A new documentary by David Battistella

Florence hides its secrets well.

Overrun at times by eager tourists, intensely documented as a world treasure for decades, its old section barely two square miles this iconic Italian city would, one would think, have nothing left to reveal.

But as a moving and gorgeously-shot new documentary by award-winning Canadian filmmaker David Battistella (a resident of Florence for the past 8 years) reveals, the city’s secrets, like its streets, its art and its history, are hidden in layers, difficult to discern, but hugely rewarding when revealed.

THE INNOCENTS OF FLORENCE is a film about art, birth, faith, citizenship and what it means when a community takes a centuries-long view of the fate and welfare of its most vulnerable. As the film says, Florence is a city that believes in “humanism, mercy and beauty”.

In a luminous depiction of this beloved city (the film reveals that its stone streets are laid with “pietra serena” or the ‘calm stone’, copied by Apple stores around the world!), the documentary centers on one amazing place and, not surprisingly, some glorious art within its walls.

Beautifully connecting the 15th century with today, the film takes us on a journey of revelation, as two skilled women painstakingly restore a 1446 painting of a loving Madonna, surrounded by the children she protects. It sits to this day in a remarkable institution, a hospice created to care for abandoned and ill babies, and the painting is a living symbol — now newly revealed in all its glory and historic meaning — of a Florentine landmark that still fulfills its original mandate.

Filmmaker Battistella says it still “represents the values of a society which informed a way of life, compassionate thinking and a model which people the world over admire and emulate.” For him “the heart of the film is how human beings treat one another, particularly how we treat the weakest among us.”

An absolute delight for lovers of Italy and of history, THE INNOCENTS OF FLORENCE is intended by the filmmaker to be “like slow food…a film for people who are interested in listening and taking time to understand things on a deeper level.”

The film’s eye gracefully floats through Florence’s streets, skies, hidden chambers and mysterious art, artfully teaching us the lesson at the heart of this extraordinary city: truth, beauty and the meaning of love come to those who take the time to truly look.

Interview with filmmaker David Battistella, Director of THE INNOCENTS OF FLORENCE

What lead you to make this film?

I began crafting this film as I was exploring the theme of daily work. In Florence there is still a vibrant artisanal community of which they are very proud. I had made a few films exploring the theme, but I wanted to follow the long, laborious detail, that is required to restore an ancient work of art. Fortunately, I had met Elizabeth Wicks soon after arriving in Florence and she had seen two of my films. I approached her to see if there were any new works coming through her studio and she mentioned this painting. The initial intention was to just film the process of the restoration, but in documentary filmmaking sometimes you also have to allow the film to reveal itself to you. In the case of this film, I like to explain it this way to American friends: Imagine you had found the original napkin that the NIKE logo was drawn on and it was being restored. Could you tell the story of the swoosh, without telling the story of NIKE and everything it has accomplished?

As I began to understand the full weight of the work, it was important to document the facts that surrounded why the work was created, and the Institute it was created for.

What’s at the heart of the film for you?

The heart of the film is how human beings treat one another, particularly how we treat the weakest among us. Fundamentally, it is my hope that we organize into societies to help each other and not just to create large groups of consumers or to figure out who is weak and cast them aside.

For me, it is a beautiful thing that here, in the wealthiest of cities, a particular form of (Florentine) humanism emerged; one that was put into action as charity toward the weakest and most helpless in Renaissance society. We, as a society, seem to be far wealthier and have more means to solve problems these days, but few of them seem to be at this level of personal and human nature.

The need and willingness to save the socially discarded and abandoned children and to create systems of care and ensure the wellbeing of infants seems about the most noble thing a society can do. Isn’t that the real core of the arguments we seem to hear hourly in our time?

What do you hope people will take away from it?

People like to say history teaches us. I like to think that history lives in us; we have come from it and are a by-product of it. The children of this Institute were ‘persona non grata’ when they arrived, they literally were without a name, and they were transformed into citizens of Florence. So this history lives in us now, it is part of our DNA and we can tap into it.

I want people to take away the sense that in spite of the many obstacles and against great odds, a completely secular Institute emerged with a set of human values which can instruct and inform us to this very day. This was a brand-new concept, a new idea in that age; and here in Florence they gave us a blueprint of some of the values of what being human and a member of a society is about; outside religious structures, but inside a working societal system.

This story is a hugely important chapter in women’s history. The Institute was brought forward by women through the centuries. Without the survivors and the women who continued to become wet nurses to save babies, the Institute would have lacked an identity and the ability to save lives.

In addition, I want people to feel the sense of reverence I feel toward the work of art restoration. Observing Liz and Nicoletta work on a micro level for months and months, inch by inch, to conserve the painting takes daily work to a new level of appreciation. While I am fairly detail oriented, I want people to realize it takes a special character and patience to perform this type of work.

How did your previous work as a filmmaker inform your work on THE INNOCENTS OF FLORENCE?

I like process. What I have been observing in documentary is a cycle. Funding cycles, TV schedule cycles, festival cycles, and so forth. This means that the landscape for films tends to change because there is no time to tell a story. My pitch for this film when I began filming it would have been this: “I have a sense there is a very interesting story here and I need to explore it. I do not know exactly how long it will take, or how long the film will be, but I have a strong sense that this is an important process to document.” Reading that, you understand that finding a partner in this adventure, would have been pretty much impossible.

I was basically tired of trying to create a “product” and wanted to continue down this path of daily work, chipping away at the marble to see what is revealed underneath. It’s life experience that better prepares you for this kind of film, over previous work. I have learned what kinds of films I want to make and the style of stories I want to tell. That is what I now call the “slow film movement” — like slow food: To create films for people who are interested in listening and taking time to understand things on a deeper level.

Most content is consumed privately now, and I definitely wanted to create a film for a community experience. I knew that I wanted to make a film for a group of people gathered in a physical space that was not their living room, but a cinema which is a public space. It’s not so far away from the notion of the humanism of a community like Florence, a sense that we are all in this together.

You’ve now lived in Florence for 8 years, and are of Italian heritage — did that give you a unique perspective as both a relative newcomer, but now someone who is deeply rooted in the community?

Florentines are proud. They have a proud history and traditions. Even as an Italian coming from the outside (born in Canada- now living here), I noticed that being an outsider willing to listen and retell has given me an advantage. I am seen as an interested outsider, but one who respects their traditions deeply.

I relate very much to the orphans of the Institute, who were nameless and granted citizenship; two very important gifts. In Canada, I was the Italian immigrant kid growing up who figured out I wasn’t “entirely Canadian” when I went to work at the CBC in Toronto. When I moved to Italy, even with Italian heritage and citizenship, I am still looked upon as the “straniero” (foreigner). So in a sense I am country-less, which is why I relate to the orphans. In Canada, I made films about hockey and culture from an outsider’s perspective; a person observing the beauty and details of things that we tend to overlook, like the joy a backyard rink can bring to a community and a country.

In Italy, I am training my eye on the details, within a culture that I adore, and on aspects of which I feel are overlooked. Sometimes the obvious things in the present moment are the most beautiful things you can experience. For example, the film begins at ground level in Florence; in the piazzas — showing off their wonderful stone streets laid in ‘pietra serena’.

Sometimes, I see wads of chewing gum stuck to those stones, and I am not sure that every tourist understands that the historical center of Florence is a UNESCO world heritage site; or that every single chip in the ‘pietra serena’ stones used for the streets is cut out by hand with hammer and chisel. So literally, the streets here are handmade, which is the starting point. That is where your mind has to be to experience this place and the story that I am about to tell you.

The very streets we walk on, ride our bikes, toss our trash or chewing gum, have been crafted by artisans by hand. All that being said a friend of mine once said, “Florence owes nothing to anyone” and I could not agree with her more. This has informed my style of filmmaking which I call, “handmade, personal films”, I follow what I find interesting and see where it leads me and I work on crafting the relationships which allow a film like this to be made as much as I do the lighting, the editing, music or even the poster design .

What were some of the storytelling and visual challenges you faced in making the film?

I often say Florence is a city with no curb appeal. You will be walking down a narrow street and you are so close to things that they become difficult to appreciate. If you have the occasion to enter into some of the spaces, you discover entire worlds that transport you from busy city streets, into serene gardens or a quiet chapel, or smack dab in the middle of some of the most important art ever created. It’s like a cultural punch in the face. So the challenge is to transmit this sense of depth by making it normal rather than heavy, pompous, or too important.

The biggest challenge for me when making any film is to represent the subject matter with the subtlety and complexity in which I experienced it. Film is an efficient medium, film writing has to be even more efficient, so when working toward crafting a film with a centuries-long, multi-layered story, my focus is to get it right, to be honest, and to ensure that the subjects in my films, who generously let me follow them, are given the full respect they deserve. I want them to feel that they have been represented respectfully and correctly, because we share the same love of this place and very much want to represent the history in an accurate and dynamic way.

The technical challenges of maintaining visual continuity was done through using the same camera and lenses. Storing terabytes of data for a long time also needed to be carefully considered.

Where can audiences expect to see the film in 2019 and beyond?

At the time of this writing, the film does not have a distributor, but it will be screened in Florence from May 17–26th, 2019. It has been submitted to festivals and eventually will be available on streaming platforms or for purchase through our website.

Emmy and Peabody winner — Writer/Producer at Modern Story

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