Director opens Windows on Italys collaborators

The trailer for the Italian film “Facing Windows” implies that audiences are in for a delectable, heartwarming romance between neighbors with an urge to concoct fabulous cakes.

It’s one of the most misleading promos in movie history. It offers no hint that Ferzan Ozpetek’s tour de force about an unhappily married young couple and the elderly amnesiac who wanders into their lives is a thoughtful, compassionate evocation of the Holocaust in a contemporary Roman setting.

“Facing Windows” artfully exposes the role that Italians played in the Nazi roundup of Rome’s Jews while honoring with great delicacy the still-lingering pain of survivors’ guilt. The way gay couples had to keep their love secret half a century ago is another element of the story.

But these are not the sort of themes that lure the Saturday night date crowd, hence Sony Pictures Classics’ sugarcoated marketing strategy. But Ozpetek is amused rather than offended by his U.S. distributor’s approach as they prepare to open the film Friday, June 25, all over the Bay Area.

“This is really great because the person goes into the movie and then there they are, they’re caught in it,” he enthuses. “That’s cool.”

Ozpetek’s confidence in his movie’s ability to win over unsuspecting moviegoers is born from its mainstream success in Italy last year, where it played for months and nabbed several top awards. More importantly, he relishes the prospect of raising awareness of the Holocaust among those with little knowledge or curiosity.

“I wanted to touch on a topic which I’m very angry about,” the voluble Ozpetek declared through a translator when he visited San Francisco earlier this month. “Young people — because I think it’s young people who continue to paint this Nazi cross all over the place — think the Holocaust is fiction. I think that’s very outrageous.”

The Turkish-born Ozpetek came to Rome 25 years ago to attend university, and he stayed after he was graduated. “Facing Windows” marks his fourth film. Along with his previous effort, “His Secret Life,” it has elevated him to international prominence.

The process of researching this film was one of unexpected discovery, Ozpetek confided. For example, his residence, which has a small room that can be entered only by bending over.

“When I bought that apartment years ago, my neighbors told me that it was a hiding place for dissidents, anti-fascists, during the Second World War and the owner used to hide them. I thought it was the partisans. But as I was writing the script, an old lady who lives in the building told me, “You know about the Jewish gentleman that was hidden in that room for a whole year and then he was caught.’ I had chills and goose pimples.”

Ozpetek notes that it’s a matter of historical record that many Italians helped the Nazis snare and deport the Jews of Rome on October 16, 1943. But it’s not something that his countrymen like to admit.

“The lady in my building, she’s a Catholic but she said something that made me smile: If all the Romans who said that they saved Jews [actually had], then no Jews would ever have been taken off to concentration camps.”

“Facing Windows” is one of the best movies of the year, not least because Ozpetek took very seriously the responsibility of addressing the Holocaust onscreen.

“If you start touching on and disturbing this bit of history with the wrong approach, it would be a mess,” he says, recalling how he grappled with the screenplay. “You cannot talk about the Holocaust after great filmmakers have made wonderful films about it.”

Even worse, Ozpetek says, the vast number of films and TV shows on the subject have diluted its impact on subsequent generations.

“You even see the Nazi uniform in porno films, so that [image] doesn’t really have much of an impact,” he points out. “I couldn’t do something that young people would confuse with the fiction they watch every day. So I decided to place the characters of yesterday in today’s life.”

“Facing Windows” opens Friday, June 25, at the Lumiere Theater in S.F., the Shattuck in Berkeley, the CineArts in Palo Alto and the Camera Cinemas in San Jose.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.