Niccolò Ammaniti: «I am no longer afraid of children thanks to Anna»
la Repubblica, 12.04.2021

I admit that before we started filming I was terrified. I used to dream about them at night. They would burglarize my house, take apart my stereo, poison the fish in my aquarium.

I have no children, much less grandchildren. The only children I know are the ones who populate my novels. Michele, the protagonist of Io non ho paura, Pietro, the one in Ti prendo e ti porto via. Made of words, locked in the pages of books, they hurt no one.

Real ones, in the flesh, I always avoided. My friends who had children know this phobia of mine and have always made sure that their little ones stayed away from me. If I really happened to meet one, I would bestow a "how cute..." smiling through clenched teeth. The next thing I knew, I was recommending boarding schools in Switzerland and reformatories to parents.

What the hell had gotten into me then? Between casting, rehearsals and filming I was to spend more than a year with a band of capricious little tyrants to whom I would sacrifice months of my life, and my sanity, begging them to act. Film people have few fears, they live in constant uncertainty, but they have a few fixed points: never film in the snow, on boats and with animals and children.

Claudio Stefani, a friend of mine who is a prop maker and who worked with me on The Miracle told me, "I'm all for it Nic, but I warn you, kids are tough. Arm yourself with patience and puppets. So much for the stars...." And he told me about munchkins capable of blocking a set until they got a pistachio ice cream with crunchies on it or a pizza with wieners. To those monsters the poor directors would give playstations, gameboys and Disneyland vacations out of their own pockets just to call it a day. "They are a lobby," he concluded.

From that moment I began to stock up on patience, sweets and puppets, and to study on YouTube little games and pastimes with which I would try to ingratiate myself with them. Lorenza, my wife, when she caught me searching on Amazon for a clown suit suggested I let it go: "I remember that many years ago you had written a subject about a murder in a nursing home. Do that one, right?"

Maybe. Too late. The machine had started. I put Lorenza in charge of coaching and supervising casting, and I concentrated on location scouting, costumes, and sets. In the evenings I would get hundreds of videos in which children of all races and creeds would talk, either too shy or too bold, about their favorite subjects, the sports they played, and why they cared so much about becoming actors. I watched them as if they were not my peers.

One of the first considerations I had made while writing the novel Anna had been precisely that an alien who fell on our planet would certainly have concluded that adults and children do not belong to the same species. The latter would have classified them in the same way as cats and dogs. Clumsy, capricious little beings that grown-ups carry around (sometimes on carts), leave in schools and set free in the park. Then I had wondered: what if one day, for some obscure reason, the adults disappeared? What would the children do? How would they organize themselves? Would they be able to form a society? To take care of the weakest, to get food and teach the youngest to read? But how to dispose of adults? Perhaps a virus that for some obscure reason would not infect children. The story worked.

But would it have worked with real children?

When I arrived in Palermo for the auditions, entering the large downtown hotel that housed us, I thought there was a school group on a field trip. There were hundreds of them, running, screaming, crying, crowding into the lobby surrounded by mothers and fathers.

"Watch out for the parents, don't look at them," an aide whispered to me with a tiny blonde wrapped around her ankle. Parents. I hadn't considered them. Each of them was certain that they had given birth to a miniature Robert Redford or Monica Bellucci and were just waiting for me to prove it to humanity.

The first child who sat across from me was eight years old, a blond forelock crossing his forehead and his hair shaved at the sides. After crossing his arms and letting his feet dangle under the chair, he stared me straight in the eye.

I said, "Hello. What's your name?"

He pondered before answering, "Stefano Gambino. Third C." Then he looked around as if he was not convinced that an audition could be done in a hotel. He scrutinized Lorenza, the assistants, and added, "Are you Niccolò Ammaniti?"

"Yes." A pause. "And you are a writer."


He assented, studying his shoes. Everything seemed to come back to him, then he asked, "And why are you a director?"

Silence. I swallowed. He had entered like a scalpel into a sensitive spot. The casting director, the assistant director and others in the room turned to me expectantly. I took courage and retorted, "And you who are a child, why are you an actor?"

"It's mom who wants to. She cares."

"Don't you want to?"

Stefano pulled up with his nose and shrugged. "I don't know. I have to find out."

"Me too." I nodded. "Could we find out together?"

He nodded.

As the days went by, I realized that working with children is wonderful. I often woke up in the morning in a bad mood, walked across town to the set muttering that I was unhappy with the location and the time available to shoot, everything irritated me, but when I arrived at the camp I would find my little actors laughing and singing sitting on the makeup chairs and a spark capable of igniting my day and that of the entire crew was ignited. The children were pulling us into a whirlwind of play, sweat, and laughter that made us more united and focused. Because the children give their all, they never spare themselves, until suddenly, like a car without fuel, they shut down. And there's nothing more to do there. They are exhausted, at least until the next day. So they spurred us on to work with more concentration, avoiding getting lost in the things of grown-ups.

Giulia Dragotto, Anna, and Alessandro Pecorella, Astor, the two main characters in the series, after filming, wherever they were, they had to study. I, on the other hand, would go back to my room wrecked, and realize that I missed them. Sometimes, at night, I couldn't resist and sent them pictures of the set. For them, parents would reply, writing that their children were asleep and that I should rest as well.

A great truth I learned is that in front of a camera children do not act, they play. Childhood is the time of life when the ability to see beyond the real, to imagine monsters, to turn a bottle into a spaceship and a carpet into a planet is at its peak. Imagination is a greedy mouth that swallows reality, even the most bitter making it harmless. Children have played during plagues, played on the rubble caused by bombs and in concentration camps. And playing is what actors must do as well. Children rely completely on the director, they don't try to understand the meaning of the film, they don't ask themselves who they are in the story, they don't read the script, they memorize lines like poems in school, and every step they take is worth for itself, they don't have a peak to reach. They forget the camera and microphones looming over their heads, they don't care about the lights blinding them and they run, cry, laugh for the sake of it. Every now and then I would call them to the monitor and ask if they would like to see themselves again, but they would usually reply, "No thanks, it doesn't matter."

Children don't care about the things that adults care about.

Then they get past thirteen, fourteen, and just as they change physically, they change as actors. They lose their naturalness, the camera is no longer a silent companion to play with, but a mirror in which to scrutinize ourselves and show all our flaws and shyness. Are we beautiful or ugly? Fat or thin? Are we right for the role we have to play? The truth is that adolescence fools us. The hormonal vortex of puberty pushes us like a bulldozer toward conformity. It opens the irremediable crack between who we are and who we would like to be. And this makes teenagers, except in rare cases, complex actors to deal with and suffer unspeakable pains during filming. To every actorly indication they react by taking offense, getting heated and moving away from spontaneity.

Childhood is an asset that must be preserved because our best insights come from the little that remains in us from that time.

Shooting with children made me fall in love with the craft of filmmaking and made it fun for me. More than a father, I felt like their friend. We laughed and played, and I hope this, in the series, comes across.

Stefano Gambino, the one with the forelock who I met first at casting, is one of the most patient and generous actors I've worked with. A little stuntman. He has done the stairs of a building a hundred times armed with a broomstick and painted blue, at the head of a gang of angry little beasts. And he jumped into an elevator shaft with a smile on his face.

When I asked him what it was like to die he bent his head to one side and, serious, replied, "It's fun."


A series created and directed by Niccolò Ammaniti. Screenwriters: Niccolò Ammaniti and Francesca Manieri. A Sky Original series commissioned by Sky Studios for Sky Italia.


Episodes: 6; running time: 50 minutes. (2021)

The Miracle

In Italy the referendum that could bring the country out of Europe is round the corner. In eight days, four figures find themselves dealing with the biggest event of their existence; one capable of changing the world and that will change their lives forever.

The young Prime Minister Fabrizio Pietromarchi, an upright politician, progressive, atheist, is facing the most delicate moment of his political career, while his wife, the explosive and indomitable Sole, is threatening to leave him. Father Marcello, an outer city priest, after years of devout faith and missions in Africa, has become prey to irrepressible drives: gambling, sex and pornography destroy his soul. He is looking for a sign from God to defeat the devil. General Votta, a solitary man, a guardian of security, an enemy of anything that may disturb the established order, is suffering from a troublesome form of sinusitis. Sandra is a haematologist who for years has been treating a mother who has reached a vegetative state, sacrificing every other aspect of her life for her, even her love for Amanda. She would do anything to restore her to life. These are the first four people to come into contact with the incredible relic found in the hideout of the mob boss Molocco: a statuette of the Madonna that ceaselessly weeps blood. They’re the ones who take on all responsibility for the find. An abandoned army swimming pool is the place chosen to shelter this apparently inexplicable mystery; one capable of destabilizing a country already hanging on a delicate balance. The intellect, reasoning, the national interest, faith or science are the paths taken to find an answer to the incomprehensible phenomenon. But the search for answers only multiplies the questions to pose. Anyone who attempts to understand, handle or contrast the Madonna ends up in a chasm of events that will change their lives irreversibly, keeping intact the unfathomable power of the miracle.

A series created by Niccolò Ammaniti. Screenwriters: Niccolò Ammaniti, Francesca Marciano, Francesca Manieri e Stefano Bises. Directors: Niccolò Ammaniti, Francesco Munzi e Lucio Pellegrini.

Episodes: 8; running time: 50 min. (2018)

Director's Notes

When I write a story, I’m under one only obligation, and that is to stimulate my readers to connect my dots to their imagination. If, for instance, I tell about a house I might give its general outline, the main details that set it apart from others, the obscurity reigning under its stairway by day, the smell of its wet plasterwork, the musk under its terracotta roof, the sound of steps on the loose tiles, or the flaking paint on its blinds. When describing a face, I might linger on those restless eyes, or on a little gap between the front teeth when a smile is flashed. I leave all the rest up to the memory and phantasy of the reader. In this exchange lies the magic of literature; there, and in the darkness which the writer gifts to the reader, to shed light on as he pleases. Cinema does not work like that. The viewer, sat in his armchair, must be provided with the whole package. The lights, the places and the objects that inhabit them, the faces filled up by actors, the clothing, the characters and the way they move — even a bit of music to underscore a parting kiss. Action cannot be implied in the description of a look, a single frame will not do; it needs to be deconstructed, and subdivides in many camera angles, viewpoints, movements, pieces to edit together and re-construct into a scene. This has been the very first lesson I’ve had to learn in my approach to making of The Miracle. I am a lucky man. I’ve enjoyed some substantial help from two good companions, directors Francesco Munzi and Lucio Pellegrini. Together we have tried, in creating this series, to keep an objective vision, not unlike the stealthy gaze of an invisible witness who might have chanced upon the action, not too far from the middle of it, and tryed to take it all in as best he can – be it a statuette of the Holy Virgin crying tears of blood, or two children playing perverted games. We have simply followed the – often somewhat frantic – unfolding of events, one step behind, a little slower than the characters who bring it all about.

Niccolò Ammaniti