Set in Italy and France in the early 1990s, Magari opens on an eight-year-old girl in church. According to her mother’s recently adopted Orthodox Catholic tradition, Mass must be taken on an empty stomach, so Alma is hungry, dreaming of a chocolate croissant before admonishing herself to pay attention to the services. Right away, the film’s theme is announced: the gap between things as we wish they were and things as they are. Its attitude toward this disjunction is summed up in the title, which means “I wish.”

Each member of Alma’s family is, in one way or another, in flight from reality. Though her parents divorced when she was one—she’s never actually seen them together except in a picture from a photo booth, which she cherishes like a splinter of the True Cross—Alma believes they are destined to re-marry. Then there’s her brother, the diabetic Jean, who tells his siblings that he is a cyborg like his hero, Steve Austin, also known as the Six Million Dollar Man; her mother, Charlotte, a zealous convert to her new husband’s ascetic faith; and her father, Carlo, a filmmaker who’s been tinkering for several years on a script which may never be produced. Only her 14-year-old brother, Seb, has his feet on the ground, and he’s beginning to resent it.

Brett Gelman (far left), Oro De Commarque, Daniele Vicorito, Riccardo Scamarcio, and Alba Rohrwacher in Magari.

“It does stem from my life, this film, but then it departs from it,” says Magari’s first-time director, Ginevra Elkann. Like Alma, Elkann has few memories of her parents—the novelist Alain Elkann and Margherita Agnelli, the daughter of the industrialist Gianni Agnelli—as a married couple. “I had this idea that they might get back together, which was totally unrealistic.” But there the similarities end. While Elkann says of the film’s other characters, “I knew people like all these people,” Magari is not autobiographical, and took shape over many conversations with her co-author, Chiara Barzini, granddaughter of the writer Luigi Barzini.

“I could never have made this film in my 20s,” the now 40-year-old Elkann says. After working as “an assistant to an assistant to an assistant” on Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1998 movie, Besieged, and then as a video assistant on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Elkann enrolled in London Film School, where she directed a short that screened at the 2005 Venice Film Festival. But rather than continue along this path, she chose to become a producer. “I sort of backed away,” she says. “I was scared.” Producing taught her a lot about “what filmmaking is really about,” and so did life. “I was in psychotherapy for a long time,” says Elkann, who lives in Rome with her husband and three children. “It allowed me to make this film and just be happy.”

Alma and her brothers live with their mother and stepfather, Pavel (whom Carlo calls “Pushkin”), in Paris. After fainting in church, Charlotte reveals that she’s pregnant and sends the children to spend Christmas with their father in Italy so she can convalesce. But they’re not to mention the baby—or the fact that they’re moving to Canada—to Carlo. The children are forced to shuttle not just between parents and countries but also languages; they speak French with their mom and switch to Italian around their dad—reluctantly, in Seb’s case.

They arrive in Italy outfitted in Moncler parkas and Moon Boots, ready to ski, until Carlo—who’s late, one senses as usual—suddenly decides he’d rather take them to the seaside instead, at which point they’re joined by his new girlfriend, Benedetta, whom he introduces as his screenwriting partner. From that moment on, nothing goes as planned. What follows is as charming and unpredictable as Alma’s bohemian father, but Magari is a film the self-obsessed Carlo could never have made. Its empathy extends in all directions without indulging its characters’ delusions. It manages to be quirky without becoming cartoonish.

Then there’s her brother, the diabetic Jean, who tells his siblings that he is a cyborg like his hero, Steve Austin, also known as the Six Million Dollar Man.
Gianni and Marella Agnelli with their children, Edoardo and Margherita, and assorted grandchildren in 1986, including Ginevra Elkann (far right).

Casting child actors is never an easy job, particularly when you need them to be fluent in both French and Italian, but Elkann found Oro De Commarque (Alma), Ettore Giustiniani (Jean), and Milo Roussel (Seb) after a three-month search. “We got them together in the same room and they immediately took to each other in a quite uncanny way,” she says. Riccardo Scamarcio (Carlo) and Alba Rohrwacher (Benedetta) are big stars in Italy, but Elkann cast them against type. “He’s used to being more macho, and she’s used to playing someone a bit more subdued.”

Though it takes place just 30 years ago, Magari, which opened in August at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and screened this past week at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, is very much a period piece. “We didn’t want the teenagers to have mobile phones. We wanted them to be bored, to have to go around and meet people and make up their own games,” Elkann says, adding, “That was a much freer world to grow up in. Today, you’d never let your kids be that free.”

Ash Carter is the Articles Editor for Air Mail