Remembering Elisa

Remembering Elisa

By Michael Pickard
January 9, 2024


Ben Donald from Cosmopolitan Pictures reflects on making Italian-language series Per Elisa, which dramatises one of the country’s most shocking crimes – the murder of a teenage girl – and how it was left unsolved for nearly two decades.

Ben Donald

On Sunday September 12, 1993, a 16-year-old girl walked into the main church in Potenza, southern Italy, and never came out. Her body was only discovered 17 years later, in the attic of the very same church that the powerful local priest and local police had conspired to never have searched, knowing she was there all along.

The disappearance of Elisa Claps was a case that should have taken 48 hours to solve. Instead, it took 17 years and is still, more than 30 years on, an open wound in Italy and in the city of Potenza, two hours south of Naples, where she lived, disappeared and then lay dead and hidden for nearly two decades.

Filming a true story in the very city where it took place is truthful and authentic but also a challenging undertaking, for the story and the lies and secrecy that surrounded the Elisa Claps case then are alive and divide the city even now. There are those who support the Claps family in seeking the truth about what really happened and those who deny such complicity and wish the family would move on and allow the city to cleanse itself of the stain of Elisa’s story.

Many locations were denied to us, while others were initially granted and then mysteriously withdrawn. Nowhere was this truer than the funeral scene.

Elisa’s mother, Filomena, was a woman of God who had been let down by the institution of the Church. So she declared that her daughter’s funeral would not take place in a church, but rather out in the open, in public, in one of the city’s municipal squares. In an outpouring of sympathy and guilt, thousands attended the real funeral in July 2011, with hundreds of Potenza’s citizens hanging white sheets from their balconies as an accusation of a whitewash by the authorities.

The funeral scene in Per Elisa posed numerous challenges

We wanted to recreate the funeral both in its location and its scale, while also making effective use of archive footage as the event is watched on television by other key characters in the series. Initially, we were granted use of the entire piazza. But as the day of filming approached, there began to be noises about whether we could use the square and which bits of it were in fact publicly owned and which were effectively or indirectly owned by the local parish.

Already, perhaps not surprisingly, we had been denied access to the church where Elisa disappeared (which we instead filmed on the outskirts of Rome). Despite attempts to deny us, we were ultimately prescribed a specific small section of land deemed non-church on which to operate.

At the funeral, Elisa’s brother, Gildo Claps, played by Gianmarco Saurino, gives an excoriating speech lambasting those whose silence meant he and his family had to wait 17 years to have a body and a tomb to cry on – effectively killing his sister twice: first in the flesh and then by silencing the memory of her, only orchestrating the ‘discovery’ of her body after the priest at the time of her disappearance had died.

Gildo is the protagonist of our series, a student in 1993 when his sister goes missing. He is just one exam short of getting his law degree, but turns his back on his studies of the law that he sees failing her, to instead go on a 30-year fight for justice. In the process, he will have to try to keep his family together and also avoid falling into the abyss of an obsession that very nearly kills him. Expertly and sensitively directed by Marco Pontecorvo, the funeral scene is a very powerful culmination to a series that we chose to make in a very specific way, different from many true crime series.

The actors portraying the central Claps family pose for a cast photo

For yes, there is a killer. Danilo Restivo was a few years older than Elisa and attended the same school. She’d gone to meet him in the church that morning at his behest. He was the last person to see her.

But we did not want to tell the story of a serial killer. The true villain of Per Elisa is something more subtle than the bogeyman we often want or need. It is a society that stays silent and perpetuates a behaviour where those in power are more interested in image and standing, act with impunity and corrupt the very institutions that are designed to lead and protect society, and where a problem child like Danilo Restivo is both a product and a mere protected pawn in a machine.

We also wanted to avoid the trope of the police investigation being the spine of the story. There are cops, of course. Both good and bad. As well as good priests. But together with our writers – Bafta winner Terry Cafolla working in collaboration with Valerio d’Annunzio and Andrea Valagussa – we thought the real events, however dark and unresolved, presented a story about the uncrushable human spirit, about a successful struggle for justice and about a family’s devotion to a lost daughter and sister. So it is deliberately a warmer and more emotional viewing experience than most true crime pieces.

I have a personal connection to the story. It broke when I was living in Italy as a student and was all over the papers and television that year, sharing column space only with the high-profile arrests of the Clean Hands anti-mafia operation that effectively ushered in the Berlusconi era. It was the case that effectively taught me Italian and about Italy.

Although the killer features in the series, the creative team wanted to focus on different evils

Decades on, as a producer, it felt like a story that was still true, resonant and needed telling. And judging by the response on RaiUno, where the series achieved an overnight peak audience of nearly four million viewers and the same again within a month’s catch-up on RaiPlay, it seems many people agree.

The church where Elisa was disappeared controversially reopened just before the series went out, having remained closed for 13 years and after some notable reconstruction of the roof area where Elisa’s body was found. Since the series went on air, there have been demonstrations in memory of Elisa, and accusations and protestations of innocence from the Church in the press, with politicians local and national weighing in on both sides.

I am incredibly grateful to the Claps family for the responsibility and privilege they afforded me and my coproducer Maurizio Tini of FastFilm in dramatising their story for television, with ITV Studios set to bring the series to international audiences.

Since I met the Claps family through Tobias Jones – who wrote Blood on the Altar, the book on which the series is based – they have been fully involved and become true friends. If what they say is true and we have given them back a little something of Elisa then I am incredibly proud.

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