Alice Rohrwacher’s “Christmas Tale” is one of the best films of 2022

By Jeffrey Sipe and Nina Rodriguez

We may thank Alfonso Cuaron for delivering a true Christmas miracle in the form of Alice Rohrwacher’s short film “Le Pupille” which premiered at Cannes earlier this year and is a must-see for this holiday season. 

Asked by Disney to produce a series of short Christmas films, Cuaron approached one of contemporary cinema’s most interesting filmmakers with the task saying, “She has a unique voice and an eye that captures humanity at its most complex, and she always portrays her characters with immense generosity, blurring the line between reality and poetics.”

Having worked with children, Rohrwacher—»Corpo Celeste,” “The Wonders,” and “Happy as Lazzaro”—all award-winners at their respective Cannes Premieres masterfully delivers the ultimate nostalgia of Christmas in this thirty-seven-minute piece of joy.

Loosely based on a letter with season’s greetings that renowned writer Elsa Morante sent to her friend Goffredo Fofi, Rohrwacher set the story at a nun-operated boarding school for girls during wartime. In these times of scarcity, the girls spend advent isolated from the rest of the world, which they can only get a glimpse of through their window—preparing a series of rituals with their own nativity play at the center, and in all their innocence end up rebellious within the environment of strict Christian adult authority. As Rohrwacher puts it, “It’s a film about desires, pure and selfish; about freedom and devotion, about the anarchy that is capable of flowering in the minds of the girls within the confines of the strict boarding school.”

Temptation arrives in the form of an irresistible pink cake that embodies all those desires and triggers a series of clashes between the children’s free spirits and the Mother Superior—marvelously embodied by the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher—ruling over her charges with an unyielding eye.

Shot on Super 16mm film which in itself caters to nostalgic memories of all Christmases past as much as the musical scenes sung by the young girls’ choir during a period of similar isolation, Rohrwacher explains, “The most beautiful thing was to have all these girls getting together after such a long time.” 

In the tradition of her feature debut “Corpo Celeste” which offered a look at Catholicism in contemporary Italy through the prism of a young girl’s eyes, “Le Pupille” brilliantly portrays the emptiness of Christian devotions through a coming-of-age tale that manages to blend the best of classical Hollywood and Italian traditions in a masterfully crafted film where each frame resembles a painting.

Rohrwacher succeeds in delivering the magic of Christmas while also questioning the genre itself which traditionally comes with a moral lesson. At the end of “Le Pupille” the girls admit that they’re not sure what exactly the lesson of the film is. “I like the fact that the moral of this story is a bit bizarre,” Rohrwacher says. “On the one hand, we had a Christmas story, and on the other, we had a lot of fantasy, imagination—my imagination—and the viewer’s imagination.”

“Le Pupille” evokes the child in all of us, and its title’s word play, extended in the film’s opening sequence, refers to exactly that: the word pupil comes from the Latin for little girl. Maybe because looking closely into our eyes that tiny light that moves freely, grasps visions, closes and opens, dances, and is frightened by the world really does resemble a rebellious little girl.

The film will show for free on the big screen in San Miguel at Compartimento Cinematografico’s Posada on December 16 on Calzada de la Estación 59 at 6pm and will be available on Disney+ for the holidays.