Don’t Tell: Director Cristina Comencini

Based upon the celebrated novel La Bestia nel Cuore, DONT TELL is the story of a womans journey into her past and the aftermath of confronting personal demons long hidden beneath the surface of her psyche.

At the heart of the film is Sabina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who won Best Actress at the 2005 Venice Film Festival), a beautiful young woman who seemingly has it all: a supportive and loving boyfriend, a comfortable lifestyle, and a promising future.

But when Sabina learns she is pregnant, a normally celebratory occasion is clouded by a succession of haunting nightmares, strange memories, and personal insecurities that spiral Sabina’s world out of control. While shunning the affections of her boyfriend Franco (Alessio Boni), Sabina flees to America where she seeks comfort from her brother Daniele (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his family. While there, Sabina uncovers dark and disturbing truths and begins to question her instincts about life, love, and future happiness, which leads to an intense psychological climax that finds Sabina at a crossroads of redemption or destruction.

Don’t Tell was shot in eleven weeks in the winter and in a variety of locations from America, England, and Italy including the famed Italian studios of Cinecitt, where most of the visual effects were done. Best-selling author-writer-director Cristina Comencini initially hesitated to adapt her novel. My books are usually about events that take place over a very long period, but with this novel I was able to bring a short span of time to the screen with the same passion I used in writing the story for the page.

With extensive rehearsals, the actors were successful in transforming literary characters into fully fleshed individuals. Each read the book and found out much more about their respective characters worlds than they ultimately had to portray. Changes were made, arcs were condensed, and cinematic liberties were brought to the screen. The result, Comencini states, is a film full of changes from the novel that still maintains the atmosphere that began this journey, one that really speaks to lifes chiaroscuro elements.

Another important element that brought the page to the screen was the setting. Comencini worked closely with the creative team to bring the storys psychological aspects to visual life. Comencini cites the house of the dead,- Sabinas childhood home, as an example of a setting that lends itself to a psychological universe. In Studio 5 of Cinecitt, we built the house where we shot the nightmares. It was a setting that looked completely unreal because the house takes on different forms according to the memories, the hallways disappear, the rooms change position, etc.

Production Designer Paola Comencini created a realistic geography. Besides shooting in the house of the dead as an interior setting, Paola’s team constructed parts of the house on scaffolding for a surreal effect. What we constructed in Studio 5 was a seemingly simple place, a middle class home that’s at first glance harmless but is ultimately a house of nightmares.

With so much intensity on set due to the subject matter, Comencini recalls the cast and crews strong camaraderie. From the beginning, we spent a lot of time together. It reminded me of what takes place in the theater, when a certain solidarity is established with a group of actors, director, and crew. Comencini notes that the intensive rehearsals helped to put everyone in the same mindset, creating a cohesive filmic world.

Sabina’s Journey

Sabina is at the heart of the film, Comencini says, but the other characters are by no means secondary. All of them are intimately tied to Sabinas suffering, yet are independent and have their own personal journey. It is Sabinas nightmare that serves as a catalyst for the reaction of the characters.

As part of her journey, Sabina heads to the United States to spend time with her brother Daniele (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his wife and two children. Once Sabina is ensconced in this seemingly comforting environment, Daniele reveals a secret that changes her forever. For Comencini, Danieles emotional revelation and Sabinas grasp of the truth provide two of the films most important scenes. Says Comencini, that scene [during the fireworks] required only two takes because Giovanna was so emotionally invested she got it right immediately.

Adds Mezzogiorno, The beginning of the shoot was really difficult because we left for the States right away and we had to immediately tackle the films nucleus, Danieles revelation, which was the most complex scene for me. I was worried, but it went well. I really placed my trust in Cristina because I respect her so much. Having shot the turning point of the film first in America, Comencini and her cast were able to head back to Europe and flesh out their characters from a precise vantage point. Comments Mezzogiorno, I had read Cristinas book prior to shooting and found it intense, powerful, and complex, but nothing prepared me for the experience of bringing this to the screen with such a wonderful director behind it.

For Lo Cascio, Danieles voyage is divided into two essential elements: one that is submerged and one that is evident. When we see Daniele for the first time he is repressed. Hes unable to have a relationship with his wife and he cannot even touch his children. Sabinas arrival forces Daniele to face his doubts over whether or not to tell her about their shared past.

Sabinas relationship with her caring boyfriend, Franco (Alessio Boni), further complicates her life. Although a loving, supportive presence for her, Franco becomes a source of resentment for Sabina when she first confronts her doubts and flees to America. Franco is a work in progress, says Boni, adding that working with Comencini and Mezzogiorno allowed him to get a grasp on what exactly his characters actions meant to Sabina in her emotional state.

For many of the actors, Comencinis novel played an important part in constructing their characters initial base. But for Stefania Rocca (Emilia), additional rehearsals were needed in order to fully comprehend the logistics of her characters blindness. Emilia is a character that tries to be independent any way she can, but who ultimately ends up falling in love with Maria (Angela Finocchiaro). The result is a touching and humorous foray into unexpected love that gives DONT TELL a balance to the personal tumult that dominates Sabinas journey.

Rocca recalls spending time with an association of blind people in Paris and working with them by going through the training that children do when they have gone blind. I would spend two or three hours a day with my eyes closed, Rocca notes, adding, I finally managed to do it for two whole days and gained a different perspective on life after that”on day, on light, on time, on schedules. After mastering the method, Rocca worked with a teacher to use the loom and acquire the natural dexterity that the blind possess. It really allowed me to get in touch with a world that was unknown to me, to tap into a condition in which willpower masks a deep inner rage.

For one of Roccas most intense scenes in the film, in which Emilia seduces Maria, Comencini used one long, continuous take to add a sense of tenderness to the film that contrasts nicely with the emotional weight of Sabinas plight. Comencini adds, it was such a warm and real scene for me to shoot.

Finocchiaro used Comencinis novel to get a grasp of what other people might think of Maria. She is a wounded, embittered woman whose husband left her for their daughters friend”the resentment she feels for her husband is palpable. It is no surprise that Maria finds solace in the arms of another. But the true test of personal introspection comes when Maria realizes that other person is Emilia. Finocchiaro concludes, the novel was fundamental to me”I used it to recompose and reconstruct Marias qualities.

A Note from Director Cristina Comencini

Don’t Tell was first a book and before a book, a short newspaper article of just a few lines. A brother and sister, now adults, were speaking of a very painful experience from their childhood and were trying to understand it, to get to the bottom of it, and to emerge from it. The tone of their conversation seemed quite interesting to me: to tell of pain as a learning experience in order to go forward in ones life. The book started from this and then it grew richer with other characters, other stories.

I think the film was embraced by the Italian public because the audience felt that knot of emotion tied up in the conversation between brother and sister.

I strongly believe that the primary political act, the first step towards a profound transformation in our behavior, is to look within ourselves, to recognize that we each have the power to hurt someone or to make that person happy. We know it if we really look, really see ” seeing being a central questions of this film ” all the good and all the bad we have within us; then, only then, can we choose to be complete human beings.


Daughter of the celebrated Italian filmmaker Luigi Comencini, Cristina Comencini is a multi-faceted talent: a novelist, a screenwriter and a director. Her film career began alongside her father, first writing with him and then for him. Her directing debut was 1988s ZOO, where several of her hallmarks are already apparent: her talent and sensitivity for working with actors and her collaboration with gifted crew members. Her adept use of the motion picture camera are confirmed by THE AMUSEMENTS OF PRIVATE LIFE (1990), an effective costume drama, and her follow-up, THE END IS KNOWN (1992), based on Geoffrey Hollyday Halls novel with which another of her trademarks ” the relationship between cinema and literature ” reveals itself a fundamental aspect of her art. This is further evidenced by GO WHERE YOUR HEART TAKES YOU (1995) based on Italian author Susanna Tamaros bestselling novel. The film successfully transposes on film the books themes and settings and displays the directors ability to recount and investigate family dynamics and relations; and not only from a womans point of view. With MARRIAGES (1988) and FREE THE FISH (2000), her study of families is mixed with a comic tone, a very successful combination due in no small part to the work of ever larger, more important casts. It is the excellent alchemy created between the director and her actors that has become a trademark of Comencinis work. Indeed, her next film, THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE (2002), is the natural extension of these characteristics. A hit with both audiences and critics, it won several prizes both in Italy ” the Nastro dArgento (Silver Ribbon) for Screenplay and Ensemble Cast ” and internationally ” the Montreal Film Festivals Grand Prix des Amriques and the Crteil International Film Festival. DONT TELL (2005), is the sum of the qualities that render Comencinis work so interesting and unique ” dense and involving thematics about men and women, family ties set against a background reflecting the darkness in each of us. Moving yet entertaining, its tonality moves between drama and comedy. DONT TELL is also an organic point of arrival for Comencinis evolving body of work, for it is her first film based on her own novel, already a success in its own right. As it happens, Comencini is a highly-regarded novelist. Her books ” TORN PAGES (1991), FAMILY PASSION (1994), THE TURKS OVERCOAT (1997), MATRIOSKA (2002) and DONT TELL (2004) ” are published in Italy by Feltrinelli, one of the countrys most prestigious publishers.