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Articles by: Letizia Airos soria

  • Art & Culture

    'Pane Amaro': The Bitter World of Italian Americans

    The Auditorium of the Graduate Center at CUNY was overflowing with people few days ago for the screening of Gianfranco Norelli's “Pane Amaro.”  A production of RAI (the Italian public television), the film captures the attention and gazes of at least three generations of Italian Americans present at the screening. 

    With great documentary precision, the film conjures up salient and often dramatic moments of the Italian/American saga from 1880 until the end of the Second World War. A vast and intense arch of history is carefully organized into a two hour projection presenting rare historical photographs and film segments commented on by experts.

    Thanks to his expertise as a reporter, Norelli embarks on a path of ‘dry’ narration, not allowing himself to surrender to sentimentalism and futile rhetoric. He shoots straight with images, film segments and carefully selected and organized testimonials.  The result is a contribution dense with moments of reflection as well as information. One may even sense the eagerness of the director to gather as many elements as possible, fully aware of the fact that he is recounting a little known history, which is especially true for the Italian viewing audience.

    The Italian/American odyssey, in fact, is still relatively unexplored in Italy – and a vast cultural gap has been created in the past decades between Italians and Italian Americans. True, the same rift is oftentimes found here in the States, due to the difficulty today’s Italian sAmericans encounter when looking back upon their very roots. 
     

    But during the screening on this side of the pond, the first questions that came to my mind regarded the Italians in Italy. How many Italians are aware that, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the First World War, the victims of the largest mass lynching in United States history were in fact Italians? How many know that in the late 18th century, Italian immigrants ‘replaced’ (for lack of a better word) the emancipated black slaves on the southern plantations and were considered to be a sort of half-breed of people – neither white nor black? Are Italians conscious of the anti-Italian racism that had become widespread amongst the American newspaper columnists during the mass migration period? That inhuman and uncontrollable horde… And how many know about the plight of the Italian immigrant workers, their strikes and struggles, the rise of anarchism, and the complex undertakings of trade-unions amongst Italian men and, significantly, women? Furthermore, what is known about the Italians who were interned during the Second World War, declared by the U.S. government to be enemy aliens?      

    These are important questions in themselves, but they become even more relevant when one thinks of today’s new waves of immigration – both to America and to Italy. It’s crucial to be aware of the migratory experience that affected so many Italian families during the past century, and this story needs to be told today as new migratory influxes intertwine themselves with the country of immigration, and now Italy too has become a crucial destination for immigrants.      

    In the film scholars Nunzio Pernicone, Fred Gardaphè, Gerald Meyer, Mary Ann Trasciatti, and Peter Vellon comment on a century and a half of history, following a string of historical episodes. The lynchings, the Triangle Fire tragedy in which 150 workers lost their lives, the assassinations attempts carried out by the anarchists, the Sacco and Vanzetti saga, the Second World War internment camps, the poor living conditions, religion, language, and the quest to Americanize are only but a few of the many topics that are addressed in the documentary. Fiorello La Guardia, Vito Marcantonio, Carlo Tresca, Generoso Pope, and Leonard Covello are among the many names mentioned.

    But “Pane Amaro” goes beyond the historic period it recounts. It’s an invitation to understanding for Italians, Italian Americans, and Americans. There was great attention from the audience at the screening and in certain moments there was even a sense of commotion. The high price Italians had to pay to integrate was clearly evident in comments and reflections expressed during the open discussion that developed after the film. And the fact that most of the Italian Americans present only spoke English did have a symbolic meaning. As Norelli recounts in his film, first came the fear to speak their grandparent’s dialects, then the “obligation/order” to speak only American so as not to be recognized as ‘enemies,’ then complete loss of contact with Italy. The renewed interest and the search for their family’s roots is a recent phenomenon for Italian Americans. 
    Many in the audience took the microphones in their hands to speak and introduced themselves by first and last name, second generation. First and last name, third generation… Today they rediscover the potential of their language looking at the Italian culture with great curiosity.

    In 1978 writer Pietro di Donato in his Christ in Concrete, predicted a ‘renaissance’ for Italian-American writers. “Our time is now. I see it because we are no longer figli di muratori (children of construction workers); you go to school  and you are children with brains.” His words, together with Gianfranco Norelli’s film, help us reflect thirthy years later.

    Further readings:

    Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno (ed), Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America, Routledge, 2003.

    Thomas A. Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945, Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Jerre Mangione and Ben Morrale, La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience, Harper Collins, 1992.

     (Translated by Robert Cavanna)

  • Art & Culture

    Mary Reveals Her Secrets


    The filmmaker does not use stealthy methods to portray his grandmother. He enters her life with a bang and with the affectionate irreverence that only an unruly grandson can pull off. This dynamic is ultimately at the heart of their happy relationship, one that often exists and spans dissimilar but intimate generations.

     

    It is the extremely personal history of his family which fascinates the young filmmaker, and one that asks various questions about our relationship to the past and about the women in the context of an Italian/American family. Halpern has the ability to bring to the screen the story of a strong and independent woman, who in her own way is the family’s hinge and point of reference; she deviates from many female stereotypes but at the same time she is wholly integrated in telling parts of the past that no longer exist.

    Halpern documents Mary’s story with film, photographs, and parts of a large family archive that paint important moments in the lives of immigrants to the USA. It is the story of many families: from Stromboli to New York to Brooklyn with joy, pain, dreams, and illusions.



    Why did the filmmaker choose to make this film?

    “I began the journey into my grandmother’s life at 18, when I saw family photos and home movies my father took,” recalls the filmmaker. “Then during a trip to Stromboli, the island where we are from, a fortuneteller predicted that Mary would die at 96 years of age…” So the documentary begins with a superstition, and grandson and grandmother begin an adventure.  They are incredulous as they film one scene after another. Magically a film of great artistic value and human interest develops, and Mary’s life proceeds from the accomplishment of the feature film into ninety-six years.



    The film withdraws into the routine of daily life, showing us those details that grandchildren often spy from the threshold of a door, picking up on the most irreverent elements of the habits of the old people they love. We see Mary in the bathroom and in the kitchen while she puts in her dentures, proud that she still has some of her own teeth. We pick up on her vanity, so sweet that it makes us smile.  We see all of her determination, her youthful wisdom, and her powerful personality.

    We see gestures from everyday life, and many who have lived with the elderly will recognize them. Here these gestures take on a symbolic value thanks to the irony of the protagonist. They become a lesson. We notice Mary’s energy and her big secret: to know how to downplay drama, beginning with herself.


    The family revolves around her and her decades of family history. The filmmaker delves into the most controversial aspects of his family’s immigrant history through a female member’s point of view. And the secrets drip out slowly by force of their irreverent truth. The secrets revealed tell of extramarital affairs, illicit loves, conflicts, quarrels, mourning. They are heard or seen through the voices of other family members and friends and they are seen in Mary’s intense eyes, half-closed with age. The portrait of Mary is highly individual. She is certainly not a traditional mother (for example, her daughter reveals a youthful love affair that Mary had with the writer Jack Kerouac), nor a classic wife, and she had a very difficult relationship with her sister (her refusal to meet her until the end is symbolic). There are different problems that are revealed in the film, sad events that are experienced in all families, internal battles that are difficult to discuss.


    But Mary has incredible energy to experience it all, thanks always to her straightforward humor. Despite all of her grandson’s nosey questions, she is never annoyed; she even declares: why can’t I have an orgasm at my age!  

    Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavalieri lived a vibrant life. After the death of her first husband, she married an old boyfriend who she had not seen in forty years. She listens to old vinyl records as she did when she dreamed of becoming a singer. There are many moments that remain after having seen the film. Mary likes to make fun of herself and to laugh. She carries with her wisdom that comes from experience and the ability to look at reality through the detached eyes of someone who knows how to live.

     

    ““She was the repository of more than one hundred years of family secrets,” recounts the filmmaker-grandson in a short interview with Edvige Giunta (New Jersey City University) at the end of the screening. “I was fascinated by her archive when I was 18 years old, by her things, her photos, her letters that were part of her intimate story but also a public one as a daughter and the second of thirteen children in a Sicilian family who immigrated to America.”

    “For me it was important to view her in her totality; there are intimate parts in the film but my responsibility as a filmmaker was to tell the truth in the best way possible,” says Alex Halperm as he described his approach at the same time as necessarily invasive in order to understand his family’s secrets.

    “I knew that she was the subject of the film: matriarch, grandmother, mother, wife, lover, and daughter.” And we have seen her courageous candor, her irreverence, and her perhaps unconscious conflict with traditional roles frequently assigned to first-generation Italian/American women.

    While Giunta responds, we gather in the filmmaker’s eyes a placid sadness. His grandmother Mary passed away only three weeks before at the age of 108. “It is the first time that I have seen the film since her death,” he confesses, overcome with emotion.

    He also admits: “In telling her story, I realized that our heroes are ordinary people.” He has told the story of his own special grandmother, but she is like other women in that her story had not been previously told. The documentary is significant for this reason in addition to being artistically very interesting.

    His grandmother lived a full life and Halpern wisely knew to catch it on film, disarming the passage of time. He made Mary well-known in her no-nonsense approach to reality, scene after scene. Using other voices, he was successful in paying tribute to her and making us reflect on the commonplace.

    “Nana” Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavaliere   (1899 – 2008)

    ----

    Nine Good Teeth by Alex Halpern was presented last Wednesday at the Graduate School of Journalism of the  City University of New York (CUNY) as part of the film and video series “Documented Italians” sponsored by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of Queens College, CUNY.

    (Translated by Giulia Prestia)

     

  • Art & Culture

    "Nine Good Teeth". L'energia di Mary


    Non sono passi felpati quelli che utilizza il regista Alex Halpern nel raccontare sua nonna.  Entra nella vita della centenaria italo/americana Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavalieri quasi con clamore. Con quell’affettuosa irriverenza che solo un nipote “discolo” può permettersi e che è la ragione intima del rapporto felice che spesso intercorre tra due generazioni, così lontane e al tempo stesso cosi vicine.

     

    E il percorso che compie il giovane regista ha un’intensità che travalica la storia personale della sua famiglia, pone diversi interrogativi sul rapporto con le nostre radici e sulla figura femminile nel contesto italo/americano e non. Halpern ha l’abilità di portare sullo schermo la storia di una donna forte, indipendente, a modo suo cardine di una  famiglia, viva presenza e punto di riferimento, così lontana da alcuni stereotipi femminili ma al tempo stesso così integra nel tramandare elementi di un passato che non c’è più.



    Ed il suo racconto della storia di Mary viene documentato da filmati, fotografie, tratti da un prodigioso archivio di famiglia, che ritraggono momenti importanti di emigrati negli Usa e non solo. Di una famiglia come tante. Da Stromboli a New York, a Brooklyn. Con gioie, dolori, sogni, illusioni.



    Ma perchè il regista ha deciso di realizzare un film?

    “Ho inziato il viaggio nella vita di mia nonna a 18 anni, quando ho visto le foto di famiglia, i filmati realizzati da mio padre,” racconta il regista “poi nel corso di un viaggio a Stromboli, isola d’origine, a Mary viene predetto da una zingara che sarebbe morta novantasei anni…”.  Nasce così, sul filo di una superstizione, un documentario.  Nipote e  nonna cominciano un’avventura. Increduli a loro volta realizzano scena su scena.  Magicamente cresce un film di grande valore umano e artistico e la vita della signora Mary va ben al di là della realizzazione del lungometraggio e dei novantasei anni.


    La ritrae nella routine di tutti i giorni, in quei particolari che spesso i nipoti spiano dalla soglia di una porta, cogliendo gli elementi più irriverenti delle abitudini dei vecchi che amano.  Vediamo Maria nel bagno, in cucina, mentre si mette la sua dentiera, orgogliosa di avere ancora dei denti. Cogliamo la sua vanità, così dolce da far sorridere. La vediamo con tutta la sua grinta, la sua sua saggezza bambina, la sua intensa personalità.


    Spiamo gesti che sono nella vita di tutti i giorni e che molti, che vivono affianco a delle persone anziane, conoscono. Questi gesti qui assumono un valore emblematico grazie all’autoironia della protagonista. Diventano un insegnamento. Ci accorgiamo della grande energia e del grande segreto di Maria: saper sdrammatizzare partendo proprio da se stessa.



    Intorno a lei ruota la sua famiglia che percorre decenni di storia. Il regista affronta anche gli aspetti più controversi del suo heritage come membro femminile di un nucleo di emigranti. Ed i segreti vengono snocciolati piano piano, con la forza della loro irriverente verità.  Si raccontano relazioni exraconiugali, amori 'Illeciti", conflitti familiari, litigi, lutti. Si sentono o intravedono nelle voci di altri membri della sua famiglia e amici, si colgono negli occhi intensi, ma semichiusi dagli anni, della vecchia Mary. Il ritratto che ne esce di Mary è molto particolare. Non è certo una madre tradizionale  (per esempio quando la figlia le rivela una storia d’amore giovanile avuta con lo scrittore Jack Kerouac) , nè una moglie classica, con sua sorella ha una relazione molto difficile  (il rifiuto di incontrarla fino alla fine è emblematico). Sono diversi i problemi che escono fuori nel film, vicende e tristezze che si vivono spesso nelle famiglie, scontri interni difficili da rivelare e da ammettere.




    Ma Mary ha un’energia che attraversa tutto, grazie sempre alla sua schietta ironia. Per nulla indispettita dalle domande intriganti del nipote rivela anche: perchè no si può provare un orgasmo anche alla mia età!                



    Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavalieri ha vissuto una vita intensa. Dopo la morte del primo marito si risposa con un antico spasimante che non vedeva da quaranta anni e che era poco gradito al marito. Ascolta vecchi dischi di vinile e ricorda come sognava di diventare cantante. Sono diversi i momenti che rimangono impressi dopo aver visto il film. A Mary piace prendersi in giro, ridere. Porta con se quella saggezza fatta di esperienza, quel guardare la realtà attraverso gli occhi distaccati di chi sa vivere.




    “Per me era depositaria di più di cento anni di segreti familiari” racconta il nipote-regista in una breve intervista con Edwige Giunta (New Jersey City Univesity) alla fine della proiezione. Era rimasto affascinato quando aveva 18 anni dal suo archivio, dai suoi oggetti, dalle foto, dalle lettere che facevano parte della storia intima ma anche pubblica di una donna che era seconda di tredici figli di una famiglia siciliana immigrata in America.



     

    “Per me era importante vederla nella sua totalità, ci sono parti intime nel film, ma la responsabilità come regista era dire la verità nel miglior modo possibile” dice Alex Halpern, mentre descrive il suo percorso delicato, ma al tempo stesso necessariamente invadente, per carpire i segreti della sua famiglia.

    “Sapevo che lei era un soggetto per un film: matriarca, nonna, madre, moglie, amante e figlia, nonna.” E noi abbiamo visto il suo candore ed il coraggio, la sua irriverenza, il suo forse inconscio conflitto con i tradizionali ruoli spesso assegnati alle donne di prima generazone italo/americana.

    Mentre risponde alla Giunta cogliamo negli occhi del regista il velo di una tristezza serena. Sua nonna Mary è venuta a mancare solo tre settimane fa, a 108 anni. “E’ la prima volta che vedo il film dopo la sua morte” confessa commosso.




    E fra l’altro dice: “Raccontando la sua storia mi sono reso conto che i nostri eroi sono persone ordinarie”.  Ha narrato la storia della propria nonna. Una nonna speciale, ma speciale proprio perché come altre donne che non sono state raccontate. Il suo documentario ha un grande valore per questo motivo oltre ad essere artisticamente molto interessante.



    Sua nonna ha vissuto una storia intensa e Halpern ha saputo sapientemente intrecciarla nel film con altre testimonianze, superando il banale passaggio generazionale. Ha fatto conoscere Mary, smitizzando con la realtà scena dopo scena. Ulizzando più voci è riuscito ad esaltarne la personalità e a far riflettere anche su alcuni luoghi comuni.

     

    "Nana" Mary Mirabito LIvornese Cavaliere   (1899 - 2008)

    ----

    Nine Good Teeth, di Alex Halpern è stato presentato lo scorso mercoledì presso la Graduate School of Journalism della City University di New York nel corso del programma  “Documented Italians” Film and Video Series, John D. Calandra Italian American Institute del Queens College, CUNY


     

  • "Nine Good Teeth". L'energia di Mary


    Non sono passi felpati quelli che utilizza il regista Alex Halpern nel raccontare sua nonna.  Entra nella vita della centenaria italo/americana Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavalieri quasi con clamore. Con quell’affettuosa irriverenza che solo un nipote “discolo” può permettersi e che è la ragione intima del rapporto felice che spesso intercorre tra due generazioni, così lontane e al tempo stesso cosi vicine.

     

    E il percorso che compie il giovane regista ha un’intensità che travalica la storia personale della sua famiglia, pone diversi interrogativi sul rapporto con le nostre radici e sulla figura femminile nel contesto italo/americano e non. Halpern ha l’abilità di portare sullo schermo la storia di una donna forte, indipendente, a modo suo cardine di una  famiglia, viva presenza e punto di riferimento, così lontana da alcuni stereotipi femminili ma al tempo stesso così integra nel tramandare elementi di un passato che non c’è più.



    Ed il suo racconto della storia di Mary viene documentato da filmati, fotografie, tratti da un prodigioso archivio di famiglia, che ritraggono momenti importanti di emigrati negli Usa e non solo. Di una famiglia come tante. Da Stromboli a New York, a Brooklyn. Con gioie, dolori, sogni, illusioni.



    Ma perchè il regista ha deciso di realizzare un film?

    “Ho inziato il viaggio nella vita di mia nonna a 18 anni, quando ho visto le foto di famiglia, i filmati realizzati da mio padre,” racconta il regista “poi nel corso di un viaggio a Stromboli, isola d’origine, a Mary viene predetto da una zingara che sarebbe morta novantasei anni…”.  Nasce così, sul filo di una superstizione, un documentario.  Nipote e  nonna cominciano un’avventura. Increduli a loro volta realizzano scena su scena.  Magicamente cresce un film di grande valore umano e artistico e la vita della signora Mary va ben al di là della realizzazione del lungometraggio e dei novantasei anni.


    La ritrae nella routine di tutti i giorni, in quei particolari che spesso i nipoti spiano dalla soglia di una porta, cogliendo gli elementi più irriverenti delle abitudini dei vecchi che amano.  Vediamo Maria nel bagno, in cucina, mentre si mette la sua dentiera, orgogliosa di avere ancora dei denti. Cogliamo la sua vanità, così dolce da far sorridere. La vediamo con tutta la sua grinta, la sua sua saggezza bambina, la sua intensa personalità.


    Spiamo gesti che sono nella vita di tutti i giorni e che molti, che vivono affianco a delle persone anziane, conoscono. Questi gesti qui assumono un valore emblematico grazie all’autoironia della protagonista. Diventano un insegnamento. Ci accorgiamo della grande energia e del grande segreto di Maria: saper sdrammatizzare partendo proprio da se stessa.



    Intorno a lei ruota la sua famiglia che percorre decenni di storia. Il regista affronta anche gli aspetti più controversi del suo heritage come membro femminile di un nucleo di emigranti. Ed i segreti vengono snocciolati piano piano, con la forza della loro irriverente verità.  Si raccontano relazioni exraconiugali, amori 'Illeciti", conflitti familiari, litigi, lutti. Si sentono o intravedono nelle voci di altri membri della sua famiglia e amici, si colgono negli occhi intensi, ma semichiusi dagli anni, della vecchia Mary. Il ritratto che ne esce di Mary è molto particolare. Non è certo una madre tradizionale  (per esempio quando la figlia le rivela una storia d’amore giovanile avuta con lo scrittore Jack Kerouac) , nè una moglie classica, con sua sorella ha una relazione molto difficile  (il rifiuto di incontrarla fino alla fine è emblematico). Sono diversi i problemi che escono fuori nel film, vicende e tristezze che si vivono spesso nelle famiglie, scontri interni difficili da rivelare e da ammettere.




    Ma Mary ha un’energia che attraversa tutto, grazie sempre alla sua schietta ironia. Per nulla indispettita dalle domande intriganti del nipote rivela anche: perchè no si può provare un orgasmo anche alla mia età!                



    Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavalieri ha vissuto una vita intensa. Dopo la morte del primo marito si risposa con un antico spasimante che non vedeva da quaranta anni e che era poco gradito al marito. Ascolta vecchi dischi di vinile e ricorda come sognava di diventare cantante. Sono diversi i momenti che rimangono impressi dopo aver visto il film. A Mary piace prendersi in giro, ridere. Porta con se quella saggezza fatta di esperienza, quel guardare la realtà attraverso gli occhi distaccati di chi sa vivere.




    “Per me era depositaria di più di cento anni di segreti familiari” racconta il nipote-regista in una breve intervista con Edwige Giunta (New Jersey City Univesity) alla fine della proiezione. Era rimasto affascinato quando aveva 18 anni dal suo archivio, dai suoi oggetti, dalle foto, dalle lettere che facevano parte della storia intima ma anche pubblica di una donna che era seconda di tredici figli di una famiglia siciliana immigrata in America.



     

    “Per me era importante vederla nella sua totalità, ci sono parti intime nel film, ma la responsabilità come regista era dire la verità nel miglior modo possibile” dice Alex Halpern, mentre descrive il suo percorso delicato, ma al tempo stesso necessariamente invadente, per carpire i segreti della sua famiglia.

    “Sapevo che lei era un soggetto per un film: matriarca, nonna, madre, moglie, amante e figlia, nonna.” E noi abbiamo visto il suo candore ed il coraggio, la sua irriverenza, il suo forse inconscio conflitto con i tradizionali ruoli spesso assegnati alle donne di prima generazone italo/americana.

    Mentre risponde alla Giunta cogliamo negli occhi del regista il velo di una tristezza serena. Sua nonna Mary è venuta a mancare solo tre settimane fa, a 108 anni. “E’ la prima volta che vedo il film dopo la sua morte” confessa commosso.




    E fra l’altro dice: “Raccontando la sua storia mi sono reso conto che i nostri eroi sono persone ordinarie”.  Ha narrato la storia della propria nonna. Una nonna speciale, ma speciale proprio perché come altre donne che non sono state raccontate. Il suo documentario ha un grande valore per questo motivo oltre ad essere artisticamente molto interessante.



    Sua nonna ha vissuto una storia intensa e Halpern ha saputo sapientemente intrecciarla nel film con altre testimonianze, superando il banale passaggio generazionale. Ha fatto conoscere Mary, smitizzando con la realtà scena dopo scena. Ulizzando più voci è riuscito ad esaltarne la personalità e a far riflettere anche su alcuni luoghi comuni.

     

    "Nana" Mary Mirabito LIvornese Cavaliere   (1899 - 2008)

    ----

    Nine Good Teeth, di Alex Halpern è stato presentato lo scorso mercoledì presso la Graduate School of Journalism della City University di New York nel corso del programma  “Documented Italians” Film and Video Series, John D. Calandra Italian American Institute del Queens College, CUNY


     

  • Facts & Stories

    “You Who Live Securely in Your Warm Homes…”


    The auditorium of the Centro Primo Levi is packed. The entire audience is moved, emotional, reflective, and at times incredulous.


    “You who live securely in your warm homes, when you return in the evening find hot food and friends, consider that if this is a man…,” these lines by Primo Levi along with others by the author, stick in my mind throughout the evening.


    January 27, 2008. The screening of the film L’isola delle rose: La tragedia di un paradiso (Island of Roses: The Tragedy of a Paradise) written and directed by Rebecca Samonà was accompanied by a brief but intense interview by journalist Andrea Fiano with Stella Levi, a former resident of Rhodes who survived Auschwitz. The film reconstructs the annihilation of the Jews of Rhodes who were deported after September 8, 1938. The events come to life through the first-hand account of someone who lived them.


    Before the interview, we watch 52 intense minutes of a story that is not often found in history books: the details of daily life interrupted. The true force of the documentary lies in its narration of everyday life which is completely wiped out in a short time. Over the course of the screening a silent invitation becomes a responsibility: to reflect on our own daily lives, especially on our seemingly insignificant actions.


    Rebecca Samonà’s work is important for this reason. It confronts and questions our own way of life: the small gestures, our relationships with others.


    “In every group, there exists a predetermined victim: one who carries pain, who everyone mocks, on whom they heap malevolent rumors, and with mysterious agreement everyone unloads their negative feelings and their desire to harm,” wrote Primo Levi in The Truce (1962). This is a description of a social dynamic that is seemingly banal yet insidious and not to be forgotten.

    L’isola delle rose: La tragedia di un paradiso recalls history through personal black and white images, similar to our own home movies. They are that familiar. On the screen we see the narration of a time gone by, one that no longer exists but that could very well still be with us.


    The main theme is autobiographical. It is a journey (both physically and in memory) to Rhodes by the director/author, pregnant with her second child, along with her own mother who is the daughter of an Italian serviceman interned in Germany (1944-45) and of a Jewish woman from Rhodes, who after a pleasant life there was deported. Her life ends in Auschwitz, as did hundreds of others from the island.


    The film traces the director’s maternal Jewish line through a trip that passes from physical places to hidden places in the human mind.


    Slowly we realize that we are discovering pages of forgotten history. Individual life histories lived in first person, mostly female, are revealed through rare archival highlights and become entwined.


    At a certain point, the film passes from light to darkness. A nearly idyllic atmosphere is introduced at the beginning of the film. Clips of advertising from the period depict Rhodes as a real paradise of happiness and harmony. And it is in this tranquility that the director’s grandmother is raised and lives her incongruent love story with a Sicilian official. In 1936, against the wishes of her parents, she decides to run away and marry him. Her family’s subsequent acceptance of the marriage would seem to further the young woman into a life of considerable security and prosperity. But that did not occur. “Consider that this is a woman. Without hair and without a name, with no more strength to remember, empty eyes and cold womb, like a branch in winter,” wrote Primo Levi.


    Rebecca and her mother, some sixty years later, visit the places hungry for answers. They question friends of the family, read diaries of the father interned in Germany; they examine every square foot of the places that were settings for both happy times and heinous memories. And in their path of memory, an absurd witness appeared: disbelief.


    Snapshots of everyday life: lunches with family members, parties, set tables with food, the long shores of Rhodes full of healthy and beautiful people, young people poised for prosperous futures. And afterwards, a family, many families, an entire community, completely exterminated.


    The director seems to suggest that any one of us could have been in Rhodes at that time. When we get up, when we go to work, when we take the sun at the beach, when we play with our children, when we fall in love, when we celebrate, we do so without ever imagining that one day the folly of other human beings can destroy everything.


    Memories, especially female memories, take on a symbolic value: it is through the transmission of memories from the grandmother to the mother, to the director herself and to her daughter in her womb that we learn never to forget.


    The sighs of an elderly woman seated next to me signal the entire vision of the film that ends in front of a captivated audience. After a few minutes, there is the steady but fragile voice of another woman, Stella Levi. An emotional Andrea Fiano conducts the interview. Levi’s memories gives voice to the past but also looks to the present so the same mistakes are not committed in the future.


    Visiting the island only once, in 1967, Stella Levi recalls: “I have lived with the ghosts of Rhodes, I still hear the voices of the people I knew. Ghosts that vanish but that I would like to take with me.”


    “Before ’38 we were all the same. Before you were a human being and then you were not. The humiliation of being dragged out of your own home, and no one stopped them!”


    With Mrs. Levi’s first words one senses the same, nearly child-like disbelief that accompanied the film. “Sometimes I ask myself: I lived through all of this? At Auschwitz you smell death even during the brightest and warmest days in August. The sky becomes gray. Auschwitz was death.”


     “This is not an easy interview for me because I am the son of a Jewish survivor. I have so many questions, but at the same time I am afraid of invading her privacy.” And so begins Andrea Fiano with great sensitivity. “Why were more women able to survive?” he asks. Mrs. Levi responds, “I don’t know why women seem to be stronger in this case. Perhaps it is because they protect life. They carry it inside.”


    “My memories are in Italian and I have to translate them into English in order to speak to you. When I returned to Rhodes I knew that I would find only ghosts there. The colors, the scent of that city are no longer the same. There are no Jews now. Today the entire community is gone. There is a synagogue, a museum…. but it is difficult to associate the memories. Places of happy, ordinary life can become brutal horrors…silent witnesses of the worst human atrocities. Radiant Rhodes, the emerald sea, full of oranges, its houses, offices, schools…”


    Mrs. Levi shares in a loud voice a paradoxical question: “How could they be so elegant and commit these crimes? In the evening, after giving the gas, they dressed up and played the most beautiful music.”


     “I remember that when we arrived at Auschwitz they didn’t think that we were Jews because we didn’t speak Yiddish. They understood only when they saw us pray. Since we spoke French, we were placed with the French women. This was my salvation. The French women spoke German and this was the only way we could follow orders …”


    She says with great certainty: “Can it happen today? Dafur, Bosnia… It is happening… ‘Remember, you were a slave in Egypt.’ This is one of the most important precepts in Judaism, but it should apply to all of humanity.”


    And to the question of whether she feels hatred, she responds: “No. Hatred is a disease and I do not want to hate.”


    Primo Levi wrote: “He who has been tortured remains tortured. He who has been tormented can no longer acclimate himself in the world, the revulsion for the annihilation can never be extinguished.” (The Drowned and the Saved, 1986)


    In Stella Levi’s words, in addition to the courage and the need-want to tell, there is internal burden of a marked existence.


    “You who live securely, in your warm homes…”

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Italy Under Scrutiny


    It was the New York Times that started it all, with an article that weeks after publication still has people talking. It was December 13th and seemingly out of the blue the well-respected and powerful New York paper published an article from the Rome correspondent Ian Fisher that spoke of a stagnant Italy that was in “a collective funk regarding economics, politics and society”.  


    Actually, it wasn’t out of the blue at all. In fact on that same day Repubblica published a long article by sociologist Ilvo Diamanti entitled “Italians Prisoners of Distrust”. The article referenced a study by the Demos, which stated that “distrust has surpassed all previous levels. Distrust of institutions in particular has reached levels that hadn’t been seen since 2000”. And the 41st “Report on the social state of the country” had just been released (on December 8th), in which the president of CENSIS, Giuseppe De Rita, coined the famous phrase “mucilage society”: “We no longer have any trust in the development of a country that gave life to the economic boom of the fifties, to the mass industrialization of the seventies, to the fight against terrorism.”


    So why then, with all these precedents – certainly not unknown to foreign correspondents – did Fisher’s article attract so much attention? Maybe because it was published at the same time that the Italian President was visiting New York? Or maybe because it was a foreigner that aired out our dirty laundry in public, an American to boot? A few days later (December 23rd) it was the Times of London’s turn, with an entire page dedicated to Italy which stated that “the living standards are behind those of Spain and that politicians are old and tired” and that Italians “think their future is horrible”. According to the British daily, people in Italy live with “a sense of national agony”. Of course it would be wise to reflect on the fast spreading effect that certain well-amplified news stories can have.


    And then came the reactions. From the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who brought up “malevolent” foreign observers even in his New Year’s message, to the Minister of the Interior Giuliano Amato, to the leader of the new Partito Democratico Italiano (Italian Democratic Party) Walter Veltroni – quoted by Fisher as having said that in Italy “there is more fear than hope” – to the Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who commented from the ski slopes while on vacation: “Spain did not surpass us!”. From the correspondent Vittorio Zucconi who from the pages of Repubblica accused the United States of being a “mucilage”, to the comedian Luciana Littizzetto, who ironically declared on TV that Italians may be depressed, but at least they don’t go on shooting sprees in schools like the Americans.


    And so the debate grows. On one side are those offended by Fisher’s article, on the other those who agree with him – we can see it on the web: Italians, Americans living in Italy, Italians living abroad, have decided to give their opinion. On the New York Times website there is still a blog with dozens of messages, but the same has happened in many other virtual communities.


    We would like to present "Italy Under Scrutiny" our own reportage on the topic, open for discussions, comments, suggestions…please continue to visit our site and share your opinions with us.

     

  • Art & Culture

    A True Italian/American Marriage


    A young director meets a couple in love; this is not the first time that a film is born from this kind of encounter. Perhaps it would not even be shown in this context, were it not for the film’s extraordinary point of view and its connection to the Italian/American experience. Director Abigail Honor, an Englishwoman transplanted to Manhattan, has at least two reasons for telling the story: the film’s artistic value as a documentary as well as the cultural value of its content.

     

    Released in 2003, the film has been shown at many film festivals, and its awards include the "Q Cinema Award" for the best documentary film at the sixth annual Fort Worth Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 2004.

     

     The film was screened last week in the CUNY TV studios as part of the film series “Documented Italians” presented by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of Queens College. The film concerns Vincent Maniscalco and Edward DeBonis, a gay Italian/American couple who decide to marry in church according to Catholic rite. The public was invited to participate in a discussion that is still not easy or straightforward. In fact, both Professor Anthony Julian Tamburri, Dean of the Calandra Institute and Joseph Sciorra, Assistant Director of Academic and Cultural Programs emphasized that when the film was released four years ago the time was not yet ripe to publicly tackle these issues. And is now the right time? The debate is now at least open, especially since the film screening was hosted by of one of the most important Italian/American institutions.

     

     Abigail Honor and Professor Peter Savastano of Seaton Hall University and Drew University moderated the discussion after the film and focused on the film’s cultural imperatives for the Italian/American community.

     

     Since the time of its release Saints and Sinners has received mixed reviews. Its main theme touches on the depth of Italian/American culture and its intimate link to Catholic tradition, and suggests the perceptions that Americans have of Italian/Americans and their faith.

     

     Forty-six year old Vinnie and 52 year old Eddie are both of Italian descent, and like many Italian/Americans they were raised with solid Catholic values. For them to wed in a church represents an acknowledgement of their Italian/American upbringing.

     

     “Before meeting Vinnie,” Eddie recalls, “I had gone away from the Catholic Church but then I understood that for him, the sacraments were an important part of his spirituality, and this was my way of reconciling with Catholicism. The Catholic Church may never recognize our union, but we had to fight for it nevertheless.” These are profound words that transcend the Catholic Church’s perception of homosexuality and they reveal the couple’s connection to their Catholic and Italian/American roots.

     

     In reality, the couple was not wed in a Catholic church as no priest would accept their union, but they were married in an Episcopalian church by a gay minister, Raymond LeFebvre. Their union became official when the state of Massachusetts legalized homosexual marriage and they were later re-married.

     

     Abigail Honor recounts how she met the couple: “I got to know Eddie e Vinnie after I put an ad in the Village Voice to find people for a documentary. After a while, I received a call from Eddie and I immediately understood that they were exactly who I was trying to find. They were the right people to bridge the gap between a gay couple, their families, and the communities in which they were raised.”

     

     Honor approaches the themes of the documentary with detachment balanced with profound tenderness. There is no shadow of judgment present in the film; they are presented simply and treated as an ordinary couple.

     

     It was the couple’s normalcy that struck us most, especially as they retold the story of their meeting and the stages that led to marriage, like that of any heterosexual couple. They are very much a conventional couple, and perhaps seem even more so because of their respect for tradition and culture. Written in their own words, their marriage vows speak of their commitment, mutual respect, and the search for recognition of their union.

     

     The preparation of the church where the wedding took place made us reflect on the differences between a typical Italian/American wedding and an Italian one. The accuracy with which the preparations were made was far more Italian/American than Italian.

     

     At the end of the screening, the audience was left with an overarching feeling of purity and simplicity. With subtlety and without brooding, the film also touched on certain prejudices against gay marriage. For example, on the day of the wedding there is the fear of going to hell if one receives the sacrament of Communion from a gay minister.

     

    The director’s talent lies in her ability to suggest different aspects of the theme without favoring one over another. She reminds us that it is also important to reflect on the couples’ smiles and mutual glances on their wedding day when their wedding announcement appears in the “Styles” section of the New York Times. Can the New York Times pronounce their union “official”?

     

    The documentary can be purchased at www.amazon.com.

     

     (Translated by Giulia Prestia, a memeber of i-Italy's Community)

     

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    Discovering Jewish Trieste & Jewish Italy


    Jewish history is an important part of the Italy’s cultural legacy. Italy has only recently rediscovered its Jewish history and traditions; there are in fact very few who can claim to fully understand it.

     

    We gathered for a special dinner which is part of a larger initiative to promote Jewish culture through Italian tourism. This new perspective on Italy is primarily geared toward the five million American citizens who visit Italy each year. It would also appeal to Italian citizens living in Italy or abroad who have yet to discover the ancient traditions of the Jewish community in Italy.



    Last night the spotlight was on Trieste first and foremost. The city has had a Jewish presence since 1300 and its Jewish community consists of over 6,000 people. Modern technology is also used to enhance local itineraries and promote cultural awareness. An iPod, for example, becomes a way to make hidden places and little-known sites accessible to everyone who visits.

    Discovering Jewish Trieste encompasses images, history, music, art, and food, while allowing tourists to connect with Jewish values and traditions, as well as a sense of Jewish community and identity.

    In Trieste, for example, tourists have the opportunity not only to visit synagogues, but also to experience other sites related to Jewish history.

    These are historically significant places for both Jews and Italians since they have given Italy an inestimable cultural legacy. Practically all Italian cities have a history of Jewish communities; some continue to thrive while others have changed or completely disappeared over time. Italy boasts fascinating tourist sites from north to south. Priceless treasures include inspiring synagogues, literary trails designed to trace the footsteps of Joyce, Freud, Svevo, and Levi, museums to explore, manuscripts to discover in various libraries, and family archives that are accessible to anyone who asks.

     

    The dinner at Carnegie Hall was truly amazing. The menu, masterfully interpreted by Tony May of the famous San Domenico restaurant in New York, was prepared according to kosher laws under the supervision of Rabbi Umberto Piperno.


    In his presentation Andrea Fiano, Milano Finanza correspondent for CFN-CNBC, discussed the Italian Jewish literary connection and referred to such luminaries as Italo Svevo, Ettore Schmidt, Umberto Saba, and Giorgio Voghera. He also discussed Italian Jewish culinary history which spans over 2,000 years and unifies strict dietetic rules with local products and regional influences.

    “Jewish cooking tells the history of a people and its vanished worlds,” explains Claudia Roden. According to Roden, the history of Jewish cuisine is a true “food diary” reflecting the origins and migrations of the Jewish people.



    In 1492, for example, 35,000 Jews were expelled from Sicily and were forced to abandon the land on which they had lived for centuries. They consequently emigrated and settled throughout Europe where ancient Jewish recipes were diffused, especially those based on eggplant, artichokes, raisins, pine nuts, and sweet and sour combinations.


    Many regional dishes in the Italian culinary world descend directly from kosher cuisine. A few examples include duck prosciutto, pumpkin ravioli from Mantova, saffron rice (or Sabbath rice) from Milan, and sweet and sour fish with raisins from the Veneto.


    Dinner concluded with a rare kosher grappa from Cividale. We were seated next to Dr. J. Joseph Zucher of Touro College who discussed how this wine demonstrates the presence of Jewish influence throughout Italy.

     Alberto Jona Falco vetted interest in this initiative among different groups over the past week. “Here the great intellectual and cultural availability is astounding. It was perhaps easy to imagine that an American, above all a Jew, would be interested, but I never would have thought that Italians would be so interested.” Falco, a photographer and author, has perhaps the most important collection of photographs on Jewish Italy. He add, “According to the statistics of the Italian Ministry of Culture, 66 per cent of the world’s cultural heritage is in Italy. It is therefore easy to apply the same proportion to Jewish heritage. If we go on to consider the size of the country, it is relatively small compared with other countries. Everything is extraordinarily concentrated. I should also add that Italy is not considered anti-Semitic as are some other countries.

     

    One thing that is fascinating about Jewish destinations is their proximity to other tourist sites. In Venice, for example, there is the extraordinary Basilica della Salute dating back to 1600 and it is located nearby beautiful Venetian synagogues. Walking through the narrow streets of Venice, one does not realize that the synagogues were purposely disguised. When the synagogues were built, they were hidden from view for security. But there is also an up-close, tangible reality to Jewish history. For example, the church in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square has Hebrew inscriptions on its external walls.

     

    Today in Italy there is fluidity with Jewish communities; Jews do not occupy a separate reality. There have been, however, many instances in Italian history when this was not the case. At times Jews were persecuted, and at others they lived in royal courts with noblemen. It is one thing to refer to the Jewish experience in Florence under the rule of the Medicis, and quite another in Venice under the Serenissima. But what counts is that today there are footprints, with so much to see and touch.”


    (Translated by Giulia Prestia)  For more information visit this article's related links...

  • Art & Culture

    Renato Miracco, a Question of Energy



    We arrive at his office, climbing the old staircase of the small building on Park Avenue. Before reaching his floor, we hear voices and ringing telephones. Movement. The door to the office is open. His assistant welcomes us. Renato Miracco, the recently-appointed director of the Institute, gives instructions, asks for information, and takes three telephone calls in three minutes. He speaks with colleagues, looks up, greets us.

    There is something about the place that we don’t recognize, even though we have visited here many times. The surroundings and the furniture are more or less the same, with a few additions. Some flowers, some fruit.

    There is a different sense of the space that is responsible for this feeling. A well thought-out design plan. The desk is not as far away as before; we don’t have to walk the length of the room to reach it. Positioned near the door, the desk fully participates in the work life of the man who sits at it. In front of him, two sofas seem to be engaged in conversation. Books, flowers, oranges in a bowl add a natural touch.

    Space and time, energy and organization – these are the common threads that recur throughout the interview. What follows is an exchange of impressions and opinions with the new director, a week after his appointment.

    He introduces himself with a few words. “This is a role that I wanted, one that I sought after. I like it. I believe that here there are opportunities to accomplish so much and I am a person who wants to do it. Besides that, I already have experience with American culture. I have organized many important shows in the U.S.”

    Born in 1953, Miracco is a professor, curator, and art historian, and in fact he has curated many significant Italian art exhibits all over the world on behalf of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (in London for the Tate Modern, for example) and institutions such as the Estorick Collection of London and the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, as well as the Camera dei Deputati in Rome. Miracco is an expert on Italian Futurism and the so-called Arte Informale, as well as a devoted connoisseur of Fontana, Burri and the “Roman School,” and artists such as Afro, Mirko, and Morandi.

    Within a few days the president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano, will visit the United States. Miracco tells us, “I am preparing for two important events, one in Washington and the other in New York. We will have him visit New York cultural institutions. He will then see the personality of this world. But I also want to organize an event with Italian artists living in New York, which has never been done.”

    Miracco favors bringing Italian exhibits and events to the U.S. and vice versa. “New York is important. We don’t have to focus our attention only on Italian culture, but we should also promote shows that Americans want to bring to Italy. We have to facilitate this type of exchange in both senses. It would great if in the process we helped to export American culture. It is important for the flows to be liberated. In this way, we succeed in strengthening culture in both countries. One of the exhibitions that I would like to produce, in fact, has specifically to do with fluidity. I would like to recount how Italians came to America and how Americans went to Italy.”

    We recall that the great artist Gino Marotta said that all too frequently critics and politicians are guilty of “cultural illiteracy,” and that they have enabled the “cultural colonization” perpetrated by the U.S., thereby forgetting how much Italy has taught the American people. “But I don’t like the term colonization,” adds Miracco. “I would rather speak of importation and promotion of both cultures. We have to look to reestablish connections. For example, Frank Stella has an archive of Futurist art; let’s put it on display. Marinetti donated his archive to Yale; let’s pull it out. And I know for sure that Ezra Pound had an archive at Yale that is not only artistic, but is also a significant representation of another world. A successful shift is needed to create these links. Recapturing the cultural attention of the two countries – I strongly believe in that.”

    But is the newly-appointed director aware of the problems he will encounter? “I am a workaholic. I work twelve hours a day. I instituted the concept of regular a staff meetings, which during Furio Colombo’s tenure did not exist. These are weekly meetings that I attend. The Consulate and the Cultural Institute will work together to promote their events. Where I can lend a hand I will and they will do the same for me.”

    Optimizing the resources within diplomatic channels to attain efficiency is not easy. The new director is one of the supporters of the so-called “interconnectedness.” It means working together to execute important events and splitting the costs among various institutions. “Interconnectedness, however, must be dynamic. It must relate back to everyday reality. I am organizing shows that will tour the entire U.S. There will be a thorough attention to detail, even if there are many organizational difficulties to resolve. I believe, though, in the will to do something, to get something accomplished. Everything will be done voluntarily and as quickly as possible.”

    For Miracco, “Reinvention is a must. To create a new lifeblood requires a profound humility. Every one of us must be able to listen and everyone must go beyond self-promotion. Let’s get together. I organized a meeting in Washington fifteen days ago to do just that. One must listen and act decisively. There are certainly drawbacks to each side and I’ve only been here a week, but let’s see what I can accomplish.”

    With reference to information and organization of events, Miracco is perfectly clear: “One of the first things we must do is create a comprehensive mailing list. I tell everyone who is interested: you must get in touch with us. We will sponsor events with American organizations and institutions. We want the American public. Shortly, I will schedule a time to meet with journalists. But I don’t just want to introduce and promote myself. I want advice, even if I am the first one who has been proactive.”

    He continues, “On the one hand, we need to establish relationships with leaders in the world of culture, for example the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, and the Whitney. Then we need to create a board to find funding to restore the Institute’s headquarters on Park Avenue. I would create an association, the Italian Friends of Culture, because this building absolutely needs to be restored. We will reach out to Bracco, Ferragamo, and others. We have to put this mechanism to work.”

    One of the biggest challenges that the representatives of the Italian cultural and economic world in New York face is intensely and frequently disorganized activity. There are too many events to organize and oversee simultaneously.

    “Organization. The problem is that we do not need to promote ourselves, but rather our country. It is not necessary to think that we must get there first, because in the end we will go nowhere. And we will come in last. We have to put systems in place. It seems banal and trite, but we must work together to put systems in place. The individual road will not take us anywhere. I, for one, am capable and have the ability to cultivate relationships, but working alone I will get nowhere.”

    An example? “With the consul general, we are trying to understand how we can help each other. We have in fact, looked at our schedules this week. It turns out that there are some events that we could have both attended, but then because of the way things go, we were expected elsewhere. One of us could have attended in the other’s stead. We could take turns. Interconnectedness is a gift that no single person possesses. It is important to know what others are doing. This problem also applies to the inner workings of the Institute. I have three colleagues who manage three different sectors. One doesn’t know the events that the other is planning. The problem seems very straightforward, but it is necessary to change the mentality of the individuals involved. This will be my ultimate challenge.”

    We finally ask for a realistic prediction of what Miracco expects to successfully accomplish over the next two years. “Two years is a very short time, but I can give a conservative estimate. I would like to create the foundation for the organization Friends of Italy and begin to change the image of this place. Tomorrow I am buying plants, and paying for them out of my own pocket…. There is still a lot of work to be done in this sense. There are rooms to be arranged; the bath was covered in dust and full of big boxes. I can’t work in this kind of environment. I developed an allergy to the dust. And then I also have the opportunity to bring in 60 works of art to create the Institute’s collection.”

    He adds, “But it is also a question of energy. If one looks someone in the eyes, it stimulates the other’s energy, and that is how progress is made. We can do things if this place becomes energetic. I feel rage when I see what the Spanish Cultural Institute next door is doing and how it is different. They are perfect…for me this is huge. I adore the Spaniards’ energy, and theirs is a fantastic institute. But here, there is an energetic depression and we cannot permit it. New York is the cultural capital of the world and we must do what we can to move forward. Culture is not only large-scale events to be executed. At times, we rest on our laurels. Yes, we have Raffaello, Tiziano...but culture is also all about systems, synergy. Everything is culture. We can’t live only for big events. Even the small-scale is part of the system and it is part of the culture. There are for example so many great artists who are unknown..... I can name a few such as Renato D'Agostino and Antonio Pio Saracino. They are a few of the many artists we cannot forget. They would allow us to make a wonderful impression abroad. But we don’t know them, neither in Italy nor in America. This should not be possible… These are small signs, slight indications that one thing is born from another and we see what we can do.”

    We leave the director to his work. We have taken note of several ingredients in his recipe for success: careful management of space and time in order to work more efficiently and to promote awareness; increased energy; and above all, organization to ensure that our culture will be part of the future of New York.

    (Translated by Giulia Prestia)

  • Art & Culture

    La Spartenza – Unforgettable Suitcases



    In the theater, the atmosphere was different; it had an air of intimacy, of home. The audience’s eyes were not focused on the stage, which remained dark and almost seemed to be a neglected bystander. Sitting on chairs arranged in a semi-circle, the audience instead watched the actors up-close, heard them breathe, and entered into their family.

     

    It seemed that in the end, the set (and the challenges it presented) only amplified the poignancy and immediacy of the performance. Had the audience seen the play from a different vantage point, it would have been a significantly less intense experience. “There was a huge piano on the stage, we didn’t have room, there were problems with the lighting.... So we then got off the stage and redesigned everything,” the director explained. “This work has already been presented in venues logistically very different from each other.”

     

    As part of the family, the audience then witnessed the life of Tommaso Bordonaro as it was told from the point of view of his loved ones. The powerful episodes were taken from his autobiography published by Einaudi in 1990. One by one, each voice recreated selected scenes from the life story of a peasant farmer from Bolognetta (in the province of Palermo) who immigrated to America at the beginning of the 20th century and settled in Garfield, New Jersey.

     

    A product of the old world, Tommaso is courageous, straightforward, poor, yet extremely proud. The talented actors (Salvina Ghetta, Giuseppe Di Dato, Giuseppe Esposto, Maria Angela Ignoti, Concetta Lala, Valeria Lo Bue, and Rosario Mercante) conveyed moments of desperation, joy, and hope with great passion. The deft dramaturgy and adaptation of the book by Nicola Grato, Santo Lombino, and Enzo Toto were very effective and moving.

     

    The set consisted of a simple concept: about a dozen or so old suitcase and a few common but significant objects. Under the skillfully-designed lights, there was a colander, a “modern” projector with original images from the Bordonaro family, plastic flowers, a book, a small plastic Statue of Liberty. These everyday, minimalist objects characterize and represent the lives of farmers who emigrated from Southern Italy. Within the setting of the play, these humble objects are charged with great emotional and symbolic value.

     

    Tommaso Bordonaro (1909-2000) was a nearly illiterate farmer-shepherd who emigrated from Bolognetta to America with his wife and children. From his diary we learn that he was forced to take on menial jobs including digging graves, and finally became a dockworker in New Jersey. Despite the hardships he was always able to support his family honestly. Bordonaro is a truly complex, multi-faceted man who is brought to life and portrayed with exquisite detail and whose life is intensified and complimented by the images projected onto a panel created by suitcases.

     

    The actors lean, stand, move, and climb on the suitcases; they use them as a bed, chair, table, and a vase for flowers. At times the suitcases seem to become actors themselves. Suitcases fastened with heavy twine are transformed into an emblem of a world that is still not understood, and at times is trivialized and disregarded.

     

    One particularly astute choice was not to have Tommaso speak directly, but rather have his loved ones become the spokespersons for his history. His life stories transcend the boundaries of personal events and become profoundly cultural and universal experiences. Various voices remember him, interpret him, speak about him, and have a dialog with him. The family epic is set at a huge imaginary table complete with dates, events, marriages, family quarrels, births, and deaths.

     

    The description of the family’s boat trip is also touching. The audience learns about the family members’ hopes, dreams, disillusionments, and the first concept of America that they bring with them on board; we later learn about the storm at sea and the ocean that separates them.

     

    In the theater, the atmosphere builds in front of a warm fire that rewards us with wisdom taken from the pages of an immigrant’s life. It feels as though we are in an ancient home one night, in the company of an elder who narrates stories and experiences that cannot be lost. The elder’s words are like precious gemstones, telling of a future that cannot be forgotten and which will amount to precious memories.

     

    The language that Tommaso uses is extraordinarily effective. As Natalia Ginzburg wrote in the preface of his autobiography, the book is in Sicilian-American, but its attraction lies in “the style in which it is written, the natural and rocky truth of the writing, similar to a mountain path that one climbs and descends surrounded by rocks.” The words are quintessentially Sicilian and American, mangled and abbreviated, and there are many verbs that appear in the infinitive form; deciphering the language requires a bit of concentration at first.

     

    Bordonaro masterfully communicates his fundamental qualities, much in the same way our elders share their stories, even if it is unfortunately an oral tradition. We refer again to the remarkable preface by Ginzburg to illustrate the spirit with which Tommaso left his homeland: “The departure is painful and heavy, especially the separation from loving parents. But the voyage by boat, despite the seasickness, is in many ways magnificent as is the arrival in America and meeting relatives for the first time who are festive and hospitable. But the first years are nevertheless difficult.”

     

    There are sad events in Bordonaro’s life, truly bitter twists of fate, and yet an earnest and sincere optimism permeates his worldview. The most moving aspect of the play from beginning to end is that Bordonaro succeeded in constructing his life with his own hands, “homemade” in the best sense, but far from his roots. As an old man, shortly before his death, he muses, “I am satisfied with my life, a little good, a little bad....”

     

    Those of us who write about the play based on Bordonaro’s own words have the awareness of having witnessed a rare event. We also have one regret that becomes a question: Why were there only a few spectators at the Italian Academy on Monday night?

     

    (Translated by Giulia Prestia)

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