‘Puccini’ offers a contemporary view of sexes | ParkRecord.com

‘Puccini’ offers a contemporary view of sexes

Elizabeth Reaser stars in Puccini for Beginners, which will appear in the Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

In her director’s statement for "Puccini for Beginners," Maria Maggenti sets herself apart from many filmmakers. The statement begins with a disclaimer of sorts.

"First of all, I hate doing these things they seem to solipsistic. Part of me just wants to say, golly, go see the film and I hope you like it! Another part of me wants to write and talk for a good few hours preferably over wine and cigarettes about this whole weird, humbling, difficult thing called filmmaking."

Maggenti at once illustrates her sense of comedy, her intellectualism and her honesty with the statement. Half of what she says is simple, and the other half is complex, and solipsistic is the adjective describing, "The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified," according to Dictionary.com.

In conversation Maggenti’s humor immediately shines through, and she shows a thorough knowledge of her material, speaking precisely and straight to the point, but always honestly, sometimes playfully willing to make a joke. "Puccini for Beginners," which she wrote and directed, will appear in the American Dramatic Competition at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

A comedy, the film tells the story of Allegra, who is in love with her girlfriend, Samantha, but won’t tell her so, causing Samantha to leave. Shortly afterward, Allegra meets and falls for a man, Philip, who leaves his girlfriend, Grace, for Allegra. But later in the film, Grace falls for Allegra and Allegra falls for Grace. The film, according to Maggenti, is about how gender roles are defined and the differences between the sexes.

She added that the film fits perfectly in its setting.

"It’s definitely a very New York tale," she said.

The film grew from her own experiences, being with a woman and falling for a man, and the characters are based on friends, acquaintances and lovers. The film’s central character, Allegra, was a combination of those things, and because that, according to Maggenti, that made her very difficult to cast.

Allegra had to be intelligent, funny and likeable, all at the same time, without putting forth too much effort, and with such an extensive list of characteristics, Maggenti said she spent years hearing that she either needed to find a star to play the role, or find financing to attract a star.

"For me, as a filmmaker, I just wanted to find the best person for the part," she said.

But neither, stars, financing or the right person was forthcoming.

Maggenti said salvation came from a production company Independent Digital Entertainment, or InDigEnt. InDigEnt offers a framework in which a film can be made, including a budget and hardware, in exchange for revenue sharing. And guarantee artistic freedom.

"InDigEnt was really a night in shining armor for me," said Maggenti. "They said, ‘We’ll shoot it on digital; you have a $500,000 budget and 18 days to film and total creative freedom.’"

Maggenti found Elizabeth Reaser, who would play Allegra, a week before filming started.

"Elizabeth was the right, extraordinary combination that you’d buy that she was an intellectual extraordinary person, but she was adorable at the same time," said Maggenti.

"I think it’s very difficult to play a person of the mind and pull it off," she added.

But, Reaser, she said, nailed the role.

She was joined by Justin Kirk, who played Philip and Gretchen Mol, who played Grace.

Once the cast was installed, Maggenti said the filming went extremely smoothly, with the actors performing admirably.

"The chemistry between Justin Kirk and Elizabeth Reaser was extraordinary," said Maggenti.

Ultimately, she says in her press notes, the film is about the funnier aspects of how men and women are supposed to behave. Maggenti explores the aspects of gender politics through a fluid sense of sexuality and her humor. But, as Caroline Libresco notes in her description of the film in the Sundance Film Festival Film Guide, the movie isn’t so much about sexuality as it is about gender roles.

Maggenti said she doesn’t know how people outside of New York City will react to that.

"I haven’t faced anything yet." she said.

"In the world that I live in, the things I am trying to say, they make sense," she added. "I just hope people laugh and they are taken on a journey and they enjoy it."

"Puccini for Beginners" premiers Sunday, Jan. 22 at 8:30 p.m. at the Racquet Club. For more information, including a full list of screening times, visit http://www.sundance.org.

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