Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron wanted to explore how he makes a series of short films that honor different cultural traditions at the end of the year, from Christmas to Hanukkah to pagan traditions. His concept was to find a director who was suitable for telling the story, depending on the culture. Regarding Christmas, Cuaron says, “This time of year is significant in most cultures. It is the end of the darkest nights and the beginning of a new cycle. I immediately thought of Alice Rohrwacher. I’m a huge fan and have been ever since I saw ‘The Wonders’ and its shorts.”
Written and directed by Rohrwacher, the 37-minute short film Le Pupille (The Pupils), which is now available on Disney+, was produced by Cuaron with her regular producer Carlo Cresto-Dina.
Set in a Catholic orphanage during World War II, the Oscar-nominated live-action short follows Serafina (Melissa Falasconi), one of the young girls who were tutored about heaven, hell, temptation and Catholic guilt. The arrival of a Christmas cake puts Serafina and the others to the test.
When Cuaron approached Rohrwacher about making the film, she had in mind a letter from Elsa Morante about a cake. Christmas, an important holiday for Italians, provided the perfect setting for the director to tell her story.
“It’s a cake that everyone wants,” Rohrwacher says, “and the powerful, Mother Superior, she wants to keep to herself because she wants to use it for her own interests, and that inspired me.”
She explains, “It’s a film about desire, pure and selfish; about freedom and devotion, about the anarchy that can flourish in the minds of the girls in the confines of the strict boarding school. Although the obedient girls cannot move, their students can dance the unrestrained dance of freedom.”
The film contains elements of music and dance. Rohrwacher wanted to find a way to incorporate Morante’s letter into the film and felt a musical representation would be the ideal way. “When it’s sung, it’s a story that the girls can feel deep inside, so we created the song. A band called ‘The Cleaning Women’ wrote the music.”
Her creative task was to write music as if it were a silent film. The addition of song and music gave her a new way to progress the narrative the way she wanted, with the girls singing the song at the end. “We suddenly had this way of talking about how to share the cake in a joyful and playful way.”
Production designer Rachele Meliado found the location for the orphanage during a location scout in northern Italy, in an old institute for the deaf and mute. Meliado says, “Everything was intact, so we could use the furniture we already had, and there was so much potential.”
The frescoes seen in the film were originally covered with pink paint. As the team aged the walls, they were exposed, providing an unexpected and unique effect.
Rohrwacher was inspired by a sentence in the letter: “Fate works in a mysterious way” at the end of the film, which asks the audience about the moral of the story and ends with a vague answer. She says she wanted it to be seen through the girls’ eyes and that “even they don’t know the moral of the story. The cake that Mother Superior wanted to keep will be shared by everyone at the end.”