the festival his “home” and will still be out in force on the Lido.
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The Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name director and producer is attending with two productions made under his Frenesy Film Company banner: short animated documentary The Meatseller and Italian actor Pietro Castellitto’s feature directorial debut Enea in Competition.
“You know Venezia is my home and I will be there with the short and feature in competition… it’s great to be there with these,” Guadagnino told Deadline on the eve of the festival which opens today and runs to September 9.
He will also be presented with a Life Achievement Award by the Giornate degli Autori parallel section and the Italian Society of Authors (SAIE), which has been renamed this year after investigative journalist and GdA president Andreas Purgatori, who died suddenly over the summer.
“He was a very kind man and a very, very great journalist so I’m pleased and humbled by that,” he says of the honor.
The Meatseller, which world premieres in Orrizonti on Wednesday (August 30) followed by further screenings next week, is the debut solo short of artist and director Marguerita Giusti.
It is inspired by the real-life story of Selinna Ajamikoko who left her native Nigeria as a 15-year-old and embarked on a harrowing two-year journey across Africa and the Mediterranean to get to Europe.
Rather than focusing the trauma of the trip, however, the narrative is driven instead by Ajamikoko’s voiceover account of her ambition to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a meat seller.
In between descriptions of the perilous crossing of the Sahara or being stuck in Libya, Ajamikoko speaks passionately about the art of butchery, the skill required to properly carve up a carcass and her preferred cuts.
A recent graduate of the Turin branch of Italy’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia film school, Giusto first connected with Guadagnino when he hired her to work as a storyboard artist on one of his projects.
“I was impressed by her serious and committed gaze on things,” he recounts. “I learned of her ambition to become a filmmaker in the animation field and followed her throughout her education and the shorts that she was making.”
Giusti’s starting point for the short was a desire to tell stories about women who had emancipated themselves through their jobs, rather than explore the migrant experience.
“Then I met Selinna and her story was so powerful, that I decided to focus on just her story. Once I had the first script. I called Luca for some professional advice, and he was like, ‘OK, let’s produce it.”
The deceptively simple hand-drawn imagery takes on a mystical feel at times with the images of Ajamikoko as a teenager transmuting into a cow.
“In one of our interviews, she said, ‘I want to be a cow, because that’s my experience in life.’ I didn’t put the sentence in the film because it didn’t need it, but it was the start of everything,” explains Giusti.
Guadagnino says Giusti’s focus on Ajamikoko’s professional aspirations rather than the injustices of her story is integral to the power of the work.
“There is immediately a complete suspension of judgement. That is always a very good point of view for filmmakers – not to judge their characters, not to point, not to try to deliver a mass message, not to lecture the audience,” he says.
“It’s great when you are invested into the process of a story arc, not because you have been told how to think but because you have been given a possibility of feeling… This movie is that. You feel very deeply this kind of friction between the ambition of the woman and the very difficult journey she has to go through in order to achieve it.”
Giusti worked with a collective of mainly female filmmakers to bring the project to fruition, an approach that all drew Guadagnino.
Pulling the finance together from private and public sources, Guadagnino says he saw his role as giving Giusti and her team the resources and support to “really explore the craft of making an animated short film.”
Producing the short was also a learning experience for Guadagnino as his first animated production.
“I’ve always been very fascinated by the world of animation and one day I hope I can make one of my own, but for now I’m very happy to serve as a producer,” he says. “I’ve already told Marguerita, we should be now thinking about her first feature.”
The Meatseller and Enea are among six projects produced by Guadagnino this year, alongside his own films Challengers (produced with Amy Pascal) and Queer (with Lorenzo Mieli).
His other credits include TIFF title Holiday by Edoardo Gabbriellini; Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s upcoming film Those Who Find Me; Uncut Gems actress Hailey Gates’ directorial feature debut Atropia, which shot in July, and a coming-of-age film by Italian director Giovanni Tortorico, which will feature animation work by Giusti.
“I love to produce. I love to produce from every field and from every part of the world. Certainly, I’m attracted by young people, because the energy that comes from that perspective… is exciting and tremendous, but at the same time, I don’t limit myself to young people,” says Guadagnino.
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