The Devoti Tutti Story
Each year in the Italian city of Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, nearly a million people gather in the world’s third-largest Catholic celebration to pay homage to the city’s patron: Saint Agatha. Devoti Tutti looks at this celebration and the rituals that are involved in the cult of the saint through the eyes of those raised there, who are devoted to her spirit.
What exactly is the story of Saint Agatha? According to the myth, a 14-year-old noble girl from Catania, named Agatha, rebuffed the advances of the Roman governor Quinziano. In some iterations of the myth, she is said to have been rather provocative and ironic, even making fun of her admirer. The Christian versions of the myth tell the story more chastely, explaining that Agatha renounced the governor because she had already devoted herself to Jesus. All stories, however, coincide when it comes to their account of the retaliation that Quinziano took to win his honor back. The infuriated man tried to first convince Agatha by promising her riches and sexual fulfillment, even sending her to a brothel to be sexually stimulated. His efforts were in vain; Agatha still said “No.” According to the Christian canon, Agatha’s “No” led Quinziano to imprison the young early Christian and repeatedly try to convince her to believe in him and the polytheistic Roman Gods. At this point, all canons agree that Agatha had to endure the cruelest torture while imprisoned. She was interrogated by the Roman officials three harrowing times. Still, she did not change her mind, and during her trial, she provoked the Roman officials further. When, for instance, they threatened to kill her by breast amputation, she said, “Go right ahead. I can nourish the world with my inner breast.” During the torture itself, Agatha said, “I feel joy in these pains."
When I went to Catania for the first time in 2012 while making The Good Breast, a documentary about four women going through the experience of breast cancer, mastectomy, and breast reconstruction, I wanted to better understand Saint Agatha’s strength and endurance. I asked myself: How was it so easy for her to give up her breasts? And how did she get stronger by losing her breasts? I found the answer through the people of Catania and the way they remember Saint Agatha. Witnessing their devotion was a unique experience, even for me, a relatively unreligious person. The love that these people expressed for their saint, the personal relationships they revealed, their commitment to celebrate her every year … it all made a huge impression on me and our film crew. I was so moved, I decided to make another film, just about Saint Agatha and her myth, as a follow-up to The Good Breast, which just premiered at the Bentonville Film Festival in May 2016.
I am calling the film Devoti Tutti (”we are all devoted”) because that is what the people from Catania yell when the bust of the saint and her relics are brought out from the Cathedral once a year during the February festival. Our footage was mainly shot during February 2013, as well as the following August, when we went back for a few days to get a closer look at some of the local characters we had started to develop, like the fishermen and the street children. Thanks to our great production managers Valentina Cancelli and Rebecca Messner, we garnered unprecedented access to the preparations and performance of the festival: behind the scenes of the Archdiocese of Catania; inside the Benedictine monastery where cloistered nuns venture outside just once a year to sing as the festival procession goes past; driving with the capovara, the festival master of ceremonies Claudio Batturi, and Monsignor Scionti, the Cathedral's head priest, as they brought Agatha’s relics from neighborhood to neighborhood.
When Victor Livingston started editing the film with me in 2015, we soon realized that what we had collected in Catania was a lot more than what we initially thought. We had actually unearthed a myth that has been alive for almost 2000 years! The people in my footage were saying with their own mouths words that I read in the oldest versions of the myth. For instance, a fisherman talks to us about Agatha unraveling her veil during the night so that she did not have to marry a suitor that her father had found for her - a story that has its origins in the Penelope myth. At this point, I decided to more deeply and thoroughly study the footage in Sicilian with many, many helpers from my production team, as well as Johns Hopkins University, where I direct the Center for Advanced Media Studies. The list of people familiar and deeply immersed with our footage spans two continents: the New York-based producer, production manager, and sound recorder Rebecca Messner; The LA-based producers Elizabeth Karr and Jon Reiss; the Paris-based Italian literature expert Guido Furci; the Johns Hopkins University-based Italian researchers Cecilia Benaglia and Francesco Brenna; as well as the Italian-American student researcher and translator Daniel Contaldo; not to mention many bilingual translators from Sicilian and Italian to English such as Laura Somenzi and Amelia Linsky; the amazing editors who have spent a fair and intense amount of time with the footage already and helped me see it in a new light: Emma Morris, Victor Livingston, and Alf Schmöller; as well as story advisor Peter Morgan and the U.S. myth expert Jack Zipes; finally, the Austrian feminist writer and director Tina Leisch and the Austrian anthropologist Heidi Müller-Riedlhuber. Every member of this incredible team has helped me understand the Agatha myth in a completely new and deeper way.
I finally understood that the myth is a unique story of a female attempt to escape patriarchal order, sexual violence, and assault. In some ways, it is a feminist story avant la lettre: a patriarchal order was expressed by the Roman governor Quinziano, or a different powerful man such as Agatha’s father who wants to marry her off so he can make some money. The fact that the young girl was strong and stubborn, and apparently also ironic enough to withstand these powerful men’s orders, fascinates me to no end. I think Agatha can be a role model for young women everywhere in the world, not just Catania, and not just within the world of Catholicism. To say “No” to the patriarchy in 251 A.D. was a big thing, and I think it deserves to be told in all detail and with utmost conviction.
Then, I realized that Agatha’s story has only been canonized by men, and only in versions that have a very strong male point of view, whether in the Church canon or in the recordings of the myth by myth collector Giuseppe Pitre. Take, for instance, the fact that Agatha takes pleasure in her pains during her torture. To me, this sound too close to a male fantasy of female subordination. So, it became clear to me that I needed to go one step further in Devoti Tutti. I needed to bring out Agatha’s “No” very strongly and clearly in this, my own interpretation of her myth. I want to retell Agatha’s story of a woman's independence and freedom to to say "no" — so that a new audience can fall in love with her too. Together, I want us to start a global "devotional cult" so that Agatha's story of resistance can fly out into the world through the power of documentary film!
Here is what we have to do in order to finish Devoti Tutti and bring out Agatha’s freedom:
First, we have to animate Agatha and bring out her real personality. To me, this was a no-brainer. The people of Catania have such a personal relationship with her; they talk about her being a “wonderful person,” a “beloved friend,” a “mother,” a “sister.” The Columbian animation artist Adriana Copete will bring Agatha to life with a unique character design that we are currently developing. Eviva!
Secondly, we need to return to Catania for a week of production to further develop certain characters who have already given the story a lot: Claudio Batturi, the former capovara, who will tell us about the internal power mechanisms that have been handling Agatha and her story for two-thousand years; his wife, Mariella, who is a female surgeon battling against many gender constraints in Sicily, and one of the few female followers of Agatha; the street children Cristina, Gabriele and Ivan, and their mother Angela, who had her first daughter, Cristina at age 14, the very same age Agatha was when she was killed.
Finally, I need to write the story of Agatha’s escape from the Cathedral, where her bust and relics are held throughout the year. For that, I have to talk more to the people of Catania, especially the priests, who know all the secret corners and passageways of the ancient churches in Catania (many of which are connected via catacombs). Everything else shall remain a secret until Victor Livingston and I finish the film in his editing room in Pasadena, CA, this winter.