Joe D’Alessandro has been in the film industry since 1981. He has worked on such films as The Natural, Maximum Overdrive, Crimes of the Heart, The Prince of Tides, The Blind Side, The Hunger Games, Nell, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Secret Life of Bees. Joe, his wife, Barbara, and their son, Giancarlo, live in Wilmington, North Carolina, where we caught up with him in the middle of filming Under the Dome, the Stephen King inspired CBS television series.
In 1953, Joe’s parents moved to the United States from Italy. Joe says they were “the last vestiges of the traditional Italian immigrants.” His father was a stonemason, and his mother did piecework in the garment industry. He grew up in Rochester, New York, but at age 21 went to Italy, where he studied the art and history of the Italian Renaissance. While he had been a nominal Roman Catholic up to that time, it was in Siena that his faith came alive. We talked with him about that experience, and how it has shaped his life as an artist.
What happened on your trip to Italy that brought about such a profound change in your life?
While I was in Siena, the Renaissance art reintroduced me to the gospel story. I was moved by the way the visual arts dramatized and brought to life the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. The story seemed like a movie to me, a visual narrative revealed through these beautiful frescoes.
The need for story is basic to the human experience. We discover ourselves through the stories we tell and the narratives we invite into our lives. The gospel story depicted in that art was the story I wanted to embrace. It was a story I thought I knew, but was surprised at how much more was revealed when I saw it in a new form, in another context.
It was life-changing. When I returned from my semester of study abroad, I began to explore filmmaking as a career.
How did you integrate your new faith into your art?
Initially as a new believer I saw everything as black and white. I was conflicted that by working in the mainstream film industry, I was getting away from my original goal to share the gospel through film.
On one of the early films I worked on, a film Stephen King directed, I tended to focus on the negative spiritual elements in it. Years later, when I read his book, On Writing, I began to see things differently. I started realizing the spiritual component in his work, the eternal struggle with the good and evil within us. But back then I was living in a self-imposed Christian ghetto of sorts.
Around that same period I was on a film shoot in Buffalo, New York—I think it might have been The Natural—when I came across a storefront with a marquee-like sign, “Christian films.” I went inside and discovered the Christian Film Distributors Association, a whole subculture of films made for the church audience. From there I began attending the International Christian Visual Media conferences.
But I soon discovered that most Christian films do not dialogue with the world. They often are more like a monologue, asking questions with clean and neat answers. They were telling the viewer what he should think, not necessarily showing the complexity of the struggle we all face with our time-bound bodies, as we seek meaning and purpose in our life of faith.
I began to seek alternatives, other expressions of faith in film.
So, what filmmakers have crossed the threshold into seriously transformational filmmaking?
As I grew in my faith journey, I discovered some filmmakers who shared their view of faith in a way that allowed a place for a wider audience of believers, as well as seekers, to engage in stories of hope and redemption.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice is full of dreamlike images that evoke and stir the soul. They depend on metaphor and symbol to convey the themes. Robert Bresson is another great director who often deals with themes of salvation and redemption.
In The Decalogue, Polish film director’s Krzysztof Kieslowski’s brilliant 10-hour miniseries presents an ensemble of character-driven stories that flesh out the Ten Commandments without quoting Scripture or hammering the themes of faith with a mallet. It’s a great example of the word made flesh. There is beauty and truth right along with brutality and lies. All of this is artfully presented and covered with God’s love, mercy, and grace. Like Christ crucified, it is a mess. It is love and brutality, all at once, made whole by God’s mercy.
You speak a lot about the incarnational nature of Christianity, about God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Say a little more about that.
I was greatly impacted by the British movie script doctor Bart Gavigan. Bart was living in Christian community and for many years I would attend his lectures at the annual ICVM conference. Of the many nuggets he offered were comments on how the church can sometimes spiritualize things at the expense of their carnal realization. He said, “You cannot deny your carnality and live the incarnation. It’s rather like a Victorian corset. You can bind up the flesh, but no matter how tight you bind it, the flesh will pop out, usually not in a positive way!”
The calling of discipleship is to integrate your carnality or you cannot live the incarnation; the word not made flesh—not integrated, but disintegrated. This is the negation of grace. The art of film and TV at its best invites an audience into a story that makes the word flesh.
Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia began a film company, Sherwood Pictures. They have been quite successful with films like Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous. As a camera operator, director, and filmmaker, what do you think of the movies they are producing? Do they depict that universal struggle for meaning?
I have viewed all of their films a number of times. I really respect their technical abilities and their willingness to try to make a difference. They have made huge inroads and are big players in the mainstreaming of faith-based films. How could you not applaud that?
But their pictures have a tendency to look not at the imperfections, but to try to present a definite answer to the questions they lay out. One answer doesn’t fit all. The best among us are incredibly flawed, but that is offset by grace and mercy and forgiveness, and it’s never neat and clean. It’s messy.
You know how an attorney says, “In a courtroom, never ask a question you do not know the answer to.” I think it’s a great exercise of faith to ask the question you don’t know the answer to, and rest in the knowledge that you may not have an answer today, tomorrow, or ever in this life. Accept the grace for the day. Sometimes we confuse faith with knowledge.
As a Christian, I want to ask questions I may not know the answer to—faith questions. And while I don’t know the answer, my faith does inform the trajectory of the story. I often prefer a film that asks questions that bring answers that only create five more questions, and it never completely adds up. Because we are complex, human, fleshly fallible creatures, it will never add up exactly. But if we are truly people of faith, our art will head in the right direction, toward the reconciliation of all things. It will open up the gaps in our understanding of life, but there will be gaps that grace can cover, as people learn to live with faith, gracefully, in the gap.
I would love to see a church do what Sherwood Pictures has done, but tell stories that explore “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” What does that mean today? How do we show justice, equality, compassion, forgiveness, cooperation, conscious capitalism, and wealth as responsibility?
Our movies should freely acknowledge we do not have it all figured out. We aren’t in the banquet hall. We are in the hallway, the liminal space, heading toward something greater. We don’t know exactly what is in the banquet room, but we know it is full of grace and love. We don’t know exactly where it is all going, but we do know the trajectory.
Tell me about some films you believe accomplish that storytelling task?
I think Philomena is a great example of a simple, character-centered story told in a contemporary way about an issue that also reaches back across generations, and shows a way to reconcile and forgive. Philomena’s physical circumstances are no better at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, much like life. Yes, she found her son, but he had died, and so many had lied to her and abused her along the way. But somehow, through it all, she found a way to grace and mercy and forgiveness.
I worked on The Blind Side. Based on a true story, the mother’s behavior was informed by her faith. Her circumstances called her out to put feet on her faith, to live out the incarnation. It’s a great example of how grace is so attractive it’s irresistable.
I’ve been trying to get the remake rights to Babette’s Feast. It’s one of my favorite movies. In the remake, I would keep the basic story the same, but I would reset it in the Reconstruction South. Babette would be from New Orleans, and biracial. Her husband would be killed in a post-Civil War uprising. She would be a self-imposed refugee. The sisters would lead the same missionary life of joyless service and self-sacrifice.
Babette’s feast will free them. The people of the community would come together and eat, drink, and be merry. It is a wonderful allegory of the Eucharist that would arouse a new generation of viewers.
Wow. I hope you get a chance to make that film. How would you summarize your view of your work and how God will use it?
God reveals himself constantly to us and we miss it over and over again. We’ll never fully grasp it all, but if we could create films that help us catch a glimpse of God’s revelation, then that would be a very good thing. Not perfect, but full of grace.