‘We were genocidal monkeys for much longer than we’ve been using knives and forks’: Sebastián Lelio on storytelling and self-destruction | World cinema

SSebastian Lelio has never knowingly made a movie about a man. The new Cassavetes (plus a bit of Malle and Bergman and Almodóvar) specialize in fierce women on the edge – not of their own sanity but society’s collective madness.

A middle-aged divorcee in Gloria (2013) and its 2018 English-language remake, Gloria Bell. A bereaved trans singer in 2017’s Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman. Orthodox lesbians in Hendon (Disobedience, 2018). A Yorkshire nurse battling Catholic fanatics in 19th century Ireland (The Wonder, his latest).

Why the identification? He too is assured. “I’m not a woman,” he says. “I’m not 59. I’m not a transgender person or Jewish or Irish. And I’m always struggling with a way to authorize myself to tell the stories I tell.”

Perhaps it is just an attempt at connection, he says. “You’re in a cell and you start to create a little tunnel with a spoon in order to talk to someone on the other side of the wall.”

Anna O'Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), Will Byrne (Tom Burke) and Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) in The Wonder.
Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), Will Byrne (Tom Burke) and Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) in The Wonder. Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

Lelio, 48, is mild, smiley and straightforward. He lives not in a cell studded with spoon-holes but an open-plan flat in Santiago: honeyed walls, Bauhaus prints, formidable juicer. He found a VHS the other day, he says, of his 1997 college film: four parallel female stories. “It’s always been about following an intuition, and what moves me.”

He likes taking a secondary character and making them the protagonist. In Gloria (inspired, Rachel Weisz tells me, by hearing his mother and friends chat about midlife dating), “the camera stays with her after the men go away. But this is a woman who deserves a film. Not just a film, but a multidimensional portrait.”

That’s also what makes A Fantastic Woman so striking. Its subject is treated with absolute dignity, each shot full of aesthetic sophistication, rather than what Lelio calls “the raw light of social realism”.

Plus, he says, female stories are inherently more dramatic. Gender automatically ups the ante. “More friction. Because of all the pressure put on them. What’s happening in Iran is devastating and infuriating, but it’s the extreme side of the spectrum of oppression that takes place everywhere.”

Which brings us to The Wonder. Adapted from the novel by Emma Donoghue, it’s the story of Lib (Florence Pugh), a widowed nurse summoned to rural Ireland in 1862. There, she is ordered to keep watch over a “fasting girl”: 11-year-old Anna ( Kila Lord Cassidy), who has apparently remained healthy without food for four months.

A divine sign? Anna’s parents and the local community – including Father Ciarán Hinds and Dr Toby Jones – are banking on it. A hoax? Lib and journalist Tom Burke assumes so. Until, perhaps, they don’t.

The Wonder is itself miraculous: a tough manifesto dressed as an ethereal thriller. “It was a great opportunity to explore the collision between belief systems,” Lelio says with a grin. Lib’s practical rationalist appears powerless in the face of fundamentalists who care little for actual flesh and blood. The beauty of science, says Lelio, is its constant correction. “It’s never about the final truth but searching for it and adapting to that. Not bending reality to fit what you believe in but changing yourself.”

In order to try to save the child, Lib must – briefly, at least – renounce realism and embrace the batty narrative Anna has been signed up to. Could we do the same, the film asks its audience. The Wonder is bookended by shots in the studio, exposing its artifice, reminding us of the mechanisms of storytelling.

“Belief is thought in which you insist and insist until it becomes a belief,” says Lelio. “Concepts you inherited and never thought that they were ultimately a thought in which someone insisted.

“The question for the viewer is: what are the ideas you believe in at the moment? Are those beliefs rigid or elastic? Do you have spiritual elasticity or are you a fanatic? Have you found the truth and now remain in your comfort zone waiting for the world to adapt to you?”

Lelio was raised Catholic, grew up under Pinochet’s dictatorship, renounced religion young. But secular liberals are just as prone to rabid zeal, he says. “Intellectual spirituality is everywhere. The velocity in which people connect on social media has accelerated everything. You blink and there are 3 million more flat-Earthers.”

What’s needed, he thinks, is a healthier approach to storytelling. He is optimistic about Chile’s new pragmatism and flexibility. A fresh constitution is being drafted, he says, which everyone accepts will last half a century, tops.

A gender-identity bill was spurred through parliament by the success of A Fantastic Woman – real-world change of a rapidity it is hard to imagine British film-makers managing. That film, like The Wonder, concerned a female body in dispute by a male-dominated society. Both heroines pay the price for trying to take control of their own stories. “Because the world is just horribly slower. Because everything is a narrative war.”

Stories are essential, he says. “The self is a story, money is a story, democracy is a story, human rights are a story. They are not concrete things. They are collective intersubjective co-creations. If we survive, it’s because we will have the capacity to co-create stories that are fascinating, intelligent, and politically efficient enough to save us from ourselves.”

In The Wonder, subscribing to a duff fiction could be fatal. For us, too. “This terminal feeling of: this might blow up in three, two, one … defines how it feels to be alive today. Because we are at the edge of self-destruction.”

Do we have any luck? He stretches out his hands. Some! But small. “We might be just another technical civilization that didn’t survive their atomic adolescence. And I don’t think we should make a huge drama about it.”

Lelio on the set of The Wonder with Florence Pugh.
Lelio on the set of The Wonder with Florence Pugh. Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

Doing so just highlights our daft self-absorption. “This whole illuministic idea of ​​us being in control is falling apart. Do we have a destiny in the universe as humanism promised? I think that’s a provincial mindset. I’m not saying we’re not important, but I don’t think we’re the chosen ones. That’s adolescent thinking.”

We can be forgiven, he says. Logic is often lost on humans because of how we’re built. Irrationality is intrinsic; he talks cheerfully of dark information in our DNA.

“We were genocidal monkeys for much longer than we have been eating with knives and forks. Hunger, violence and sex made us survive as animals. The neocortex is a very recent invention of nature. Refined thinking and tenderness and what they call love are very recent things on our planet.”

He smiles again. Lelio’s work is rewarding in part because of its backbone, but also its humor and compassion. Transcribed, the director can sound Old Testament (at one point he gives a shoutout to the Book of Job). Over video chat – and, it seems, on set – he is much more palatable.

Ask Lelio’s stars about him and not only are they unusually eager to speak, they unite in describing him as “an ally”: “soft and sweet”. “He’s always on your team and you on his,” says Gloria’s Paulina García. “He makes you part of the investigation he’s undertaking.”

Daniela Vega continues the quasi-detective metaphor. “He’s a sort of emotional archeologist,” she says. Always keen to uncover “the very best of women”.

Can curiosity and goodwill account for some of his special skills? Can his gift really be credited – in part at least – to simply being, according to Weisz, “observant and interested in people in all their variety”?

Perhaps. “When you know someone very well or love someone,” he says, “you see them in a way that maybe no one else can. The way the hair moves when they laugh. Or perhaps you hate the way they stir their coffee. And that detail and intimacy is what I’ve been trying to do with the camera.”

The problem with cinema, he says, is that money makes it conservative. “It’s a bastard art form. It’s a battlefield. It’s always dirty. You’re dealing with the worst aspects of reality and the film exists somewhere between what is dream and what is possible.

“But I love that friction! It’s like a holy war. I’m not a purist. I love the messiness of film-making. The camera can only document. It does not do fiction. You just photograph what’s real. And you try and elevate that lumpy material to the level where it seems made of air.”

The Wonder has a gala screening at the London film festival on 7 October. It opens in UK cinemas on 2 November and on Netflix on 16 November.

‘A wizard of women’s emotions’: Lelio’s stars on the director

Julianne Moore, star of Gloria Bell (2018)

Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell.
‘With Sebastian you don’t feel gendered’ … Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell. Photograph: Filmnation Entertainment/Allstar

I really like people who don’t feel very defined by their gender. Who are fluid enough to understand that these things are a construct. That’s kind of where Sebastian is. And when you work with him, oddly, you don’t feel gendered. It’s kind of revolutionary. He’s enmeshed with his main characters and puts himself inside that experience as a human being.

When people speak of women’s stories, it’s often reductive. They mean domestic, or romantic, or something that’s not mainstream. It’s a way of otherising. And that’s what Sebastian doesn’t do.

Florence Pugh, star of The Wonder (2022)

Florence Pugh in The Wonder.
‘Sebastián gives voices to those who aren’t usually in the spotlight’ … Florence Pugh in The Wonder. Photograph: Christopher Barr/NETFLIX

Sebastián’s ability to keep a woman in focus with conviction and certainty through an entire story is what makes his eye unique. He has sympathy even in the darkest of places for every role, giving voices to those who aren’t usually in the spotlight.

I totally agree that he doesn’t see gender; that’s part of what makes his characters equal. A level playing field for both men and women, allowing you to see a story rather than gender norms.

Rachel Weisz, star of Disobedience (2018)

Weisz with Rachel McAdams in Disobedience.
‘Sebastián has a deep empathy for all human beings’ … Rachel Weisz (on left) with Rachel McAdams in Disobedience. Photograph: Braven Films/Allstar

Sebastián is a humanist, and has a deep empathy for all human beings. I loved working with him, and as a human man he is kind, tender, irreverent, punk rock, philosophical and determined. I would say he is an ally of humanity, which is a beautiful and all-too-rare thing.

Paulina Garcia, star of Gloria (2013)

Paulina Garcia in Gloria.
‘Sebastián was very solid and tender’ … Paulina García in Gloria. Photograph: Roadside Attractions/Sportsphoto/Allstar

The day before we were supposed to finish shooting, my father died. Sebastián came to my hotel at 4.30am and drove me the hour-and-a-half home to Santiago. He stayed with me. He was very solid and tender. I feel very close to him.

Whenever I start a new project I always try to remember my experience with Sebastián, because he took me to such a confident place.

Daniela Vega, star of A Fantastic Woman (2017)

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman.
‘Sebastián looks for perfection in our imperfections’ … Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Sebastián questions all the time what it means to be a woman. It’s not just about a body; it’s about feelings. I think he’s like a wizard of women’s emotions. But he’s also someone who deals in reality, not mermaids or fairytales.

He looks for perfection in our imperfections. He’s beautiful because he can see more colors. New colours, new emotions, new skins, new wrinkles.