‘Onere’s’ Kevin Pontuti on magical realism and the “Poetry of Penance”

kevin pontuti onere

A UW Stout professor and filmmaker is defying industry restrictions in his award-winning series of “cantos”

It’s easy to confuse Onere with a painting. The opening shots of Kevin Pontuti’s medieval mind screw are painterly to a point. Drawing from his background in studio art, Pontuti uses a forcefully placid style to bring out a serene and ghostly scene of a young maiden (Alexandra Loreth) dragging a burden through a barren woodland.

With its pre-Enlightenment fashion sense, a fleetingly bleak score, and a palpable dread that hangs in the air, Onere isn’t unlike Robert Eggers’s The Witch. Pontuti’s magical realism is far more subdued and his theme centers around acceptance.

Most noteworthy though is how Onere fits into the UW Stout professor’s oeuvre. For all of independent cinema’s issues with financiers and attracting an audience, Pontuti defies those weaknesses, making full-bore investments in niche pieces and garnering attention for them anyway. Earlier this year, Onere picked up awards across continents at both Flyway Film Festival and the PiGrecoZen Film Festival in Ancona, Italy. Over a series of emails, I asked Pontuti about his subdued brand of magical realism and his ambitions to shoot in Italy next year:

I want to begin by asking about your interests in film, because Onere is neither the first period story you’ve told nor the last. What inspires you to tell stories in a period setting?

I became interested in working on a period piece a few years ago. My first feature North Passage, which I typically describe as a post-apocalyptic fairytale, had been primarily set in the near-future but had sections that were set in the 18th century, so I think that set up an initial progression towards a complete period film.

I had also been interested in pushing the folktale/fairytale aspect further and decided that rather than adapting or referencing existing tales, I should try writing my own that I could then adapt into a film. So I wrote a two-page folktale called The Burning Branches. Once I had the initial theme and some direction, I moved on to writing a feature script of the same name and expanded the storyline.

Onere is great on its own, but it’s also a part of a larger “Poetry of Penance” project. Could you share more on that?

Once the feature script was complete, I decided it would be fun and beneficial to develop a couple of shorts to explore the world visually and help develop the tone film language. So in the fall of 2015, I set about doing that. Also, around this time, I was invited to do a 3-week artist winter residency in central Italy so I quickly started brainstorming short film ideas and pulled my production team together in Dec to shoot Onere in Wisconsin prior to heading to Italy. The Onere shoot went really well which bolstered my confidence heading to Italy. When we arrived in Italy, we spent the first week scouting Umbria, meeting artists and visiting historic sites. I had brought along a few initial short scripts, an actress and 3 costumes but knew I’d have to be open to opportunities and tried to embrace the explorative nature of what we were doing.

You have a painterly approach to your composition and camera in Onere, so much so that I actually thought the opening shot was a still frame. Do you find an interest in other art to be an influence on you?

Yes, for sure. I come from a studio art background (drawing, painting, sculpture and photography) and later came to film. Often when I’m starting a project, the initial idea comes from an image rather than a story. The drawings and storyboards come first and then I look for ways to connect them or layer them into a visual poem or narrative.

I was brought up Catholic and later rebelled against it. So when we were in Italy, I immediately became aware of — and influenced by — the frescos and iconic imagery. When I was in college, I had often subverted religious imagery in paintings and prints out of anger, but this time, I found myself embracing the imagery and subject matter and wanted to respect it — not out of reverence but more out of curiosity and respect for the culture.

For all the grace and subtlety in your direction, you’re still making Alexandra work. She’s dragging this body through the entire thing. And then you compound that idea as she’s digging and we’re there with her for every thrust of the spade.

Yeah, she did an amazing job. It was a really tough shoot and super physical and cold. She really earned it, the body bag weighed more than she did.

I know magical realism is an element here, and Chiwei Hui’s music is so vital to that. Apart from an obvious reveal, the music and sound design really drive any suggestions that this isn’t quite the reality we live in.

Thank you! Chiwei really understood the mood I was going for. We talked quite a bit with Ed Jakober (our sound designer) about what “purgatory” might sound like. We worked really hard to find the right balance of silence and layering of sound. They both did a fantastic job. At one point in the beginning, we had more naturalistic sounds (birds, insects, I can’t remember what else) and I asked Ed to remove all the birds and insects — I remember saying “There aren’t birds in purgatory” and Ed responded with something like “How do you know?” And I responded that it was my purgatory, Hell or what-have-you. We laughed. But I’m convinced that these subtle changes were critical to creating this altered reality.

When the big reveal happens, you’re depending on Alexandra to sell this moment with just her expressions and again, the camera stays on her. What were you looking for in your actor to convey these complex, unspoken ideas?

Alexandra really has a knack for subtle realism, and her thoughts seem to ripple across her face in a way that is really unique. We did about five takes with very subtle differences in performance.

Tell me more about The Burning Branches.

The Burning Branches is a feature project that I wrote in 2015. It’s a mind-bending fantasy-drama loosely set in 15th century Europe. The film is reminiscent of classic period films a la Marketa Lazarova and Andrei Rublev, but in a more contemporary cinematic form. The logline: A 15th century pagan artist seduces a royal prince by killing and impersonating his mistress. It’s really a story about 3 women whose lives are interconnected but are at odds with each other and, in a way, they each possess what the others are seeking.

Do you see your shorter pieces as technical precursors for Burning Branches?

No, they are stand alone creative works and we are actually preparing to shoot three more shorts in the “Poetry of Penance” series this coming year. I’ve really gotten excited about developing the shorts or Cantos as we’re calling them, as their own project. That said, Eva, the young penitent in Onere and Pescare (and some of the other shorts) is based on a “mistress character” in The Burning Branches. The shorts do explore the world of the The Burning Branches and they do continue to help me think about the the world and tone of the feature feature project.

You mentioned in that TV introduction you’ve already done location scouting. What style or moods are you looking for overseas? And why Italy specifically?

Yes, we’ve done some scouting, both in-person and virtually through google earth and other online tools. I’m still keeping a very open mind about possible locations.

Obviously, we need certain locations that are very difficult to find in the USA such as castles and other medieval architecture. Italy has great options for castles and cathedrals, as well as a very strong religious history that I’m interested in, and really can be felt in the “Poetry of Penance” shorts. That said, I’m keeping an open mind about the settings for the feature. When I was writing the script, I was imagining an eastern European setting and would like to scout Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, etc. Since much of the films takes place in the woods, there is some flexibility with location and setting.

An overseas production can’t be cheap. How do you plan to approach that budget?

We’re pretty early in the development and production process and looking for producing partners locally and abroad. Depending on how that plays out, we’re looking at a few possible models. Personally, I’d like to shoot the entire project overseas. However, one of the things that we’re considering is a hybrid production with the possibility of shooting a large part of the project locally in the USA. We actually shot a teaser for The Burning Branches that blends locations in Italy with footage shot locally in the USA, which worked quite well. We also have a strong understanding of VFX and have the ability to create virtual sets and 3D locations—in house—which is a real benefit. It adds time to the production and post for sure, but it is feasible. With that as an option, I think part of the financing and location decisions will actually be driven by casting. There are a few actors that I’m interested in and would really like to attach to the film.

  • As of now, Onere is still making its way around the festival circuit, but Kevin Pontuti has plans for future “Poetry of Penance” screenings and director’s talks. You can find more information at penitentproductions.com