If you don’t know about the warrior monks living in seclusion in Italy, you would never believe they could have ever existed.
Director Valentina Pedicini (whose film Faith has been screening to acclaim in IDFA’s feature competition) first heard about the high kicking spiritual warriors 11 years ago. Back then, when she was at the Zelig International School of Documentary, she met one of the monks on the street during an exhibition of kung fu.
“I fell in love with this character. He was very fascinating. I spent two weeks in this community,” Pedicini remembers. Her original intention had been to make a documentary about kung fu champions. Instead, she found herself at the centre of a cult. “So I decided to stop the movie.”
For over a decade, she heard nothing further from the monks. Then, around two years ago, she decided to revisit the subject. After directing several other documentaries, including Dal Profondo and For Where Shadows Fall, she felt that she was now experienced enough to take on what promised to be a very tricky assignment.
In order to make the film, she spent a month and a half researching at the monks’ monastery and a further four months shooting, living in complete seclusion with them as she did so.
One key aesthetic decision was to shoot in black and white. “It was a radical choice. For me, this community and the Master made a monochromatic choice in their life.”
The Monks dress in white. The colour represents good. Black is the symbol of the big, bad world outside.
“It (the choice of black and white) was also because I wanted to try to capture the essence of this community. For me, it was very important there was no distraction. In some ways, colour can be a distraction. With black and white, you have to concentrate on the face, the body and the psychological atmosphere of this movie.”
Pedicini was very aware that she could make the monks seem sinister, ridiculous or both. They are martial arts practitioners but are also very religious. She was determined, though, to treat them with respect, whatever her personal feelings toward them. The director was determined to “have a relationship with them” and not “to betray them.” They were very open with her and she didn’t want to abuse their trust. Even so, she had misgivings.
The master trusted her because she had had the courage to come back after 11 years. He also did his research, watching her other movies. Another motivation was his desire to lift the veil on a very secret community. Outsiders, even parents of some of the monks, rarely ventured inside the monastery.
“I don’t want to judge,” the director responds when asked if she sees the monks’ community as benign. At times, though, she struggled to keep her neutrality and to allow her subjects to reveal themselves, without manipulation from the filmmakers. “But there is point of view in the movie because I choose where I put the camera. There are a lot of artistic choices.”
Just before IDFA, the director rented a cinema for two hours so the monks could see the film at a closed screening. Almost all of them came. For some of them, it was a shock and a revelation to see a film at all, let alone one in which they themselves were shown on the big screen.
The director hopes audiences can immerse themselves for the duration of the film in this strange, self-enclosed world and try to understand the faith which drives the monks to stay for 20 years or more in their community.
Fandango Sales is handling worldwide rights on Faith. Italian distribution is expected to be secured shortly. Pedicini (who studied linguistics and philology before eventually embracing filmmaking) is now thinking ahead, looking for another story which will obsess her as much as this one did.
“I love documentary,” the director declares. She had made fiction films but clearly preders the world of non-fiction. It gives her the “opportunity to go inside” worlds which would otherwise be closed to her. “I think cinema is obsession,” she says. “I am an obsessive person. Cinema is a way to give time and love and space to my obsession – and to give a voice to people who, for a lot of the time, don’t have one.”