By Francesca Comencini
February 28, 2023
Lisa Vicari in Sky Atlantic’s new series Django (Photographer: Cos Aelenei)
During the Seventies, it felt like a Western masterpiece was released every week. What a time for a teenager, like myself, who loved films – particularly ones that told tales of the Old West.
There were the films of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. I loved Sam Peckinpah too; The Wild Bunch is one of my favourite movies of all time, and then there was Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
They were political and iconoclastic, tearing down and rebooting the Westerns from years gone by. But where were the women? The strong female role models, the ones who dominated the narratives and weren’t just stock characters or damsels in distress.
Everything was through the male gaze, it’s always been through the male gaze. But when I was a girl, part of the problem was I didn’t realise there was a problem. I didn’t realise how limited and limiting it was to be a woman in those films.
My eyes were opened by Julie Christie, who starred in McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971. Here was a female character named in the title! And she was not a damsel to be saved but was at the centre of the story.
It became a formative reference point for me in my career, and now for my take on a new version of Django (originally done by Corbucci), one in which from the outset, the women’s characters are always as important as the men’s. And to really turn things on their head, my villain is a woman, played terrifyingly by Noomi Rapace, who is handy with a blade as well as a six-shooter.
[Noomi Rapace and Nicholas Pinnock in Django (Photographer: Cos Aelenei)]
My involvement with Django grew out of my work as a director on Gomorrah, the crime show set in Naples that ran for five series. Westerns were a big reference for some of the episodes I directed (that’s how I got the Django gig – the producers recognised those references and said they had a real Western in development).
Gomorrah’s showrunner put me in charge of the character of the mob boss’s wife, played by Maria Pia Calzone, another strong female character in a male-dominated world.
She was a huge success and we realised how important it is in such male-dominated genres as Western or crime thrillers to have different voices, strong female voices behind and in front of the camera. Instead of regurgitating the same old stuff, we need to deconstruct these genres and rebuild them.
When I was young, I wanted to be a cowboy, but the problem was being a young girl I wasn’t even allowed to play at being a cowboy. My cousins and friends would only let me be the damsel, and more often than not, one who died. No way.
I remember that very clearly. Throughout my career, I’ve been committed to telling stories by different people. I’m a feminist and it’s very important that the storytelling of life, violence, love, parenthood is done from a different point of view. When I come to the end of my career, I would love my contribution to have helped, even in a little way, broaden how some of these stories have been told.
So if those great Seventies masterpieces were the story of men by men, are things changing? Now we have the amazing masterpiece The Power of the Dog directed by Jane Campion; it was so new, so different and so necessary. But this is only the beginning.
A woman director doesn’t just bring stronger, more nuanced female characters but can reveal something new in the men too. Maybe those characters have a bit more space to be vulnerable, a chance to breathe.
Django is the story of a man who is wounded and in crisis; really it’s a story of the crisis in the patriarchy, in masculinity. It’s an attempt to depict what we see around us today told through a genre that has established a code of masculinity more than any other.
Westerns still speak to us in 2023. They are dark fairytales and have the capacity to explore our current fears from social issues to war.
It is always reinventing itself, rising out of its own ashes, reborn to tell us about contemporary society through the frame of this brutal world on the frontiers. The Seventies’ Westerns destroyed and rebuilt what went before and it is now happening again, and this time women have a voice. Finally.