A tale of Italian cities – Taranto rehabilitated

Each year when I attend the Italian Film Festival in Melbourne I feel like I get a glimpse into the heart and soul of Italy through the films that have been made, and most loved, by Italians that year.  Last year I was struck by the number of films set in or around Taranto, where my husband is from, and which during the 17 years I lived in Rome, no one ever seemed to have visited or wanted to.

I had been visiting Taranto regularly over the years, spending long periods at Christmas, Easter and the summer months.  It always seemed strange to me that a place that was so much cheaper than the rest of Italy, with some of its best beaches and spectacular food, was not over run with Italians and other tourists. To me it was a place of unique beauty, full of love and laughter from my in-laws, and people that stared at me unabashedly like I was an alien, but who were never the less incredibly welcoming and friendly.

I got engaged in 2002 and I was living in Rome at that time.  When I excitedly shared the news with my local Roman café/bar owners and shop keepers that I was to be married, there was a look I didn’t recognise that came over all of their faces, and a distancing.  Their congratulations were formal and stilted, quite different from the jokey comradery we had built up over the years.  The change seemed to come because I said my fiancée was from Taranto, not because I said I was to be married. I recounted reactions I was getting to the new I was marrying a man from Taranto to my fiancee.  To my surprise he wasn’t surprised.

“Taranto doesn’t have a great reputation in the rest of Italy”

I felt like my parents had told me I was adopted, that the view I had of the world was wrong, and that everyone was in on the conspiracy.  I listened to the descriptions given by my fiancee  as examples of what others in Italy thought of Taranto – lazy Southerners, violent knife wielding thieves, impoverished communist strongholds, aggressive and illiterate fisher-folk, Mafia corruption, and backward saint worshipping enclaves.

So it was with much pride and some amazement that I watched ‘Daddy’s Girl’, ‘Ever been to the moon?’ and ‘Pomodoro’, three films all set in or near Taranto in the 2016 Film Festival.  Each of these films juxtaposed the North of Italy with the South.  Only this time the stories had changed.  Taranto is portrayed as a bastion of humanitarian principles in a world gone mad with excess and ego, a stronghold of human kindness in a world obsessed with image and power, a place that has not lost its core human values of connection with the land and the life sustaining food it produces, and as having deep wisdom about the true needs of the human soul.

In these films it feels like Italy is telling a story about herself; portraying herself as the troubled teenager that went off to find her fortune in the big city and got sick from too much of a good time, returning to her roots to find what she has been searching for, what truly sustains her, was always there.  The common theme in these films is that modernity, luxury, wealth, fame are not always the pots of gold they are made out to be, there are disadvantages to them just as there are to primitiveness, poverty, sobriety and ignorance.  It seemed that through these films Italians were expressing their lessons learnt and revaluing some things about themselves that perhaps previously only outsiders could see.   I am looking forward to the 2017 round of films and this years’ stories that Italians tell about themselves.

The legendary Giulia (Noi e la Giulia)

Palace presents the Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2015

How can a movie that highlights the brokeness of Italy and its people, be so uplifting?  By acknowledging everything that is present, and focussing on what is good.  So Italian.

Every aspect and characteristic of Italian society is presented in this film.  How they work together or not is cleverly woven into the interactions between these characters.

  • Winner
    • Best Actor in a Supporting Role – David di Donatello Awards 2015
    • Best Comedy – Italian Golden Globes 2015
    • People’s Choice Award – ICFF Italian Contemporary Film Festival Canada 2015

THE MAFIA

Represented in three generations, in clothes and language that appear clichéd, they still have enough believable (and actual) power to terrify a group of educated and grown men who know that in spite of their legal rights, the law, and natural justice; that being assassinated for daring to not pay a fee to the local mafia, is a sure thing in many parts of Italy.  But this is the first time I have seen an Italian film about the mafia where ‘the people’ win.

Films depicting the mafia have slowly changed over the decades.  From semi-glorifying the mafia, then depicting it as evil but always winning (One hundred steps, 2000, Gomorrah, 2008), to challenging that this should be the case (The mafia only kills in the summer, 2015).  The legendary Giulia goes even further in a way that I am hoping represents a  change in the power dynamic.

The Mafia Kills Only In Summer            

In this movie the characters not only dismiss the Mafia’s age-old reasoning (the state provides no help for this region and only the ‘families’ provide support and economic infrastructure so you should pay them fees like you pay taxes to the state), but they actively fight back and then ‘remove’ them.   Doing to them what has been inflicted by them, for centuries.  In doing so they also ‘rescue’ one of them from the role he has been forced to play.

The mafia rises again though, showing how hard it is to cut off the head of this Hydra, and at the end of the movie you are not sure who is the victor.

The individuals that make up the Mafia show that, like other roles in Italy, the one you get is often determined by the geographical location of where you are born and what kind of family you are born into.  Although there appears little room for choice and this has led individuals down the paths we are shown, the central characters show that choice is possible, although painful and requiring great courage, and that happiness can be the end result.

SOCIALISTS

Many people don’t know about the deep connection many Italians have with Communism and that it is still a significant force in Italian society and approaches to living.  It explains many things about how Italy works.  There is a deeply held reverence and respect for work, whatever that work is.  There is more importance on having work than what type of work it is, as all work is considered valuable and all workers deserving of respect.  There is a strong sense of everyone having their say and acting only when there is consensus, and when there is, throwing your lot in behind the majority for the sake of getting things done, rather than standing apart and sabotaging (many nonItalian politicians could learn from this).

The strong ‘people power’ sentiment is represented by a character who lives his communist values by keeping everyone together and ensuring that everyone is treated equally in the face of extreme fear and lack of resources.  He is the one that fights for their rights against the parasitical mafia who want to send them broke as a new business, and whose practical experience and ‘hands on’ approach to life ensures that the right foundations are laid for all to enjoy .e.g. he is the only one who knows how to fix a toilet using only his bare hands, some rubber gloves and a tea towel……….

REFUGEES

Italy is heaving with refugees from Africa and elsewhere.  Literally millions land on its shores every year and many of them eek out existences where no one else would bother, and in the dry, deserted lands of the interior and south of Italy.  In this film, a tribal Prince from Ghana who led his nation into warfare is treated with fear and derision by a broke celebrity who wears an ‘Italy for Italians‘ T-shirt and thinks that Ghana is in Nigeria.  The refugee helps them out in a crisis, rescues them from themselves, and protects them when they are in danger.  Essentially performing the role that Italy has performed for them.

  

 

 

 

 

CELEBRITY SEEKERS

The cult of the celebrity, superficial relationships and fake connections are all exemplified in one of the characters who depicts Italy‘s fascination and long-held reverence for television and all who appear on it.  The fantasy world of television where looks and money mean substance has long been seen as a major foundation of Berlusconi’s success in political campaigning.  It comes unravelled as we see the truth of the exploitation  of others that is required for this image to be maintained, how it can’t actually produce or contribute to anything, and how it has to be ‘saved’ by the older generation of practical socialists who have the know how and the courage to back up their goals.  The story of Italian politics over the past two decades.

QUIET, DESPERATE CONFORMER

“When you hate your job, you begin to hate everything about the world and your life is about escaping. In your 20’s it is to run a bar by the sea, in your 40’s it is almost always a country B & B”.  Such is the powerful line from one of the central characters as he is lamenting the fact he has never chosen to do anything he really wants to do in his life.  The failure of the state, the stranglehold of the mafia, and staleness of the socialist approach to life have all amounted to work being difficult to get in Italy with unemployment rates around 50% in many regions of Italy and nationally never under 10%.

Many people just quietly buckle under, are grateful for anything, and accept demeaning treatment to keep their jobs while slowly feeling like their souls are dying.  They accept a high level of dissonance between their own personal values and what must be accepted in order to keep their livelihoods going.  There is  a generation in Italy that got so used to never being able to achieve anything, and seeing that merit was not a reason to receive, that they gave up or left.  This character represents them.

The Mafia Kills Only In Summer

POLICE/THE STATE

The Mafia characters continually refer to the Police as not being relevant.  To those of us who come from nation states that function, it is hard to understand how this can be possible.  Is Italy so advanced that everyone polices themselves?  Does everyone just obey the law naturally as exemplary good citizens?

Partly the answer is ‘yes’ because it becomes apparent when the Police behave little better than the Mafia that it is not due to them there is law and order.  The ‘fees’ for protection that they request are just as high as those asked by the Mafia, and their behaviour just as demeaning and inappropriate.  The difference is that there are more of them and they are sanctioned by the state in a much more obvious way than the Mafia are.

For many the actions of the Police in this movie will be hard to take seriously and have little impact.  Surely this is an exaggeration?  It is a movie after all.  For real life examples of Italian Police behaviour, see the movie ‘Diaz – Don’t clean up this blood’, 2012.

LOOSERS/FAILURES

I love the fact that they celebrate failures in this movie.  A sign of a healthy culture is one that celebrates failures and successes as being part of the same cycle.  Many cultures (particularly those that focus on the celebrity and superficial aspects of life), ignore or denigrate failure.  It takes an exceptionally strong one to celebrate it.

I find it a common characteristic in the Italian culture – to accept all that is there about life – mental illness, financial ruin, poverty, childlessness, vulnerability, weakness, old age, death, illness, loss, loneliness, and not shun it or hide away from it, but to integrate it into daily life, as well as not using it to define who a person is, or always will be.

The admissions of the four characters of their failures was poignant and confronting given that it had mostly resulted from their own choices rather than circumstances.  Instead of making them want to crawl under a rock and admit defeat they used it to go for their heart’s desires, feeling like they had nothing to lose.

HOPE AND NEW APPROACHES

The Madonna is still a powerful icon in Italian society  and the pregnant, single woman in this movie exhibits enormous power in bringing the gang of characters together, nurturing them, and inspiring them to achieve their dream of opening a country B & B.  She is beautiful, feminine, bedecked in flowers and colorful robes and has her protruding (new life, new start) belly constantly on show.

And there are others too.  Amidst the tired but still proliferating Mafia there are other groups represented in this movie that bring international influences, connections with the wider world, and a post industrialised version of Italy – Tibetan monks, Brazilian capoeira dancers, Yoga practitioners, bikies, and young (ish) social media savvy travellers.

Even though most of the worst and most unpalatable aspects of Italy are plainly in view for all to see in this movie it still presents as incredibly inspirational and optimistic.  It is  because of the steady approach to adversity the characters display, the fact that they allow different and more positive influences into their lives, the fact that they never lose heart or fall into despair, and the fact they focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t.  It is the recipe of modern-day Italy.

http://www.italianfilmfestival.com.au/films/the-legendary-giulia

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