Interview'Judaism is at the center of everything in my life'

Filmmaker Luca Barbareschi has two films premiering at Venice — and a bone to pick

The Jewish-Uruguayan-Italian actor, director, producer and former parliamentarian expounds on cancel culture, his Judaism, and why he feels Roman Polanski isn’t getting his due

An undated photo of filmmaker Luca Barbareschi. (Federica Di Benedetto e Marco Bellucci)
An undated photo of filmmaker Luca Barbareschi. (Federica Di Benedetto e Marco Bellucci)

ROME — Luca Barbareschi burst into his office in central Rome like it was another one of his grand entries onto the stage.

The Jewish-Uruguayan-Italian actor, director, producer, former parliamentarian and artistic director of the Èliseo Theater was all smiles, and with good reason: Not just one, but two of his new films — “The Palace” and “The Penitent – A Rational Man” — were set to premiere in the coming days at the 80th Venice International Film Festival, which runs from August 30 to September 9.

The first of those films was produced by Barbareschi and directed by his friend, Roman Polanski.

Pointing to the framed posters of films he’s written, starred in, or produced that adorned the walls, Barbareschi proudly declared that he “didn’t sell out.” For the 67-year-old Barbareschi, this means staying true to his often controversial views on issues such as the #MeToo movement and political correctness, which he calls a “cancer.”

He recently said that “some actresses who report harassment seek publicity,” and that others “should be reported when they show up sitting with their legs apart for an audition.”

He also defends the simultaneously infamous and revered Polanski, who is still on Interpol’s wanted list after fleeing in 1978 from the United States, where he pled guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl who has since publicly forgiven him. Barbareschi expressed his regret that Polanski, whom he has called “the nicest and kindest man I’ve ever met,” would be unable to attend his film’s September 2 premiere in Venice because Italy has not opposed his extradition.

An undated photo of filmmaker Luca Barbareschi. (Federica Di Benedetto e Marco Bellucci)

Polanski’s black comedy “The Palace” is set in Gstaad, Switzerland, and revolves around the grotesque characters who descend upon the town’s luxurious Palace Hotel on New Year’s Eve 2000 amid the anticipated Y2K bug scare. Barbareschi didn’t just produce the film — he also appeared in the comic role of Bongo, a retired pornstar, alongside an international cast including John Cleese, Fanny Ardent and Micky Rourke.

Polanksi’s 2019 film “An Officer and a Spy,” about the infamous Dreyfus Affair, is also a source of consternation for Barbareschi — or, at least, its lack of distribution is. While Polanski was widely praised for the film, which earned him the 2019 Grand Jury Silver Lion and the 2020 César Award for Best Director, it has yet to be commercially shown in the United States.

“Someone still has to explain to me why this masterpiece has been unable to acquire US distribution, despite whatever you may think about Polanski’s morals,” Barbareschi said tersely.

The filmmaker also slams what he sees as a lack of French support for his fellow director.

“Look, if France doesn’t defend its own heroes they’re gonna end up badly,” he said, before turning his sights on Europe in general.

Luca Barbareschi, left, with director Roman Polanski. (Malgosia Abramowska)

“I think giving up on the concept of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Europe was the first mistake,” he said, “and after that when we allowed an idiot to send a fatwa to Salman Rushdie and people to be killed in terrorist attacks, as well as witnessed book burnings. History teaches us that when they start burning books they eventually proceed to killing people.”

Calling woke and cancel culture “a suicidal attitude that is permeating the US and the entire Western world,” he said that he wouldn’t be shocked if a person didn’t know that the statue of David was sculpted by Michaelangelo.

But, he asked, “What’s the issue at hand when a principal in Florida has to resign because students were shown a picture of this masterpiece?” In his mind, “the issue is that in 10 years no one in America will know who Michelangelo was. We forget that America’s roots are in Europe and that America became what it is through millions of English, Irish, Italian, French, Spanish, German and Jewish immigrants.”

According to Barbareschi, the refusal to show Polanski’s movies in the US illustrates the irrationality of cancel culture.

“I think it’s wrong to blackmail an artist with this logic,” he said. “It’s wrong to issue a trigger warning before reading Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ which a bunch of idiots tried to do at Columbia University. Cancel culture is wrong because you can’t send a warranty notice to the past.”

He described cancel culture as “totally antisemitic… [based] on the simple fact that we Jews have a sense of humor. Cancel culture, however, has no humor.”

Barbareschi’s second film, “The Penitent – A Rational Man,” premiered in Venice on September 4, two days after “The Palace.” Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Mamet, the film addresses topical themes ranging from the overwhelming influence of the media and the courts to Jewish spirituality, the LGBT community and family relationships through its main character, a psychiatrist, who sees his career and private life unravel after he refuses to testify on behalf of a former patient who caused the deaths of multiple people.

Mamet and his works have long had a hold upon Barbareschi’s life and career — so much so that he has translated and performed his entire oeuvre.

“I saw one of his first plays, ‘American Buffalo,’ and said to myself this guy is a genius not only for the stories he tells but also in the way he uses language,” Barbareschi said. “So when I met David, I told him, ‘I want to translate what you write for my country,’ and he said, ‘OK, good.’ I started with one play, then two, and eventually ended up doing all of them.”

What Barbareschi loves most about Mamet is that “he is not dogmatic and leaves the door open for you to develop your own interpretation,” which he finds “very Jewish and extremely honest.”

Barbareschi also appreciates Mamet’s ability to tackle and write about any topic.

“He wrote this fantastic book entitled ‘The Secret of Knowledge’ where he was figuratively stoned to death,” Barbareschi said. “I had the book published chapter by chapter in Italy, but unfortunately in the wrong newspaper, Il Giornale, where people don’t even know what they read. The left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica and publishing house Laterza refused to publish it.”

The Italian left, which Barbareschi deems “dumb” and “dogmatic,” exasperates him. Commenting on the new secretary of the Italian Democratic Party, Elly Schlein, who is reluctant to speak about her Jewish ancestry (her father is a Jewish American) or grant press interviews, the former center-right politician was blunt: “She can’t give interviews because she has nothing to say.”

An undated photo of filmmaker Luca Barbareschi. (Federica Di Benedetto e Marco Bellucci)

He had kinder words for the far-right populist and nationalist Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. “I voted for her. I respect her very much,” he said.

What Barbareschi contests about culture at present is “its simplification.”

“Today, everybody buys books, but they don’t read them,” he said. “However, in the long term you can tell who reads books because people’s faces change over the years through the development of their knowledge and suffering. You only grow through pain. As Lord Byron wrote, ‘Sorrow is knowledge, those that know the most must mourn the deepest, the Tree of Knowledge is not the Tree of Life.’”

Barbareschi knows something about pain and sorrow firsthand. He was abandoned by his mother when he was 6 years old and was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a priest at the private Catholic school he attended.

“My mother caused me a lot of pain by leaving me. Huge pain,” he said.

Still, he said, “She was a clever and cultured Jewish woman. She sent me countless books and had a great sense of humor. In her will, for example, she wrote, ‘I always like to sleep on the right side so I hope the grave is tilted a bit to the right so I can rest better.’”

Barbareschi laughed wildly at this, then sat for a moment in silence. “I still cry sometimes,” he reflected. “However, I should have cried then and shouldn’t have inflicted so much pain on myself for many years.”

In retrospect, the father of six surmises that “thought and values are the best thing you can transmit. I hope my kids will be better than me in feeling proud of themselves.”

He added that “Judaism is at the center of everything” in his life.

“It’s like the Tour de France that you do annually: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Passover. It’s never-ending and every year you learn something more. I feel that I am part of an energy that is bigger than me.”

And it’s passionate energy that has driven his almost 50-year career in entertainment.

“I love madly what I do. I love the power of ideas and giving emotion to people, he said. “Life is about what you remember and that which emotionally affects you.”

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