Italian jews'We started with nothing -- no money, no office'

Friends since day school, these Italian producers now play on the red carpet

Marco Cohen and Benedetto Habib joke about life in their Milan classroom and their seriously good first English-language movie, starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland

Marco Cohen (left) and Benedetto Habib at the Venice Film Festival, where they premiered their upcoming movie, 'The Leisure Seeker.' (Courtesy)
Marco Cohen (left) and Benedetto Habib at the Venice Film Festival, where they premiered their upcoming movie, 'The Leisure Seeker.' (Courtesy)

MILAN — Marco Cohen and Benedetto Habib have known each other for almost 50 years. They met in first grade in 1968, in the Jewish Community school in Milan, and they kibitz and rib with each other the way only old friends can.

They recently spoke with The Times of Israel in the aftermath of the Venice International Film Festival, where they had just screened their new feature, “The Leisure Seeker.” The two produced the film together with a third partner, Fabrizio Donvito.

Their company, Indiana Production, has already worked with the biggest names in Italian cinema. Some of their movies — “Human Capital” and “The First Beautiful Thing” — were chosen to represent Italy at the Academy Awards (although they were not selected for the final shortlist).

But for the friends, “The Leisure Seeker” represents an incredible turning point, beginning with the star power it features. The movie centers around Oscar winner Helen Mirren and the legendary Donald Sutherland, who will receive a lifetime achievement award at the next Academy Awards ceremony.

Marking the English language debut for director Paolo Virzì, “The Leisure Seeker” tells the story of an elderly couple, John and Ella Spencer, who go on the run in the old family RV, escaping the medical care that has kept them isolated from one another.

In Venice, the movie was met with a 10-minute long thundering applause. The film has also been presented at the Toronto Film Festival, with generally positive reviews.

What the reviewers don’t know is that behind this story set in present-day America is a very Italian Jewish story.

Cohen and Habib embody the melting pot of the small but active Jewish community of Milan. The community today counts a little over 6,000 official members, at least a dozen synagogues, a handful of kosher restaurants and stores, and three day schools.

Cohen’s grandparents were originally from Egypt, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy. Both sets ended up establishing themselves in Milan, where he was born.

Habib was born in Tripoli, Libya. He and his family were forced to leave after the Six Day War in 1967.

“We had to flee the attacks of the local Arab population against the Jews. Since then, we have always lived in Italy,” he says.

Asked to recall their memories from school, they don’t spare the schoolyard banter.

“I’ll never forget how Marco started panicking and crying during the final exam of our senior year because he couldn’t figure out how to solve the math section,” laughs Habib.

“Well, at least there was no need to shed tears for the poor choices in the romantic department like you,” teases Cohen.

After graduating high school, the two followed different career paths. Cohen started working in an advertising firm; Habib, after being employed in different investment banks for several years, joined a group of partners establishing a company that produced videos and other content for the fast-growing world wide web.

“I just want to highlight that Benny’s most successful product was ‘Gino, il Pollo,’ ‘Gino, the Chicken,’” jokes Cohen, referring to a popular cartoon web series featuring a singing chicken commenting on the news.

Cohen started Indiana Production — a name he says that was chosen to reflect the company’s dynamic, flexible spirit — in 2005.

“I should mention that, in typical Jewish fashion, my uncles were among the partners,” Cohen continues. “We started with nothing — no money, no office. We produced commercials. In 2008, we decided to invest part of the revenue from the advertising department to create a cinema division.”

Their recollection of how Habib joined the company is somewhat dichotomous.

“He had trouble with his job, and I, as a lifelong friend, offered him an opportunity,” brags Cohen.

“He begged me to join Indiana to save it from deep financial problems,” says Habib.

Asked about how their Jewish identity influences their job, they point out that first and foremost Indiana Production remains a family business.

“Recently, we also took part in a wonderful project called ‘Forgetting Auschwitz – Remembering Auschwitz,’ creating a website featuring the story of Italian Holocaust survivor Nedo Fiano,” says Cohen.

Screenshot from ‘The Leisure Seeker.’ (Courtesy)

“We have all grown up listening to him, but in the past few years, he has been losing his memory due to Alzheimer’s. We thought it was important to do something, so we joined an initiative started by the communication agency Havas, along with the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation, and Children of the Shoah in Milan,” he says.

Another of Indiana’s current projects is the Italian remake of the German movie “Look Who’s Back,” imagining the resurrection of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in contemporary Italy.

“It will be released in the beginning of 2018, and there are some Jewish themes in it. However, we are still looking for the right Jewish project for us to undertake,” says Habib.

The question of whether being Jewish has influenced their work provides the two with another excuse to flex their funny bones.

“We thought that in the American scene, being Jewish could be an advantage — but it’s not. There are [already] so many [Jews in Hollywood],” says Habib.

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in ‘The Leisure Seeker.’ (Courtesy)

“That’s not true,” says Cohen. “You’re just saying that because your last name is Habib — not impressive at all. It’s something else to be a Cohen.”

To drive the point home, Cohen recounts a story about being nervous to accept an invitation from his business partner, director Gabriele Muccino, to a wrap party for a major Will Smith movie because he wouldn’t know anyone there. By the time Muccino arrived, Cohen was already at a table with two bigwig producers — and had gotten an invitation to their Shabbat meal.

“Nonsense, there are so many Cohens around, there’s nothing special about it,” protests Habib.

“He’s just jealous,” says Cohen.

When it comes to the excitement about “The Leisure Seeker,” though, they are on the same page.

“We are very proud to produce a movie with such amazing actors,” they said, adding that the rights to distribute it have already being sold all over the world, including the US, where the movie is going to be released in January 2018, as well as the UK and Israel.

The director, Virzì, was at first reluctant to film in the United States, but Indiana Production persuaded him by offering him artistic control of the project from the ground up, including writing the screenplay, which is based on a novella by Michael Zadoorian. When Mirren and Sutherland agreed to join, everything came together.

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in ‘The Leisure Seeker.’ (Courtesy)

“I was a little wary of a film focused on old age,” says Mirren, “but I looked at the work of Paolo Virzì, in particular ‘Human Capital,’ and I thought he had a wonderful, humane, witty, easy way of approaching these complicated but very, very realistic human situations. I just loved his style.”

“Paolo is brilliant in the most subtle, complicated ways. The long and short of his sensibility, his understanding of the human condition, is that it is an epiphany,” Sutherland agrees.

Ending the conversation with Cohen and Habib, the question of whether  the duo have aspirations for the Academy Awards comes up.

“We are never going to answer that!” Cohen bursts out. “Let’s just say that it is a complicated world. But it is nice to think that it could always happen.”

The 74th Venice Film Festival. (Courtesy)

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