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Articles by: Benedetta Grasso

  • Life & People

    Piedmont: The New Dolce Vita

    When I try to describe Piedmont to an American friend I always say, in very general terms, that Piedmont is to Italy what Northern California is to the United States. I find fascinating and funny that in Northern California there’s also a region called Piedmont.

    In both countries these areas are associated with elite tourists, usually foodies and wine-lovers, as well as more of a rough crowd that enjoys extreme sports and the beauty of nature – those who like to hike, explore, and are drawn to adventurous physical activities. Both regions have hills famous for their vineyards, and they both have big National Parks. There are mountains and ski-resorts but the sea is not too far away.

    The similarities between the two regions don’t end there: if Napa Valley is synonymous with technology, innovation, and industry, Turin and Piedmont are associated with Italy's industrial revolution and modernity. Companies like FIAT and Olivetti are the giants among many other companies located in this progressive region which was pivotal in the computer revolution.
    The main cities, Turin and San Francisco, tend to live in the shadow of their more famous counterparts (Milan and Los Angeles) but they are the ones with the most potential and a higher quality of life.

    Food is important in these areas, and both have become the epicenters of movements that place a strong emphasis on natural, authentic products and a food culture that respects nature while revolutionizing the way we think about eating. Slow Food for example, founded in Piedmont, has created the University for Gastronomic Studies in Pollenzo.
    Not far from Palo Alto, Pixar Studios are forever changing the way we think about movie-making while in Turin the Museum of Cinema and the growing film industry there are essential resources for developing and experimenting with new cinematic technologies.

    When I think of Piedmont as an Italian, I realize that there is a deeper, hidden aspect to it – one that is often even hard to explain to other Italians. There is a history that goes back to the beginning of time. Turin was founded by the Romans; there are famous little towns that are exquisitely preserved with castles, streets, and churches dating back to the Middle Ages; there is a heavy Napoleonic influence that runs through the architecture; and jumping centuries ahead Piedmont played a central role in the unification of Italy and the resistance during World War II.

    Piedmont is reflected in the pages of history as well as in books written by famous writers like Cesare Pavese and Beppe Fenoglio or more recently by Paolo Giordano, all of whom have captured the spirit and essence of the land. Piedmont is also the center of Italy’s publishing industry. In the 1930s it was Giulio Einaudi (the son of Luigi Einaudi, one of Italy’s first presidents) who created an historical publishing house that had a profound effect on Italian culture. Italy’s most important book fair, the Salone del Libro, is also held in Turin.

    In the heart of Langhe and Monferrato, where the hills are filled with vineyards and gorgeous fields and woods, one can get a taste of real country life, one that is still regulated by the rhythm of the seasons. Farmers in Piedmont are not easygoing types; they are precise and determined, men of few and incisive words. As a border region, Piedmont is heavily influenced by its neighbors to the north, south, and east. Piedmont’s dialect has borrowed certain words from the French, as well as a passion for a pleasurable way of life that includes summer trips to seaside resorts on the Côte D’Azure and a distinctive panache for fashion and perfume. In the more northern mountainous region, there are several villages in areas such as Val Maira where the language spoken is still the ancient Occitan (or Provençal), a variation of French and Catalan. Many Swiss and Germans live in and frequently visit the region, perpetually exchanging products and traditions. Americans are also spending more of their vacations there and discovering a new side of Italy in the process.

     The Italian Government Tourist Board recently hosted a wonderful presentation of the region in New York. Tour operators, journalists, and representatives of various Italian and American cultural institutions were welcomed at SD26, the restaurant founded by famous chef Tony May, with a menu featuring some of the best specialties from Piedmont, including carne cruda (raw beef dish similar to beef tartar) , ravioli, and chocolaty desserts.

    Special guests from Piedmont included Giuliano Lengo, Chief Operation Officer of the Agency for Investment, Export and Tourism; Angelo Feltrin, Executive Manager of the Agency for Piedmont Tourism; and Anna Martina, General Manager of the Agency for Turin Tourism.
    As  Riccardo Strano, director of ENIT, remarked, Piedmont is the embodiment of a “new dolce vita.”

    Turin has changed immensely after the 2006 Winter Olympics. Once a quiet, somehow reserved town, it is now an international crossroads and an explosion of cultural initiatives and youth culture. It’s a city filled with students, workers, and immigrants from all over the world.

    The tourist attractions in Turin are plentiful and the city is easy to navigate since, like Manhattan, it was built on a grid system. The list includes the Mole Antonelliana (which houses the Museum of Cinema), Turin Cathedral, the river Po, Palazzo Reale, Parco del Valentino, Racconigi Castle, and so on.

    Upon leaving the city, your senses of taste and smell are awakened. If you walk through the woods you will immediately sense the strong, unique smell of truffles, and if you are really lucky it might be a white truffle, one of the rarest and most prized foods in the world. Walking up a hill you can smell the grapes. At the end of summer when they are mature, the grape juice (also known as must) fills the air before becoming barbera, nebbiolo, barolo, dolcetto, or one of the many other wines produced in the region. Passing through Alba, even by a car, you are completely overtaken by the smell of chocolate; you can smell it from the highway.

    The Ferrero factory which makes Nutella is located in Alba. The creamy chocolate and hazelnut spread is a cherished reminder of childhood for many Italians, sort of what peanut butter and jelly is for American kids. Ferrero makes a ton of little snacks, like chocolate eggs and pocket-sized sweets that you can find practically everywhere.

    Gianduiotto, a small milk chocolate shaped like an upturned boat, is a symbol of Turin and is sold in every pastry shop.

    Some traditional dishes from Piedmont may even be obscure to other Italians, but if you have the opportunity to try them they will give a precise glimpse into a particular way of life and culture: tajarin (pasta), agnolotti, risotto, various vegetables, bollito misto, brasato, bagna cauda (served and eaten in a manner similar to fondue, it’s made with garlic, anchovies, olive oil, butter, and cream in some parts of the region) or bonnet.
    As a child, I used to crave bonnet every day; the chocolate pudding mixed with macaroons, if done well, is simply delicious. Some of the region’s signature cheeses include toma, bra, raschera, robiola, and gorgonzola.

    Last but not least, most tourists come to Piedmont for natural sights like Gran Paradiso, to ski in various resorts, and to enjoy Monte Rosa, the highest mountain in the area.

    We asked Angelo Feltrin some questions about Piedmont at the event.

    What does the American tourist look for when visiting Piedmont?

    We need to divide the market in two sections. First, there is a group that we usually call “empty nesters” – people who are over 40, have a particular lifestyle, and essentially come for two reasons. The first reason is for the lakes. We have incredibly beautiful lakes that are very much appreciated by American visitors. It is a very relaxing vacation. At the lakes you can basically live as if you were at the seaside, since there are many beaches, but you are also surrounded by mountains where you can take walks and hiking trips. The weather is much better than at the seaside for it’s more temperate and the heat is not oppressive.

    The second reason is the hills. The hills in Piedmont, especially in the Langhe and Monferrato areas, are famous for their great food and wine. We are the only region in Italy and one of the only places in the world where you can find an exceptional and rare product: the white truffle of Alba.

    If we are talking about a young American tourist, someone more modern and more interested in something original and exciting Turin is definitely the answer.
    The city has changed immensely after the 2006 Winter Olympics. Once a quiet, somehow reserved town, it is now an international crossroads and an explosion of cultural initiatives and youth culture. It’s a city filled with students, workers, and immigrants from all over the world.
    Turin is now a cosmopolitan and multicultural city, and a lot of money has been invested in reshaping this aspect of the city and modernizing it.

    Is Turin becoming the second "cinema city" in Italy, after Rome? How is this affecting its image?

    Technically Turin was the first “cinecittà” (cinema city), the place where cinema was born in Italy and where many movie production studios were created. Then under Fascism, Rome became the center of film production but Turin still remains anchored to its history, and our Museum of Cinema demonstrates this since it preserves the history of movie-making in Italy in a very interactive environment.Nowadays Turin is again producing more movies and is a central location for film shoots.

    This is important not only for Piedmont’s industry and pride but also because it is a way to shift the image of Italy abroad, to include Italian locations in movies and make the audience identify a place and dream of going there--like it happened for Rome's Piazza di Spagna in "Roman Holiday." This works particularly well for the Indian market, but we are targeting the American market as well. There is a film commission which is working on using Turin as an additional “character” in movies.

    One of the region’s main strengths is food and wine tourism. Does this tend to appeal to younger generations of tourists?
    Well, food and wine tours can be appreciated by anyone but the only issue is that they might still be considered a bit expensive. We are studying less expensive options to attract a younger set. The mentality is changing though, thanks to “gastronomic universities” like the one in Pollenzo that are bringing young people and good food together. In any case, what people often remember about a trip is what they ate, regardless of their age, and in Piedmont food is part of the experience. You don’t eat to survive, but to share a moment with your loved ones, to chat, to enjoy yourself, to relax, and get to know each other.

    In what way is Turin much more youth-friendly than before?
    Nowadays there are people out every night, not only duning weekends. Nightlife is definitely exciting and modern. A few decades ago Turin was regulated by the “rhythm” of FIAT. It was an industrial city. There were three shifts at FIAT: 6am to 2 pm, 2pm to 8pm, and 8pm to midnight. There was much less time to have fun. The city is becoming more like Milan, a post-industrial city that offers services and attractions, where it’s great to go out.

    Is there an emphasis on Jewish-themed tourism, given the history of the region?
    We are obviously aware of the importance of the Jewish communities that have been here for centuries in Piedmont. Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor who wrote Se Questo È Un Uomo (If This Is A Man) was born in Turin. There is a considerable Jewish presence in Piedmont and in the towns near Casale Monferrato with beautiful and historically significant synagogues. We are in contact with various tour operators in Tel Aviv that work with us and organize specialized tours. What’s interesting is that the food and wine culture is also moving towards the appreciation of and the emphasis on kosher products and kosher wine-making. There are over 20,000 Jews who visit the region every year, generally staying for an average of four to five days. They come to ski and visit certain areas, but most of them have the opportunity to rent villas or hotels to gather their families, sometimes with relatives coming from Israel or the United States for religious holidays like Passover. Every time we go to Tel Aviv we promote our region to the Israeli market and we are aware of its importance in Italian-Jewish history.

    The ENIT event also focused on the upcoming 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification. Turin, which was once the capital of Italy, is central to this event. Various programs, displays, exhibits, and shows will allow the public to remember and celebrate. Four programs have been proposed: "Fare Gli Italiani" (focusing on the history, identity, and journey to become one Italy), "Futuro" (a large workshop that will explore how people will live in Italy tomorrow), "Dalle Italie all’Italia" (a cultural and artistic spin on the topic), and "Il Gusto" (focusing on taste and the Slow Food revolution). As the director of ENIT Riccardo Strano pointed out, it’s an important event that will bring together several national issues and initiatives. This is not a “one shot” event but the beginning of a collaboration between Piedmont and the United States.

  • Facts & Stories

    Napolitano Meets Nancy Pelosi, "The first Speaker of Italian Origin. Male or female.”

    Washington, DC. Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro—better known as Nancy Pelosi—is a woman who knows how to get things done.

    Everybody knows the determination with which she engineered the historic vote on Obama’s health-care bill and her world-known quote: “You go through the gate. If the gate's closed, you go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we'll pole vault in. If that doesn't work, we'll parachute in. But we're going to get health care reform passed for the American people.” American women are justifiably proud of her, and so is Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who praised her yesterday during their official meeting as “the first lady speaker of Italian origin”. To which Mrs Pelosi jokingly replied: “The first Speaker of Italian origin. Male or female.” A member of the National Organization of Italian American Women (NOIAW), Pelosi indeed has served for 13 years as a board member of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF).

     
     

    Mr. Napolitano, who also was the “Speaker” of Italy’s Chambers of Deputies years ago, met Mrs Pelosi on May 26, 2010, as part of a three day busy presidential trip to Washington. During their joint address to the press Mrs Pelosi, with a smile on her face and a loud, clear voice, welcomed Italy’s President to Capitol Hill: “President Napolitano, as I mentioned, is a known leader throughout the world: a recognized scholar, a champion of democracy and pluralism, and again, a person who commands respect wherever he goes.”

    After the meeting with President Obama,the “buzz” around Napolitano in these past days has been high in Washington DC as various members of the Congress looked forward to discuss with him about the European Union and, as the Speaker said, the Italy-US “common agendas,” from the economy and the war on terrorism. But in this specific case a somewhat special feeling emerged too, due to Pelosi’s Italian origins.

     
    Appreciation for Italian heritage and culture is deeply rooted in the United States, it was remarked. Washington DC, in its utopian conception as a city, owes a lot to Greek-Roman architecture and the Italian Renassaince ideals. Signs of Italian culture, past and present, are very visible everywhere you go, even at Capitol Hill. “The Capitol has been blessed with beautiful Italian contributions.” Mrs Pelosi said. “ When I became Speaker, Mr. President, I had the curator restore a lot of the Italian artwork that makes our Capitol so beautiful, not only here, but in the Rotunda and throughout the Capitol.  It is a sign, another link to Italy. But we have tens of millions of links to Italy in the contributions made by Italian Americans in our country, and we all think that President Napolitano must have the best job in the world to be the President of Italy.”
     
    Other topics of the meeting were more similar to those discussed with Barack Obama. Good transatlantic relationship as well as the unity and cohesion of the European Union were reaffirmed as being of primary importance. And Giorgio Napolitano, while stating that Europe is on its way to a solid integration, also underlined that it can still do “much more and much better to reinforce unity.” At the same time, he remarked, it is essential for Europe to be “stimulated and urged by a great friend, the American ally, to come together and speak up with one voice.”
     
    From Capitol Hill, Mr Napolitano was then taken to the Supreme court for further meetings and for a lunch with Chief Justice John Roberts, Senior Justice Antonin Scala and then to a visit to the stunning and ancient Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, preserving the earliest books and documents of American history.
     
    The overarching theme of this official visit seems to be a call to action to work together side by side as two strong and self-confident allies. Napolitano said that
     
    Overall, the spirit of the meeting with Nancy Pelosi perfectly captured the overarching theme of this official visit and its different nuances: reaffirming the alliance between Europe and the United States, boosting Italy-US friendship, and honoring the Italian-American contribution to the fabric of this country as the essential basis for their ongoing mutual cooperation in the future.

  • Facts & Stories

    Obama-Napolitano. A Friendly Meeting

    WASHINGTON – Encounters between Presidents, the moments in which nations come together, are always charged with great symbolic value. The first official visit of Giorgio Napolitano to Washington can hardly  be an exception : a former Italian Communist leader in his 80s meting the first African-American US President, who anagraphically could be his grandson. But regardless of their very different personal and historical backgrounds, the two leaders seemed to get along very well, as if they had something in common.

    The two men  have had other chances to meet, the  most recent being after the terrible earthquake  in  L’Aquila in 2009, but this was the first time Napolitano was received at the White House. This official visit means a great deal for both Italians and Americans. The issues at stake range from the several wars that are  going on around the world to the current global economic crisis, from the domestic politics of both countries to the role of Italian culture and language abroad.

    The political roles of the two heads of state are very different. In Italy ,  the President is elected by Parliament and has virtually no executive powers: he must ensure the country’s “institutional equilibrium” and places himself above the politics of the day.

    As such, Napolitano embodies a less known Italy for Americans and for Obama himself, who has often met in the past with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

    Giorgio Napolitano is a calm and highly educated man with a rich and fascinating personal history. He  was a prominent leader of the Italian Communist Party until the party was dissolved at the end of the Cold War to give birth to different political formations including the Democratic Party, the largest oppostion force in Italy today. President since 2006, Napolitano has been a great supporter of Obama. After the latter’s victory in 2008 he expressed his enthusiasm for the election of the first African-American President, an event he saluted as a revolutionary moment in history.

    The meeting comes at a moment in which Obama is struggling to implement his program, from last month’s Health Care reform to the recently passed Financial Reform, which Napolitano publicly praised after their meeting. As of today, Obama was also busy removing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military, which allows gays to serve in the army on condition that they do not declare their homosexuality openly.

    Both Obama and Napolitano described their  meeting  as very  cordial and intimate, in the spirit of friendship, a friendship that in Napolitano’s own words “ was expressed even in  our handshake, in the deep exchange of our gazes”.

    The visit combined a lot of appointments and events. After his arrival, the Italian President was taken to the National Gallery of  Art, where he was received by the Chief of Exhibitions Dodge Thompson and the Chief of Protocol Carol Kelley. He visited the museum and the Italian collection, and later in the Italian Embassy he had the chance to express his appreciation for the social and cultural role played in the US by millions of Americans of Italian ancestry, the descendants of early immigrants who are now  an integral part of the connective tissue of the American social fabric.

    As the sun was setting behind the modern-looking embassy (among the great design names are Carlo Scarpa, Achille Castiglioni, Renzo Piano, Luciano Baldassarre, Ettore Sottsass and many others.), the president greeted a group of journalists, professors, scholars, and entrepreneurs with a brief speech that also emphasized the alliance between the two countries in the field of scientific research, trade and business.

    The day after, on a gloomy morning that turned into a beautiful  spring day, the meeting at the White House took place “in perfect continuity with the previous one in Rome,” Napolitano said. It also touched upon “the relationship between Europe and the United States in  the  light of the financial crisis.”

    For both presidents this crisis also means new opportunities. Obama stated that it is in the United States’ interest to have   a  more cohesive, united and assertive Europe. Napolitano responded that even with the present crsis, worsened by the Greek national debt, the Euro  and  the European Union are not at risk. He advocated “a jump forward” towards more discipline in the Union’s budget  and more effective co - ordiation in several fields, from economic policy to the environment.”

    As American diplomacy seems to focus on new actors  on the  global scene—like China, India and Brasil —both presidents emphasized that this doesn’t detract from  the  transatlantic relationship. The military alliance embodied by the NATO remains a crucial pillar of peace, and Napolitano emphasized the important role played by Italy in Afghanistan, as well as the importance of the meeting between Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and Senator Mitchell on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Napolitano also invited Obama to visit Italy again in 2011 and take part to the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the country’s unification.

    The presidential visit continues with a host of other meetings, including a private discussion with the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Napolitano will also meet Justice Antonin  Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts at the Supreme Court, former US President Bill Clinton, and the Order of Sons of Italy in America (OSIA).

    Over 200 years ago George Washington said that “Some day, following the example of the United States of America, there will be a United States of Europe.”
    Without Europe there wouldn’t be the United States, but nowadays the dependance is mutual and it’s also through these political encounters that one makes the other stronger. 

  • Art & Culture

    NY Documentary Film Festival: an International Celebration of Fascinating Stories

    The documentary genre has always held an interesting place within the film industry. The task of "documenting" reality, in fact, can be very simple and at the same time it requires a lot of afterthought. It's also hard to define since it can be done in a variety of ways: a denouncing piece, a learning tool, a national geographic style journey or simply a person staring at a camera and telling a personal story. Ultimately, what a good documentary should always be about is capturing a piece of history, a slice of real life, a culture, a people. People in fact, different cultures and communities, are usually at the center of the best and most poignant and thought-provoking documentaries.

    During the past decade there has been a rebirth of this genre. Something that has always attracted a very limited public is now a much more established and appreciated kind of entertainment. Online archives such as Netflix have entire sections dedicated to documentaries that surprisingly attract even very young audiences; award shows such as the Oscars, Cannes or the Golden Globes have dedicated much more attention to the documentaries competing than they used to do in the past; film schools all over the world have increased or have created from scratch classes on documentary film-making and nowadays it's easier to just grab a camera and make a documentary, easier than making a narrative feature.

    The genre has always been closely associated with something which, if not "avant-garde", is definitely less mainstream and it took archives such as the Festival dei Popoli in Florence a lot of effort to preserve, promote, and study thousands of films by Italian and International artists. The Florentine archive has about 10.000 titles and it functions as a cultural center, organizing also courses, lectures and the most important documentary festivals in Italy and all over the world.

    I-Italy had the pleasure of meeting with Francesco Fadda, who, for the past three years has contributed to make the name Festival dei Popoli known also in the United States and has helped to organize and expand a very fascinating event, now at its third edition: the New York Documentary Film Festival-Festival dei Popoli, organized with sponsors such as the PGA (Producers Guild Association), Anthology Film Archives, the New York Women in Film and TV and the FitzGerald Foundation in Florence.

    Francesco Fadda explained that the archive celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, since it was created in 1959. "The idea to bring it to New York came as part of a series of other cultural initiatives linked to the region of Tuscany. Among these events the Festival was going to be a somewhat "elitist" treat for a few aficionados but interestingly enough it was the thing that stood out while the others never fully made it to New York. It was a great success because it offered something that was missing. Paradoxically we felt that in a city like New York, where there is an incredible offer in the world of cinema and entertainment, there wasn't a Documentary Film Festival like this one. There are very specific reviews or festivals, on different topics, but ours is more generalized and open to a wide range of stories and countries.

    "The selection process is very careful. We have a historical section, for example, "The feeling of being there" for which we chose some of the titles that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the archive. For our program we usually look for two directors, a man and a woman, with a relatively new film that has never been showed in the United States (Gianfranco Rosi, Enrica Colusso) and this year we also have a retrospective on Alessandro Rossetto under the section "Italian Chronicles". There are also artists from various countries and some great American directors such as Robert Frank."

    "There is not a common theme but overall every story denounces something or brings something new to the surface. They are about real life. We are opening with Gianfranco Rosi and his documentary Below the Sea Level which is about people that at a certain moment in their lives find themselves lost and go live in the desert in California. In a way one could say these are stories about communities. In Abc Colombia we follow a group of little children that live by themselves. In Closing, which is about a hairdresser salon getting shut down and embraces the neighborhood around it.

    What kind of audience do you find at your festival?
    It's a very mixed audience of Americans, New Yorkers, Italians and various International people. Young and old. Overall these movies make you reflect and they expose you to a different point of view. What interests us is that the American audience is very involved and makes up the majority of our spectators. We benefit from archives like Anthology Film Archives that have already established an audience base. There are some similarities between the Festival and Anthology. Artists like Jonas Mekas in the United States that changed the avant-garde landscape in the same way the Festival was groundbreaking especially at its start in the 1960s in Italy.

    Is there any difficulty?
    The interesting thing is that our program is hard to define especially with the press. The name Festival might be misleading since it's more of a Film Review, a series of screenings but Festival dei Popoli was the original name of the archive and also we are not excluding that this might actually become a festival venue. We might start with a single category or open it to young people with new initiatives. Maybe the hardest task is to get our name out there among the US organizations and audience.

    Are the screenings followed by a Q & A?
    yes, and there is a presentation at the beginning of the festival. The directors, when they are here in New York, are always available for questions and they create interesting discussions.
    On May 27, 2010, at 4:30, at the Calandra Institute there will be a special event: a round-table where one can have the possibility to meet the directors which is particularly aimed at film students, students with a passion for cinema, young people interested in the arts but not only. Everyone who wants to know more about the background of certain documentaries or is interested in their production and development should come. The discussion will be moderated by Tanja Meding who is a producer of documentaries and has worked with PGA and the NY Women in Film and TV and Alessandro Rossetto, Enrica Colusso and Gianfranco Rosi will be present to discuss their films.

    Is there a direct link between the Festival and the possibility of a US distribution?
    There are some documentaries which have been considered for distribution although that is not the main goal of the festival. Last year the Italian film-maker Alina Marrazzi's movie was picked up by Women Make Movies, an independent production. Our "alliance" with PGA actually aims at these new possibilities and partnerships. The more we can connect with the US distribution the better, of course. There is a new series of events this year, following the Florentine edition which focuses on the market, the trade and production, where producers can interact with distributors.

    Do you think that documentary is more established in the US?
    In the United States you could say that documentaries are more widespread. There is definitely more distribution online or in the movie theaters. In Italy there is less choice of what is screened, since it's a smaller market and there is less knowledge of this genre.

    Is there anything different about this 3rd edition?
    The biggest news is that we are still doing this festival and it's becoming more and more successful. This year we are opening with an Italian artist while the past two years we paid homage to the country hosting us. Rosi (Below Sea Level) has lived for a long time in New York and the United States.

    What is the approach towards different cultural contexts of the US audience?
    Sometimes there are documentaries that are very specific to one country's reality or to the Italian historical framework and they become harder to contextualize; obviously they require more explanation. The audience though is usually very curious and we have had Q & As lasting for hours even until late at night. It's a great atmosphere for both the artists and the public. The movies are usually chosen because of their merit but we also pay attention so that they are not too obscure or hard to translate, not just in terms of subtitles.

    What is the best aspect about being involved with this festival?
    The best part is seeing the people following us and responding to our events. It gives us great satisfaction. When a movie is greatly appreciated it means that we did a good job choosing the program. It's also great to collaborate with Florence. We have become a team and it 's a great way to connect the two continents.

    3rd New York Documentary Film Festival 
    Festival dei Popoli

    May 26 -30, 2010

    Anthology Film Archives

    32 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003

    Directions:  F, V to 2 Avenue-Lower East Side / B, D to Broadway - Lafayette / 6 to Bleecker Street.

     
    Tickets are available at the box office only, $9;  $ 6 for AFA members and free for NYWIFT and PGA members.

  • Art & Culture

    "Le Conversazioni 2010: a Symposium on Human Rights in Beautiful Capri"

    The best intellectual exchanges among writers, philosophers, politicians and artists are often triggered by the simplest, most personal, conversations. Lectures, academic treatises or books can enhance and spread their ideas, but - much like true friendship - it's the back and forth between two people, the way a topic shifts if challenged immediately in a lively chat, in a real "live" symposium, that often brings out the deepest thoughts.

    In ancient times a symposium was also very closely associated to pleasure: the pleasures of each other's company, in friendship or in a relationship, the pleasures of food and wine, the pleasures of the aesthetic beauty of a landscape or something artistic. 

    Five years ago the journalist and NYU professor Antonio Monda and Davide Azzolini managed to create an event that embodies this "ancient" spirit and delivers fresh, original "conversations" among intellectuals that are all linked together by a common theme, juxtapose ideas and people or connect them through the various days and events. This event is indeed called "Le Conversazioni" and is held in Capri, the Italian island that is a synonym of the pleasures described above. One summer day in Capri equals delicious food, tasty wine, relaxed and tan people coming together with their friends and families, and breathtaking landscapes over the shimmery light-blue water. 

    Each edition has brought together famous names from the Anglo-American (and particularly New York) literary scene as well as famous Italian writers. While in New York Antonio Monda is officiously famous among the artistic intelligentsia of both continents for making the Upper West Side more "Italian" through his Sunday brunches attended by writers, film directors and actors, during the summer it is Capri, already chosen by Americans as a tourist destination, which becomes a small "big apple", where people from all over the world grab their cup of coffee to rush to the latest cultural event while at the same time relaxing and sunbathing.

    Every night for two weekends between June and July, in front of two natural "skyscrapers", the gorgeous Faraglioni, majestic rocks that emerge from the sea, this festival finds a theme to discuss and develop through the various nights. Last year, in 2009, the topic was the Seven Deadly Sins, seen in various contexts: religious, secular, cultural, psychological or personal and ironic. 

    The documentary shown at Casa italiana Zerilli-Marimò on May 4 2010, directed by Carlotta Corradi, linked together the conversations from last year that featured Jay Mcinerney, Nathan Englander, Salman Rushdie, David Sedaris, Roberto Saviano and Patti Smith and was dedicated to the memory of David Foster Wallace. Each "sin" was interpreted and discussed by a different participant. Patti Smith read a poem about Lust and sang "Because the Night", David Sedaris joked about the concept of greed, Roberto Saviano linked the concept of envy with a tragic political reality and his personal life, Salman Rushdie challenged the notion itself of sin while beautifully depicting sloth in his writing and Antonio Monda coordinated the discussions often offering quotes from books, movies and religious texts to give talking points to the authors. 

    The documentary recaptured the most interesting moments of last year's festival, ultimately blending different conversations into one fluid symposium that entertained the audience and was very easy to follow even for those who weren't present in Capri. 

    At Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò and at the Morgan Library a few days later Antonio Monda and Davide Azzolini presented in New York City the 2010 edition of "Le Conversazioni" which will start on June 25 and continue through July 4 (in Capri) and will focus on the topic of liberty and human rights. 
     

    The theme of liberty and freedom in literature and philosophy is a crucial one but its implications in the social-political world expand far beyond art and imagination. Those who touch on these topics have an actual effect on the reality around them. The Marilena Ferrari-FMR Foundation and Dazzle Communications have teamed up together to support the event and work on a series of "conversations" revolving around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

    Antonio Monda introduced this year's topic with a brief speech, looking at the different contextualization of freedom and human rights. There is the importance of dignity and equality, a constant in every important democratic constitution nowadays; it will be interesting also to reflect on the core American values, such as the spirit of brotherhood and the celebration of liberty itself (given that the festival ends on the 4th of July) for example with E. L. Doctorow, a writer immersed in the social and political reality of the United States; the topic will allow the authors to reflect upon words of wisdom of the past and of the present. Great thinkers like Gandhi, Voltaire and many more have poignant aphorisms one could write entire books on. Antonio Monda, in his introduction, shared some interesting starting points for a symposium. Thucydides' idea that "the secret of happiness is freedom, the secret of freedom is courage" or the famous quote from the gospels "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free" or even the radical and provoking concept that humankind might be actually condemned to freedom. All these point of views are part of a framework that will guide the 2010 edition. 

    The participants, divided in two main week-ends (June 25-26-27 and July 2-3-4) will be: the novelist E.L. Doctorow, Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian winner of the 2007 Orange Prize and the 2009 International Prize for Half of a Yellow Sun, Colson Whitehead, candidate for the Pulitzer prize in 2001, Joshua Ferris (Then we came to the end), David Byrne, leader of the band Talking Heads (writer, Bicycle diaries), Adam Haslett, young literary promise Paolo Giordano (La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi) and screenwriter Paolo Sorrentino.

    In the case of the Seven Deadly Sins, the 2009 festival became a way to share some thoughts about the beauty of being human, appreciating the hedonistic aspects for life while maintaining an ethical and moral balance. The 2010 edition seems just as promising: a cultural occasion that is not about teaching but about sharing, that triggers imagination, human intellectual depth and personal enrichment, within a joyous and relaxing atmosphere, not an academic one. 

    The festival, held at the Hotel Punta Tragara, is free and every event is bilingual, attracting both Americans and Italians, tourists and aficionados, young and old. 

    In 2009 writer George Saunders said that in addition to the seven sins, there is an 8th one, the worst one, the one that must always be avoided: the absence of intellectual curiosity. One thing is sure: this 8th sin is the one which will absolutely be banned in Capri this summer.  

  • Art & Culture

    Ferzan Ozpetek: A Loose Cannon in New York

    When a movie travels from a country to another its significance often goes beyond its plot and actors. Much like an immigrant moving to start a new life, it becomes the vessel of many representations and it tests the water to see how well and how fast it will be assimilated.

    A country's National cinema is often portrayed by its auteurs, who capture the soul of the people contextualizing them in a very specific reality within the social and cultural frames. An auteur usually has an internal point of view, that of someone who grew up there but not always...
     

    In the United States, for example, when in 2005 Korean director Ang Lee made the movie "Brokeback mountain" or "Taking Woodstock" in 2009, many commented on the fact that these two very American stories were made by someone who wasn't born in the US; someone who came here young enough to assimilate but still has an objective, external eye, which helped him in perfectly capturing a nation at a certain moment in time. The two Ang Lee movies, in fact, feature cowboys, the deep and authentic "American" ideas and mentality, the background of Wyoming or in the second case the music and radical alternative culture that shaped a generation in Woodstock.

    A similar thing has often been said when it comes to Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek who moved to Italy in the 1970s to attend the Sapienza University in Rome. While his first movies are strongly linked to his homeland his latest have featured all the most important Italian actors and writers and have embodied and portrayed Italy in its essence and its variety, with an authenticity and a passionate interest for searching for true characters, for showing various sides of the country he knows so well.

    The emotional depth of Ferzan’s stories is boundless to begin with and that is why Ozpetek has been very well received in different countries, but it's still fascinating to look at how this artist has reinforced his second national identity while progressively becoming identified as an Italian auteur, especially abroad. Among his most famous movies are The Ignorant Fairies (Le fate ignoranti, 2001), Facing Windows (La finestra di fronte, 2003), Cuore sacro (2005) Saturno in Opposition (Saturno Contro 2007).

    Ozpetek has been honored with a retrospective at MOMA last December, something that very few Italian and International artists have obtained.

    Now his latest movie, Loose Cannons (Mine Vaganti) has opened at the Tribeca Film Festival and has been released both in Italy and the United States, produced by Fandango. ( add cast)

    Loose Cannons is a movie that revives the tradition of the Italian comedy (Commedia all'Italiana), a genre centered around comical misunderstandings, families coming together and a light-hearted mood and humor while often touching on important issues and tragic themes. While in other Ozpetek movies, for example, homosexuality is explored in a more dramatic way, here it comes out in a much more playful context; the movie is more of a celebration of life and of relationships rather than an argumentative denouncing piece, which actually allows the audience to be immersed in a deeper feeling, a warm understanding rather than a complex debate.

    At the RAI Corporation in New York, shortly after the screening of his movie at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ferzan Ozpetek and a delegation of his actresses and his screenwriter presented the movie in the United States. Loose Cannons is a story about the Cantone family in Lecce, that runs a pasta factory, the family business for generations. Tommaso lives a happy life in Rome with his lover Marco and decides to go back home to finally come out at a family dinner knowing that this will provoke his father and allow him not to get involved in the family business. His older brother Antonio is in fact the one who has been involved with the factory for the longest time. Tommaso's plan is changed by Antonio's sudden announcement: he reveals he's a homosexual as well. While several twists and relationship dramas occur, the family struggles to keep the news as hidden as possible from the people around them and the  movie weaves together various funny and poignant characters as the multiple conflicts and plot points develop at a fast and humorous pace.

    Ferzan Ozpetek declared that he was very impressed with the reception of the movie so far and proudly declared that this is one of his personal favorites among the ones he wrote and directed.

    Interviewed by the journalist and President of the Dante Alighieri Foundation, Claudio Angelini, in an event organized in cooperation with RAI International and Acina,  the cast and crew of Loose Cannons shared their thoughts on the movie.

    Ozpetek explained that the movie began as something fun, a light-hearted project. "It was a project that allowed me to make some significant changes compared to the movies I made before. This story is not set in Rome like most of my others and doesn't draw its charm from the Roman contextualization but instead from Lecce, in Puglia. Ivan Cotroneo is a screenwriter I have never worked with before and it was a pleasant new collaboration. Also, it's obviously easy to focus on the theme of homosexuality that pervades all my movies, but my view is that I want people to be able to look beyond that. People don't present themselves only through their sexuality and this movie aims at analyzing the relationship between parents and their offspring, the generation gap, the tense and chaotic relationships within a family, the emotions at stake"

    Ozpetek continued on the topic: "Vincenzo (the father in the movie) sees his sons as a continuation of himself as his ideal right-hand men but his expectations need to embrace the actual reality. I think the relationship with our parents is crucial and important for all of our lives, no matter how independent we become or how old we are. When my movie was shown here at Tribeca and the audience reacted well and applauded I wished my parents were in that room too; I still try to live up to their expectations."

    Ozpetek follows his movies from beginning to end and he said with a smile that he has to admit that this one has "something more". The screenwriter Ivan Cotroneo helped contextualize the movie within the genre:"Even the atmosphere on set or while we were writing and collaborating was that of a comedy. We laughed a lot and we focused on the positive message of the freedom of declaring one's choices within a family".

    Working with Ozpetek was recalled by everyone in the cast as a great and enriching experience. Elena Sofia Ricci said that she had always dreamed of being asked by Ozpetek to act in one of his movies. "I told him I was ready to do anything. I wanted to try something different, to challenge myself in a role filled with complexity and poetry. He is a very special director. We would rehearse our scenes at the table and he would constantly ask us what we thought" Lunetta Savino, who already worked with Ozpetek on "Saturn in Opposition" said that her character Stefania was a multi-layered role, a mother with several inner troubles and conflicts, but that like many Southern women from a bourgeois class would always go a step too far to keep up appearances.

    She underlined how Ferzan follows his character even in minor details such as the costume, the make-up and said that that attention makes it easier for the actors to play a part.

    The other members of the cast are incredibly well-versed actors and famous "stars" of Italian cinema such as Riccardo Scamarcio, Nicole Grimaudo, Alessandro Preziosi, Ennio Fantastichi, Ilaria Occhini and Paola Minaccioni. The latter was present and she also underlined the emphasis on the comedic element put by Ozpetek in his latest endeavor. 

    Loose Cannons received a Special Jury Mention at the Tribeca Film Festival 2010 and the jury commented that the movie "expertly combining family drama and farce, ‘Loose Cannons’ tackles its subject matter with warmth, humor and grace. For making us laugh, cry and immediately want to book a trip to Southern Italy, we congratulate director Ferzan Ozpetek and his talented cast and collaborators on this special mention.”

    Overall Ozpetek was enthusiastic about the reaction of American audiences. "I was very happy to see that they would wait out for me after the screening with lots of things to ask me or say about the movie. It was great to see them laugh and cry when the movie delivered", said the director.

    The importance of the Apulian setting is quite interesting. Lecce is a side of Italy we rarely see in movies. "You know how when you are in New York you always feel like you have already been there or that you are in a movie because we absorbed these images unconsciously from the movies? Well I hope Lecce has a similar effect on the Americans, making them go there fascinated by the city and the region around it"

    It's always important when a movie makes the setting part of the story because its cultural significance is not limited to the silver screen. How many times has one walked around Rome and pretended to be in Roman Holidays?

    Ozpetek also noted that maybe in the United States the audience laughs even more than in Italy "because they are probably more attentive but in the end the truth is that if a movie works it works in every country and life is much better  when we laugh and look at it lightheartedly.

  • Events: Reports

    Evelina Meghnagi: the Melodies and Journeys of Sephardic Jews

     Nowadays it’s kind of funny how we literally carry music around. In our I-pods and Mp3 players there can be thousands of songs and we bring them from a place to the other. Music has always been carried around, though, in a more metaphorical sense.

    Songs are something that trace as far back as pre-historical time. It’s hard to say why people sing or when they started, why people put together certain sounds, tones and vocal utterances to form a melody. Who was the first man who decided to beat two stones together and how did he come up with a certain rhythm? Entire cultures, religious ideas begin with dancing and singing. This is what is fascinating.

    It’s easy to see how a song can be created rationally for a ritual, how a prayer can be put to music,  but often what happens is the other way around. It’s the spontaneous magic of a tribal dance that built a ritual, the “mystical” effect of certain natural sounds or patterns of rhythm that through time and rational progress, established a tradition. Music is part of culture and religion but it’s beyond entertainment, beyond religion, beyond a sense of something fun and communal: it’s irrational and it’s a natural instinct that has a powerful and deeper effect on us. And it’s the catharsis that music creates which allows for a strange state of trance, you could call spiritual or simply human, although the name doesn’t matter that much...

    Going back on how music was taken from place to place thousands of years ago, we know of nomads, shepherds, traveling storytellers, tribal shamans, little villages moved around the Mediterranean and the surface of the Earth bringing with them not only objects and belongings, but also songs.

    Eternal voyagers, among various nomadic tribes, are of course the Jews, who went from a nomadic tradition to a fate of continuous “diasporas”, exiled from Egypt, separated again after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, kicked out of Spain in the 15th century, dispersed all over the Middle-East and North Africa, persecuted all over Europe and forced to leave newly found “promised land” in Lybia, Lebanon and Yemen from where, in some cases, even recently they had to flee again.

    The Jews who moved around the Mediterranean and the Middle-East or those who were first born in Spain are usually called Sephardic. This term can have an ethnic connotation but also a religious one. The Sephardic rituals are slightly different from modern “mainstream” Judaism or for example from the Chasidic Jews, from the eastern European Ashkenazi context or the Yiddish one. Although ideally Judaism doesn’t allow mixed marriages, it’s impossible not to notice how Sephardics are ethnically and culturally mixed with Arabs, Turks, Africans, Persians both in the physical traits and the traditions, the food, the clothes and sometimes even the language (many dialects that mix Hebrew and Arabic). In most cases it was a clash of cultures but sometimes - like in Spain during the time of Avverroes, Maimonides in the 13th and 14th century- it was a peaceful intellectual debate, a cohabitation of communities;  something as elaborate, mystical and fascinating as the Alahambra in Granada, a testimony of Arab culture but also of many Jewish roots and ideas.

    On a rainy night in New York City, on April 26 2010, as part of the festival Divinamente New York, the Italian Cultural Institute hosted an event that for a couple of hours immersed its audience in the smell of spices, the heat of the desert, the colors of far away lands, the taste of honey-filled sweet dishes, fruit and the magic of storytelling through music.

    Sephardic music was born in medieval Spain, with canciones being performed at the royal courts. It developed mixing melodies and sounds from Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Balkans and what was once the Ottoman Empire.

    Evelina Meghnagi held a concert in which all these traditions came together, combined with her personal history, a Jew who was born in Lybia and left to live in Rome after 1967 and the political consequences of the 6 day war in Israel.

    Sephardic songs have a lot in common with Arabic poetry. If anyone is familiar with Khalil Gibran, his themes, ideas and poems, they can have a pretty basic idea of what this poetry represents: something in between popular beliefs, a “neo-platonic” idea of love - represented both by love seen as a constant longing, as a sickness and at the same time filled with eroticism and graphic images like in the Song of the Songs- and alchemy, mysticism and philosophy.

    Usually these sung poems have certain canons: there are ceremonial poems - because weddings, births and other steps of the life-cycle are essentially linked to music - there are romance songs and topical or "dancing" songs. 

    In the show “From Voice to Voice” (di Voice in Voce) which Evelina Meghnagi has performed in various countries, she leads the audience in a beautiful journey from one song to another, from place to place. Before every songs she recited a poem, a psalm, a quote from the Song of the Songs, a personal story or just shared her humor and her warm smile. Evelina Meghnagi is a performer, an actress and a singer and her presence is itself theatrical. A loving and inspired gaze, a matronal figure, a gorgeous yellow-golden tunic with a red "cape" and a silver necklace, a loud voice through which she provided a context for her stories, talking in English, slightly tinged with a Roman accent.

    The two musicians accompanying her, Domenico Ascione and Arnaldo Vacca (Ashira Ensemble), a guitarist and a percussionist, delivered an exciting performance. Going around with our I-pod in our ears sometimes we forget the power of live music, of being part of an audience sharing a common physical experience. In this context the heartbeat starts following the drums, the breath is regulated by the voice of the singer and the guitar's arpeggios hit strings within us that raise a strange unconscious awareness. 

    The experience becomes very visceral. This kind of music is often meant for dancing, either in circles (hora) or for belly-dancing or, in some cases, twirling around like dervishes, losing the perception of the outside world. In all of these cases it is a music with few intellectual filters, it speaks to our basic instincts. 

    Evelina Meghnagi managed to keep her audience under a spell, while singing songs from different cultures within the Jewish world, either from Northern Italy, Spain, or Lybia. 

    The Italian Cultural Institute was packed with members of the Yemenite and Sephardic communities, Italians, Jews and New Yorkers of all faiths. The director of Centro Primo Levi

    Natalia Indrimi was present and enjoyed the performance. The show is also meant to make the voice heard of certain communities that are less "famous" than others throughout Jewish history. In particular Evelina Meghnagi who was born in Tripoli and now lives in Rome speaks on behalf of a community who lived a somewhat "hidden exodus" in the 1960s and that had to restart a new life from scratch assimilating into the already well established Roman community. That particular community grew up with these songs as daily tunes and lullabies. 

    Evelina Meghnagi sang various ballads that because of their similarity of rhythm and tone, reminded in fact of lullabies, something that we don't understand completely but that act at a deeper level, calming and soothing, cradling us. 

    If you've ever been in the desert (in the Middle-East or North Africa) you might experience a strange feeling when you leave it. In Italian it's called "mal d'Africa" and is quite unexplainable, because it's beyond one's faith and family history: sometimes it just happens.  Having traveled a lot in that area, sitting in Beduoin tents drinking tea while listening to that same music, having absorbed stories from family friends that carried those traditions made this experience even more meaningful for me but it was a show that spoke to a general audience as well. 

    Overall, what Divinamente New York is about and what this event portrayed really well was that sense that, whether you are a believer or not, sometimes religious traditions can be very powerful and culturally significant on various levels. Religion, much like philosophy, is born with awe, with amazement, with the acknowledgment of the power of life and in the deepest Jewish (but also Arab) tradition, songs, dances and the power of life are one and the same.

  • Events: Reports

    Umbria Jazz in New York: An Exceptional Fusion of Sounds

    Do the names B.B. King, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Goerge Coleman mean anything to you? What do they have in common besides being some of the most inspired and talented musicians of our era, who changed jazz forever? Well, they all played, at different times of their life at the Umbria Jazz festival along with other stars such as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Carlos Santana.

    Since 1973,  in fact, Umbria, a small and very secluded Italian region has hosted one of the most important International musical events which takes place during  the summer in Perugia and during the Winter in Orvieto. More important is that this festival is a perfect venue for Italian artists, famous or not, and a place where one's talent and knowledge of this genre can be expanded.

    Enzo Capua, the organizer of the festival, explained to i-Italy how Umbria Jazz branched out to various countries and to the United States. Organizing Jazz-themed events in New York is of course the crucial part of the exportation of this Italian event.  New York is where Jazz dominated the musical scene in the 1920s: it is a city that along with New Orleans and Chicago, is almost a synonym with this melanchonic and yet passionate genre, something that is very intellectual and mental and also very spontaneous in its improvisational style.

    "The idea of bringing the festival to New York came up years ago." said Enzo Capua. "In 2001 we had our first night at Town Hall and since 2004 the festival became an annual event."

    "Our goal is to promote Italian Jazz which especially in the last decade has been graced with a rising number of talented artist and a much broader diffusion. We would like for these artists to be recognized outside of Italy as well as for our festival to reach people of all nations. We brought Umbria Jazz to Argentina and Australia as well as the United States."

    Although the city hosts plenty of musical guests, Umbria Jazz is at the top of the list, gaining more and more visibility every year and reaching a very diverse audience in the hot-spots for Jazz aficionados.

    As Enzo Capua explained: "Here in New York we have had various concerts held at Birdland, which is the biggest and one of the most fascinating Jazz clubs in the city as well as Blue Note and many others. The Enrico Rava Quintet has incredible talent and speaks to a global audience."

    The 2010 edition of Umbria Jazz will be one to remember.
     

    "The most important and exciting event this year is both revolutionary and historical. We will have a big concert at a well-known Baptyst Church with Rava's Quintet and the "Inspirational Ensemble" in Harlem marking the first time that an Italian Jazz band will perform with an African American gospel choir, combining two powerful traditions and ethnicities, very different and yet linked by certain themes and musical patterns. The fact that the concert will be set in Harlem is highly significant both on a cultural and political level. We hope to reach out to members of the Harlem community and to create an experience that speaks to those who live there."
    The concert will feature two different performances, both half an hour long of each group and then a final exhibition (40 minutes) of the bands together."

    This performance in Harlem will take place on May 4th 2010 at 7:30pm (doors open at 6:30pm) at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church (420 West 145th Street) and the admission is free. Also, from May 4th until May 8th the Enrico Rava Quintet will play at Birdland every night.

    Bill Evans once said that Jazz is a mental attitude rather than a style: a combination of tones and colors, often in dissonance, in an unresolved melancholia. A gospel choir reminds us of everything that is linked with harmony, faith, optimism and strength coming from supporting each other. Put these things together and you'll have an exceptional event, something magical and yet deep that you don't want to miss.

     
      ***

     
     

    UMBRIA JAZZ FESTIVAL PRESENTS
    A SPECIAL CONCERT IN HARLEM
     
    FEATURING
     BEST OF ITALIAN JAZZ & THE BEST VOICES FROM HARLEM
    Enrico Rava Quintet ¨ The Convent Avenue Baptist Church “Inspirational Ensemble”
     
    Tuesday, May 4th, 2010
    7:30PM (Doors at 6:30PM)
    at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church
    420 West 145th Street at Convent Avenue (A, C, or D trains to 145th Street Station)
     
    Top Italian Jazz and the best voices of Harlem come together in an historic international cultural and musical collaboration featuring the dynamic Enrico Rava Quintet and the spectacular voices of Harlem’s Convent Avenue Baptist Church “Inspirational Ensemble,” under the conduction of Dr. Gregory Hopkins.
     
    This concert is open to the public and admission is free.
    Join us for an exciting and uplifting musical experience!

    Umbria Jazz will continue in New York from May 5th-8th with concerts of

         Enrico Rava Quintet
    @ Birdland

    Please visit www.birdlandjazz.com for more information about performances
    Umbria Jazz 2010 will be held in Perugia, Italy from July 9th-18th.

    www.umbriajazz.com to learn more

     

  • Op-Eds

    Jersey Boys: Italian Americans Beyond Stereotypes

    "You're just too good to be true...can't take my eyes off of you...", "Oh...what a night...", "Walk like a man"...lyrics and music that played on a stereo at home, or that I picked up from movies at an early age that evoked a few simple images: skyscrapers, yellow cabs rushing up and down, handsome men with a cigar singing and entertaining the audience with seductive and smooth dance moves. This was basically my dream image of New York City.
     

        When I finally got a sense of the real New York City, with its grungy and wild youth culture and hectic work life, that old-school image still stayed with me. Four years of college turned me into a Manhattan "socialite", a New Yorker before anything else, one of those people who would look at New Jersey snobbishly, as the suburban frame of a pulsing intellectual and fun island. I looked at my journey here as a social experiment. Like an anthropologist, I immersed myself, forgetting my roots in order to be completely absorbed by another culture. This allowed me to blend in and build friendships and relationships without trying to seek refuge in any sort of Italian circle in the city.

    My childhood and adolescence in Italy stayed with me, as images of paradise, a fantastic treasure box of memories, a warm sense of friendship and culture. I came here to start my life from scratch, to actually build something new and not to live stuck in the middle between the two continents. I decided to give myself completely to this new land and I benefited from growing up in the 90s and the 2000s surrounded by a much more "borderless" web-based culture with very few differences between me and someone who grew up in New York.
Once here, I also discovered and started to explore Italian American culture, but it always seemed remote to me.


    A few nights ago, I took a couple of friends to see the Broadway play "Jersey Boys", without knowing what to expect. I chose it because I knew it got great reviews but I walked in blissfully, simply ready to enjoy the show. When "Jersey Boys" began all these reflections on my personal history, on the two countries and the cultural references linked to Italian Americans started rushing into my brain, while the music gently swept me away; I began to forget where I was and followed the story.


    What enhanced this experience even more was that I went to see it with two people: an old friend from Rome and a college friend from Texas. It's hard to categorize both of them and to fit them into a stereotype, but at least on the surface, they were to a certain extent the typical Italian and the typical American.Their jokes, their comments and the memories they shared made me reflect on the importance of an artistic success such as "Jersey Boys" as a representation of Italian immigrants.

     

    Jersey Boys is the story of Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio, four young Italian American guys from New Jersey who in the 60s sold almost as much as the Beatles in the United States. At first, the issue is how the band will come together, how to make a name out of four turbulent fellows who share little but a growing talent. The group changes members and names. From "The Variety Trio", to "The Four Lovers", to "The Four Seasons", we follow the lives of the four Jersey boys as well as their loves, financial pitfalls and their commercial partnerships until their climatic reunion at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are enthusiastic, spontaneous and somewhat troubled kids with a very frank way of talking and a very ironic and yet passionate take on life. Going in and out of jail, mentoring each others at various stages, having small but sometimes significant connection with mob-like figures, they come of age together, living all the typical cliches of a rock band's "life": the mutual discovery of talent, the creative partnership, the rush of the beginning of success, sexual initiations, fame, #1 hits (Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and many more) and national triumph.

    The story touches also on sadder moments such as Frankie's divorce, the death of Frankie's daughter, Nick leaving the group for his family and some tension with the mob. The focus is on Frankie: will he manage to push his talent and the musical boundaries and create the perfect hit?
The musical is hilarious at times and the songs are incredibly tender and sentimental, while also being catchy and energetic. Already in the first intermission we had a lot to comment on.

    My Texan friend and I couldn't help but think about the very controversial MTV show, The Jersey Shore. Although we both don't appreciate the show's vulgarity, we were baffled by the elements of the "guido" attitude in this performance, which were similar to those in the TV show: the slang, fashion style, and philosophy of life. The Jersey boys are boasters, loud, and sometimes aggressive, and they throw in Italian words in their speech, often vulgarities.
The difference in perception, we thought, must be the context. "Jersey Boys" seems almost like the romanticized version of Jersey Shore.

    Obviously Jersey Boys is wrapped in that glow of Broadway tradition, in the intellectual frame of a documentary-style story with the real life events of famous persons.
We noticed how ironic it is, though, that the "guido" style on stage is revered by  critics, while TV immediately seems to worsen the content and be more criticized. This is in a way true and the two experiences are hard to compare; but what we noticed though is that if there are things in common, there must be a sense of realism and pride within the Italian American community towards certain attitudes.

     

    The Four Seasons are like any other pop band, but they meet while eating pizza, they have their first "auditions" in front of mafia leaders and their traditional Italian American family and upbringing clashes with following the American Dream.
While watching these scenes with my Italian friend, I felt both slightly embarrassed and highly entertained. "Do they still look at us this way? You know the real Italy is very far from the Sopranos" he said. As obvious as this statement may seem, it's something that matters to both Italians and Italian Americans and it makes us wonder why for certain other minorities the stereotypes and artistic representations shifted considerably through the years within comedic characterization and complexity. However, this hasn't been the case for Italian Americans.
At the same time, every dramatic characterization has within it realism and cultural projections.

    Half of the audience of Jersey Boys often comes from Jersey, and they shout out when they hear their state mentioned, or when they recognize a similarity between them and the characters. Also, characters like Tony Soprano, Frankie Valli or Don Vito Corleone are cult icons that inspire more pride than resentment, by simplifying and yet exalting some traits.
It's hard to establish what makes someone a true Italian. Obviously, some of the so-called 'stereotypes' tend to reflect real life.

    In my personal memories and as my Italian friend also mentioned while  laughing, "In the end it's kind of what we do...we eat well, we like to sing, we are romantic at heart, but sometimes aggressive.." 
Italian American culture is primarily American. My Texan friend was already familiar with these characters, these iconic pop stars as famous as John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever's walk and as Joe DiMaggio's home-runs. This made me realize that any kind of artistic experience, even in the "low" form of the reality show, gives the benefit of the doubt and can't be simply banned as a negative stereotype.


    The more I come in touch with Italian American culture and the more I understand how important it was for the fabric of this country: how it managed to become mainstream without losing its spontaneity, but also how much there is still to be done for its authentic voice to come forth. One's Italian roots especially, which brought about certain standards and stereotypes, are something one cannot take neither lightly nor heavily: both extremes are dangerous. One cannot look at a show without some humor
. Maybe the perfect way to characterize typical Italian American "heroes" is through a musical, through ballads that uplift the spirit, snapshots of real life moments and most importantly, through a script with a lot of self-irony.

      

  • Events: Reports

    Divinamente New York: A Festival between Art and Faith

    There is a deep internal connection, though:  sometimes music or art become an ecstatic experience or are essential to understand one's faith and, on the other hand, creativity itself depends on intuitions that are not entirely rational, that require an unconscious effort, something not necessarily divine, but often unexplainable...
     

    For five nights the link between Spirituality and Art will be even stronger as the festival Divinamente New York (Divinely New York) will take place in the Big Apple. Promoted by MiBAC, ARCUS, the Italian Cultural Institute and the ARMUSER Association, the Festival was originally created in Rome by Pamela Villoresi.

    There is no better place than New York City where faith can come alive through ethnic and artistic expression. Here the world of show business, the theaters on Broadway, the hundreds of museums, the gospel choirs in the churches, the display of different traditions in every neighborhood through street fairs, parades and events are constantly reminding people of the religious "melting pot" and also of the secular aspects of religion, the ones that have created and spread cultures since ancient times.

    The theme of 2010 is "The Fear of God". The most ancient religious idea is that of a punishing, dangerous God. It was Christianity, and partially Judaism before that shifted religious observance towards an idea of devotion, love between divine and human, as God as a merciful being.

    It's important to reflect on the fact that fear is what, according to many philosophies and religious authorities, induces faith and can sometimes become an instrument of religion.

    From April 22 until April 26 2010, concerts will alternate to readings and round-tables intertwining the secular with the religious, performances with intellectual reflections.

    On Thursday April 22nd at the Italian Cultural Institute Pamela Villoresi will host a round-table where excerpts from Euripides' "Bacchae", Dante's "Inferno" and Michele di Martino's "Noah's Ark". A musical concert will follow, entitled The Path of the Soul with Russian musicians Anton Dressler (clarinet) and Uri Brener (piano) guiding the audience through Debussy’s Rhapsody, Massenet’s Meditation and Ravel’s Kaddish, along with improvisation and jazz, to the music of the troubadors and Jewish and Klezmer music.

    On April 23 the Neapolitan singer Teresa De Sio will perform at Peter Norton Symphony Space at 8 PM, mixing popular Italian music and secular lyrics to create a prayer that will create Paradise on Earth.

    On Saturday April 24 the show Stellarum Opifice will be held at The Rubin Museum of Art (which preserves Himalayan and Buddhist Art) at 8PM. The performance (by Valeria Moretti) follows Galileo Galilei's only daughter who was born in 1600 and spent her life in a convent, trying to connect with her father.
    "Francesca, la Santa degli Immigrati" (Francesca, the Saint of the Immigrants) is a dramatic monologue written by Enrico Groppali and performed by Vanessa Gravina. It will take place at St. Mark's Church at 8 PM. Francesca Cabrini was a nun who managed to build hospitals, schools and orphanages with politicians and thinkers of every faith.

    The final event will be at the Italian Cultural Institute at 7PM on April 26. The powerful singers Evelina Megnaghi and Ashira Ensemle will sing "Di Voce in Voce" (Voice to Voice). Many Sephardic Jewish communities inhabited North Africa since Biblical times and the Middle-East came together through traditions, melodies and rituals that are unique to this area. Evelina Megnaghi will sing songs in "giudeo-spagnolo" (Spanish and a derivation of Hebrew) and others with Italian motifs and music.

    There is a fascinating story  (The Aleph" by Borges) that has always made me look at Art and religion not as world in opposition but as shades of the same human instinct. It's a short piece by Borges in which a writer who cannot find inspiration goes to his cellar where he finds "the aleph", something that triggers his creativity and makes him look at the universe through the universe's eye, something magical and divine and yet very human. A principle that gives birth to imagination, a mystical feeling and ultimately Art.

    Thursday April 22
    Opening Night- Round Table and Concert
    Venue: Italian Cultural Institute- 686 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10021
    Time:
    5:30PM- Round Table on the topic of the "Fear of God" hosted by Pamela Villoresi
    6:30PM- Cocktail
    7:00PM- “The Path of the Soul”
    Tickets: $ 10 ($ 5 for members and Italain Cultural Institute Staff)
    To reserve tickets, call:  (212) 879 4242 ext. 365

    Friday April 26
    “Amen” di Teresa de Sio – Concert
    Venue: Peter Norton Symphony Space- 2537 Broadway at 95th Street, New York, NY 10025,
    Time: 8:00PM
    Tickets: $ 20 in advance, 25 $ on the day of the show
    To reserve tickets, call: (212) 864 5400

    Saturday April 24
    Stellarum Opifice- Show
    Venue: The Rubin Museum of Art- 150 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011
    Time: 9:00PM
    Tickets: $30
    To reserve tickets, call: (212) 620 5000 x 344

    Sunday April 25
    “Francesca, la Santa degli immigrati” by Enrico Groppali- Monologo Drammatico con Vanessa Gravina
    Venue: St. Mark’s Church- 131 East 10th Street, New York, NY 10003,
    Time: 8:00PM
    Tickets: free entrance

    Monday April 26
    Evelina Meghnagi and Ashira Ensemle sing “Di Voce in Voce”
    Venue: The Italian Cultural Institute, 686 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10021,
    Time: 7:00PM
    Tickets: $ 10 ($ 5 for members and Italain Cultural Institute Staff)
    To reserve tickets, call: 212 879 4242 ext. 366

     

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