by Dov Kornits

“Marxism was a huge thing in our country for a very long time,” says Susanna Nicchiarelli about her Italian upbringing, but a statement that could equally apply to Australia. “In the ‘90s, we saw Marxism disappear, but we also saw it become imagery of the past. There was something sacred about Marx and the whole culture that somehow feels distant in time, and at the same time, very close because the dream and the power of the dreaming is still alive, especially now with the power of wanting a better world.”

Nicchiarelli offers the answer in reply to our question about the surprise box office success of Miss Marx in her native Italy, with the majority of the shoot taking place in Italy’s legendary Cinecittà Studios, and going on to win multiple awards at the Venice Film Festival.

The biopic of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor, played by Romola Garai, is Nicchiarelli’s fourth feature film, and could be viewed as the culmination of her previous work, especially when you consider her debut Cosmonaut (2009), which centred on a 15-year-old girl in the 1960s, who was a member of the Communist party.

“I think that for my generation, there was always something very nostalgic about communism. The Berlin Wall fell when I was 14 and we saw an entire culture disappear rapidly. Maps changed, language changed but at the same time, studying Marx, you could tell that there was a lot of wisdom that had nothing to do with what had happened afterwards with the Soviet Union and the totalitarian movement.

“After making my third movie, Nico 1988… I was just reading a book on the 19th century and the women’s rights movement, I wasn’t really looking for a film to make, and I read about this woman, Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, and it was just in a sentence…

“It said that she translated Madame Bovary,” Nicchiarelli says of Flaubert’s mid 1800s classic that had always puzzled the filmmaker. “Karl Marx’s daughter, a great feminist, translated Madame Bovary into English, and she ended up like Madame Bovary… That was incredibly interesting for me. How could that happen? Somehow, as a woman, I needed to understand it. I have always been very angry at Emma Bovary, the way she was passive and then the way she let her life go. She was stupid sometimes. And then I realised that there could be a feminist, a very intelligent woman, who ends up like Madame Bovary, taking poison for love. That was extremely interesting for me. How could that happen?

“At the same time, I knew that there was a story or something important to say about emancipation, which hasn’t been said before. How difficult emancipation is and all those walls that we have to bring down, and not only outside of us, but also inside of us, all the battles that we have to fight. When I started reading about Eleanor, I realised that her story said something about love in general, about the dependence that love sometimes is based on and couples are based on, and not only for women but also for men. Her story is quite emblematic.

“And of course, Karl Marx says one of the last lines of the film; that the sense of life is to fight. Eleanor’s story talks about struggle and the importance of struggle. And about the fact that a revolution is not more important if it wins or if it loses. But what is really important is the process of struggle for a better world.”

As we slowly come out of the Covid pandemic, Nicchiarelli believes that Marx’s message has rarely been more pertinent.

“It was incredible when I started reading Eleanor’s speeches. She was very good at communicating, especially her father’s ideas. She was very clear and concise in her speeches and her writing. There are certain things that are very valid today; poor people becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer. Marx had imagined a world that could be fairer. I certainly hope that young people, especially now after these two years of the pandemic crisis, try to imagine a different world. This is still, I think, the power of Marxist thought and the power of Eleanor’s thought and words. The process of imagining, the process of fighting for a better world, a world without social injustice and a world that will be much better. I think that’s the way young people – think of the climate movement – are imagining a better world, which might be less crazy and harmful.”

Where does the filmmaker see Eleanor Marx with regards to feminism? “She was the first one to say that feminism is also a social issue. She was the first to make a comparison between feminism and totalitarianism; the way men were exploiting women, and abusing women was also on an economic level.

“She was also the first to talk about the fact that a revolution is never really a revolution if this doesn’t come also with women’s liberation. Socialist movements would often put aside the issue of women’s liberation. She was the first one to say that the two things had to come together, and it was not a real revolution if it’s not also for women’s liberation.

“What she said was extremely important, I’d say crucial, especially with her personal story… We believe that the private is political, which is a feminist slogan, and I believe it. I think it’s the slogan of this film. Her personal story is also very political because it makes us think about how complex emancipation is also in our private relations, and that politics doesn’t end at the door of our houses. Politics comes inside. Politics is also about who washes the dishes and also about sincerity in a couple. That’s what her story teaches us.”

Miss Marx is in cinemas March 3, 2022

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