Maria Ripoli has been a quiet but consistent presence in the film scene in Europe since the late 1990s, directing episodes of television, a documentary, and six feature films, two of which were produced with American or British casts.
Ripoli was born in Barcelona, Spain, but came to the U.S. to study film at AFI in Los Angeles. In 1993, she made a short film, Kill Me Later, which won first prize at Oberhausen Film Festival and a Panavision grant from the Houston Film Festival. In 1998, she directed her first feature, Lluvia en los Zapatos (Twice Upon a Yesterday in the U.S.) The cast included Lena Headey (now famous for Game of Thrones), Penelope Cruz, Elizabeth McGovern, and Mark Strong.
When asked in a 1999 interview why it took her so long to direct a feature, Ripoli responded, “I’ve done a lot of assistant director work in commercials and television, but the hardest thing to do is make a feature film. But I felt ready.”
The film won best screenplay at the Montreal Film Festival and Seattle Women’s Film Festival.
In 2001, she directed another cast of English-speaking actors in Tortilla Soup. It is based on the film Eat Drink Man Woman, which was written by Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang.
Hector Elizondo stars as the patriarch of the Naranjo family. A semi-retired chef, Martin (Elizondo), lives with his three adult daughters in their Los Angeles home. Martin has lost his sense of smell and taste, an effect of his wife’s death several years earlier, but that does not stop him from making elaborate multi-course meals for his daughters.
Although it seems odd in today’s society that adult daughters, two of whom work and can support themselves, would still live at home, but in Mexican culture, strong familial connections are common and multiple generations of a family often live together or live close to one another. In Tortilla Soup, the chasm between Mexican heritage and American culture is a gap that is explored individually by each of the daughters. (If anyone has ever spent any time in Los Angeles or has friends who parents were immigrants from another country, this is common and very realistic. The older generation usually wants to cling to their country’s traditions while the younger generation are much quicker to assimilate.) The daughters have all assimilated into American culture in some way, often in ways their father dislikes. For example, Martin tells them not to speak in Spanglish (Spanish and English) and prefers when his daughters speak in either one language or the other, but it is something he has no control over.
Leticia (Elizabeth Pena), the eldest daughter, is the most conservative, but that doesn’t make her the most traditional. In fact, she’s given up Catholicism and has become a born-again Christian. Middle daughter Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) possesses her father’s flair for cooking, but rather than recreating his traditional recipes, she likes blending in other flavors, creating what she calls Nuevo Latino. Youngest daughter Maribel (Tamara Mello) decides not to go straight to college and instead take time off from school to “find herself.”
While the story is a bit predictable, it’s worth it for the food porn (the meals were created for the screen by chefs from Los Angeles’ Border Grill.)
“I’m interested in the exchange and fusion of cultures: Spaniards in Europe or Bombay. I’m always keeping interculturality in mind. With Tortilla Soup, I took a risk and worked with English speaking actors because they have a knack for spontaneity that I wouldn’t find here [Spain],” Ripoli said.
After Tortilla Soup, Ripoli directed a documentary, Witness, for Canal. In 2003, she filmed her next feature, Utopia.
In 2013, she directed both Cromosoma Cinco, a docuseries, and Traces of Sandalwood, an indie feature about two separated sisters which takes place in both Spain and India.
Her next project is based on a novel by Laura Norton, Don’t Blame Karma for Being An Idiot. It unfolds in Madrid and Hong Kong. “Traveling to other cultures through cinema is an obsession of mine,” Ripoli said. “The world is enormous and we have to open up; we can learn from everything.”
Ripoli also said she was happy to see more women from Spain making films. “Now there is a boom of directors: Bollain, Coixet, Chus Gutierrez, Gracia Querejeta. It is curious that suddenly we have evolved from an industry of only men to an industry with women who are going strong.”