Rohrwacher and Rohrwacher: Cinema’s Wonder Women

"We do not feel the need to create a border. Our relationship is natural."

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Alba and Alice Rohrwacher on the set of "Happy as Lazzaro." Photo: Netflix.

Not since Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland has cinema thrived with the brilliance of sister power as with Alice and Alba Rohrwacher. Except — unlike the classic Hollywood siblings — the Rohrwacher sisters actually love working together, having collaborated on numerous films and now are being celebrated by both the Museum of Modern Art and Istituto Luce Cinecittà with a retrospective called, appropriately, The Wonders: Alice and Alba Rohrwacher.

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Since 2011, Alice has made three feature-length films in which she draws from her own experiences to craft dreamlike parables that highlight social issues without losing sight of the magic of cinema. They all premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where they were met with critical acclaim and accolades, including the Grand Prix for The Wonders, and a Best Screenplay award for Happy as Lazzaro.

Alba’s acting career, meantime, spans more than 20 films, working under filmmakers like Marco Bellocchio, Matteo Garrone and Luca Guadagnino. Like her sister, Alba has earned numerous awards, from David di Donatello awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress to the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, for Hungry Hearts. Her versatility, going from comedy to melodrama, makes her one of the most exciting actors in contemporary cinema. In The Wonders, based on the sisters’ real-life experience growing up in a honey farm in the Italian countryside, Alba plays a version of her mother, while in the neorealism-meets-magical-realism Happy as Lazzaro, she stars as a robber who helps the title character (an ethereal Adriano Tardiolo) find a home.

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The retrospective, running through Dec. 23, includes all of Alice’s directorial efforts, including her short films and De Djess, a project commissioned by Italian fashion house Miu Miu. Alba’s work without Alice will be highlighted by I Am Love, Sworn Virgin, Sleeping Beauty and Come Undone, among others.

Leading up to the retrospective, I had an email exchange with Alice and Alba. They shared their insights with me on working together, family anecdotes, and which projects they may work on next. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often answered my questions together.

Jose Solís: You grew up in a world far away from film — what was the first film that captured your imagination?

Alba Rohrwacher: For me it was Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Novecento. I saw it on a VHS tape with my dad. I was too young to understand the deep meaning of it, but those images are still on us as the first impact with the force and magic of cinema. And then ET by Steven Spielberg. It is the movie that I have seen most times in my life as a child and as an adult and that I always love.

Alice Rohrwacher: For me, too, Bertolucci’s Novecento was something dense, difficult to describe, that remained stuck on us for so long, like a wonder and a mysterious fear. And then, surely Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which we have always seen on TV. Even now, on my dining room table, there is a photograph of a scene from that movie hanging.

JS: How would you entertain yourselves traveling with your parents?

Alba: Life in the countryside is full of events! The animals, the plants — there’s a lot of work to do! We read and drew. I had a passion for artistic gymnastics that I studied in a small dance school and I dreamt of becoming an acrobat.

Alice: I remember talking sometimes with a big stone in a field, leaning my ear on the stone and it seemed to me to hear voices, noises. I imagined that one day I would lift that stone and find a ladder that would lead to another world. We had a lot of imagination.

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JS: Although The Wonders has autobiographical elements the film is remarkable for its sense of the surreal. What are some things that you saw or remember from your childhood that still feel like magic today?

Alba: Nature. It is something that I miss in city life, and towards which I have a feeling of trust and wonder.

Alice: I agree with Alba. Nature, above all. Sometimes also human beings, when they sing together. It still seems magical to me!

JS: I listened to that Ambra song for weeks in a row after The Wonders. What other music did the two of you listen to as kids?

Both: We listened to Lucio Battisti, Lucio Dalla, The Beatles. We weren’t very expert in music, and we had few tapes, but we played in a small jazz orchestra. Ambra Angiolini’s “T’appartengo” was music that came from another world, from TV and not from tapes.

JS: Alice, your work often explores the spiritual. What was your relationship to religion growing up? Does making films make spirituality more tangible for you?

Alice: I love images that are able to connect what experience separates, and I believe that this is their strong spiritual and symbolic power. The etymology of the word “symbol” means “to put together,” and while we make a film this happens — we bring together distant imaginations and realities, different people, natural and human phenomena, lights and shadows. And the fact that all these things can live together is a great example of peace.

JS: Alba, in The Wonders you play a version of your mother. What was her reaction to watching the film?

Alba: I remember the screening in Cannes with my mom and dad. I remember the lights turned on and I saw them behind us clapping and crying, incredulous, excited. I don’t play our mother, exactly, but certainly the imagination that Alice had in creating the character, her idea of Mother, corresponds to my imagination, and it is similar to the gestures of our mother. Even if the story is not ours, she recognized the soul of the gestures that tell it.

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JS: I know I wouldn’t want to spend more than a couple of hours with my siblings these days. How do the two of you establish boundaries when you’re working together?

Both: We do not feel the need to create a border. Our relationship is natural. Of course, we each have our own secret space, and of course we enter one into the life of the other.

JS: Making films together, you’re creating a parallel history of your biographies. There is your personal lives as members of the Rohrwacher family, but also the memories you share as artists. Is it ever like living in two worlds at once?

Both: We have the privilege of creating an intimate and artistic memory together. The two things have found a balance without looking for it and thinking about these days at the MOMA it seems to us the most incredible gift that this sharing has given us.

JS: Alice, your work often touches on class disparity, something US audiences are reluctant to acknowledge or even discuss. What have you learned about the way in which European audiences and American audiences react to class in your films?

Alice: When I was writing my first film, a great producer, Karl Baumgartner, told me: “Never think of pleasing a certain audience, but try to make a film that you and your friends like. You are not such a rare and special person, there are millions of people who feel your same pain, your own joy, your own melancholy and your own desire to change the world, and it doesn’t matter where they come from.” I have always followed this principle. We say: pessimism of reason, optimism of the will.

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JS: What qualities do you admire the most about each other as artists?

Both: Consistency and visionary aspects in both of us.

JS: What project are you looking forward to working together on next?

Both: We have many ideas…we’ll see! It is too early to talk about it

JS: What is the Rohrwacher family signature dish for the holidays?

Both: For the holidays we still go to the house of our parents, who are practically self-sufficient, therefore, we will eat what the garden and the season offer.

JS: Can you comment on what it feels like to have MoMA do a retrospective of your work so far?

Alba: It is an incredible, wonderful gift. A great honor. The first time I was in NYC I was 14 and I still remember my visit to MOMA. So every time I came back to NYC I always went to see movie shows at MOMA. Thinking that now there will be a tribute to our work excites me deeply.

Alice: Even more the fact of being together. It cannot be described in words.