Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron wanted to explore making a series of short films honoring the different cultural traditions at the end of the year, from Christmas to Hanukkah to pagan traditions. His concept was to find a director suited to telling the story, depending on the culture. When it came to Christmas, Cuaron says, “That time of year is meaningful in most cultures. It’s the end of the darkest nights and the beginning of a new cycle. I immediately thought of Alice Rohrwacher. I’m a huge fan and have been ever since I saw ‘The Wonders’ and her short films.”
Written and directed by Rohrwacher, “Le Pupille,” (The Pupils) the 37-minute short now streaming on Disney+, was produced by Cuaron in tandem with her regular producer Carlo Cresto-Dina.
Set in a Catholic orphanage during WWII, the Oscar-nominated live-action short follows Serafina (Melissa Falasconi), one of the young girls taught about heaven, hell, temptation and Catholic guilt. The arrival of a Christmas cake tests Serafina and the others.
When Cuaron approached Rohrwacher to make the film, she thought of a letter written by Elsa Morante about a cake. Christmas, an important holiday for Italians, was the perfect setting for the director to tell her story.
Says Rohrwacher, “It is a cake that everyone wants, and those in power, Mother Superior wants to keep for herself because she wants to use it for her own interests, and that inspired me.”
She explains, “It’s a film about desires, pure and selfish; about freedom and devotion, about the anarchy that is capable of flowering in the minds of the girls within the confines of the strict boarding school. Though the obedient girls can’t move, their pupils can dance the unrestrained dance of freedom.”
The film incorporates elements of music and dance. Rohrwacher wanted to find a way to feature Morante’s letter in the film and thought portraying that musically was the ideal way. “If it is sung, it’s a story the girls could feel deep inside, so we created the song. A band called ‘The Cleaning Women’ wrote the music.”
Her creative brief was to write music as if it were a silent movie. The addition of song and music gave her a new way to further the narrative in the way she wanted with the girls singing the song at the end. “We suddenly had this way of talking about how to share the cake joyfully and playfully.”
Production designer Rachele Meliado found the place to shoot the orphanage while on a location scout in Northern Italy, at an old institute for deaf and mute people. Says Meliado, “It was all intact, so we could use the furniture that was already there, and there was so much potential.”
The frescoes seen in the film were originally covered by pink paint. While the team was aging the walls, they were uncovered, which provided an unexpected and unique effect.
Rohrwacher was inspired by a sentence within the letter: “Destiny works in mysterious ways” for the film’s ending, which asks audiences what is the moral of the story and ends with a vague answer. She says she wanted it to be seen through the eyes of the girls and the idea that “even they don’t know the moral of the story. The cake which the Mother Superior wanted to keep, ends up being shared by everyone.”