Given that Madonna has always been a genius of cool by association, it's no surprise that "Filth and Wisdom" flaunts its aesthetic influences. "I didn't think that I made a movie for the masses of America," she said. "It has more of a European sensibility."
At Berlin, she was mocked by some critics for name-dropping Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini in her press kit (it didn't help that both names were misspelled), but the Godard comparison isn't wildly off base, since "Filth," with its jumpy energy and voice-over digressions, samples freely from the French New Wave playbook.
When Madonna talks about movies and cinephilia, she sounds like your typical earnest neophyte director. "I don't have a memory of going to movies," she said. "My father frowned upon it and thought it was a decadent indulgence." But as a dance student at the University of Michigan, she discovered a local art house, and along with it, the French New Wave and the golden age of Italian cinema, from the neo-realism of Rossellini and Visconti to the more in-your-face poetics of Fellini and Pasolini. She once wrote to Fellini -- "a begging letter and a fan letter," asking him to direct the video for her 1993 single "Rain." (He politely declined; she framed his response.)
The low-budget grubbiness of "Filth and Wisdom" is partly a matter of style, but it was also about minimizing expectations (overall, reviews for the film have been lukewarm at best). "I very deliberately kept it small and inexpensive," she said. After the shoot she set up an editing suite in the basement of her London home. "My editors never got away from me," she said, laughing. "I liked to do sneak attacks."
In the past year Madonna has also written and produced a documentary (directed by Nathan Rissman, her former gardener) about the effect of AIDS on children in Malawi, called "I Am Because We Are." Spurred by her experiences visiting the country and adopting her now-3-year-old son, David, the film reflects her belief that documentaries should take a stand rather than simply record reality.
"I got into an argument with someone at the Sundance festival who said I have to make a choice between being an activist and a filmmaker," she said. "That's rubbish. I've been an activist and an artist all my life."
In this election season, those activist flourishes have included banning Sarah Palin from her tour (it's shtick she's worked into her act) and projecting a montage at her shows juxtaposing Barack Obama and Gandhi and John McCain and Hitler. "I'm allowed to have an opinion," she said. "If Pasolini did it, I can too."
Not only is Madonna a fan of Pasolini, the Italian provocateur with a gift for mingling the sacred and the profane, "Salo," his anti-fascist screed adapted from the Marquis de Sade novel (complete with grueling scenes of humiliation and torture), was once a personal litmus test. "I used to sit people down and say, 'Watch this movie and if you don't like it we can't be friends,' " she said. She used to do the same with a Frida Kahlo painting, "My Birth," a bloody depiction of the artist's emergence into the world.
But that was a younger, more judgmental Madonna. "I'm a little more compassionate and forgiving now," she said.
She might even be looking to forgive and forget her own missteps. Not least for its creator, "Filth and Wisdom" is a fresh start in a less-than-distinguished movie career. "Trying to get into films through acting was a mistake," she said. "Every time I would act in a movie I would get in these horrible arguments with directors about my vision. I would have to surrender to the idea that the director was the one with the vision. And that doesn't fit with my personality."