Articles by: George De stefano

  • Events: Reports

    One More Time, with Rhythm

    If “rhythm is the cure,” as the singer-percussionist Alessandra Belloni claims, then Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino are some of the best healers you could ask for.

    When the septet from Salento, in Italy’s Puglia region, unleashes the full force of their pizzica taranta, the potently rhythmic music lifts you out of whatever doldrums or dark moods you might be feeling. For at least the duration of one of their concerts, you feel cured. 

    Over the past two years, CGS has been building a growing fan base in North America, playing shows in the U.S. and Canada that have thrilled audiences and critics. (Earlier this year, they played several well-received sets at the leading music and pop culture festival, South by Southwest, in Austin, Texas.) Other musicians rave about them, too. Marc Ribot, the multi-genre guitarist known for his adventurous recordings and his collaborations with artists like Tom Waits and Vinicio Capossela, is a fan. And at the 2012 edition of globalFEST, the New York festival of world music, a member of the South African rap group SMOD improvised a rhyme praising Maria Mazzotta, one of CGS’s lead vocalists, after hearing the band’s set.

    Building on the momentum of their recent tours, CGS returns to North America for a series of concerts. They’ll be performing music from their most recent album, Pizzica Indiavolata, a brilliant and varied set comprising ecstatic pizzica, soulful ballads and work songs. American and European critics have hailed it as one of the best “world music” recordings of recent years. The band also plays some older songs from their repertoire, like “Cogli la Rosa” and “Kalì Nifta.”

    If you’ve missed CGS’ previous New York shows, you’re in luck -- they’re playing Joe’s Pub in Manhattan on June 27. The prestigious downtown club, with its excellent sound and sightlines, is a great venue for this remarkable band. For information and reservations, visit Joe’s Pub online.     

    For more information about their North American tour, visit Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino online. 

  • Events: Reports

    Italian Cinema. If It’s June, It Must Be Open Roads

    The month of June brings not only better weather to New York but, for cinephiles, something just as eagerly awaited: Open Roads, the festival of new Italian cinema. Open Roads returns to Lincoln Center from June 6 to June 12, with 12 films by established and up and coming directors.

    Since its founding in 2001, the festival has become the premier American showcase for new
    movies from Italy. For Italian film fans, it is an event not to be missed. 

    The 2013 lineup has films by such distinguished directors as Marco Bellocchio (“Dormant Beauty”), Gianni Amelio (“The First Man”), Marco Tullio Giordana (“Piazza Fontana, the Italian Conspiracy”), and Paolo Virzi (“Every Blessed Day”). Filmmakers making their Open Roads debuts include Daniele Cipri (“It Was the Son”), Susanna Nicchiarelli (“The Discovery at Dawn”), Guido Torlonia (“Handmade Cinema”) and Elisa Fuksas (“Nina”).

    Open Roads co-curator Antonio Monda says that Nicchiarelli and Fuksas represent something new at Open Roads: “The stronger presence of women directors.”

    “We have four out of 12,” Monda says, “which is still a minority, I know, it’s not equal.” But it is the greatest number of women directors featured at Open Roads. In addition to Nicchiarelli’s and Fuksas’ films, the festival will screen “The Rescue,” by Giovanna Taviani (daughter and niece of Vittorio and Paolo Taviani) and “I Travel Alone,” by Maria Sole Tognazzi.  Fuksas, Tognazzi, and Nicchiarelli will be present at the screenings of their films.

    This year’s festival also includes two documentaries, Giovanna Taviani’s film and Guido Torlonia’s “Handmade Cinema,” about the crafts people of the Italian film industry, who Monda calls “the unsung heroes of our cinema.”  And as in past editions of Open Roads, there are films that explore social and political issues and that focus on particular regions of Italy.

    Monda is delighted that Open Roads has become such a success. In 2001, he, Richard Peña (the recently departed director of the Lincoln Center Film Society), and producer Giorgio Gosetti conceived the idea for a New York Italian cinema event while they were at the Cannes film festival.  “Giorgio, who managed a company, Italia Cinema, which became Film Italia and was then absorbed in Cinecittà, backed us economically. Richard and I focused on the artistic aspect. The goal was to organize at least three editions and now that we have gotten to the thirteenth we are obviously incredibly satisfied. We established two criteria for the festival: the variety of genres and the quality of the movies, but at the same time we maintained a general freedom in choosing the films. So far our intuitions have been successful.”

    Of the founders, only Monda remains; he now organizes the festival with film critic Dennis Lim, Issa Cucinotta, and Marcela Goglio.

    The selection process for Open Roads begins after the Venice Film Festival, held annually in late August and early September. Monda and his colleagues screen about 20 films shown at Venice and of those they select 12 for Open Roads.

    This year’s Open Roads features two films that Monda calls “contemporary classics,” Gianni Amelio’s “The First Man,” adapted from an unfinished novel by Albert Camus, and Marco Bellocchio’s “Dormant Beauty,” inspired by the case of Eluana Englaro, a young Italian woman who for many years was in a vegetative state after an auto accident until her father won the right to have her removed from life support.

    Amelio’s “The First Man” is “not the first time an Italian director has filmed a Camus novel,” notes Monda.  “There also was ‘The Stranger,’ by Luchino Visconti,” in 1967.

    “’The First Man’ is a wonderful film, but it had a lot of production problems and was postponed several times. But it got great reviews and we are happy to have it at Open Roads.”

    Bellocchio’s “Dormant Beauty,” presented at last year’s Venice Film Festival, “deals with an incredibly contemporary problem, euthanasia. It’s about a young woman who is a ‘dormant beauty,’ meaning she is in a coma. The parents have to decide whether she should die or not.”

    Monda says the film, which stars Toni Servillo and Isabelle Huppert, “was received with huge respect in Italy because Bellocchio is one of our great masters, but also with some controversy.”

    Bellocchio, 73, who made his first film, “Fists in the Pocket,” in 1965, has had what Monda calls a “creative re-birth” during the past decade, with such outstanding work as “The Hour of Religion,” an irreverent satire condemned by the Vatican, “Good Morning, Night,” about the Red Brigades’ kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, and “Vincere,” the director’s vividly imagined and partly speculative epic centered on Ida Dalser, a woman who Mussolini seduced and abandoned on his path to power.  

    Speaking of controversy, Open Roads will present “It Was the Son,” the directorial debut of Sicilian cinematographer Daniele Cipri, best known for the outrageously satiric films he shot in Sicily with the director Franco Maresco. Cipri’s film, a dark comedy about the Mafia, is, says Monda, “what you’d expect – provocative, strong, original, a little bit wild.”

    Noting the presence of a number of films with a regional focus, Monda observes, “We are in a moment when identity is one of the great discussions going on in Italy. Are we really a nation or just an assemblage of different places, different campanili?” Also, regional film commissions “are stronger and able to finance films, so filmmakers are encouraged to go where they can get money for productions, like Puglia and Piemonte, which have two of strongest film commissions.”  

    Financing for new Italian films has become increasingly difficult to obtain. “The situation is not very good,” says Monda. “We have talented filmmakers but in general the industry is not strong at all, and this is a real problem. With the economic climate in Italy, producers are less encouraged to make films, to risk their money. For too many years Italian producers were accustomed to being just line producers, using other people’s money. Now they have to risk, because the government cannot help them a lot and everything is more and more complicated now.” 

    Monda hopes that “La Grande Bellezza,” the new film by Paolo Sorrentino shown at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival will give a boost to the Italian film industry. (Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008.) The film’s success would “help Italian cinema very much,” says Monda. “La Grande Bellezza” did not win any major awards at Cannes, but critics and audiences praised the film, and its star Toni Servillo, virtually ensuring a run on the festival circuit and a theatrical release.

    The problems of the Italian film industry notwithstanding, Monda is gratified by the track record of Open Roads. “I am happy because in 13 years we have shown 12 to 15 films every year, so 180 films more or less, and at least 20 released theatrically [in the U.S.]. We pack our theaters every evening and do a very good business in the afternoon, too.”

    For more information about Open Roads, and to order tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

  • Op-Eds

    "Liberated to Tell the Truth"

    When Sal F. Albanese announced in January 2013 that he would seek the Democratic nomination for Mayor of New York, three questions came to mind:


    Where’s he been?

    Why now?



    To answer them all: Albanese is a former New York City Council member from Brooklyn who left politics in 1998 to work in the private sector, in financial services.  He’s returning because he believes he’s more qualified – and more independent and progressive -- than the other announced Democrats, including the current leader in the polls, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.


    The Italian-born Albanese – his family moved to Brooklyn from Calabria in 1958, when he was eight years old – established a reputation for independence while a City Council member representing his south Brooklyn district, which comprised Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Sunset Park. Albanese won reelection four times and represented the 43rd District until 1997, when he first became a mayoral candidate.  


    During a recent interview at a diner on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, Albanese explained why he was running and discussed his campaign’s themes and ideas.


     “I spent 15 years as a City Council member with an unblemished record of independence. Even people who don’t like me will tell you I was independent,” he says.  “I was one of few Council members who didn’t have extra money.  I didn’t take lulus [the extra funds the Speaker doles out to members as a reward for their loyalty] or stipends, because if you take that money you lose your independence.”


    He says that the other Democratic candidates for mayor – Quinn, City Comptroller John Liu, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio – “are career politicians indebted to lobbyists and special interest groups.” Quinn, he notes, has taken large campaign contributions from Coca Cola because the company wants to overturn Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on sales of large sodas, which Albanese supports. De Blasio calls himself “the outer borough candidate,” but Albanese says his rival “has huge amounts of money from the Yellow Cab industry, which opposes the expansion of cabs to the outer boroughs.”


    “We can say things nobody else can say because we’re not indebted. We’re going to be liberated to tell the truth and have creative ideas, and I think that’s going to resonate with New Yorkers,” he says.


    Albanese plans to fund his campaign with small contributions made under the city’s campaign finance law – legislation that he sponsored while in the City Council. Under the law, a candidate who raises $250,000 in small contributions from city residents is eligible for a six to one match, or $1.75 million. Albanese says with this amount, which is quite modest nowadays, he’ll be able to get his message out. “We’re running a very efficient and cost effective campaign,” he notes. “My way is to raise money from New Yorkers who are interested in good government. If you get to City Hall indebted to every special interest in town, you can’t run the city on the merits.”


    “Our challenge,” he says, “is to raise the money to get my name out there. With the matching fund system I feel really good about the possibility of becoming competitive.”


    Living Wages, Better Schools and Fairer Mass Transit


    Since announcing his candidacy in January, Albanese has put forth his campaign’s ideas in public and media appearances and at his website . His signature issues include economic development, mass transit and education. 


    He’s passionate about creating “living wage” jobs that “don’t pay people $8 an hour.” “You can’t live in this city on that,” he says.  In 1996, Albanese, over the opposition of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, passed the first living wage bill in the city’s history, which required some City contractors to pay higher minimum wages. “That bill put $3 billion in the pockets of 70,000 workers, according to the Independent Budget Office,” he says. “I want to use the city’s contracting power to ensure that people are paid a decent wage.”


    He calls for a “faster, fairer and fully funded” mass transit system, noting that in the past five years, riders have seen their fares increase four times. “By 2015, when the next hike kicks in, riders will have been walloped with a 35% increase over just eight years,” he says. “That is twice the rate of inflation and a slap in the face to working New Yorkers. If we stay on this course, we could be paying more than $3 for a ride by 2021.”


    Albanese would expand the Select Bus Service by adding 20 more routes by 2018. He would restore bus services cut in 2010, which he says generated little savings for the MTA and came at “enormous costs to transit-starved neighborhoods.”


    But his boldest mass transit proposal is for what he calls “fair tolling” -- lowering tolls on certain bridges while adding them on others. He would “significantly lower” the $15 toll Staten Islanders currently pay and add tolls to the 59th St and Brooklyn bridges. “The idea is to lower tolls on bridges where there are few other transit options and add them where there are a lot of transit options.” This approach, he argues, would raise money for mass transit and to maintain bridges and roads.


    “We’ve become the thought leaders on transit,” he says, noting that at candidate forums held since he announced in January even his Democratic rivals have said they like his campaign’s ideas.


    Albanese, who has taught in New York’s public school system, says he would work to “repair the relationship” between City Hall and the City’s public school teachers “after years of demonization that have destroyed morale and negatively impacted an entire generation of students.”  He would introduce “a 21st century curriculum that puts New York City students at the forefront of technology, engineering, and computer science education while embracing the arts, music, and fitness programs as key components to a well-rounded education.”


    His administration also would establish “the city's first public pediatric wellness centers,” staffed by educators, psychologists and physicians who would “work with parents to ensure that every student enters school with an equal opportunity to learn.”


    Immigration and Assimilation, Brooklyn-Style

    When asked about the demographic changes in his district since he was in the City Council, Albanese noted that the Italian American community, and indeed the “white ethnic” population in general, has significantly decreased, replaced by new immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe.


    Just then an elderly white woman who had been seated at a nearby booth approached Albanese. After apologizing for interrupting our interview, she told Albanese that “there oughta be a law that people who come here have to speak English.”  She complained about local stores where “everything is in Spanish, not American” and that new immigrants receive many benefits that people like her cannot obtain. Albanese listened patiently, and then said, “the people who come here will eventually learn English.” She seemed dubious. “This has always been a country of immigrants,” he told her.


    After she left, Albanese said that when he came to America, he couldn’t speak any English.  “I remember walking into Our Lady of Peace grammar school in south Brooklyn and not being able to tell the nun where I lived. It was embarrassing. It would’ve been nice if there’d been a little bit of bilingual education back then.”


    “I actually assimilated pretty quickly but it wasn’t an easy transition initially. I grew up in Park Slope when it was a working class neighborhood. I started playing baseball, and as a result of that picked up the Brooklyn accent from people I played ball with, and became like every other Italian American kid even though I was an immigrant.” 


    Albanese says he returns to Italy “every couple of years,” most recently to take his 85 year-old mother to visit her brother, who died shortly afterwards. Albanese was born in the Calabrian town of Mammola but his family later moved to Gioiosa Ionica. He returned for the first time in 1976, after having left in 1958.


    He clearly recalls the experience of immigration, leaving Calabria with his grandfather. (His father had already made the trip and was living in Brooklyn.) “We had to take a ferry to Palermo to have a physical exam before coming to the U.S. You had to get a physical to get the green card. I came to America on an ocean liner called Cristoforo Colombo, and we landed on the west side of Manhattan.”

    New York City, he says, “gave me and my family a lot.”


    “We came from Italy when I was eight years of age, and the public schools, the sports programs, the libraries, they all were instrumental in helping my family reach the middle class. I want to do that for future generations. I looked around, I know all the people who are running and I believe I am the most qualified. That’s why I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”


    When asked whether entering a crowded race, with little money and name recognition, was “quixotic,” he says, “Politics to me is a vocation, it’s not a job or a game, our political system has a direct impact on people’s lives and if I thought it was quixotic I wouldn’t be in it.”


  • Art & Culture

    Pizzica Indiavolata!

    Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, with skill and panache, pulls off a tricky artistic feat: the band from Lecce, in Puglia, makes a traditional music rooted in a vanished culture connect with, and excite, contemporary audiences. Canzionere Grecanico Salentino – CGS for short -- specializes in the pizzica tarantata, a centuries-old folk idiom that originated as ritual healing music. The band honors pizzica’s traditions but avoids the pitfall of sterile, folkloristic purism. On recordings and in their shows, CGS offers the sophistication of a jazz ensemble and the energy and power of a great rock band. 

    Founded in 1975 by the writer Rina Durante, CGS is Italy’s oldest traditional music ensemble. But the band has gone through numerous changes in its three-decade- plus history. In 2007, Daniele Durante (Rina’s cousin) turned the leadership of CGS over to his son Mauro, a conservatory-trained violinist who also was schooled in the traditional music of Salento (the sub-peninsula sometimes referred to as the “heel” of the Italian “boot.”) Under Mauro’s leadership, the band – seven pieces plus a dancer – has won numerous awards, performed widely in Italy and abroad, and released two exceptional albums, Focu d’Amore, in 2010, and now, Pizzica Indiavolata.


    In 2011, CGS played their first North American tour, covering 11 cities in the U.S. and Canada. The tour gained them new fans and won rave reviews from critics and other musicians. Their explosive set was a highlight of the 2012 edition of GlobalFEST, New York’s leading world music festival.


    CGS returns in 2013 for a 13-city North American tour that begins February 1 in New York City, at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts in Manhattan.  The tour ends with the band’s appearance at the renowned SXSW (South by Southwest) festival in Austin, Texas.


    Having seen CGS perform several times, I’m delighted that they’re coming back, and with a terrific new album. Pizzica Indiavolata, comprising 13 tracks written by Mauro Durante or adapted by him from traditional material, mixes soulful ballads with hard-driving, ecstatic pizzica. The album showcases the talents of the individual musicians: Mauro, on violin, percussion and vocals; lead singer Maria Mazzotta; multi-instrumentalist Giulio Bianco; bouzouki player and singer Emanuele Licci; guitarist Luca Tarantino; diatonic accordionist Massimiliano Morabito, and singer-percussionist Giancarlo Paglialunga. Each band member gets to shine, but the lead or solo turns always are in the service of the distinctive ensemble sound. 


    The album also features guest appearances by the Malian kora virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko and the Anglo-Italian singer-songwriter Piers Faccini, whose contributions fit seamlessly in the band’s sound.   


    On the eve of the forthcoming CGS tour, I spoke with Mauro Durante about the new recording.


    Pizzica Indiavolata is the seventeenth album in CGS's history,” he noted, and the second, after Focu d’amore, with him as the band’s leader. “It’s the culmination of a two-year journey by a band that has grown up together, touring Europe, Canada and the United States. A band that feels proud and ready to represent this music all over the world, offering traditional tracks re- arranged and presented with a modern touch, together with new, original compositions.”


    The words to the album’s opening number, “Nu te Fermare,” address an issue that’s particularly urgent in today’s Italy, but not only there -- the frustration of young people who get an education and find there are no jobs for them. “When I compose new songs,” Mauro said, “I often am inspired by melodies, rhythms or other suggestions that come from the tradition, but I try to express my own ideas and emotions, describing with music and lyrics what I see and live everyday, and what I feel.”  brilliant


    “I have been lucky,” he continued, “to grow up in a family that made me love this traditional repertoire, and I have always felt absorbed by this wonderful musical world. Then I studied and practiced a lot, so I could analyze and understand the complexity of a culture that comes from the past.”


    Pizzica originally was the ritual music of tarantismo, a spiritual-therapeutic practice of poor Salento peasants; it was played to exorcise the maladies, physical and psychological, supposedly caused by the poisonous bite of the tarantula. Mauro observes that although tarantismo has died out, its music, pizzica, is thriving. “Traditional music has always satisfied an immediate need, emerging from what we experience in our lives. That's why I believe that it’s important for us to write and play the reality of our own lives today, to renew this music so that it stays alive.”


    Mauro said that the new album’s title comes from the repertoire of Luigi Stifani, a celebrated Salentine violinist. Stifani accompanied the anthropologist Ernesto De Martino when De Martino, in 1959, went to Salento to research tarantismo for his famous study, The Land of Remorse.  The pizzica indiavolata, said Mauro, was Stifani’s “strongest” pizzica, the one that had the most powerful therapeutic effect on the tarantati, those “bitten” by the tarantula. Stifani, accompanied by Tora Marzo on tamburello (large tambourine), diatonic accordionist Pasquale Zizzari and guitarist Luigi Cecere, formed the legendary Orchestrina Terapeutica.


    “We made our own version of the track,” Mauro said, “creating a sort of new ‘orchestrina terapeutica.’ "


    CGS’s “Pizzica Indiavolata” is a thrilling performance led by Mauro on violin that surges, peaks and subsides, only to build momentum and hit new peaks of rhythmic intensity. It’s a wild ride.  “Pizzica Indiavolata,” said Mauro, “is music therapy, coming from the tradition of tarantismo, composed to exorcise, with a sound both ancestral and modern, the evils of our days.  We are living in tough times, it's hard to find a job, to feel realized and gratified, but it's fundamental not to surrender, to believe in your own ideas and make your voice heard.”


    Visit Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino online for information about the band and their forthcoming North American tour.


  • Op-Eds

    Italian (Gay) Diaries

    Diaries: An Anthology of Photography from Italy

    Curated by Peter Weiermair

    Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

    26 Wooster Street, New York, NY

    (212) 431-2609

    Through February 3, 2013

    Italian visual and plastic arts have a tradition dating back to Greco-Roman antiquity of glorifying the naked male body, and there often is a homoerotic subtext to paintings and sculpture of nude males. But explicitly gay art, including photography, has been more rare in Italy, where gay liberation (and concepts of gay identity and community) has made fewer inroads than elsewhere in Western Europe.   


    During the late 19th century, the expatriate German aristocrat Wilhelm von Gloeden took the hundreds of photographs of nude Sicilian men and youths that would be re-discovered late in the twentieth century (and which are now sold in souvenir shops all over Sicily). In the 1970s and 1980s, Tony Patrioli (the nome d’arte of Antonio Pietta) produced work for Italian and European gay magazines, as well as books of male nudes, the best known being Mediterraneo (1984). Dino Pedriali, whose pictures were admired by Pasolini, produced (and continues to produce) highly aesthetic work, characterized by brilliant use of chiaroscuro, that made erotic icons of the models he found in the streets of Rome.


    Francesco Vezzoli, based in Milan, is an internationally famous artist (and filmmaker) whose work reflects a camp gay male sensibility, but his main preoccupation is pop culture and its iconic figures, male and female, not homoeroticism.


    Gay imagery often has been either marginalized or banned in Italy. The right-wing administration of Milan’s mayor (and Opus Dei member) Letizia Moratti in 2007 censored the exhibit “Art and Homosexuality” – the first art show of its kind ever presented in Italy -- demanding the removal of some of the works on the grounds that they were offensive to Catholic sensibilities. Ironically, the curators, fearing the prospect of Church-State attacks, had pre-censored the work, eliminating any pieces that were explicitly sexual and keeping full nudity to a minimum and excluding minors from admission to the show.


    One can only imagine the reaction of Moratti and her kind to Diaries, an exhibition of gay male-oriented photography from Italy now on view at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Manhattan. (She’d no doubt be thrilled that the work is being shown in New York, and not Italy, and probably so traumatized by what’s on display she’d need some Opus Dei-style self-flagellation to exorcise the images from her mind.) Diaries presents the work of 11 artists who live or work in Italy, and one non-Italian, the Austrian Matthias Herrmann, a part-time resident of Tuscany.


    The artists represent multiple generations, ranging in age from late 20s (Luigi Vitali, Luca Guarini, Daniele de Vitis) to middle-aged (Pasquale Martini, Fiorenzo Niccoli, Stefano Scheda) and one septuagenarian (Gianfranco Maria Lelj). With exception of Daniele de Vitis, born in Lecce, and Gianfranco Maria Lelj, from Aquila degli Abruzzi, they all are from northern or central Italy. 


    Diaries has been curated by Peter Weiermair, a German who has led museums in Austria, Germany and Italy, including Bologna’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna. According to Weiermair, “the unifying theme of the work is the male nude, its beauty, Eros and sexuality.” He notes that although the artists he has selected all have established reputations in Italy – Gianfranco Maria Lelj, for example, has collaborated with such auteurs of Italian cinema as Fellini, Visconti and Scola – “their intimate photo-diary work has seldom been exhibited. These photos offer the rare opportunity to see images through an artist’s eye, created in the most part for their own personal satisfaction.”


    (At the exhibit’s opening night reception, the affable Weiermair, while praising the artists and their work, angrily denounced Italy as a “medieval” country for its attitudes towards homosexuality.)


    The photographs are informed by gay culture, Italian culture and history, fine art photography and erotica. There are analog pictures and digital images. Most of work is formal and highly composed; the viewer will not find photorealism or images caught on the fly in this show. Stefano Scheda is represented by tableaux vivants of naked men in poses combining athleticism and dance; the narrative series by Luigi Vitali and Luca Guarini depicts in symbolic imagery the dissolution of their romantic partnership. Many of the photos exude desire and sexuality, conveyed through the expressive power of the nude male body.


    Curator Weiermair titled the show Diaries because the photos document personal experience; they are, he says, “a history of incontri (meetings).” Fiorenzo Niccoli’s work reflects the theme in images of immigrants from Eastern Europe he met (and picked up) at the Termini station in Rome. In several of his photos, Niccoli has staged his models in homage to Baron von Gloeden. As in the German’s pictures, some of Niccoli’s young men wear laurel wreaths or Arab skullcaps. But the images, in gorgeous silver gelatin prints, are more frankly erotic than Von Gloeden’s. 


    Italy is a land famous for its intense sunlight, but much of the best photography of Diaries is studio-based and in black and white. A notable exception is the sun-burnished and sexually-charged work by Gianfranco Maria Lelj, particularly the photos featuring a naked, well-built and hirsute model, with the evocative titles “In the desert of life I fear nothing” (the model happily running through sand dunes) and “Even its lightest touch burns my hand” (with the model’s formidable erection as the picture’s cynosure.) 


    Peter Weiermair deserves high praise for collecting and organizing the diverse, beautifully executed and often compelling photographs that comprise Diaries. But as much as I admired the exhibition, I wished it had been more diverse in its representation of Italian men. I missed images from the Mezzogiorno, from the streets of Naples and Palermo and Reggio Calabria, where the eroticism of everyday life can be powerful, even overwhelming. Some less composed and stylized work also would have been welcome.   


    But these are minor cavils about a very good and important exhibition that should be seen by anyone interested in contemporary photography, not only gay men and/or Italophiles. While taking in these photos, the visitor might also appreciate the fine irony of their having been made in Italy, a country that has given the world so many indelible images of unclothed male beauty but so few opportunities for un-closeted gay art to be seen.



  • Op-Eds

    The “Intelligent Homosexual”’s Italianità

    Tony Kushner has titled his new play “The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” But he could’ve just as well and perhaps more accurately called it “The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism.” That title – which was that of a 1997 John D. Calandra Institute conference in New York and the book of papers from the conference – comes closer to encapsulating what the play’s about than the lumpy one he chose, with its nod to George Bernard Shaw and Mary Baker Eddy.


    The play centers on the Marcantonio family: father Gus, a retired longshoreman and disillusioned former Communist; his sons Vito and Pier Luigi (who has the unfortunate nickname Pil); his daughter Maria Theresa (who has the even more unfortunate and heavily symbolic nickname, MT, pronounced “empty”), and Gus’ sister Clio, whose social and political idealism has led her from the Carmelites to Peru’s Shining Path guerillas. Gus has summoned them to the family home in Brooklyn to break some disturbing news: he is selling the house, and he plans to commit suicide.


    Unlike “Angels in America,” the two-part epic of an America suffering from AIDS and Ronald Reagan that made his reputation, Kushner’s new play is strictly realist. “iHO” –  Kushner’s own shorthand -- eschews the magic realism of “Angels” in favor of high-voltage family drama indebted to Miller, O’Neill, Odets and, to a lesser degree, Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.”


    The critical response to the play, which opened May 5 at New York’s Public Theatre,  has been mixed, although there have been some rave reviews. The critics have admired the play’s intellectual ambition and breadth, its passionate engagement with grand world-historic issues, and the committed acting by the cast, several of whom are Kushner veterans. But they’ve also faulted it as too didactic, awkwardly structured, and overlong.


    What the reviews, whether negative, mixed or favorable, share is a shocking – to me anyway – obtuseness about the play’s ethnic milieu -- its italianità. I began by suggesting an alternative title – not a particularly marquee-worthy one, but one more attuned to the play’s subject matter. Critics note that Kushner’s main character is named Gus Marcantonio. But not one of the reviews I’ve read, and I’ve read quite a few, notes the significance of Gus being a cousin of Vito Marcantonio, the U.S. Congressman who represented East Harlem from 1935 to 1950, and was the most successful radical elected official in U.S. history. Or that Gus is quite literally mourning the “lost world” of political radicalism that Vito embodied and which once gave Gus’ life meaning.


    But how could the critics miss it? The living room of the Marcantonio home in Carroll Gardens – a masterpiece of realistic set design by Mark Wendland – is dominated by a large, framed photograph of the Congressman. In some ways, he is the presiding spirit of the play and its lodestar. Aunt Clio, pointing to his photo, rebukes Gus by saying – in Italian – that Vito would be “turning over in his grave.”  Pil, Gus' gay son, speaks with pride of Vito, noting that he was called “the bread of the poor” by his constituents, and recounts his early death from a coronary while he was engaged in political work. Pil’s speech is also remarkable for its nuance. Pil honors Vito, but doesn’t romanticize him, noting that he too readily followed the Communist Party line, even when it came to the Hitler-Stalin Pact which in 1939 divided Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.


    The play also includes a surprising plot twist involving Italian immigrant anarchism and Gaetano Bresci, the anarchist who assassinated Italy’s King Umberto in 1900.


    But the play’s italianità isn’t all political. Vito, Gus’s youngest child, is the only one who doesn’t speak Italian, a metaphor for his alienation from his father and siblings. Kushner even gets in a joke about ethnic stereotyping: the Marcantonios, as one character remarks, must be the only Italians in Brooklyn who can’t cook.


    And yet somehow the critics overlooked all this, as if the characters’ ethnicity was entirely incidental. Not a single review that I’ve seen has acknowledged that the Marcantonios are specifically Italian American leftists, shaped both by the Italian radicalism of their immigrant forbears and by their experiences as Americans of working class origins. One critic who did note the Marcantonios’ ethnicity, the Los Angeles Times’ Charles McNulty, remarked that he wasn’t “entirely convinced that he [Gus] was Italian.”            


    I wonder what it would have taken for McNulty to have been sufficiently convinced. As played by the Italian American actor Michael Kristofer, Gus is recognizably a Brooklyn paisan, in his physical appearance, his accent and speech patterns, and body language. Maybe if he’d let loose with a few “Madonn’”s or “ va fongools”?  Or had tomato sauce stains on his t-shirt? Or boasted of a cousin in “the mob” instead of one who was a radical politician?


    Gus in fact reminded me of an actual Italian American leftist, former New York Assemblyman Frank Barbaro. Like the character of Gus Marcantonio, Barbaro, from the Brooklyn Italian village of Bensonhurst, was a radical longshoreman who organized his peers against their exploitative and mobbed-up bosses. When I interviewed Barbaro a few years ago, he used such Communist lingo as “the balance of forces” when talking about the struggles on the Brooklyn docks. In Kushner’s play, Gus Marcantonio utters the very same phrase.


    That the “critical community” is oblivious to Italian American radical history (and evidently completely incurious about it) isn’t surprising. Who among today’s chattering classes knows much about radical history of any kind? We live in what Gore Vidal has called "the United States of Amnesia," where history is what was on CNN the other night. The critics’ failure to come to grips with the ethnicity in Kushner’s play also is a product of so many decades of pop cultural representations of Italian Americans as mafia thugs and uneducated and crude (but earthy!) urban proles. Italians were leftists? Who knew!


    But Italian Americans themselves bear some responsibility for this situation. For many of us, becoming American meant denying or forgetting our radical past, whether anarchist, socialist, or communist. After my Sicilian-born, communist grandfather died, my parents threw out all his leftist newspapers and memorabilia – a perfect metaphor for how we’ve too often dealt with our history.


    I admire Tony Kushner, and am grateful to him, for retrieving and dramatizing a piece of this history. I do agree with some of the criticisms of his play. Its dramaturgy admittedly is imperfect. The director Michael Greif hasn’t quite met the challenge of orchestrating the scenes of contrapuntal dialogue, wherein the main characters, arranged in discrete groupings, are all speaking simultaneously. He also could’ve lowered the decibel level in some scenes. We paisans don’t always yell to make a point. And some judicious editing of the somewhat overstuffed script would’ve helped. But those flaws shouldn’t deter you from “The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” a singular, often thrilling work that respects, and even challenges, the intelligence of its audience.



  • Op-Eds

    The Poetry of Politics

    “There is a better Italy,” asserted Nicola “Nichi” Vendola, the president of Italy’s Puglia region, during a November 17 appearance at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò.

    The “better Italy” he evoked was not only a nation without Silvio Berlusconi as its head of state but also one that was free of “Berlusconism,” a toxic mix of neoliberal economics and right-wing populism that, he warned, could outlast Italy’s embattled leader.

    Vendola, 52, is the rising star of Italy’s Left, a longtime communist who also is openly gay. Born in Terlizzi, a village near Bari, Vendola, like his parents, was a member of the Italian Communist Party. (He joined its youth federation when he was fourteen.) As a university student, he wrote his dissertation on the gay poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, whom he still frequently quotes. He was a journalist with the Communist Party newspaper L’Unità while also a leader of Arcigay, Italy’s major gay rights organization.

    After the breakup in 1991 of the Pci (Italian Communist Party), Vendola co-founded Rifondazione comunista (Communist Refoundation). In 1992, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy’s Parliament. He chaired the chamber’s Anti-Mafia Commission, distinguishing himself as a forceful opponent of Italy’s criminal syndicates. In 2008, he left Rifondazione after losing a power struggle for its leadership. A year later, he became the leader of a new political party, Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà (Left, Ecology, and Freedom Party).

    Many observers regard Vendola not only as a leader of his nation’s fractious Left but as a potentially viable candidate for prime minister. The likelihood of that occurring in a politically center-right and culturally conservative country like Italy might seem remote. Nevertheless, Nichi Vendola is a unique and gifted politician who has surprised doubters before. In 2005, he confounded the naysayers by defeating (albeit narrowly) the candidate of Berlusconi’s center-right coalition and becoming Puglia’s president. He was re-elected this year, with 73 percent of the vote.

    Vendola is a poet who has published several books of his verse, and he has brought a poetic sensibility to the campaign trail and to governance. During this year’s electoral campaign, his slogan was, “Poetry is in the facts.” That sensibility was evident during his talk at Casa Italiana. Vendola, wearing a gray suit with a red tie, his customary gold earring in his left ear, spoke in broad, thematic strokes, largely forgoing the specifics of public policy and political strategy.

    Speaking with passion and humor, and often responding at considerable length to the questions posed by the event’s moderator and two Italian journalists, Vendola was enthusiastically received by an overflow crowd consisting mainly of Italians and Italian expatriates.Italy today, he said, is ruled by leaders “who have no sense of mission, no sense of decorum.” International media coverage of Berlusconi’s government has highlighted the numerous, recurring sex scandals, fostering an image of Italy as a brothel ruled by a flamboyant billionaire pimp. This focus on scandal and corruption ignores how badly Italy and its people are suffering under Berlusconism. Unemployment is high, with many Italians eking out a living on the precarious black market. Racism, xenophobia, and various forms of intolerance, including homophobia, are widespread. The Berlusconi government neglects the nation’s cultural assets: opera houses are closing, there have been massive budget cuts to the nation’s museums, and antiquity sites, including Pompeii, are deteriorating for lack of funding.

    “Italy is becoming a postcard telling tales of the past,” Vendola observed.

    Vendola pointed to some major structural shifts in Italian society that have occurred in recent decades. Families, he said, used to comprise three generations: grandparents, parents, and children, often living under the same roof or at least nearby. This family structure, which he called a microcosm of society, fostered intergenerational solidarity and the transmission of culture and values. Today’s Italian family is more of a nuclear unit focused on consumption, with the elderly increasingly being institutionalized or cared for by non-family members, often undocumented immigrants.

    Changes in city life also have had a negative impact; urban dwellers are now more concentrated in peripheral areas, where public services, including transportation, are often poor and unreliable.

    Vendola observed that although the Italian Constitution links freedom and work (“Italy is a democratic republic founded on labor”), in today’s Italy “finance is now at the center stage,” calling all the shots in the labor market. Under the neoliberal, market- and finance-oriented Berlusconi government, workers have little freedom and little work.His communist history notwithstanding, Vendola is not opposed to markets. He has criticized, in fact, excessive state involvement in southern Italy’s economy as “Brezhnevism.” He has geared his administration’s policies towards the development of local infrastructure, including small-scale agriculture, and small and medium-sized factories producing textiles, clothing, footwear, and food products. He also promotes Puglia’s culture and great scenic beauty as economic assets. Vendola is an ardent environmentalist, and under his leadership, Puglia’s renewable energy sector has grown substantially. The political journalist Doug Ireland reported that investors attending a recent international conference on solar power cited Puglia as the most attractive region of southern Italy because “of its less cumbersome bureaucracy, streamlined by Vendola.”

    Vendola said at Casa Italiana that although he accepts the market, the problem in Italy is that “it has become the only principle governing society.” Politics must govern the market, he asserted. “But now the market is everything and politics is like a notary” that validates the market.

    Countering “Berlusconism”

    Puglia’s president criticized the Italian Left for failing to understand and effectively respond to Berlusconi. The leftist parties, he said, at first regarded the Milanese entrepreneur as a charlatan who would be no more than a temporary irritant. This attitude “underestimated the importance of Berlusconi’s beliefs.” The Left needs “to study the complex machinery of Berlusconism,” an ideology that purports to be dynamic and progressive and whose appeal to Italian voters has proved surprisingly resilient.

    Politics, Vendola observed, requires “narratives,” compelling visions that inspire the public. Berlusconi’s narrative, though regressive, was effective. “Berlusconi didn’t only win elections,” Vendola noted. He also “captured the imagination” of voters. Italy’s Left has been unable to devise a persuasive counter-narrative to Berlusconi’s. Vendola evoked Antonio Gramsci in emphasizing the necessity of waging a cultural struggle against Berlusconism. “I want to win the larger war of changing the culture because if we don’t it’s not a genuine victory,” regardless of whether the Left wins at the polls.

    Vendola said that although the Berlusconi government’s days were numbered, its leader having lost his parliamentary majority, an “alternative majority” has not yet emerged. The Left has endured “a long season” of defeat, he noted. Still, Vendola is the most popular politician of the Left opposition, as polls have shown. He has declared his candidacy to lead the opposition in the next parliamentary elections.

    Turning to the “southern question,” the enduring structural inequality between Italy’s north and south, Vendola decried the notion, promulgated by the Lega Nord (Northern League), that the southern regions live off the wealth generated in the north. The north’s prosperity since World War II, he noted, could not have been achieved without the southern Italians who migrated to work in the factories of Milan, Turin, and Genoa.

    Vendola noted that the national government has invested great amounts of capital in southern Italian industry. The government built a massive steel factory in Taranto, a city in Puglia, and auto manufacturing plants near Naples, among other industrial enterprises. Vendola said that this model of economic development was based on the “defective” idea that development for the Mezzogiorno should imitate the north. Instead of large industrial plants, Vendola suggested that economic development should follow the model he has promoted in Puglia.

    Nichi Vendola also has pioneered new forms of civic participation. He has built a nationwide base of support through “le fabbriche di Nichi” – Nichi’s factories – local groups comprising mainly young people and those Doug Ireland calls “disappointed exiles from the tepid, arteriosclerotic traditional left.” The factories, said Vendola, attract Italians who “want to reconstruct a sense of the public good.” They generate ideas for political campaigns, but they are not mere electoral committees. They instead incubate ideas and proposals that they share through a Facebook group and in offline encounters.

    One factory project, “guerilla gardening,” emerged from Puglia and subsequently spread to other parts of Italy. Young people, equipped with garden tools and seedlings, created public gardens from abandoned urban spaces that were full of garbage. “Public places should be beautiful and welcoming,” Vendola said.

    The grassroots factories, besides generating creative and beneficial projects, no doubt will be an asset to Vendola’s national electoral campaign.

    Vendola and the Vatican

    Nichi Vendola clearly has the vision, talent, and commitment to revivify and lead Italy’s Left. Whether he can be elected Italy’s leader is another question. An Italian friend told me that on the radical Left, no one cares that Vendola is gay. However, the votes of the “sinistra radicale” won’t be enough. He’ll have to win the support of center-left voters, and not a few of them are Catholics who share the Vatican’s antipathy to homosexuality. Moreover, the Vatican, under the leadership of ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI, has been demonizing gay people with hateful rhetoric and aggressively opposing all gay rights proposals because they supposedly represent an unacceptable “moral relativism.”

    Queried by an audience member about the Vatican’s interference in Italian politics, Vendola sidestepped the question. An avowed Catholic, albeit of the Pax Christi/liberation theology variety, he distinguished between Christianity and the dictates of the Vatican. He also said that he hoped the Vatican someday would apologize for its homophobia as it has for its historic anti-Semitism, a remark that earned one of the strongest ovations of the evening.

    One wants more from Vendola on this issue. A left-wing gay politician might reasonably profess Catholicism. But how can he not be anti-clerical, or at least speak out forcefully against the Vatican’s anti-gay politicking? Vendola instead has said things like, “I have always been Catholic and gay, I have never concealed this and I refuse to adopt feelings of guilt. It is easier to talk about this with priests than with politicians.”

    Marc Alan Di Martino, a writer and blogger with dual American and Italian citizenship who lives in Rome, has offered some acute criticism of Vendola’s stance.

    “Instead of looking the homophobic dogma of his Church in the eye and challenging it, he clips his sails to the prevailing winds,” writes Di Martino. “I’d love to see an Italian politician courageous enough to stand up to the unlovable Vatican. I bet a lot of disenfranchised Italian voters would support that, too. It might finally give them the voice they’ve been denied for so long by cowardly hypocrites prepared to steamroll democracy every time the pope hiccups the word ‘relativism.’”f

    Visit Le Fabbriche di Nichi online, and his website. Both are in Italian.

  • Op-Eds

    The Massa Meltdown

    Eric Massa, the U.S. Congressman from upstate New York who, facing allegations of sexual misconduct, has resigned after only a year in office, is an Italian American. At the website he created for his 2008 Congressional campaign, he noted, “I first came to Corning, New York in the early nineties, but the journey that brought me here began when my grandparents emigrated from southern and central Italy during the Great Depression.”

    Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what’s really significant about Eric Massa, and about the controversies surrounding him.

    As pretty much everyone now knows, Massa’s political career imploded over the past week in a series of bizarre and sometimes amusing incidents. First, Massa announced he was resigning because the lymphoma he thought he’d beaten had recurred. Then he said, no, that wasn’t the real reason he was stepping down. He actually was being forced out by the Democratic leadership, and especially by President Obama’s chief of staff, snarling pit bull Rahm Emanuel. They wanted him out, said Massa, because he was opposed to the President’s so-called health insurance reform legislation.

    But then it came to light that the House Ethics Committee was investigating allegations that Massa, the married father of two children, had groped several of his male staff members. Massa issued a semi-denial while also claiming that the White House had set him up.

    “There’s a reason that this has all happened, frankly one that I had not realized,” Massa said in a radio interview. “Mine is now the deciding vote on the health care bill, and this administration and this House leadership have said, quote unquote, that they will stop at nothing to pass this health care bill. And now they’ve gotten rid of me and it’ll pass.”

    Massa admitted he made an “inappropriate” remark to a male aide at a party, which led to the ethics committee investigation. He claimed that the White House used this indiscretion against him because of his opposition to Obamacare.

    Massa’s allegations against the White House and Rahm Emanuel, whom he has called the “son of the devil’s spawn,” caught the ear of right-wing talk show host Glenn “the crying man-baby” Beck, who invited Massa to appear on his Fox network TV show. The Congressman accepted the offer, but what he delivered wasn’t what Beck had expected or wanted. Beck, practically salivating, begged Massa for revelations of Democratic perfidy. He wanted dirt about “corruption,” and especially about “the unions.”  

    But Massa wouldn’t play along. He instead denied that he’d been forced out by the Democratic leadership, saying that he alone was responsible for the flame-out of his political career. “I wasn't forced out. I forced myself out. I failed, I didn't live up to my own code -- I own this,” he said.

    Poor Beck. He looked so upset you expected that at any minute the waterworks would start, the gush of patriotic tears he expertly induces whenever he gets farklempt over how the dastardly “progressives” are destroying his America.

    Beck hoped Massa would become the far right’s latest poster boy, but he obviously had no idea who he was dealing with. Massa instead criticized right-wingers for demonizing their opponents and even called out Beck’s and Fox’s beloved Teabaggers for “pretending that the [Federal budget] deficit all happened this year.”

    At the end of the interview, Beck apologized to his viewers for wasting their time.

    Much of the media commentary about the Massa-Beck showdown downplayed the sex scandal at the heart of l’affaire Massa. But the juicy bits provided some of the show’s most entertaining moments. Massa, a veteran of 24 years in the Navy, showed Beck some photos from a book about a Navy rite called “Crossing the line” that apparently entails some semi-naked horseplay. Beck described the shots as “look[ing] like an orgy in ‘Caligula,’” and refused to show them on air.

    When Beck asked Massa about the allegations that he’d groped a male aide, he replied, “Yeah, I did. Not only I groped him, I tickled him until he couldn't breathe and then four of them jumped on me,” recapping the story he’s been telling about the exuberant boy-fun he had at his 50th birthday party in the Washington townhouse he shared with several male aides. But, he insisted to Beck, there was absolutely nothing sexual about the group-grope.

    At the wedding reception of one of his aides, Massa danced with the bridesmaid. A member of his staff suggested he pursue her. Massa, recounting the incident to Beck, said, “I grabbed the staff member sitting next to me and said, ‘Well, what I really ought to be doing is fracking you.’”  


    Trapped in the Closet

    Here’s where that annoying catchphrase about denial not being just a river in Egypt seems apt. When the undead CNN talk show host Larry King asked him if he was gay, Massa said no, adding, somewhat bizarrely, that the question was an insult to gay people. He stressed his hetero bona fides (wife, kids), and said that if anyone doubted he was straight they should talk to his old Navy buddies.

    And that’s exactly what Joshua Green of The Atlantic magazine did. Green talked to some of Massa’s former shipmates, and one told him that “Massa was notorious for making unwanted advances toward subordinates.” The informant said that Massa shared a hotel room with one of his Navy underlings while both were on leave during the first Gulf War. Massa started to massage the guy, telling him, “You’ll have to get one of my special massages,” which the future Congressman called “Massa massages.” It’s unclear if the sailor took up Massa’s offer, but you suspect that if he had, the encounter most likely would have had a “happy ending.” 

    The same shipman told Green that Massa came on to another sailor, who one night woke up to find Massa “undoing his pants trying to snorkel him.” The exact nature of this snorkeling has been a matter of some dispute in the media. But it seems unlikely we’re talking about an underwater activity involving rubber masks and fins.

    Eric Massa is surely one un-self-aware dude. With every statement he makes to the media he reveals more of himself, without seeming to realize it at all. And didn’t he ever hear of Gary Hart, the one-time Presidential contender who dared reporters to confirm the rumors that he was having extra-marital affairs? By urging the media to talk to his Navy colleagues, Massa, either out of arrogance or just cluelessness, set himself up for the same fate as Hart. His political career is dead, and he’s a laughing stock.

    But though we’re laughing at the Massa mishegas, it’s actually a pretty sad story, for a number of reasons. Massa, a former Republican, has on a number of key issues taken bold, progressive stances. He left the GOP in opposition to the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq and he’s against Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war, calling it “a fool’s errand.” He also has challenged Dick Cheney to debate him on the “war on terror,” saying, “I’ll go on his home turf, Fox, and go head to head with him. He stands on quicksand when it comes to matters of national security.”

    Massa favors health care reform but he wants a single-payer system, not the massive give-away to the insurance companies that Obama and the Democrats have cooked up.

    It’s too bad the US Congress now will have one less member who’ll take such positions.

    The ex-Congressman has said that his cancer, which originally was diagnosed as terminal but then responded to treatment, has recurred. If true, that’s a hell of a lot for him, and his wife and children, to deal with, in addition to the loss of a political career and the mockery of every pundit and comedian in America.

    And then there’s the gay thing. It seems more likely than not that Eric Massa is a closeted homosexual (or bisexual). Life in the closet, as any gay man, including myself, well knows, affords some protection from oppression and abuse. But it is psychologically and emotionally damaging and it distorts one’s relations with others. Closeted men, and especially those who don’t even acknowledge their situation to themselves, often “act out,” behaving sexually in inappropriate, even immature ways, just as Massa has been reported to do.

    If Eric Massa had been like Roy Ashburn, the viciously anti-gay Republican State Senator from California who was recently exposed as gay, I wouldn’t have the tiniest bit of sympathy for him. But Massa’s no Ashburn, and I do feel for him. (Prendi cura, paisan.) Yes, he’s responsible for his own downfall, as he has acknowledged. But he’s also a victim -- of homophobia, and also of hypocrisy about homosexuality. You’ll note that there have yet to be any Congressional investigations of David Vitter and John Ensign, two heterosexual Republicans implicated in sex scandals. This double-standard, despite the undeniable advances made by gay people, still pervades American life and politics.

  • Art & Culture

    Whose Family Values?

    As the so-called culture wars of the past few decades have shown, “the family” is an ideological construct – and political weapon – as much as it is a social arrangement.  American conservatives don’t much like public policies that would actually strengthen families stressed by economic woes, but they love to preach about “family values” and to condemn those – gays and lesbians, feminists, leftists – whom they view as “anti-family.”

    In Italy, the Vatican and its allies on the political right and center-left follow a similar script,insisting that the State uphold – and enforce -- conservative Catholic values about family and sexuality. Hardly a day goes by that some bishop isn’t denouncing attempts to give legal recognition to same-sex couples as an attack on the sacrosanct family, and that some opportunistic politician isn’t applauding that bishop.

    So when a popular Italian filmmaker presents a different view of family values, one that challenges conservative and Catholic ideology, it’s a culturally significant event. Ferzan Ozpetek, the openly gay, Turkish-born director who calls himself “Italian by adoption,” has done just that with his latest film, Mine vaganti (Loose Cannons). But the film, which opens in Italy this month, also challenges the belief, once foundational to feminism and gay liberation, that the family is inherently oppressive, a domestic dictatorship.

    The British poet Philip Larkin famously wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  They may not mean to, but they do.” Mine vaganti, while acknowledging that families can do damage, asserts that for gay children, familial bonds can be nurturing -- even liberating.

    Or at any rate, that the ties of blood and love are too tenacious to be easily severed.

    Mine vaganti centers on the bourgeois Cantone family, owners of a pastificio (pasta factory) in the southern Italian city of Lecce. The youngest son, Tommaso (played by Riccardo Scamarcio, currently one of Italy’s most popular romantic leads), returns from his studies in Rome. He confesses to his brother Antonio that he has been studying literature in order to become a writer, rather than business, as his family believed. He also tells Antonio that he is gay, and that he intends to come out to the rest of the family. But that evening, at dinner, Antonio trumps him by announcing to la famiglia – parents, grandmother, aunt, sister and Tommaso -- that he is gay, and that his lover is one of the employees of the family pastificio.

    The shocked and infuriated patriarch Vincenzo suffers a heart attack. Tommaso must put his  own revelations on hold and take over the family business, something he has been trying to escape his entire life.  Besides assuming this unwanted responsibility, he has to deal with the fallout from Antonio’s unexpected disclosure, including gossipy neighbors, and confront his parents’ prejudices. And then three of his gay friends arrive from Rome, complicating matters further.

    Ozpetek’s recent films have been somber, even melodramatic. But, according to Italian and European critics, Mine vaganti is in the tradition of commedia all’italiana, a genre whose best films seamlessly blended comedy and incisive social commentary. (The film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February.)

    One critic, however, compared Ozpetek’s film to the work of another European auteur. In the online journal, Lee Marshall wrote, “With its themes of family secrets, oddball character parts, bittersweet tone and sunny outlook, this is the easily the most Almodòvar-esque of all Ozpetek’s films.”

    In several of the director’s earlier works, like Hammam (also known as Steam) and Le Fate ignoranti (released abroad as His Secret Life), gays and lesbians are estranged from their families of origin and often marginalized by societal bigotry. They form new families with each other. But as Ozpetek said in a recent interview, “After my father’s death, I started to look at relations between parents and children in a new light.”  In Mine vaganti, the gay sons don’t flee their family; the battles for understanding and acceptance are waged on the home turf.

    Ozpetek, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ivan Cotroneo, says the film’s theme “isn’t homosexuality but the parent-child relationship, and the difficulty of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. The focus is on a family that I know – I always start from personal experiences. It’s a family from the provinces, Lecce in the film, but it could be in any town in the world.”

    But the film is indeed set in Italy, and in the south, where conservative attitudes towards family and sexual morality purportedly prevail. Homophobia, though, is hardly limited to any one part of the bel paese. The north and center have seen their share of anti-gay politics and violent hate crimes. One of the film’s stars, Ennio Fantastichini, who plays Vincenzo Cantone, views Mine vaganti as a very Italian story.

    “I, too, as a father, would like to see this country change,” he said, “so that it is no longer preoccupied with people’s sexual orientations or religious beliefs, which in my opinion are private matters, and that we should get back to understanding that the world is full of people who are more or less wonderful, more or less intelligent, and, above all, that the main question you should ask your children is, ‘are you happy’ or ‘are you unhappy’?”

    Federico Brusadelli, a writer for the online magazine FareFuturo, said Fantaschini’s comments were a breath of fresh air “in a country that continues to brandish ‘The Family’ as a weapon of war, too often forgetting that The Family, in uppercase, doesn’t exist. There are instead many families…and whether they are married or living together, homosexual or heterosexual, would, in a more normal country, matter very little.”

    Mine vaganti (Loose Cannons) was produced by Fandango in collaboration with Rai Cinema. It opens in Italy on March 12, 2010. Plans for U.S. distribution have yet to be announced.

  • Art & Culture

    Tano da morire: Singing, Dancing, Shooting

    Tano da morire (To Die for Tano)

    Written and directed by Roberta Torre

    A Leisure Time Features Release

    Whatever else can be said about Tano da morire (To die for Tano), the 1997 film made in Palermo by the Milanese director Roberta Torre, one thing is indisputable: there has never been a movie about the Sicilian Mafia quite like it.

    Italy has produced countless films about La Cosa Nostra, in a wide variety of styles and tonal registers. But from its opening scene of a funeral procession to its penultimate sequence, a rap music video set in Palermo’s Vucciria marketplace, Tano da morire is a radical departure from previous cinematic treatments of the Mafia.

    The film was a commercial and critical success in Italy, winning several prestigious awards, as well

    as generating some controversy. But it never found an American distributor. Now, nearly 13 years after its Italian release, it opens in New York City on February 10, with a limited national release to follow.  

    I first encountered Tano some years ago when it had a one-off screening at New York University’s Casa Italiana. To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I admired its audacity, its formal inventiveness and its eclectic soundtrack (by veteran pop star Nino D’Angelo) that mixed Sicilian and Neapolitan folk music with rock, pop, and rap. The fact that Torre made the film with an entirely nonprofessional cast of Palermo residents – including some low-level mafiosi – imparted an authenticity no studio film could match.

    But I had another, more ambiguous, and troubling reaction, one I later learned was shared by some Italian viewers. The film wanted me to laugh at the Mafia, and that made me uncomfortable. Wasn’t Torre trivializing something deadly serious by making comedy of it, and musical comedy, no less, with exuberantly wacky production numbers featuring singing and dancing mafiosi?

    Seeing the film again recently changed my opinion. Far from being an amusing if problematic 

    divertissement -- or a silly sitcom like the American Mafia farce “Analyze This” – Tano da morire is a serious film about the Mafia as a way of life, a culture. Surreal and often very funny, stylistically indebted to early Almodòvar and the American “trash” auteur John Waters, Tano da morire satirizes Mafia values and folkways, and in particular its perverse sex and gender codes.

    The film opens with a funeral procession wending its way through arid, rocky countryside, mourners following the coffin as a typical Sicilian brass band plays. But there’s something off about this familiar, even archetypal scene. The music, far from solemn, has some rollicking New Orleans funk in its syncopated rhythms and bluesy horns, and the procession, instead of ending up at a cemetery, vanishes into thin air.

    A gauntly handsome, mustachioed man – the film’s narrator – next appears to tell us that what we are about to see is a true story. And indeed, the title character, Tano Guarrasi, was an actual mafioso who, in 1988, was shot to death in his Vucciria butcher shop, a casualty of the savage power struggle between gangsters from Corleone and the older Palermo clans.

    Torre tells Guarrasi’s story not to denounce Mafia violence or to expose the corrupt alliance of Cosa Nostra and “legitimate” business. Instead of these familiar approaches, she mixes anthropology and satire to examine the cultural values of La Cosa Nostra. She does this mainly though a series of musical set pieces, most of them comic.

    Tano’s initiation into the Mafia is set in a 70s-style gay club, with big-haired gangsters in bell-bottoms and stacked heels performing a homoerotic disco number, “Simm’a Mafia” (We are the Mafia). As they sing the catchy paean to “la società onorata,” they twirl, rub noses, blow kisses, and fondle Tano, the compliant initiate. In a beauty salon a group of disgruntled Mafia wives complain about their men to a samba beat while wearing swordfish heads as hats. An argument between the overbearing patriarch Tano and his sexually frustrated teenage daughter is done as 50s-style rock ‘n roll duet. And then there is that Vucciria production number – “Tano’s Rap”-- with crowds of dancing and rapping palermitani brandishing octopi and using long cucuzza squashes as microphones.

    The musical numbers are often campy fun, but they do more than entertain. They capture, in the span of a few minutes, aspects of the Mafia that have been amply documented by investigative journalists and social scientists. La Cosa Nostra is known to be violently homophobic; members who are found out to be gay are likely to be killed. Yet the Mafia is a sex-segregated milieu in which “men of honor” form intense emotional attachments, often stronger than those with their wives and girlfriends. Torre’s spoof of Mafia initiation rites brings subtext to the surface, exposing the unacknowledged – and inadmissible -- homoeroticism in the Mafia’s homosociality.

    In song and in hilarious dialogue, the Mafia wives criticize and champion the Cosa Nostra value

    system. They complain about their violent, unfaithful husbands and lament their lot in life. But they proudly call themselves “women of honor” and ferociously denounce anyone who violates the Mafia’s codes, whether “pentiti” who testify for the government or women whose comportment offends them. Renate Siebert explored this contradictory mix of complicity and victimization in her 1996 book, Secrets of Life and Death: Women and the Mafia.

    Satire is not kind, and many of the images in Tano da morire are unflattering to Sicilians. The lowlife ambiance of criminality and casual violence, the gender oppression and sexual hypocrisy, the intense emotion that too often devolves into hysteria – and I haven’t even mentioned the hairstyles and fashions – don’t exactly add up to a portrait of “Sicilia bedda” (beautiful Sicily). When the film came out, some Sicilians objected that it ridiculed not only the Mafia, but Sicily itself.

    Satirists have to be merciless. But Torre herself has described her approach as not only satirical but also anthropological. So what is the responsibility of such a filmmaker to the community she portrays, the people without whose involvement she could not have made her film? Given that Torre is a Milanese, albeit one who moved to Palermo years before she made Tano, these questions are particularly fraught. Torre is hardly the first northern Italian film director to make a movie about the South, and if regional origins were a disqualification, then Visconti shouldn’t have made La Terra Trema or Il Gattopardo. But, one could argue, Visconti didn’t make Sicilians look exotically grotesque.

    No doubt some will disagree, but I don’t believe Torre has exploited or denigrated Sicily and Sicilians. By enlisting local people not only as performers but as collaborators who contributed to the screenplay, she made them active participants in the film’s creation. Moreover, Tano da morire seems to have been a film Sicilians needed in the late 1990s. The horrific violence perpetrated in the 1980s by corleonesi gangsters that culminated in the shocking assassinations, in 1992, of prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, not only enraged Sicilians. The bloody depravity of the bosses and their men stripped away the remaining vestiges of the Mafia’s self-flattering mythology of themselves as tradition-minded men of honor.

    With the worst of the violence having passed and Cosa Nostra discredited as never before, and

    with many of its top leaders in prison thanks to Falcone and Borsellino, why not mock the Mafia? In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, the iconoclastic Sicilian filmmaker Franco Moresco said that Tano da morire “reflects a historical necessity, which ten years ago would have been impossible. Ten years ago the actors from the Vucciria neighborhood would not have participated. They would have been afraid to make fun of a Mafioso, to make fun of ‘omerta.’ They were the same people who used to see dead bodies in the streets.”

    Perhaps this is why Leoluca Orlando, the anti-Mafia mayor of Palermo in the 1990s, enthusiastically supported Tano da morire, calling the film “an act of liberation.”