Sebastián Lelio • Director of The Wonder
"It is our responsibility to choose what we want to believe, because what we believe is what we create"
- The Chilean director presents a film with a classic feel that uses cinematographic language to address current affairs
The 70th San Sebastian Film Festival screened The Wonder [+see also:
interview: Sebastián Lelio
film profile], a brilliant work from the renowned Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. Through the story of a nurse (played by the always strong Florence Pugh) who fights against unreason to save the life of a little girl (a showcase for newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy), the filmmaker explores the pressing, urgent and highly topical issues of the world today. We discuss all this with him in this interview.
Cineuropa: I get the feeling that this is your most classic film in many ways and that you introduce a surprising device at the beginning to break away from that classicism. What are your thoughts?
Sebastián Lelio: I have not really thought about it in this way. The film has a certain classicism, but I think that at this point in time after the 1960’s, opening with a Brechtian gesture is already classic now too. I think I leave it to the audience to decide whether this film is more or less classic than the previous ones.
In this film, set in the mid-19th century, we see a female body used as a political weapon, something that still happens today. Did you intend to address such an issue at this point in time?
In the film there is a female body in dispute, wanting to be controlled by narratives unrelated to that existence. It's not about the girl, the only one who doesn't matter is her, it's about everyone taking advantage of the situation and having their narratives imposed by twisting reality. And this is again the definition of the fanatical position. This is a film that is set in the world today and talks about today. The fact that it is period is part of the game, the artifice, it is not the point. It is not 1862. This has always happened, before 1862, in 1862, it is happening today and, unless we rid ourselves of the cancer of fanaticism in all its forms, it will continue to happen.
There is a moment when Lib, the protagonist, says something to the effect that she is looking for facts, not stories. How does that connect with how all public discourse today seems more controlled by the importance of a good narrative and less by the truth?
We live in a world where everything is a story, we operate with stories, we need them. The point is that we need better stories. That isn’t to say that we can get rid of them, but to use them as a tool that we have agency over. The difference between a default inherited story and a chosen story is key here. And that is what Lib achieves, freeing the girl from her imaginary with her own conceptual tools, rescuing her from the story which she is somehow inherently trapped in. I don't think we can exist without stories; we are storytelling animals; the point is that the quality of our stories informs the quality of our development of consciousness. And it is very easy to go back to that, because one of the most powerful discourses is the fascination of fascism. Fascism works because it is quick and easy, imitation blinds the totalitarian leader and other dangers become more extreme with the spread of technology. I think the film warns us about the power of what we believe in. It is our responsibility to choose what we want to believe, because what we believe is what we create.
We, of course, have to talk about Florence Pugh, who in your film once again shows a seemingly limitless talent, and also about the revelation Kíla Lord Cassidy. What was it like working with the two actresses?
Lib's journey is extreme; she is someone who transcends her own rationality and commits an irrational act to save the girl. When Florence agreed to channel Lib for me it was glorious, because I thought we already had a film, with her presence, her magnetism and her ability to get us on her side. We go with her along her mental process and are always on her side. And not just any actress can do that. Then there is Kíla Lord Cassidy, the other blessing in the film. We watched 100 tapes during casting and when I saw Kíla's I was speechless. She was 11 years old when we saw her. The two perform a tremendous acting duel. It was great to find a girl with that level of intuition and commitment, able to take on Florence. It is very interesting to see in a film two performers defending their characters in a kind of duel that invigorates the film.
(Translated from Spanish by Vicky York)
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