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Switzerland / Belgium / Italy

Niccolò Castelli • Director of Atlas

“A universal story to tackle fear of what is different”


- We met with the director of this movie starring Matilda De Angelis, which is competing in the 2021 Swiss Film Prize and will be presented at the EFM by Vision Distribution

Niccolò Castelli • Director of Atlas

After seven years of work, Swiss director Niccolò Castelli has completed his second feature film Atlas [+see also:
film review
interview: Niccolò Castelli
film profile
, which opened Solothurn Film Days back in January and is now battling it out for the 2021 Swiss Film Prize in the categories of Best Film and Best Photography (Pietro Zuercher). Produced by Imagofilm Lugano (Switzerland), Climax Films (Belgium) and Tempesta (Italy), Atlas tells the tale of Allegra (Matilda De Angelis, currently starring in HBO miniseries The Undoing alongside Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant), a young climbing enthusiast who is the victim of a terrorist attack which claims the lives of her friends. During her long and arduous journey to overcome fear, Allegra meets a young refugee from the Middle East called Arad (Helmi Dridi). The film is set to be sold by Vision Distribution at Berlin’s European Film Market (1-5 March).

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Cineuropa: Did the idea for Atlas come from a real-life event?
Niccolò Castelli: In 2011, there was an attack in Marrakech which left 17 people dead, including three people from my own region, Ticino. It was an event which rocked the tranquillity of our neutral country, where nothing had happened for centuries and where you felt like you were living in a protective bubble. I wanted to work on this loss of virginity, on how we face up to fear of the other, which has taken an even stronger hold following the killings in Paris and Belgium. Then I met the girl who’d survived the actual attack; she spoke a lot about the trauma she’d suffered post-event and I realised I was interested in telling the story from her point of view, portraying her own return to life. We began developing the film in 2013. In terms of the later versions of the script, I wrote one last draft in Belgium with Stefano Pasetto, who helped me fine-tune the story in a country which had itself lived through terrorist attacks.

Migrant inclusion is a popular topic in film these days, and there’s always a need for new angles.
I was interested in understanding our relationship with difference and getting to the bottom of the feelings involved, which are ambiguous and categorised into good and bad, either seeing migrants as numbers rather than people, or taking an overly romantic view towards them. We don’t distinguish between the countless cultures arriving on our shores; we talk about the “Muslim world” without distinction. But I wasn’t interested in an ethnographic, Eurocentric, pietistic approach. I conveyed the character of Arad through his music, without explaining where he came from or what his dreams were. The viewpoint always remains that of Allegra, who feels different herself and is afraid of everyone. When Esmeralda Calabria and I edited the film last year, in the middle of lockdown, I realised that fear had become a generalised thing, it wasn’t only felt with regard to what’s coming from across the sea. So, the angle I looked at it from was the potential to win more freedom for oneself by stepping outside of ourselves and striving to understand the other.

The film’s co-production began in Switzerland, before broadening its scope to include Belgium and Italy. How did it go?
I wanted the film to have a European feel, to have an unmistakeable small-town setting, but it also needed to be universal so that everyone could identify with the situation. It was also important to Swiss producers Villi Hermann and Michela Pini that the film adopted a broader perspective and involved partners from other countries. Belgian firm Climax came on board thanks to our having worked with Pasetto. In Brussels, Hermann and I took part in pitching sessions and one-to-one meetings with local producers. As for Italy, many Italian films are co-produced in league with Switzerland - I’m thinking of Paolo Sorrentino, Alice Rohrwacher, the D’Innocenzo brothers - but there’s no reciprocity; majority Italian films co-produce with Swiss companies but not vice versa, because it’s hard to obtain funding in Italy. Carlo Cresto-Dina – who has been working with Switzerland for years – really liked the screenplay and wanted to come on board, drawing in MiBAC’s DG Film and the Trentino Film Commission, but there’s room for a greater level of exchange vis-à-vis Swiss films shot in the Italian language. My first film Tutti giù [+see also:
film profile
was distributed across the whole of northern Europe, but not in Italy.

Matilda De Angelis is gaining increasing notoriety. What approach did you take to working with her?
When we did the screen test, I wanted her to play the character in a very physical fashion without much talking. The work of subtraction I carried out with her allowed me to remove lots of dialogue and to tell the story through a physical component: the protagonist’s physical recovery, as well as her psychological journey. I love films that play more on images and sounds than on explanatory dialogue. Matilda is a brave and intelligent actress who isn’t afraid of exploring emotions and pain, despite her young age.

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(Translated from Italian)

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