In the German The Last to See Them, by Sara Summa, the audience attends the last day of a family in the south of Italy. The fate of the characters is based on a real story that took place in 2012. The night before a wedding, the Durati family were killed for unknown reasons, where a connection to the mafia was presumed.
“The film connects with Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood because it humanizes the anonymous victims cited in the news, but, in this case, the murderers are not included in the story,” anticipates of the Cinema Jove’s director, Carlos Madrid.
The film tells very clearly from the beginning what is going to happen with the family we’re going to see. So that one follows the film with the knowledge that all four family members will be dead by the following day, murdered. How is it important for the film to know this fact immediately?
In a way the film doesn’t tell a story in the classical sense of the term. Rather, it offers an experience. For that reason, the fact of how it all ends is not so relevant in my eyes, because the focus is on the time that comes before the announced end and which the viewer spends with these characters – and not the result of that time. So the knowledge that is given to us in the beginning is like a gift: it wants to free the gaze and sharpen our sense of observation. We are given the opportunity to witness other people’s experience of life in its timely limitation. We can simply watch how time passes and fades away. In this way, the film sidesteps the usual dramaturgic obligations and becomes free to take us along on its own journey. So, yes, this information is indeed very important! Not because it wants to create a sense of ominous mystery, but because it charges the time we witness with another quality: that of being finite and therefore somehow special.
One however doesn’t know exactly when the murderer or murderers will come – so it could happen at any point throughout the film. Is this a moment that interested you in any way? I have the feeling that the film makes it clear very early on that it’s not built on this kind of suspense.
Exactly. If you go into the film with this kind of expectation, you might quickly be disappointed. Because the murder itself is given so little room, the typical kind of suspense you are talking about is not really what the film is after. The end will come, we know that and can’t forget it of course. But the sense of tension is, in the end, more a result of a sharpened gaze which lets us watch very closely and precisely what is happening with each character at every moment of the day, how they react to one another, how they touch objects, how a cake is made, how a woman wakes up in the morning and observes other people, or how a man eats an orange. I would like to think that these elements become just as gripping as the somewhat more trivial question of through whom and when these threads of life will eventually come to an end. The film really relies on the pull of these little, everyday things. Details about the murder itself become unimportant. An element which you haven’t mentioned yet, but which I think ads to the type of tension you were referring to, is the isolation of the family’s property. It soon turns into a sort of abstract insiders space, both safe and oppressive, contrasting strongly with the world outside. All the other characters besides the four family members come to it as intruders and so become suspects. Not only as murderers, but simply as representatives of a type of otherness. In this way the film tries to make us adopt the perspective of the family, secluded and turned toward itself – which also generates a type of tension.
For some time in the film there are repetitions of scenes, that also seem very singular: one sees and hears something which one has already seen and heard before, yet from another position, often from another room. We slide inconspicuously into them, without any obvious leap, it takes some time before we understand what is happening.
Yes, and somehow these repetitions have to do with an understanding of time as both unique and multiple. Every single moment is unique in that it can never be repeated, yet it is almost infinitely divisible, or in this case at least into as many perspectives, perceptions and experiences as there are characters moving around the house. Even within one same room and moment, the experience of going through life is absolutely individual. Each of the instants our four main characters go through is defined and influenced in a unique way by the series of moments that have preceded it and those that will follow. That is what we are given to see and experience with them. As viewers we are in a special position here, because only we get to experience a single given instant in multiple perspectives, which results in a curious thickening of time. It is also a way of getting to know our characters in their uniqueness. Each one of them has a personal and singular experience of that shared last day, in spite of spending it together. And it seems to me that by summing up all of these separate perspectives the film can maybe give us a sense of loss, of missing each single one of these four lives once they disappear.
What is impressive about these repetitions is the fact that, although they break the linearity of the narration and the real timeline, they become neither loaded with a mysterious metaphysical meaning, nor do they become an enigmatic formal device in the foreground. They rather induce the somewhat strange experience that the film doesn’t narrate scenes, but rather pieces or fragments of time. An outcome for the film and for the entire perception is that what one sees and hears is exempt from the constraint of being a scene with a beginning and an end and a function in the story as a whole. The film can be what it too seldom is: life – and we simply watch life, no story.
I am very happy to hear this feeling comes through! This idea of being the privileged witness of the pure act of living is in fact what the film is after. To me, another important effect of this non-linearity is that time is made a protagonist of the narration by simply pointing at it so specifically. Together with the initial announcement of their death, this destructuring of the film’s timeline puts a focus on this last day as a very special moment. It makes us aware of time as an element to pay attention to and makes the short frame of this piece of life important, despite the apparent banality of the rather uneventful day the characters go through. I see this day as a way to capture a privileged moment of life itself, featuring it in its positive relation to death.
The profoundly sad and moving aspect which the film lets us experience comes through the constant presence of death: one watches life, and how it can die at any moment, i.e. in other words: how it is mortal at every moment. Is that maybe the real scandal? That life is mortal? Malraux in Deleuze’s words says «Art is the only thing that resists death».
All this leads us in fact to the absurd notion of death, that suddenly and necessarily barges into life as a major injustice. And yet, it is also the event that gives everything its meaning, its purpose, to some degree its beauty. To me, there is something infinitely moving about this two-fold idea. Life becomes relevant through the simple knowledge of mortality, of our characters’ temporality – and yet, death is still completely scandalous. I think life is an impertinence in the face of death, it is its opposite and, at the same time, its compound. Life flirts with death in a sublime way, but reaffirms itself throughout. I wanted the film to be an ode to this resistance, to the mere fact of being, which can best show its full striking radicality when looked at through the lens of death.
Another side note on the Malraux quote: the film is inspired by the real threads of life of four people who were murdered a long time ago. The film attempts to re-embody parts of their experience. As Deleuze puts it when he quotes Malraux about the relation between art and resistance, art has nothing to do with communication or information. The film is not an informative work on how four people spent their last day. It is something else, and maybe as you said it is in fact an act of resistance in itself, resistance to time, which may, hopefully, gain our characters a little bit of immortality.
That there is a real story behind the film is part of a complex relation between reality and fiction: even though there has been a similar real-life event and similar people, the film sketches a fiction of its own, which you in turn let non-professional actors embody. All the actors in the film are non-professionals. They have or achieve over the course of the film a kind of vulnerability, a fragility, that professional actors never show and which has to do with an openness toward the real persons your actors are. How did you approach the work with them – but first: how did you look for and find them?
That’s certainly a very important aspect because the film would be very different if it weren’t for the four people who act in it and had a big part in fashioning these main characters. The casting process as such took some time, but in the end it was very easy to narrow the choices down to these four people. I knew from the start that I wanted to work with non-professional actors, and I wanted to find people who simply through their presence would convey something about a certain type of life that I couldn’t invent. What you are referring to – this strange translation from reality into fiction, which then returns to a kind of reality through the choice of people who have something to do with the world that is being depicted — this was an idea that fascinated me from the start. It is hard to explain what I was looking for there, but I wanted to find my way back to something primal, which I felt would only be possible working with people who could in a way give something of themselves that the film hadn’t necessarily planned with. I guess this can happen when working with professional actors as well, but the approach is different, and this choice felt more intuitive to me. However during the work, the challenge became partly to get them not to act in fact. And like with any actor, you have to help them get to the part of themselves that is interesting for the camera. And of course each of them was very different and had very different strengths and different needs. The children for example had a very innate sense of rhythm, but getting to something more concentrated and precise could sometimes be a challenge. With the adults it was more complicated, because while both of them have a strong individual presence on screen, as people they were both rather different from their characters in the film. And anyway, none of them had any acting technique or had ever been in front of a camera in this way, so we had to find ways together to get to a place we were all comfortable with. Sometimes it was more direct, pure in a way, but in other moments we managed to reach the kind of fragility you’re talking about through recurring to some artifice at first. The strangeness of the mother for example has to do with her pace, which is something constructed for the needs of the film. From the start I had a very clear understanding of what I wanted to see in these characters, but somehow this mental image had to make room for who was there in front of the camera and for what they were offering. And although it required some work, that part was definitely one of the most exciting sides of the process!