Sipping from the Cup of Life: 1on1 with Sean Cisterna (FROM THE VINE)

In his latest film, From the Vine, director Sean Cisterna (Kiss and Cry) shows that, like a glass of fine wine, it can be refreshing to go home again.

From The Vine tells the story of downtrodden CEO Marco Gentile (Joe Pantoliano), a man experiencing a moral crisis. Burned out and broken, Marco finds himself lost in a sea of corporate nonsense and he quits his job on a whim. Despite the protests of his wife, Marina (Wendy Crewson), Marco then decides to uproot his life and return to his grandfather?s old vineyard in Italy to re-calibrate his moral compass. As he reconnects with his heritage, Marco?s venture offers the surrounding town of Acerenza a sustainable future that may also signal a fresh start for his family as well. 

Having grown up in Toronto, Cisterna shares that his initial interest in this story stemmed from his desire to find a link between his Canadian home and Italian heritage.

?I’m Canadian and Italian,? he explains. ?so I was looking specifically for a project to shoot both in Canada and in Italy. When I put out that call, a number of projects came across my desk. Then, so did this novel Finding Marco, which the film is based on. [After] I read that, I got in touch with the author [Kenneth Canio Cancellara] and that’s how it started.?

By blending Italian neo-realism with fantasy elements, the film is both creative and engaging in its stylistic choices. Reflecting on what led him to make such unique choices to build the narrative, Cisterna believes that it was the best way to communicate the unique perspective of the source material.

?I think one of the challenges of the book is that it was very introspective,? Cisterna considers. ?It was like a first-person recollection of this character going back to his hometown in Southern Italy, but it was very hard to externalize that into film form. We really wanted to play with having the town feel like it’s coming back to life when Marco returns to Italy. So, we had the statues that sort of awaken when he’s once again back in his hometown after many years. Vine leaves come to life. We have all these little flourishes and animations, just to suggest that the town itself is rejuvenated with this character’s re-emergence.?

When the time came to cast the character of Marco, Cisterna was thrilled for Joe Pantoliano to come onboard for the lead role. Given the fact that he?s best known for playing more dangerous or aggressive characters, Cisterna was excited to give him the chance to explore his range in a more tender role.

?I’d always known Joe as a bad guy,? he reasons. ?Every character I’d seen are these over the top bad guys with guns and he’s either playing a cop or a monster. I just loved the idea of seeing him in a romantic lead, something so far from the realm of what we know him as. When you give a strong actor that might be known as something else an opportunity like this, I think they take it seriously and want to shine at something else to showcase their chops. Joe was just a remarkable person to have on set in Italy. Everybody loves him. He’s an amazing storyteller. So, the cast and crew appreciated his presence in the film.?

In one of the film?s more unique cultural twists, Cisterna even added an Italian version of Blue Rodeo?s iconic song?Lost Together?to the soundtrack. Recorded by Laura Cavacece and arranged by Mark Alexander, Cisterna explains that the idea stemmed from his desire to find a musical connection between the two worlds.?

?I was just looking for some sort of musical link between Canada and Italy,? he remembers, ?and I couldn’t really find a pre-existing song that would’ve worked. Then I thought, ?what if we take a popular Canadian anthem and rerecord in Italian?? That kind of gave us that musical bridge between our two countries. That was the main. I thought that Laura Cavacece, the singer here in Canada, did an incredible job translating that iconic song into Italian.?

Featuring stunning cinematography in both Italy and Toronto, the film allowed him to play with the visuals creatively by holding the two cultures up against one another and compare their ideologies as well.

?We played with the look of [the two cultures] as well,? describes Cisterna. ?All of the scenes in Canada or most America are very linear, the colors are muted. They have a lot of grays and silvers and blacks, whereas Italy is more earth tones and rolling hills, that sort of thing. So, we played a lot with the look of the two geographical areas, even through wardrobe. The characters [in Toronto] are wearing tight clothing and a stuffy sort of business attire, whereas in Italy, it’s far looser. It’s just a visual representation of what it looks like to work in both Canada and Italy. In Canada, we’re very rigid with time and our schedule. Behind the scenes, we stuck to our schedule as much as possible. In Italy, it’s very hard to stick to a schedule because there’s wine at lunchtime and there’s naps. There’s a fun dichotomy shooting between the two cultures, for sure.?

Filled with history and charm, Italian culture heavily influences the manner that they develop their wine (and vice versa). At a time when technological advances seem to drive every aspect of industry, Cisterna points out the value in doing things ?the old ways? and even felt compelled to highlight these practices in his script.

?It?s hard to dismiss centuries of people who have come before us and perfected the craft,? he argues. ?I don’t know. It’s just hard to argue against the beauty of tradition. Even there are just these flourishes in the script that we added that when we got there [that we] learned from the old winemakers in town, like the whole trick about the lighting candles in the barrel house when they’re doing the punch down of the crust on the top of the wine. The fermenting wine releases carbon dioxide, and the old winemakers would put candles in there and, if the room filled up with enough CO2, it would extinguish the candles. That was a cue for the winemaker to leave right away because these dangerous gases were in the air. And so, yeah, there’s just a beauty in that natural alarm system. So, it was just really, really cool to incorporate that into the film.? 

By honouring the value of doing things in ?the old ways?, From the Wine also speaks to the spiritual refreshment that takes place when we take the time to slow down. Though he believes that lives of patience may be a challenge in our culture of immediacy, Cisterna also feels that, like a fine wine, it also reaps the greatest rewards

?I think we want instant results for our hard work,? he states. ?That’s one thing that when you make a film about wine, you know. Wine takes time to ferment, to turn from a grape into like a drinkable, glorious beverage but, it takes months and years for it to be appreciated. In North America, I think we just want that instant satisfaction. So, the characters reminding Mark to be patient is something he has to can relearn. That’s the beauty about working in Europe for a bit, man. The pace is so deliberately slower and it just does not feel as stressful when you’re making a movie in Italy.?

?When you’re here in North America, our jobs?or at least pre-COVID?were kind of all consuming,? he continues. ?There’s a rigid structure where you wake up and head down the DVP and then? do your work, and check out when the sun is no longer there. Maybe [you] spend an hour with the family before bedtime. So, the difference [between] a job and mapping a life is just the balance of everything. A bit of work, bit of family and rest for yourself. It’s kind of like wine. All these things have to come together to make them the perfect wine. I think that’s a good analogy for how one should live their life.? 

Like the character of Marco himself, Cisterna also believes that slowing down can be a life-giving process, especially when it means investing our lives in helping others.

Says Cisterna, ?I think when you’re (and I’m guilty of it as well) so consumed with a project and you’re racing towards the clock to get something done, your ethics and commitments to family or friends seem to go out the window when there’s a deadline. So, having this deliberately slower pace and isolated towards one single goal, like the rebuilding of his grandfather’s vineyard. This goal is a meaningful goal to help rejuvenate this town. It’s a selfless act. And I think having that time to himself in Italy recalibrated his moral compass to his business skills for the betterment of the people.?

Given the amazing experience to reconnect with his heritage and explore such important ideas, developing this From the Vine has been a particularly rewarding experience for Cisterna. Asked if there?s anything that he?s learned about himself through this process, he feels that this journey has challenged him to bring better balance to his own life.

?I almost want to embrace more of a European lifestyle where I can balance things a bit better in my life,? Cistera ponders. ?I know when I get consumed with projects, it’s all I can think about. I’m in film mode 24/7. It’s good to have that other perspective and other selfless things happening around me, where I can devote my time to even bettering someone else’s life or doing something for my community. So, I think the overall slowing down the still pace and using your skill to better our community is what I want to take away from this experience.? 

For full audio of our interview with Sean Cisterna, click here.

From the Vine is available on demand now.

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