The talented Italian director Alice Rohrwacher has teamed up with Alfonso Cuarón to make a film for Disney. It’s rare that I write about a Disney film but this is a worthwhile exception and if you aren’t a Disney+ subscriber you can still watch this for free via a link on Cineuropa. Le pupille is a wonderfully entertaining and delightful example of what the French call a ‘moyen métrage‘, a ‘medium length film of 38 minutes, a bit longer than a ‘court métrage‘ but not long enough to be a longue métrage, a feature film. Le pupille is Oscar-nominated which might explain this promotion (it originally began streaming on Disney+ on December 16th and earlier featured at Cannes in 2022)
This is immediately recognisable as an Alice Rohrwacher film, with her sister Alba in the role of a Mother Superior of a small convent school, supposedly in Rome, but shot I think in Bologna. There is only a small group of girls of ages ranging from perhaps 5 to 12/13? I think they must all be orphans as they are not going home to families for Christmas (with one exception). It’s Christmas Eve and the girls are expected to take part in a nativity play, with some of them seemingly in harnesses, hung from hooks as little angels, and one of the Sisters playing a shepherd with a moustache and beard. Only when the children are lined up to listen to the radio do we realise it must be during the the Second World War when the British are attacking Italian troops. The war means privation and there is little to eat for Christmas dinner.
I don’t want to describe all of the plot but it’s worth sketching out the themes and the links to some of Rohrwacher’s other films. Here again is a young girl whose refusal to accept what she is told reminds us of The Wonders (2014) and another young woman who similarly defies religious tradition/strictures as in Corpo Celeste (2011). Finally, the look of the film is an immediate reminder of cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s work on Happy as Lazzaro (2018) using 16mm film very effectively. Many critics have also mentioned the way in which the film seems to be a kind of hommage to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933), also a moyen métrage in which students rebel against a strict boarding school regime. ‘Le pupille’ is an intriguing title. I don’t know Italian but I understand this refers to ‘the pupils’ rather than a single one (who does in a sense drive the narrative in the latter part of the film). In English this might also be a pun centred on the pupil of the eye – perhaps it also is in Italian? Certainly, this is a film about looking and the eyes of the girls play a central role in both the opening and closing credits of the film. This suggestion could be expanded to say this is a film about cinema/moving images.
Le pupille is co-written by Alice Rohrwacher with Carmela Covino and Shane Gotcher. The music in the film is credited to Cleaning Women – the three piece Finnish band (all men, I think) who construct instruments from household items. They have a background which includes playing music for silent films. This is a film which offers a gentle critique of the Catholic church but the wartime setting complicates this a little. The actions of the Church during the fascist period were a mix of good and bad. This film is primarily about the children and it keeps things mostly at the level of children’s fun. The cake in the poster is in a way the symbol of their triumph.
This film will cheer you up in these sorry times and put a smile on your face. I think there is a dubbed version of the film, but this version is in the original Italian.