John Turturo's first order of business in directing Woody Allen?
“My big thing was to not have him wear khaki pants and an Army coat,” John Turturro says with a broad smile. “And I got him out of that. I said, ‘That’s not in my color scheme. I’m an Italian director.’ ”
This dash of bravado about dictating sartorial choices to Woody Allen might sound pretentious, or even ludicrous, on paper. But when it comes from a tall, impeccably groomed man in an elegant blue velvet suit (double breasted, blue shirt buttoned to the top, no tie), it seems perfectly reasonable.
For his fifth feature behind the camera, Fading Gigolo , the renowned actor and filmmaker solicited ongoing (and ruthless) feedback from the New York screen icon during the lengthy screenwriting process. Allen also accepted a rare acting assignment in the film, hence the discussion of his costume.
Allen plays Murray, a newly retired Manhattan bookstore owner who, in need of money, convinces his friend, floral arranger Fioravante (Turturro), to provide sexual services to affluent women. Murray claims a fee for arranging the liaisons, which take Fioravante in an unexpected and ultimately poignant direction.
Fading Gigolo starts out as a slightly absurd sex comedy and deepens into a mature, empathetic study of big-city loneliness against a backdrop of cross-cultural and ethnic identity.
The crucial relationship in the film is between Fioravante and Avigal (French actress Vanessa Paradis), an astute mother of six and the widow of a Chasidic rabbi. Sex isn’t part of the equation but Dovi, a protective and covetous neighborhood Satmar watchman (touchingly played by Liev Schreiber), can’t know that.
“I met all these people who’ve left the [Satmar] community” in the course of his research, Turturro says in a recent interview at a San Francisco hotel. “They’re like the strays of the community. They gather in this place, people who left, and people who hadn’t left who just went there to see what was going on.”
Paradis got to know one woman in particular who had left the Satmar community and explained the various directives, such as keeping her hair concealed under a wig.
“All these things are made up by men,” Turturro declares. “Women didn’t make these rules. And to me, that says it all.”
Fading Gigolo is unambiguously respectful toward observant Jewish practice while inviting us to empathize with a woman trying to reconcile autonomy and conformity.
“Avigal’s not looking to escape,” Turturro explains. “She’s just looking to receive.”
The film climaxes with a religious trial where Murray is confronted with the query, “Are you proud to be a Jew?” It’s the question we’ve long wanted Woody Allen to answer — onscreen or off, and at that moment it’s difficult not to conflate the character and the actor.
Turturro’s experience of Judaism goes well beyond growing up in New York and now living in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. His wife is Jewish and his son went to Hebrew school, and Turturro himself has spent a fair amount of time in Reform synagogues.
He has played several Jewish characters onscreen, most famously in the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, and immersed himself in the life of Primo Levi to portray the Italian-Jewish Holocaust survivor in Francesco Rosi’s The Truce.
“If you’re raised a Catholic, you realize there’s not a debate that goes on,” Turturro says. “And if you’re raised a Jew, there’s a debate that goes on. And I really like that. Therein lies one of the greatnesses of Judaism.”
At Allen’s behest, Turturro brushed up on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories while he wrote the screenplay that would become Fading Gigolo. But after all his various and diligent research, some things just came down to intuition — and style.
“I only chose Satmar because I liked the hats the best,” Turturro says. “I don’t want the Borsalino. I’m Italian. It’s an aesthetic choice, understand. That’s how it goes with me. The hat dictates. That’s it.”
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