By Matthew Lowe

Piero Messina is jetlagged. “I didn’t sleep,” he says, pulling at his hair. Waiting for the interview to start, he sits slumped in his chair, head in hands, eyeing the unopened carton of cigarettes that sit just beside a mammoth bowl of coffee. Messina is in Australia to promote his debut feature, The Wait, which he also scripted and scored. The basic premise of the film centres on the long wait for someone who will never arrive. It bears in this way a distinct affinity with Samuel Beckett’s classic play, Waiting For Godot. “To be honest, I didn’t think about Beckett during the writing period, but I love him,” the director says. “When I was young, I read a lot of Beckett, and I was very, very much into this kind of literature. I’m sure that there is some influence from that, but when I wrote the movie, I didn’t think about Waiting For Godot.”

Where Beckett’s play accentuates absurdity, Messina’s film puts its accent on a rawer kind of emotion, and he cites among his filmic influences Bergman, Tarkovsky, and especially Aleksandr Sokurov, whose own film, Francofonia, was in direct competition with Messina’s last year at The Venice Film Festival. In The Wait, Juliette Binoche stars as a grieving mother who despairs to inform her dead son’s newly arrived girlfriend that he is dead. While casting Binoche may be a coup for the first time director, she was not his first choice. “When I wrote it, it was my mother’s face in my mind,” he says. “My mother and the face of a French actress, but she is not the actress in the movie.” Pressed on who he had in mind for the role, Messina is reluctant. “At the end, I changed my choice and she is not happy about it,” he notes circumspectly, without giving anything more away.

Piero Messina on the set of The Wait
Piero Messina on the set of The Wait

He is keen to talk about Binoche, however. “We spent a lot of time with Juliette before shooting to speak about this character,” Messina explains. “She told me, ‘Piero, speak about this character. Not the woman that is in the movie, but outside. Who is she? What does she do?’ Because for her, it was very useful to know the character before the story. I spoke with her a lot. In the end, I said, ‘Okay, Juliette, come to Sicily. I want you to meet my mother…the character is my mother. It is very close to my mother.’ They started to stay together, and now they are very, very friendly.”

Throughout the interview, Messina emphasises that his relationships with his actors are the most crucial aspect of his filmmaking. His claim to spending virtually no time at all on the visual aspect of the film is questionable, because The Wait – a film full of spectral imagery, religious tokenism, and underwater reveries – is so visually deliberate. “When I arrive on set, there is just one thing that’s important, and that’s working with the actors,” he says. “I spend two minutes in my day on the visual aspect of the movie. The script is just the starting point. Fellini said that when you’re on set, you have to leave the windows open. This is right.”

To this end, he describes a scene in which Binoche was intended to pick up her dead son’s clothes and press them to her face. Instead, she found an inflatable lilo on set and they incorporated it into the film as a major motif, wherein she effectively inhales the final breath of her dead child. “This was born on set,” he says. “It was not born in my room, with my light, writing alone. It was born in a moment when I was connecting in an emotional way with another person. I remember that we took just one take of this; like six minutes, she stayed with this. I cried a lot on set on this day.”

Juliette Binoche in The Wait
Juliette Binoche in The Wait

Still, the measured visual symbolism of The Wait is hard to dismiss. The film opens with a striking image of an old mourning woman at the feet of a crucified Christ. The denouement, during a Sicilian Easter festival, is juxtaposed directly with the unveiling of The Virgin Mary during a parade. While Messina says that the imagery to him is impersonal, he explains its inclusion as a subtext to a broader sense of meaning. “I love the symbolism of religion,” Messina says. “Everything means more. It’s like a poem. I love religion like a language because it’s a language where the meanings are more. It amplifies the meanings. It’s like heart. You put it inside something, and it will grow out with more meanings. This is the religious and linguistic way. I believe in the artistic way of religion. I study religion because it’s very close to the heart.”

Further to this end, the ill health of Pope John Paul II via a news bulletin acts as an important signifier to place the film deliberately in 2004 where the premise could not be ruined by social media. “We set the movie one year before the Social Era because with this,” he picks up a mobile phone from the table, wedged somewhere between the coffee and the cigarettes, “the story is impossible. If someone died now, you go on Facebook, and in two minutes, you know everything. Before this, it’s possible that you could go for three days without knowing…” He trails off. “Now I am in Australia, but if my friend died, I’d know because I have Facebook and Twitter. Before, even if I was in Sicily or Rome, if something was up and if no one called me at home, I wouldn’t know.”

The Wait will screen at select cinemas from Friday, June 24-26, before opening in general release on June 30.


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