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Cinema, History & Politics

Devoti Tutti

New documentary on the cult of Saint Agatha of Catania

Date
October 4, 2023
Time
6:30 pm
Overview

Screening
Devoti Tutti
(2023, Docu-Fiction, 65 min.)
In ITALIAN with ENGLISH subtitles

Written, Produced, and Directed by
Bernadette Wegenstein

With the voice of
Donatella Finocchiaro

Followed by a Q&A with the director
in conversation with
Laura Di Bianco, Johns Hopkins
Giulia Sbaffi, NYU

Moderated by Eugenio Refini, NYU

Devoti Tutti melds animation and cinema verité to weave a transcendent story about women who struggle to escape the trauma of sexual violence.

Synopsis
Through magical realist animations in the style of baroque chiaroscuro, Devoti Tutti returns to the martyred Saint Agatha of Catania a voice she never had. Alongside a chorus of the citizens of Catania and the stories of real abuse survivors, Devoti Tutti shows how a community’s reverence for its saint masks misogynist realities. In her cell, Agatha is kept company by her breasts, which her tormenters severed from her body—a reminder of the violence she suffered, but also of her refusal to submit to a man’s desire. Together with the flying breasts, Agatha escapes from the chamber where she has been held prisoner for two millennia and flies out over the ocean and into her own self-creation.

Summary
Every year, thousands of men flood the streets of Catania for a massive three-day celebration, stampeding to get a closer look at the bust that holds the spirit of Saint Agatha. The veneration of the men of Catania for their patron saint is strikingly devout—but also deeply ironic, because Agatha was a victim of sexual violence who was murdered almost 2000 years ago for refusing a powerful man’s advances. As Mariella, an emergency surgeon at the local hospital who deals constantly with the effects of violence against women, notes, it is only during the festival that the carnage diminishes. Maybe because the men are too busy with the festival, she says, but also because they are asking Agatha for forgiveness. Using Agatha’s mythical story to tell the stories of real abuse survivors, Devoti Tutti shows how a community’s reverence for its saint masks the misogynistic realities of the lives of those women. Violence, as local women say in a therapy session in the film, is just as often psychological as it is physical. Animated by rotoscopy over live action, Agatha comes alive to guide us through the stages of recovery from sexual violence and trauma. In her cell Agatha is kept company by her breasts, which her tormenters severed from her body and which have now returned in the form of animated flying pets—a reminder of the violence she suffered, but also of her refusal to submit to a man’s desire. Beyond the women we encounter the society around them: Monsignor Scionti, the official voice of the Catholic Church, who tells the canonical story of Agatha; a fisherman who tells us how his devotion to Agatha helped him survive the death of his son; the cloistered nuns who admire Agatha’s virginity and purity and consider themselves freer than the women who are “imprisoned” outside their walls; the street children of Catania’s roughest neighborhoods who marvel about the supposed romance between Agatha and her murderer; the devout fishermen who overflow with macho love and admiration for Agatha—but also a chorus of voices who criticize the failed opportunity to highlight the violence against women inherent in the Agatha myth: protesters from the poor neighborhoods of Catania who occupy the cathedral; a trans-woman who tells us that if Agatha were reborn she would come back as a man to educate men on how to honor women. Agatha even appears in the dreams of the citizens of Catania, offering them succor from their sorrows and losses, just as legend says she once used her veil to protect the city from the flaming lava flowing down Mount Etna’s flanks. With a renewed voice—both literally in actor Donatella Finocchiaro’s voice and musically in the film’s original compositions—a visibly changed Agatha ascends above her own trauma, escapes from the chamber where she has been held prisoner for two millennia, and flies out over the ocean and into her own self-creation. With its intervention into a pagan and Christian story, Devoti Tutti reveals the patriarchal nature of a devotion that calls on women to forgive a violence that continues unabated to this day.

Director’s Statement
Although the martyrdom of Saint Agatha occurred in 251 A.D., this story of sexual violence is contemporary and perhaps more pressing than ever now that post #metoo we have started a conversation about the aftermaths of violence against women. Through Devoti Tutti I wanted to give Agatha, the survivor of cruel torture by breast amputation, her own voice, shape, and form, with which she could begin to narrate the myth of her own life: a myth that has been told for two-thousand years by the Catholic church alongside the many Pagan versions that have been disseminated from generation to generation, fisherman to fisherman, nun to nun. I merged Agatha’s voice with that of a survivor of sexual violence, Angela, a single mother whom I saw as a modern-day Agatha struggling in Catania. Innumerably more women must confront themselves with the trauma of sexual violence. My approach was not to simply show how Agatha could free herself, as I am only showing her symbolic liberation at the very end of the film. The reality and truth of sexual violence is such that only very few women manage to overcome it, and as we see through the story of Vera, a mother whose daughter was killed in a brutal feminicide, most people never overcome the grief of violence or loss of a loved one. I chose the hybrid genre of magic-realist rotoscope animations to show that the recovery from sexual abuse is “wing-empowering,” represented by Agatha’s flying breasts. This film is a personal feminist intervention into the Agatha myth. I cast my daughter as the actress who was rotoscoped; my son played Saint Peter on the vespa and composed one of the songs, and many others helped me realize this film, from my brilliant duo of one Austrian and one Italian editor, Stefan Fauland and Edoardo Morabito, to the incredible actress Donatella Finocchiaro, whose beautiful Catanese voice is essential for this intervention of bringing Agatha to life. Agatha’s mindset and her Stockholm syndrome by being enclosed in the cell of the Cathedral was inspired by Judith Herman’s pivotal book, Trauma and Recovery.

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