Emma Dante

Written by Kathleen LaPenta

Fordham University 

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Emma Dante is an award winning writer and director of theater, opera and cinema. Born in 1967 in Palermo, Sicily, Dante’s early career unfolded as an actor, playwright and director. In 2009 she added operatic productions to her repertoire and in 2013 she began writing and directing also for the cinema. Her innovative and visceral works return again and again to themes of the family, the body and social emargination.

After graduating in 1990 with an acting degree from the National Academy of the Dramatic Arts Silvio D’Amico in Rome, Dante worked in Turin, where the young actor first experienced theater of the avant-garde as a spectator and where Dante was part of several formative productions, including the Compagnia della Rocca and the 1995 production Canto per Torino directed by Gabriele Vacis. In 1999 the artist moved back to Palermo and founded the theater company, Sud Costa Occidentale. In 2014, Emma Dante assumed permanent positions in Palermo as director of the Teatro Biondo and at the School of Performing Arts.

The artist has spoken widely about the creative process through which theatrical works and characters come into being. In beginning a new piece, Dante describes a two-year long gestation period during which the director-playwright and actors “discover” characters by means of interactive, collaborative work that involves music and movement in a deep exploration of the artists’ bodies and means of expression. The script emerges out of this collaborative process, and the director has cited the commedia dell’arte, the sixteenth century form of theater in which actors improvise lines, as a source of inspiration. Emma Dante’s theater works are known for their raw and unbridled exploration of human bodies through movements, sounds and gesticulations that unfold in intimate familial settings. The works are recognizable for their deployment of a version of Sicilian language that author Andrea Camilleri, in his preface to Dante’s first work, called “curated” and that, according to the critic Alice Billò, constitutes a type of grammelot because of its emotional and unique blend of hybrid and onomatopoeic elements.

Dante’s first play, mPalermu, which means “inside Palermo” in the regional dialect, debuted in 2001 and immediately won the Scenario Prize for young artists. The Ubu Prize, the most important prize for theater in Italy, quickly followed in 2002. mPalermu is the opening work of Dante’s first trilogy, comprised also of Carnezzeria (2002) and Vita Mia (2003) and entitled Carnezzeria: La Trilogia della Famiglia Siciliana (Trilogy of the Sicilian Family). In line with the trilogy’s overall exploration of death, mPalermu is a comedy in which five characters, all members of the Carollo family, embody different aspects of the city of Palermo. Subsequent works for the theater include: La Scimia (2004), a play adapted from Tommaso Landolfi’s short story, Le due zitelle (The Two Spinsters), Cani di Bancata (Street Dogs, 2006), the first of Dante’s works that deals directly with the the Sicilian mafia, Mishelle di Sant’Oliva (Michelle of Saint Oliva, 2006), the title of which invokes Palermo’s red light district and which takes place in the ambit of a morally and economically impoverished father and son, Il festino (The Little Party, 2007), a one person play that focuses on the mental handicap of its protagonist Paride (Paris), and La pulle (The Hooker, 2010), about female prostitution. In 2011 Dante directed the premier of a second trilogy, La Trilogia degli occhiali (The Glasses Trilogy), comprised of Acquasanta (Holy Water), Il Castello della Zisa (The Castle of Zisa) and Ballarini (Dancers) and respectively about poverty, illness and old age. In 2014 Sud Costa Occidentale debuted the play Operetta burlesca (Burlesque Operetta) and, in early 2020, Dante premiered her latest work, entitled Misericordia (Mercy) at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro Grassi. 

Dante’s theater repertoire with Sud Costa Occidentale has unfolded alongside adaptations of literary works and performances of Greek theater. She directed Medea (2003), wrote and directed Verso Medea (Towards Medea, 2014), Odissea A/R (Roundtrip Odyssey, 2015) and Io, Nessuno, e Polifemo (One, No One and Polyphemus, 2015). More recently, in 2018 at the 54th festival of the Greek Theater in Siracusa, Sicily, Dante directed Eracle (Heracles). The artist has also adapted fables by the Neapolitan sixteenth century writer Giambattista Basile, the twentieth century Italian writer, Tommaso Landolfi, and the nineteenth century Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen.

December 7, 2009 marks her entry into the world of opera as director of George Bizet’s Carmen, at La Scala in Milan. Despite a mixed reception by “traditionalist” opera goers fueled perhaps by Franco Zeffirelli’s public critique of the production as overly sexualized and shocking, Dante has continued to pave the way for newly conceived operatic productions. In 2012, Dante directed Daniel Auber’s La muta dei portici at the Comic Opera of Paris, then in 2014 Dante brought Richard Strauss’ one act comic opera, Feuersnot and Verdi’s Macbeth to the stage at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. Dante directed Gioacchino Rossini’s La Cenerentola in 2016 and Sergei Prokofiev’s L’Angelo del Fuoco in 2019 for the Rome Opera House.

Emma Dante has published three novels since 2007. The first, La favola del pesce (The Fable of the Fish) has been called an allegory for the mystery of birth and was published in the Dimora Theater’s series, L’arboreto Edizioni with drawings by Gianluigi Toccafondo. Rizzoli published Dante’s second novel, Via Castellana Bandiera, in 2008, which tells the story of an encounter between two women on a street in Palermo and serves as the basis for Dante’s first feature length film. Dante won the Vittorini and the Sinopoli prizes for the novel in 2009. The artist’s third book, entitled Anastasia, Genoveffa, and Cenerentola (Anastasia, Genoveffa and Cinderella) was adapted from Sud Costa Orientale’s play of the same name and was published by La Tartaruga press in 2011. 

The entry into cinema marks the most recent of Dante’s artistic endeavors, with two feature films and one on the way. Although the director often draws inspiration from previous pieces, cinema constitutes an outlet through which Dante often realizes the unexplored possibilities of works previously conceived as literature, theater or opera. Such is the case for the 2013 film, Via Castellana Bandiera (A Street in Palermo), which premiered at the 70th International Venice Film Festival and for which Dante collaborated with the writer Giorgio Vasta. Via Castellana has an all-female lead cast: with Dante herself in the part of Rosa, Alba Rohrwacher as Clara, and Elena Cotta, who won Best Female Actress for her interpretation of the role of the elderly Samira. 

The storyline, in which a lesbian couple clashes with a group of impoverished but opportunistic locals in a virtually unrecognizable side street of one of Italy’s most iconic southern cities, places social emargination at its center. As Rosa and her partner, Clara, lose their way in the side streets of Palermo on a visit from Rome, the couple comes up against a car full of members of the Calafiore family returning home from a day at the sea. With Rosa and Samira in the drivers’ seats, the two cohorts conduct a standoff that devolves into a battle of wills between Rosa and Samira, and the narrow street, Via Castellana Bandiera, remains blocked for the rest of the day. Chaos ensues as more and more people from the community get involved in trying to convince either of the two women to move and to let others pass, and Samira’s death at dawn the following morning is the only reason that the standoff ends.

The cinematography further underscores the marginalized southern spaces and queer positionings of the film’s characters in several important ways. In the opening, the camerawork accentuates the frantic and disjointed movement of Rosa and Clara’s car and disorients a viewer who might otherwise recognize the city’s topography and therefore be able locate the film in a fixed time and place. The crowded frame and frequent use of close ups that characterize the initial encounter between Rosa and Samira also distorts the narrowness of the street. As the drama unfolds, however, the broader perspectives afforded by the camerawork re-orient the viewer by offering relative perspectives on the space. This gradual expansion culminates in the final take, which is a long shot of the street, now cleared of the cars, in which the camera remains fixed; it is positioned at the base of the street as locals, played by non-professional actors, run through the frame and as the song, Cumu è sula la strata, by the Mancuso Brothers, fills the sonorous space. In the film, the camera’s play on perspective and perception acts as a metaphor for the limits and possibilities of human knowledge, and throughout the story the director deploys comic relief as a complement to the often silent and monotonous frames that Rosa and Samira’s bodies occupy. When, in the midst of the standoff, the patriarch of the family Saro (played by Renato Malfatti) orchestrates a gambling circle in which local residents bet on the outcome of the women’s standoff, his mother-in-law, Samira, will not be manipulated to move according to his wager. Via Castellana Bandiera is the only piece in which Dante fulfills the roles of director and actor. In an interview for the online cinema journal Arabeschi, the director points out that, despite feeling some reluctance in taking on Rosa’s character, the experience of acting in the film while she was also directing allowed for the unique opportunity to develop a deep understanding of the filmic medium from both sides of the camera.

Emma Dante’s second feature film, Le Sorelle Macaluso (The Macaluso Sisters, 2020), is inspired by the play of the same name but constitutes a work entirely different from the earlier piece written for the theater. For the film, which premiered at the 77th International Venice Film Festival in 2020, Dante collaborated with Elena Stancanelli and Giorgio Vasta on the screenplay. The story revolves around the lives of five orphaned sisters, who live on the top floor of a seaside apartment in Palermo and who earn their keep by maintaining a pigeon coop above the roof of their building. Moving from the devastating memory of the death of the youngest sister, Antonella (Viola Pusateri), who fatally falls from a swimming pier during a visit to Charleston Beach, a local beach club that the girls’ parents had also visited when they were alive, the story then tracks the collective and individual acts of memory and mourning that the sisters perform throughout the rest of their lives. On the day of Antonella’s death, the oldest sister, Maria (played by Eleonora De Luca and by Simona Malato), who was sixteen years old and on the cusp of young adulthood and of pursing her dream to become a dancer, had taken leave of the group to explore her own sexual desire. Pinuccia (Anita Pomario, Donatella Finocchiaro, Ileana Rigano), the most vain and perhaps beautiful, had swum away after arguing with Lia (Susanna Pirano, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati) about the safety of climbing the pier. Pinuccia becomes caretaker of Lia, the bookish sister who, having encouraged Antonella to climb the pier, suffers from mental instability and illness. Katia (Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna), the next youngest and chubbiest of the sisters, was also a party to Antonella’s death and, although she marries an emotionally abusive husband and has a family of her own, she continues to advocate for Lia as they age.

The narrative arc of Le Sorelle Macaluso unfolds in three acts that correspond to beginning, middle and end stages of human life. The protagonists’ aging female bodies are underscored by changes in the actresses that represent them, and the film further emphasizes change over time by situating the emotional drama within the affective and evocative space of the family home, which is both the same and yet also different throughout the film. The use of shots of the family’s pigeons, which return home even when they are sent far away, further evoke the idea of the home as “nido” (nest). In an interview at the Venice Film Festival, Dante refers to the “corpo casa” (home body) as the receptacle of the sisters’ human attachments to describe the home.

Emma Dante’s prolific career as actor, author, director continues to explore, to re-write stories about women in society. In January, 2021 the author published a collection of fairy tales, entitled E tutte vissero felici e contente (And They All Lived Happily Ever After, Carocci) which re-imagines traditional woman archetypes such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella through a contemporary lens and which recasts the stories of these characters as independent, hard-working and resilient. Dante is currently at work on a third feature film, Misericordia (Mercy), which will be an adaptation from the 2020 play of the same title.

 

FILMOGRAPHY

Via Castellana Bandiera (2013), Feature Film

Le Sorelle Macaluso (2020), Feature Film

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Billò, Alice. “Emma Dante. Profilo.” Arabeschi Rivista Di Studi Su Letteratura e Visualità 10 (luglio-dicembre 2017). http://www.arabeschi.it/emma-dante-profilo/

Billò, Alice, Stefania Rimini, and Marco Sciotto. “Videointervista con Emma Dante.” Arabeschi Rivista di studi su letteratura e visualità 10 (luglio-dicembre 2017). http://www.arabeschi.it/numbers/arabeschi-n-10/

Corda, Alessandro. “Via Castellana Bandiera | Film | Recensione | Ondacinema.”  ondacinemat.it, September 19, 2013. http://www.ondacinema.it/film/recensione/via_castellana_bandiera.html

Dawson, Angela. “Death, Regret And Family Ties Explored In Emma Dante’s ‘The Macaluso Sisters.’” Forbes.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/adawson/2021/08/04/death-regret-and-family-ties-explored-in-emma-dantes-the-macaluso-sisters/

lavocedinewyork.com. “Emma Dante: Bodies and Silence with a Sicilian Accent.”  https://www.lavocedinewyork.com/en/arts/2017/11/17/emma-dante-art-gender-bodies-words-and-silence-in-a-sicilian-perspective/

“Emma Dante e La Regia Contestata Zeffirelli: «Questa Carmen è Il Diavolo» - Milano.” Il Corriere Della Sera. December 8, 2009, sec. Cronaca. https://milano.corriere.it/milano/notizie/cronaca/09_dicembre_8/emma-dante-regia-carmen-scala-contestata-zeffirelli-1602124081571.shtml

Emmadante.com. “Emmadante.com.” Official Site. http://www.emmadante.com/

Fred Film Radio. Emma Dante - LE SORELLE MACALUSO - 77 Venice Film Festival, 2020. Accessed September 14, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhiEjHkGVec

Ide, Wendy. “The Macaluso Sisters — Hauntingly Lovely, Strikingly Unusual.” FT.Com, December 16, 2020. http://www.proquest.com/docview/2477901517/citation/E68B3CC12E2143FFPQ/1.

Jessica Kiang. “‘The Macaluso Sisters’ Review: A Moving Tale of Sisterhood and Sorrow - Variety.” Variety, September 13, 2020. https://variety.com/2020/film/reviews/the-macaluso-sisters-review-1234767763/.

Lee, Marshall. “‘The Macaluso Sisters’: Venice Review.” Screen International, September 10, 2020. http://www.proquest.com/docview/2441562777/abstract/4FAC1613787449EEPQ/1

 

Loayza, Beatrice. “The Macaluso Sisters: [Review].” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast). August 6, 2021, sec. C.

 

Lombardo, Eleonora. “E vissero tutte felici e complesse le eroine della Dante.” La Repubblica. December 21, 2020, Cultura.  https://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2020/12/21/news/e_vissero_tutte_felici_e_complesse_le_eroine_della_dante-279248325/.

 

Nonunadimeno. Interview with Emma Dante. “Presentazione del libro: E tutte vissero felici e contente.” https://www.facebook.com/nonunadimenopalermo/videos/203318641532091/

 

Polizzi, G. “Queering the Southern Border: Challenges to Italian Homonationalism in Emma Dante’s Via Castellana Bandiera (2013).” Modern Italy 25, no. 2 (01 2020): 147–61. https://doi.org/10.1017/mit.2019.64

 

Weissberg, Jay. “‘A Street in Palermo’: Emma Dante’s Thinly Stretched Debut - Variety.” Variety, August 29, 2013. https://variety.com/2013/film/markets-festivals/a-street-in-palermo-review-venice-1200591845/

To cite this biofilmography, please use the reference: LaPenta, Kathleen (2022), "Emma Dante's biofilmography", Gynocine Project, Barbara Zecchi, ed. www.gynocine.com