Retelling La Storia
La Storia star Jasmine Trinca, producer Roberto Sessa and director Francesca Archibugi discuss how their shared love of Elsa Morante’s celebrated novel was infused into this Italian series about a widowed mother’s struggle to survive during the Second World War.
Widely considered one of Italy’s most significant novels of the 20th century, Elsa Morante’s La Storia was first adapted for the big screen by director Luigi Comencini in 1986.
Now, almost 50 years after it was first published, this story of a widowed mother set against the backdrop of the Second World War has been transformed into an eight-part series that will have its world premiere at the Rome Film Festival on Friday.
Jasmine Trinca stars as Ida Ramundo, the mother of 15-year-old Nino, who has a secret: she is of Jewish descent. When she is raped by a German soldier, she discovers she is pregnant and secretly gives birth to another boy, Useppe, nine months later.
When Nino decides to join the war effort, Ida and Useppe are left to fight poverty and persecution during the Nazi occupation, the end of the conflict and in post-war Rome.
The series is produced by Picomedia and Thalie Images for Italian broadcaster Rai, in coproduction with distributor Beta Film. For Picomedia CEO Roberto Sessa, the chance to adapt La Storia for television was an opportunity to create a series that could appeal to European audiences by combining an important novel with high production values.
But his first task was to convince the trust responsible for safeguarding Morante’s work that he should be allowed to do it at all.
“There was a lot of flirting before we were able to get hold of it and convince them that our project was a serious one,” Sessa tells DQ. “We were able to convince them because we put together a package that was extremely convincing. But most of all, we flagged the idea of Jasmine as our leading actress. They were very pleased about this decision. But the next step was to convince Jasmine.”
What Sessa didn’t know, however, was that Trinca shares a unique bond with Morante, and the actor jumped at the chance to star in La Storia, the film star’s first TV series.
“It wasn’t at all hard to convince me because she is my author. She has been inspiring me since I was 13 or 14, when I started to read her novels,” Trinca says. “When I came to La Storia, I was a teenager and I was born in the same neighbourhood, Testaccio, where the story takes place. And I’m still here, in the apartment where I grew up with my mother, a single mother. Elsa Morante was more than a ghost; she was always here. Then when I had my daughter, who now is 14, I named her after Elsa, so I’m very linked to her.”
With the novel stretching to more than 750 pages, bringing La Storia to the small screen meant Sessa could remain as faithful as possible to the source material over the show’s eight-hour running time.
“The pace of the story is really fast. It’s a narration that doesn’t stop. It’s all plot, driven by three major characters – Ida and her two sons, Nino and Useppe,” he explains. “We decided to make an adaptation that is very close to the novel because we are touching one of the most important Italian novelists of the 20th century, so the responsibility we have in our hands is a very big one, not only for me but also the director, the writers and Jasmine. We took a great deal of caution to avoid any misinterpretation or misunderstanding.”
Sessa also says that to play too much with the original story would have been a “very dangerous thing to do.”
But in the hands of writers Francesco Piccolo (My Brilliant Friend), Giulia Calenda, Ilaria Macchia and Francesca Archibugi (The Hummingbird), who also directs, they created a truthful adaptation that Sessa hopes will be as widely popular as the source material was on its release in 1974.
“One peculiar thing Elsa Morante said when it was published was she didn’t want the hardback book [to come out first]. She went immediately with the paperback because she wanted to make this book available to all potential readers in this country,” he says.
As a fan of the novel, Trinca wasn’t worried about how the story might have been translated for the screen. Instead, she was focused on how she would play the lead character in such a grand project when filming began in Rome last June. The shoot later moved to locations in Naples and Lazio to recreate a story set mostly in Rome between 1940 and 1948.
“Ida is our main character but, at the same time, she is a simple, poor woman,” the actor says. “My personal challenge was trying to depict this kind of woman and to make her unforgettable, in a way.
“We were trying to describe a big story through a small individual story like Ida’s. You can make the horror of the war more powerful if you can recognise names or faces. We tried to make a beautiful series but it’s also something that talks to reality.”
Ida’s journey sees her struggle to conceal her Jewish heritage during the Nazi occupation of Rome, while she must also contend with the conflicted love she has for her young son Useppe.
“It’s a very intense story,” Trinca continues. “I don’t want to reveal everything she goes through; there are losses and grief, so many things. But at the same time, she’s always celebrating life. Not in a silly way – she’s very attached to the simple things. But it was hard for me because I tried to embody some someone who is not powerful or recognisable. She could walk in a square and people wouldn’t look at her.”
Ida, she adds, often follows her instincts, and shows an inner strength when she has to defend her children. “But the idea of embodying somebody who is not powerful meant I had to hide everything [of myself] to become someone else for real,” Trinca says. “It was a real journey for me, and also because it was filmed for six months so it was a challenge.”
The scale of La Storia – which had a budget of €17m (US$18m) – leads Sessa to describe it as the biggest television event he has ever produced, with shooting on the streets of Rome requiring “lots of visual effects, lots of work for the set department.”
But it meant the cameras could be placed in the real areas and neighbourhoods where the story is set, close to Trinca’s own home.
“It was a very important, interesting, difficult job, but I’m extremely proud of and happy with the result,” Sessa says. “We are very pleased with what we have done.
“It was very long and, by the end, I started to be a little tired, not mentally but physically because it was August in Rome and I was fully dressed [in period costume],” Trinca recalls. “For an actress it’s a beautiful possibility to develop a character and story over such a long time – but actors are crazy. I started to feel like I had a small child; I was very connected to him. And talking about ghosts, the idea of shooting around my people, my neighbourhood, my relatives, it was something special for me.”
But while Trinca immediately said yes to the chance to play Ida because of her love of Morante’s novel, director Archibugi initially said no for exactly the same reason. “I was afraid to take part because the book is so special to me,” she reveals. “But because the writer Francesco, who has collaborated with me for many years, was involved, I felt safe.”
When it came to recreating wartime Italy, the “devil is in the detail” for Archibugi, who made authenticity a top priority. “It was about finding the best team possible and finding a team that could work together,” she says. Ludovica Ferrario (The Young Pope) came on as set designer, Catherine Buyse (Spiderman) took charge of costume design and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (The Great Beauty) created a look the director describes as “vivid and sweet, with a special tenderness that goes with the humanity of this story.”
“I’m not afraid to film scenes of war but I am afraid of psychological and emotional scenes,” the director says. “That was challenging. Searching for the truth is what I’m trying to do in these scenes, and staying true to the experience and how it’s seen by the audience. That’s difficult. Getting closer and catching the intimacy and truth is the hardest part of the big-scale scenes, compared with the scenes or war and sweeping landscapes and scenes of joy.”
A particular worry for Archibugi has been wrestling with the differences between film and television and ensuring viewers are immediately drawn into the world of La Storia. “Going to the cinema is a choice. It’s a journey. You go and choose what you want to see,” she says. “But this is preselected for the audience. My fear is that the audience needs to be grabbed in the first three minutes; there’s a lot of pressure on those first few minutes. But if you know the story, you will enjoy it, and then there are elements for an audience that is new to this world.”
It’s not just Sessa, Trinca and Archibugi who appreciate Morante’s writing. Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous writer of My Brilliant Friend, is also said to have been inspired by Morante. And just like the adaptation of Ferrante’s novel, La Storia is set to be enjoyed by a wide audience following its move to television.
“This was a very popular story written by a genius for the widest possible audience,” Sessa says. “We have followed that path; that was the star in the sky we had to follow because that was exactly what Elsa Morante was trying to tell us – make a popular story, make an important show, make these characters understandable for a universal audience. They are universal characters.
“It’s a story that really needs to be seen. That’s what we hope. It’s a fantastic journey.”