They Were Like Flower Children: Susanna Nicchiarelli on Chiara, With My Brilliant Friend Star Margherita Mazzucco as Saint Clare

With “Chiara,” Susanna Nicchiarelli’s portrait of Saint Clare of Assisi – the 13th century saint born into a wealthy family who at age 18 became a nun after hearing St. Francis preach – the Italian director completes her trilogy of female biopics, segueing from “Nico, 1988” and “Miss Marx,” which both launched from Venice’s Horizons section. With “Chiara,” she makes the leap into the main Venice competition.

Nicchiarelli spoke to Variety about what drew her to portraying this prototypical feminist and directing “My Brilliant Friend” star Margherita Mazzucco in the pic’s titular role. Excerpts.

What drove you to want to tell us this story about St. Clare?
Well, first of all, I was always passionate about Saint Francis. I have a very strong memory when I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” I was at school when they showed it to us and this boy, this man, taking his clothes off in front of the Bishop. That was a very strong image. Francis’ battle speaks to us just as much today because it’s a battle for poverty, against social injustice. It’s about being on the side of the poor, of those who are different, and the injustices of a society in which very few have everything and then most have nothing. So, this was their battle. The medieval society was like that. It’s not so different from the way it is now.

Of course Clare was Francis’ follower
Yes. What’s interesting about Francis’ revolution, and also Clare’s revolution, is wanting to build a community, a community of equals. What happens is that Clare is a girl who runs away from home at 18 to join Francis, and she simply wants to be like him. I mean, she wants to do what he does and build a community of women that are Franciscan women. But this is not possible for many reasons. So she fights all the time against the church herself. She fights against the popes and cardinals to simply be able to do what Francis was doing as a woman. The problem is that women in medieval times were forced to live a cloistered life. If you chose a religious life, you had to lock yourself in a convent and disappear. And she did not want this.

She wanted to go in the world. She wanted to travel and she was not permitted. She wanted to go to the Holy Land. She wanted to do all the things that Francis was doing and she was not allowed to because she was a woman. So somehow her story becomes a feminist story and her fight becomes a feminist fight.

Let’s talk about casting Margherita because I think she really carries the film. I mean, it’s an ensemble film, but I do feel that her charisma on screen is a huge asset.

Well, first of all, Clare was 18 when she ran away. So, for me, it was very important that Clare be played by an 18-year-old girl. I mean, I wanted her to be young because the youth of these two characters, both Clare and Francis, is important. I mean, they were kids, they were young, and a lot of people of all ages followed them. When I met Margherita I fell in love with her because she was a child, because she is a child. She has the same frailties of a child. She’s very small, and at the same time she has very strong charisma. She’s very centered. She knows her place in the world and she’s very calm. So in many ways she was Clare for me.

Talk to me about the strong musical aspect of the film with choruses and dance sequences in fields. 

When I was writing, I knew I had to make them dance. I knew that I had to go in the direction of a musical because, I mean, the films that came to my mind when I was writing were “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The Franciscans were very happy and always they were celebrating life and singing. The first manuscripts we have with songs are Franciscan. So, of course, it had to be part of their story. Young people getting together and away from society and choosing poverty, choosing a simple life and celebrating, because that’s the whole point. They were like flower children.

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