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The Venice Film Festival is full of famous children: Nepobabies or future cinematic geniuses?

Pietro Castellitto, the Arriaga brothers and Olmo Schnabel all presented films, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola Venice Film Festival
Sofia Coppola on Monday at the Venice Film Festival.CLAUDIO ONORATI (EFE)
Tommaso Koch

Every child, sooner or later, faces the question that adults love to ask: “what you be when you grow up?” It is often followed by another: “will you do what your mom or dad does?” For Pietro Castellitto, there are two options; an actor and filmmaker, like Sergio, or a writer, like Margaret Mazzantini. Although there is always a third option: something else. “I grew up in a family that did everything they could to prevent me from choosing this career. It has the risk of changing your personality. You can’t control it, and it depends a lot on being in the right place at the right time. I’ve tried not to be a filmmaker,” he tells EL PAÍS. Clearly, though, he failed, because this Tuesday Castellitto presented Enea, his second film as a director, at the Venice Film Festival.

This year, the Mostra has plenty of well-known last names, enough so to ask whether their families ushered them onto the red carpet. Or was fame a weight on their shoulders, allowing them a more skeptical gaze? Spoiled children or future geniuses, or both, or neither? The answer is in the hands of time. And the audiences.

It has always happened, in the history of art. How many children have become even better painters than their parents? If you are born into a family of directors, or performers, you learn a love for cinema along with your mother’s milk. They may reject their parents’ work. But, if they choose it, it obviously makes it easier for them: they acquire specific skills, but also knowledge and contacts,” says Alberto Barbera, artistic director of the festival. Sooner or later, though, the young filmmaker must begin to walk on their own legs. Only then, perhaps, can they see if they can stand alone. Just think of Javier and Carlos Bardem, or the Fondas, the Douglases or the Skarsgards.

Sofia Coppola has turned the issue back on those who question her. “Is your father asked about you more than the other way around?” She was asked in a talk with a group of international journalists at the Lido, where she presented her film Priscilla. Apart from thanking Francis Ford for his lessons, she talked about Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides — that is, of everything she has created since her beginnings.

Sergio Castellitto presents 'Enea' this Tuesday at the Venice Film Festival.
Sergio Castellitto presents 'Enea' this Tuesday at the Venice Film Festival.YARA NARDI (REUTERS)

For the other children of the Mostra, however, it still seems impossible for them to avoid their parents’ long shadows. Perhaps for this reason, many prefer to embrace it. Enea is directed by and stars Pietro, but also includes his brother, Cesare, and his father Sergio. The Mexicans Mariana and Santiago Arriaga, for their first feature, Upon Open Sky, have filmed a script written by their celebrated father, Guillermo. Marina Alberti focuses the short Aitana on her mother, the daughter of María Teresa León and Rafael Alberti. And the documentary Opus was a family pact: when the pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto learned that his life was coming to an end, he gathered his strength for one last concert. He trusted only one director with the film: his son, Neo Sora.

Upon Open Sky was written by Guillermo in the mid-nineties. Since we were children we knew it existed, but it was only in 2016 that Santiago found the manuscript while he was organizing boxes of documents at home with our mother. He immediately told me that he found what could be our first film. Since then, we wanted to direct it,” recalls Mariana Arriaga. The three attest to the pleasures of making movies as a family. And Santiago emphasizes that his responsibility was with the story and with working as best they could: “The rest is not in our control.” A famous parent can increase the opportunities and give their children a passion for film, but at the same time, the scrutiny increases.

Olmo and Julian Schnabel on Sunday at the Venice Film Festival.
Olmo and Julian Schnabel on Sunday at the Venice Film Festival.YARA NARDI (REUTERS)

Did they get here on their own merits? Was it Olmo Schnabel who managed to sign performers like Willem Dafoe for his debut, Pet Shop Days, or did dad Julian contribute? Is Enea’s large budget due only to confidence in the talent of Pietro Castellitto? Does this reflect the hermeticism of cinema as an art that only the bourgeois can afford? It is inevitable for directors without a famous last name to ask themselves such questions. Sofia Coppola herself admits to having wondered about it: “I have always considered myself very lucky. And I have thought about how people who come from outside can have more access. It’s such a closed world.”

Some of the films do not resolve those questions. Both Upon Open Sky and Enea have bright moments, but they also have several problems. The former has received mixed reviews: a gripping revenge road movie to some; a flat and ill-fated story to others. And Castellitto’s film is as full of ambition as it is lacking in balance. It may be just the hunger to prove his worth, but the director has put so much meat on the grill that none of it can be savored at ease: ideas follow one another to the point of stepping on each other. The feeling of not knowing what will happen next is appreciated, but the viewer ends up saturated, discovering, once the fireworks go off, a not-so-complex background landscape. At least, yes, the creator tries. The rest, perhaps, will come with experience.

“Being someone’s child can help a bit if you don’t have talent, if your goal is to appear as an extra in a series. But if you want to do things with commitment and quality, you risk it, maybe even more than the others,” argues Castellitto. The filmmaker reports that he works alone on his scripts; his family only sees them at the end. The lessons from artist parents, for him, have more impact in another area: knowing from the start the ups and downs of the trade, the great joys and the tremendous disappointments. “You are more prepared and willing to endure,” he says.

Those are useful qualities, for life, even far from the cinema. But Guillermo Arriaga celebrates something even more relevant in his children: “They learned from their mother and me that they shouldn’t be afraid of anything, that life is worth it, especially professionally, because of the ability to take risks and bet. The passion and dedication that they have put into their first feature film are a source of pride. But their greatest virtue is in the people they became, above any professional achievement.” Teachers, bakers, cashiers, film directors: what does it matter what each child will be when they grow up? “Let them do what they love,” suggests Sofia Coppola. Because there is one trade that all parents hopes to pass on: being a good person.

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