Padre (2016)

“I will always be your father.” These words close the letter that Giulia Fontana (Giada Colagrande) reads – and that we hear in voiceover – as she circles a cloister at the beginning of Padre. Famous composer Giulio (played by singer, artist and filmmaker Franco Battiato) has died, leaving for his adult daughter a mysterious letter that sounds like a suicide note. Like Giulia in its opening sequence, the rest of the film, directed and co-written (with Claudio Colombo) by Colagrande, follows a circuitous route, as it charts her often abstract journey to understand the words of that letter, to accept the passing of her father and to adopt – even to restore – his legacy, only as her own. 

Much as Padre begins after the end of the titular ‘father’, it is a film full of further paradoxes. If its narrative seems relatively formless, it is nonetheless not only formally divided into seven headed chapters, but also regularly, rhythmically punctuated by Giulio’s (and others’) ghostly visitations, by old videos of a younger Giulio in the desert, by lengthy performances in the experimental production that Giulio had been working on and that Giulia is helping director James Verdun (Colagrande’s husband Willem Dafoe) complete, and by Giulia’s daily yogic meditations and rituals. Giulia’s circular movements at the beginning are echoed in the footage of spinning Dervishes that feature in the production, and in Giulia’s own trance-like spinning in Giulio’s library as she tries to make contact with him through a kind of bibliomancy. Excerpts from the letters she finds there (supposedly written by Giulio to a guru-like Master, but in fact appropriated from the writings of alchemist Paolo Lucarelli) also regularly punctuate the film, lending a semblance of form (and meaning) to compensate for the lack of narrative momentum. 

Another paradox is that a film expressly named for a paterfamilias is both directed by a woman, and concerns a woman’s attempts to find her own medium of artistic expression. At the beginning we hear Giulio’s words narrated in Giulia’s voice – much as later, when Giulia (who is not a pianist) sits at her father’s piano and plays his last, incomplete composition (which she has never heard), his ghost is seen accompanying her at the keyboard, as both guide and liberator, letting his influence and her own artistry imaginatively converge.

James’ production, for which he provides almost no direction, involves an all-female cast whose short dance pieces explicitly invoke the spirits of past female artists and spiritualists. So Padre is a ghost story which regards all artistic endeavour as a sort of communion with the past and the dead, and which negotiates aesthetic traditions that transcend patriarchal boundaries. Artist Marina Abramović, about whom Colagrande has previously made both a documentary feature (Bob Wilson’s Life & Death of Marina Abramovic, 2012) and a documentary short (The Abramovic Method, 2013), phones – or more precisely Skypes – in her performance as Giulia’s absent mother/Colagrande’s Muse, but perhaps this ‘long-distance’ relationship is an apt reflection of both Giulia’s mourning alienation and her attempts to open new channels of communication. It would make an interesting double-feature with Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, released in the same year and also concerned with grief and loss in a mediated age.

A key word in the literally home-made Padre (shot on a microbudget mostly in Colagrande’s apartment) is ‘patience’, repeated in association with women as creators of both children and of art. Patience is indeed required to navigate this mystery’s enigmatic, circular structure – but along the way, Giulia’s ghost-watching cat Colombo is a constant source of entertainment.

Synopsis: Rome, present. After the death of her composer father Giulio Fontana, grieving Giulia shuts herself off from social engagements, but continues working with director James Verdun on an all-female production channeling the work of past female artists and mediums. Both Giulia and her cat Colombo hear Giulio’s piano playing at night, and even see the ghostly Giulio. The ghost helps Giulia play the piece. Confiding in James, Giulia learns that the piece was Giulio’s last, and incomplete. Spinning in a trance, Giulia discovers, concealed in Giulio’s collected books, letters on spiritual matters addressed to a Master. Gradually she sees more ghosts, including one of herself as a younger child, and of a medium (who, alone of the ghosts, converses with her). James tells a mysterious man that Giulio is initiating Giulia. Giulio’s ghost points to a card for an art restorers’ firm, which Giulia visits. Late at night, she returns there, and follows a party of people inside. James is there, and leads her to the mystery man, his Master, who becomes Giulio, and tells Giulia he is moving on, but is always with her.

© Anton Bitel