Revisited: Making Movies, Making Babies (and the Monster Beside Me)

Susanna Nicchiarelli, whose new feature Chiara debuts today in Venice, on bringing films and new life into the world at the same time.

To mark the 2022 edition of the Venice Film Festival, which runs this week, Talkhouse is revisiting pieces by contributors who have new work at the festival. Susanna Nicchiarelli wrote the essay below in 2018 to coincide with the U.S. theatrical release of her feature Nico, 1988, and today debuted at the Biennale her new feature, Chiara. – N.D.

When you’re a woman director, a lot of people think it makes sense to compare your job to the “making” of a baby. And if you’re pregnant, they tell you to rest because now you are creating something much more important than a film. “You’re already writing a new film?” people ask me. They are surprised when I tell them I am. “Aren’t you concentrating on your pregnancy?” The truth is, I really wouldn’t even know how to “concentrate” on making the baby inside me. It’s not like you think, “Hey, now I’ll make the bones, the brain, the eyes …” The baby just grows inside you, and it’s much better like that because I wouldn’t trust anybody, least of all myself, if I were “concentrated” on such a complicated process. The comparison between babies and movies always feels patronizing, because making a movie requires a lot of thought and participation, while the “fabrication” of a child in your uterus – that’s nature. You’d think this would be obvious, but it seems like it isn’t.

When my husband and I decided to have another baby, my daughter had been asking for a little brother or sister for a while. Every time she saw a stroller, she would say things like, “Why don’t we get one of those, too?” Meaning the baby, not the stroller. She wanted “one of those” really badly. By then, I had just hit 40 and I was preparing my new film, Nico, 1988. I knew I wasn’t getting any younger, but I also wanted to shoot my film because this project was important to me and I was afraid that if I got pregnant, it would be delayed. I felt that I could shoot the film and be pregnant at the same time, but everybody else, including my husband, seemed to believe that the two weren’t compatible. How could I concentrate on the two things at the same time? There was no point in objecting. If anything bad had happened, I would have felt responsible and would have never forgiven myself for forcing the decision. So, I waited.

The film was delayed anyway, as always happens, and I had to wait longer than expected. This made me very nervous and I kept wondering if I was doing the right thing. But once I’d finally shot the film and was in post-production, I knew the time was right to start trying to get pregnant. I was relieved, but then disappointed: as the months passed, I was still not pregnant.

Susanna Nicchiarelli accepting her Orizzonti Best Film award at the Venice Film Festival.

I was crushed. I experienced a huge post-production depression and paranoia. The monster of my own regrets started following me around everywhere I went. It waited for me outside the labs, during the sound mixing and the color correction. When the film was selected for the Venice Film Festival in the official selection, the monster was still following me around. It even walked beside me on the red carpet, reminding me every minute that I had been a lousy mom, both to the child I already had and the one I would never have. I had chosen to make a movie instead of making a baby. Facing one of the most important decisions of my life, I had put my work first – and now I was paying the price.

Despite the monster’s presence, the Venice screening of Nico, 1988 went great, and we won the award for Best Film in the Orizzonti section, a beautiful bronze lion. I made a speech and thanked my daughter on national TV, saying I hoped she would be proud of her mommy. At least, I thought, she can be proud of the work I do and forgive me for being such a bad maker of babies and leaving her an only child. She was watching the TV with her grandparents and she was proud, and she got prouder and prouder in the months to come. She was happy at all the prizes the film got after that, both in Italy and at festivals abroad. She accompanied me to screenings, sat politely in the audience when I introduced the movie and did Q&As (she hasn’t seen the movie yet, of course, she’s only four and a half), and she loved the little sculptures I brought home every time I got a prize. Most of all, she loved the David di Donatello award for the Best Original Screenplay. It’s the Italian Oscar, a shiny gold statuette, pretty heavy, with a little fancy hat. I was very proud of it, too. She never mentioned wanting a baby brother or sister anymore, and when I finally did get pregnant while promoting the film, she said, “Mom, you know I was joking. I didn’t really want you to have another baby.”

Susanna Nicchiarelli with her David di Donatello award for Best Original Screenplay. (Image by Pietro Coccia)

My film is being released in the United States today. I can’t fly there, for obvious reasons, as my time’s up. (I am actually writing this article in the waiting room of the hospital, in line for a check-up; I was due five days ago, so it’s probably a matter of hours.) I really can’t stand not being able to come to the tribute concert for Nico or the opening of the film at Film Forum, and I complain all the time about this, to everybody. Most people answer that having a baby is much more important, and that I should concentrate on this (!) instead of the film’s U.S. release.

Let’s put it this way: it’s not me talking when I complain, it’s the monster. The monster’s not as nasty as it was before, but it’s still there, and I wonder if I will ever get rid of it. When I did all my interviews on the phone, it was sitting next to me, shaking its head reproachfully. This time it was not because I am a lousy mom, but because I am a lousy director, since I can’t be present for the U.S. release. It seems like I always have to be lousy at something in order to do the other thing, or at least that’s the way the monster sees it. And I sometimes wonder when I look around, even now in this hospital waiting room: Do other women have their own personal monsters too, following them around and reminding them of what they had to give up in order to do what they are doing? Those who gave up careers for children, or children for careers? Those who chose happily one or the other and didn’t have to give up anything but still can’t stand reading judgment in other people’s eyes about the choice they made? And then those, like me, who try messily to do both?

This article is probably the last thing I am doing for the film before having this baby. Now I’ll close my computer and “concentrate” on the painful labor that awaits me. The first time was pretty horrible, but they say seconds come easier and I hope it’s true. It’s all worth it, of course, and I am loving every minute of it, but sometimes I just wish it could be easier. Good luck in the states, Nico, 1988. I’ll be thinking about you, and concentrating a lot, but I am confused: What should I concentrate on, this time?

Born in Rome in 1975, Susanna Nicchiarelli began her film career working with Nanni Moretti, directing one of the documentaries that were part of the series Diari della Sacher. She has written and directed many short films and documentaries, plus two feature-length films: Cosmonaut (2009), winner of the Controcampo award at the Venice Film Festival and nominated as Best First Film at the David di Donatello and Silver Ribbon awards, and Discovery at Dawn (2013), presented at the Rome Film Festival. Nicchiarelli’s third feature film, Nico, 1988, is now in select theaters through Magnolia Pictures.