Turkish-Italian writer-director Ferzan Ozpetek is a filmmaker whose works have common themes and threads–something that he readily admitted during a recent Dallas stop on a promotional tour for his newest picture, “Facing Windows.” Asked whether his earlier films “Steam” and “His Secret Life” shared elements with his newest one, he responded (usually speaking in Italian through an interpreter), “Yes. I’m very interested in the notion of a person or an event that takes you out of your normal situation and confronts you with something [new]. We meet a person one day and the person–maybe the first time we don’t think it’s good, or very good, and afterward, we find they change our life. I love this in life, and I love this in a movie.”
The person who undergoes such a transforming experience in “Windows” is Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), an unhappy housewife whose husband brings home a disoriented old man (Massimo Girotti) he’s found wandering in the street. The elderly gentleman changes Giovanna’s life by accidentally introducing her to a handsome fellow she’s long admired through their facing windows; but he also expands her horizons by encouraging her dream to become a pastry chef and bringing her into contact with his own remembered past–something that includes his actions during the night when the Nazis rounded up Rome’s Jews for deportation.
“My major concern is memory,” Ozpetek explained. “I live in a building that’s from the past. In my room, sometimes I think that fifty years ago there were people in here who loved, who fought, who made love, who had parties here, and these walls in some way are witnesses to the life that was in this building. I often go to the ghetto–the Jewish neighborhood–to do my shopping. Sometimes when I go shopping there, I stand in front of a certain building and think about what happened sixty years ago. The Germans came and took all these people away, all the families and the children. There’s nothing here to remember that, to remind me of that except the buildings which are witnesses to those events. Sometimes there’s a wall where somebody might have been shot against that wall, and maybe then years later a couple were kissing there. So I didn’t want to use flashbacks to represent that. I just wanted the same buildings to witness those events in this film–with the cars and everything the way that they are now, but the buildings somehow speak of what happened, what has transpired.”
Many of the specifics of the film’s plot, however, are derived from Ozpetek’s own memories. The meeting between Giovanna and Davide, the old man, is based on something from his own past. “It comes from a real experience I had sixteen years ago,” he said, “where I saw this older gentleman, dressed very nicely, holding a packet of money in his hand. I actually did give the man a lift. I initially thought he was maybe a crook or a trickster of some sort, but then I realized he was really a man who was lost. We looked for his house. He was desperate, or at least you got the impression from his face that he was desperate, because he was lost. This really affected me, because I saw that the man was scared by being in the car, and it had been thirty years since he’d gone out of his house. He’d had a fight with his daughter-in-law and he got dressed and left the house. His daughter-in-law yelled out to him, ‘Where are you going? You know you’re going to be back here in ten minutes anyway.’ He was so angry, he just kept walking and walking and walking, and then after awhile he didn’t know where he was anymore….On thing I always ask myself is, why did he never leave his house for thirty years? This film was my particular answer to that question. It’s not necessarily true, but the film provided my answer.”
But there were other aspects of “Facing Windows” that came from Ozpetek’s own experience, too. “I had two friends like the couple in the film who were going through a kind of crisis period in their relationship. Also, a young man who was at my house asked me to do him a favor. In my head I was thinking, oh, no–he wants to be an actor and wants me to help him in his acting career, or be an assistant on my films. Instead he said, ‘Can you put in a good word for me at the pastry shop near your house?’ because he was by that time over thirty years old and couldn’t officially be an apprentice to a pastry chef. This sort of affected me, because it’s important in life to have a passion. You can be a street cleaner, but if you have a passion that moves you in life, your work doesn’t matter. And even if you don’t have a passion, you have to work to get one, to do things better. I myself am moved or motivated by passions and emotions in life–I’m very lucky, because I’ve always been able to do what I love.”
One of the great joys for Ozpetek in “Facing Windows” is the masterful performance of Girotti, a veteran of Italian film since 1939, as Davide, but it’s tinged with regret as well. “When I looked for an actor older than eighty, my choices were limited,” he said with a laugh. And when he met Girotti, “his faded beauty was attractive to me.” Ozpetek went on to audition other actors, but, he recalled, “I was kind of embarrassed, because throughout all those interviews, Massimo’s face remained [in my mind].” Ozpetek was especially pleased that during shooting, Girotti remarked to him, “This is the first time I’ve ever really felt like a true actor.” The regret stemmed from the fact that Girotti never got to see the finished film, or to know that he won a David Award for best actor for her performance. “A few weeks after I finished editing the film, he died,” Ozpetek explained. “I’m sorry that all [the awards and recognition] came after he died.”
“Facing Windows” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.