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Articles by: George De stefano

  • Op-Eds

    Power Plays, Italian Style


    Il DIVO

    Written and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

    An Artificial Eye Release


    Giulio Andreotti is without doubt one of the most sinister, and fascinating figures in modern political history. Seven times Italy’s Presidente del Consiglio (similar to a prime minister), the Christian Democratic leader embodied pure power, which he wielded with cunning, duplicity, and supreme cynicism. Margaret Thatcher, the former conservative British prime minister, described him as having “a positive aversion to principle.”

     

    Andreotti’s career is punctuated by accusations conspiracy, corruption, and collusion between government, the Mafia, the fascist Masonic lodge known as P-2 (Propaganda Due), and the Vatican. Although he has been indicted, tried, and even convicted of high crimes by ordinary tribunals, the court of appeals subsequently acquitted him of all charges, and today, at 90, he sits in Parliament as a Senator for Life.


    This enigmatic and formidable figure has met his match in Paolo Sorrentino. The young Neapolitan director’s justly acclaimed film “Il Divo” is a witty, unsparing, and devastating portrait of the statesman whose many suggestive nicknames include “The Black Pope,” “Moloch,” and “Beelzebub.” 


    But “Il Divo” is far from a conventional biopic. Sorrentino, who also wrote the film, presents Andreotti’s life and times as the true -- if murky -- history of Italy from the end of World War II to the present.


    A protégé of Alcide De Gasperi, the founder of the Christian Democratic Party, Andreotti entered politics in 1946 when he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, the body charged with drafting Italy’s new Constitution. A year later he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy’s parliament, and from then on he was regularly re-elected. Appointed undersecretary to De Gasperi’s cabinet, he obtained his first cabinet position in 1954 as interior minister in Amintore Fanfani’s government.

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    Andreotti was elected Presidente del Consiglio in 1972, but his first government lasted only nine days – the shortest-lived in the Republic’s history. The last of his seven governments ended in 1992, just a year after it was formed. When the Christian Democratic Party collapsed in the wake of the massive political corruption scandal known as Tangentopoli (“Bribe City”), Andreotti faced prosecution on various charges. In 1996, he was indicted for collusion with the Mafia and for complicity in the 1979 murder of the investigative journalist Mino Pecorelli, shot to death in Rome.


    The so-called “trial of the century” on the Mafia charges lasted for more than three years and ended in Andreotti’s acquittal because “the fact does not exist,” that is, prosecutors were not able to conclusively establish his collusion with Sicilian mafiosi, including the monstrous Totò “The Beast” Riina. Mafia pentiti (turncoats), including Tommaso Buscetta, who revealed the structure of Cosa Nostra to Giovanni Falcone, testified about Andreotti's Mafia connections.  Buscetta told prosecutors that Andreotti had ordered Pecorelli's murder and that the Mafia carried it out. (Pecorelli had published articles alleging Andreotti's involvement with both Cosa Nostra and the murder of Aldo Moro.) Totò Riina’s driver said he witnessed meetings between Andreotti and Riina. But Andreotti indignantly noted that the accusations against him came from men not exactly known for moral probity – Riina’s driver admitted killing ten men on his boss’s orders.



    Sorrentino presents the charges of Mafia collusion as fact. He depicts a meeting between Beelzebub and the Sicilian devil Riina at the latter’s country villa; Sorrentino even includes a scene reported by pentiti – Andreotti’s actual initiation into La Cosa Nostra.


     In 2002, Andreotti, along with Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti, was found guilty of complicity in Mino Pecorelli’s murder and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. (Pecorelli’s actual killer has never been found.) Silvio Berlusconi, himself on trial for bribing a judge, furiously demanded the overhaul of Italy’s justice system. Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini (a character in “Il Divo”) compared the devout Andreotti to Jesus Christ, declaring, “Without a doubt, at the end there will be a resurrection.”


    The cardinal’s words were prophetic. Andreotti’s conviction – and Badalamenti’s -- was overturned in 2003 by Italy’s highest court. Separate rulings that year and in 2004 cleared him of ties to the Mafia. Andreotti was “resurrected” alright, but by travesties of justice, not divine intervention.


    Sorrentino, through brilliant use of montage, portrays a series of high-profile murders – the shooting of Pecorelli, the poisoning of Mafia banker Michele Sindona, the assassination of the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, and the killing in Palermo of Salvo Lima, the Mafia-backed Christian Democratic politician often described as Andreotti’s Sicilian proconsul. Sorrentino alternates these killings with a number of  suspicious suicides that occurred during Andreotti’s time in power, including those of the mobbed-up Vatican banker Roberto Calvi, found hanging from a bridge in London, and Christian Democratic deputy Vittorio Sbardella aka The Shark (amusingly portrayed by Massimo Popolizio as a preening blowhard).


    One of Sorrentino’s most daring moves is his treatment of the 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Christian Democratic premier Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades. On the day Moro was kidnapped, the parliament was to vote on his “historic compromise” proposal that would have brought Italy’s Communist Party into the government for the first time.  Andreotti, then Presidente del Consiglio, was adamantly opposed to Moro’s proposal. He, along with Minister of the Interior Francesco Cossiga and Enrico Berlinguer, the head of the Communists, took a hard line against negotiating with the Red Brigades for Moro’s release.


    Moro, while in captivity, wrote a memoir in which he revealed information about Italy’s political and military secrets, and he bitterly criticized many of his fellow Christian Democrats, especially Andreotti. Sorrentino depicts Andreotti as troubled, even remorseful, over Moro’s death. He actually confesses his guilt to his favorite priest. In another scene, Moro’s specter appears to Andreotti and condemns him, saying his blood is on Andreotti’s hands.


    But his pangs of conscience don’t lead to penance. Andreotti rationalizes everything, all the byzantine plots, the betrayals and the murders as necessary evils to protect Catholic Italy from the supposed threat posed by the Soviet Union and Italy’s Communists. Sorrentino has Andreotti, speaking directly to the camera, confess to his misdeeds. His self-justification is that those who wield power must do evil in order to achieve “good” ends. For Sorrentino, fascinated by Andreotti but clearly appalled by him, Beelzebub’s good is Italy’s evil.


    A disturbing, and depressing tale, to be sure. But viewing “Il Divo” is anything but, thanks to Sorrentino’s bravura filmmaking. “Il Divo” is his fourth feature, following “L’Amico di Famiglia” (The Family Friend), 2006, “Le Conseguenze dell’Amore” (The Consequences of Love), 2004, and “L’uomo in più (One Man Up), 2001. With “Il Divo,” Sorrentino, not yet 40, joins the front ranks of not only Italian directors but of international filmmakers. His cinematic mastery makes “Il Divo” a thoroughly compelling experience. Working with his usual cinematographer, the superb Luca Bigazzi, he creates a number of dazzling set pieces in which camera movement, fluid editing (by Cristiano Travaglioni) and music fully realize the ideas in his screenplay.


    But the heart of the film is Toni Servillo’s amazing performance as Giulio Andreotti. Servillo, one of Italy’s foremost actors, took on a daunting challenge when he agreed to play such an impassive, extremely restrained, and inscrutable character. Aided by a flawless makeup job and Nosferatu-like prosthetic ears, Servillo builds his performance on physical details -- Andreotti’s slouching and his stiff gait, his nervous hand gestures, and unblinking stare. Andreotti suffered from migraines, and through Servillo’s acting we understand them as physical manifestations of an inner turmoil – and spiritual rot, despite the showy piety -- that belied the placid exterior he presented to the world.


    At times, such as when Andreotti, an insomniac, prowls the late night streets of Rome, his bodyguards close by, he seems like an extraterrestrial.  


    Servillo’s Andreotti raises his voice only once, otherwise speaking in soft, bland tones. Nearly every utterance is an aphorism that reveals his deep cynicism – “Thinking ill of your fellow man is a sin, but you’ve guessed right,” “Power consumes those who don’t have it,” “When in the Gospel they asked Jesus what truth was, he did not reply.”


    And what is the truth of Giulio Andreotti? In Paolo Sorrentino’s view, he was a statesman who served another state older and more powerful than the Italian Republic – the Vatican. It’s not by chance that whenever we see Andreotti with the members of his Christian Democratic faction, Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini is among them, a political as well as religious eminence. “Il Divo” is, in a sense, a symphony of duets -- between religious and secular power, and between organized crime and politics. The harmonizing of what should be discordant pairings still provides, as Sorrentino’s terrific film reminds us, the soundtrack to Italian politics. 


     

  • Op-Eds

    "The Africans Will Probably Save Italy"


    Once again, Roberto Saviano is speaking truth to power in Italy.


    As the Italian government moves to enact the harsh and discriminatory anti-immigrant policies favored by the Lega Nord, the anti-Mafia journalist and author of “Gomorra” has published a searing denuncia in La Repubblica. It is must reading for anyone concerned about Italy’s decision to address immigration issues by criminalizing immigrants.


    “Forgotten Courage” is the title of Saviano’s essay. The “coraggio” of which he speaks is that of Africans in Italy who are refusing to submit to the will and power of Italy’s various mafias.


    Saviano begins by taking on the recent move by the Italian government to send back undocumented immigrants who approach Italy by sea. (This is in addition to the other anti-immigrant measures included in the government’s “security” decree passed in February.) These immigrants, many of whom are desperately poor and fleeing war and political oppression, will be denied the opportunity to apply for political asylum. Many will face imprisonment, or worse, if returned to their ports of departure.


    The government and its supporters, Saviano notes, say the boats probably are full of criminals.


    Saviano counters, “Those who say that the arrival by boat of immigrants brings an avalanche of criminals, who say that violence and social decay are rising, perhaps are forgetting two very recent and extremely significant episodes that have become part of the history of our Republic.”


    “The two most important spontaneous revolts against the mafias in Italy were not waged by Italians but by Africans. It’s happened only twice in 10 years that there were here… public demonstrations organized not by associations or unions, without busses and without political parties.”


    Saviano notes that after camorra gangsters murdered six young African men in Castelvolturno, near Naples, last September, it was Africans who took to the streets in spontaneous anti-mafia demonstrations. Rage over their killings sparked a “revolt” by other Africans near the scene of the murders. “Their revolt,” writes Saviano, “brought TV cameras from all over the world, and the images they transmitted were of an entire people that stopped everything to demand attention and justice.”


    “In the six preceding months, the camorra killed a shocking number of innocent Italians. On May 16, 2008, Domenico Noviello, who ten years ago had reported extortion, was killed right after losing his police protection. But nothing, no protest at all. No Italians took to the streets. The few who were outraged….felt ever more alone and powerless.”


     “But their aloneness was finally broken on the morning of the 19th [of September 2008] when hundreds and hundreds of African men and women occupied the streets and screamed their indignation in the face of Italians.” Saviano notes that there was vandalism during the protests, but “the extraordinary thing is that the day after, the Africans took it upon themselves to repair the damages.”  “Their objective was to attract attention and say, ‘Don’t try it ever again.’”


    Saviano then writes about Rosarno, a town dominated by the ‘ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. There, last December 12, two farm workers from the Ivory Coast were attacked and seriously injured. That same evening, hundreds of foreign agricultural workers gathered to protest. Two days later, the attacker was arrested, an ‘ndrangheta extortionist who targeted African immigrants.


    “The demonstrations against the ‘ndrangheta, which rules as if by natural right, had never occurred in prior years,” Saviano notes.


    After the Rosarno protests, the Calabrian anti-Mafia writer and researcher Antonello Mangano published a booklet titled, “The Africans Will Save Rosarno, and Probably Italy, Too.” Mangano hailed the Africans for, as Saviano states, having “introduced into the daily life of southern Italy antibodies necessary to confront the mafia, antibodies that the Italians seem to lack, antibodies that are born from the basic desire just to live.”


    The Africans in Italy, Saviano continues, don’t feel bound by omertà, nor do they share the widespread attitude of native-born Italians “that everything has always been this way and always will be.” Their circumstances, their necessity to adapt to a new life, require them not only to fight to survive but also to defend their human rights. “And this,” says Saviano, “is the beginning of every battle against the mafia clans.”


    Saviano is outraged that the Berlusconi-Lega government is intent on criminalizing undocumented immigrant workers when Italy “has exported mafia to every corner of the earth.” Italian criminal organizations, he notes, “have taught the world how to structure their mafias politically and militarily.” Mafia investments, he says, helped developed the cocaine trade in South America.


    Italy wants to bar immigrants arriving from Africa on boats. But as Saviano notes, Italy has “exported” worse to Africa – “Italian gangsters have used African shores to bury toxic waste – in one single operation in the Ivory Coast, 851 tons of toxic waste were dumped.”


    Saviano doesn’t deny that there are foreign criminal gangs in Italy. “There are foreign mafias in Italy, and they are very strong, but they are allied with Italian gangsters. Their power is nonexistent without the consent and financial backing of the Italian groups.”


    Among these foreign gangs are Nigerians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and Romanians. “The Ukrainian mafia monopolizes the illegal market in home attendants and construction workers, the Nigerians prostitution and cocaine trade, the Bulgarians heroin, Romanians and Moldavians car theft. But these are a miniscule portion of their communities and they are fed by Italian criminality. None of these organizations lives without the consent and alliance of Italian mafias.”


    The government’s latest decree targets immigrants arriving by sea. But as investigations by Neapolitan prosecutors have shown, “These Nigerian mafias don’t arrive on crowded boats but on airplanes.” 


    “Even the desperately poor who carry cocaine in their bellies to pay for their trips and earn some money don’t arrive on ships, ever.”


    Saviano fears that “If all the immigrants become criminals, the criminal groups will be able to establish themselves as their representatives and there will not be a document or an arrival that they do not handle.”  Criminalizing these migrants “helps the mafia organizations because it forces every migrant to align himself with the mafias if they have to depend on them alone for documents, places to live…”


    “I know,” Saviano concludes, “that the part of Italy that has acted with understanding and acceptance, is that part that sees in the immigrants new hopes and new forces to change that which we have not managed to change. The Italy in which it is good to see one’s self and which carries in itself the memory of the persecutions of its own immigrants and will not permit this to happen again on its own land.”


    Click here to read the entire text of Roberto Saviano’s essay, Il Coraggio Dimenticato.




     

  • Op-Eds

    What Makes a Citizen?


    What does it mean to be a citizen? Is citizenship something one simply has or something one does?



    I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit in recent weeks, and especially since the recent conference, “Land of Our Return: Diasporic Encounters with Italy,” held at the Calandra Italian American Institute here in New York. One of the conference’s best-attended sessions was about Italian Americans obtaining Italian citizenship. The presenters, an Italian American woman and her (non-Italian) husband, an attorney, had obtained cittadinanza, and they declared that other Italian Americans should – no, must – do the same.



    I was unconvinced. It seemed to me the main reasons given for pursuing Italian citizenship were sentimental (a connection to the ancestral homeland) or self-aggrandizing (being able to travel and do business in Italy and elsewhere in the European Union). To me, neither seemed worth the trouble of dealing with Italy’s byzantine and sclerotic bureaucracy.

     

    But it was Annie Lanzillotto’s impassioned remarks at the end of the conference session that went to the heart of the matter. What does it mean to be a citizen, of Italy, or of the United States or any other nation, she asked. What is the point of citizenship? Annie urged us to think of “citizen” not as a noun but as a verb – how do you be a citizen, of Italy or the United States? 

     

    As a writer and performance artist, Annie Lanzillotto asks the pertinent, if sometimes disconcerting questions. I felt she did us all a favor at the Calandra conference by challenging us to think about why we might want to obtain Italian citizenship. What would we do with it?

    In the West, our concept of citizenship originated with the ancient Greeks, who identified it with the essence of being human. Aristotle observed that only gods and animals took no part in the affairs of the polis, the city-state.



    If you were a member of the polis, the public and private spheres were not separate realms. The obligations of citizenship were inextricable from the everyday life of individuals living in the polis. For the Greeks, citizenship was founded on citizens’ obligations to the community, not on a concept of inalienable rights. This worked because the city-states were small, organic communities whose members felt that their destinies were linked to that of the polis.



    Citizenship, active and engaged, also was for the Greeks an opportunity to demonstrate one’s virtue, thereby winning the respect and honor of fellow citizens.



    I wonder what the Greeks would make of the desire of growing numbers of Italian Americans to become citizens of the country their forbears left, or rather, fled, if we’re being honest about why millions of Italians emigrated. They might say, you’re already citizens of another country, where you were born. Don’t you have enough to do there?



    But these questions certainly aren’t deterring Italian Americans. Just Google “Italian citizenship” or “dual Italian citizenship” and you’ll find that there are companies and organizations ready to provide all the assistance you’ll need to obtain the required documenti and to deal with your local Italian consulate. One company says, “We do all the work for you!” -- an implicit acknowledgment that the process can be a bureaucratic nightmare.



    “Italian Citizenship will enable you to live, work, retire, go to school, and travel freely in 27 European Union (EU) countries,” the ad continues. (So you don’t even have to stay in Italy if you don’t want to.) “Don’t become overwhelmed by this complex journey…We will prepare everything while you enjoy reconnecting with your heritage.”



    It isn’t only Italian Americans from the U.S. who are pursuing citizenship. La Repubblica reports that last year more than a million citizenship requests came from descendants of Italian immigrants to South America, mainly Brazilians, Argentines, Venezuelans, and Uruguayans. The article, however, did not cite figures for citizenship applications from U.S.-born “discendenti dei vecchi emigranti.



    The move by the discendenti to claim Italian citizenship comes at a time of both emigration from and immigration to Italy. La Repubblica noted that 3,853,614 Italians are living and working abroad, mainly educated younger people, under thirty-five years of age, who have found better jobs and a higher standard of living outside Italy.



    At nearly 4 million, those who make up i cervelli in fuga (the brain-drain) are almost equivalent in number to the documented immigrants currently in Italy.



    But there are now many more undocumented immigrants – extracomunitari, clandestini, irregolari are some of the more benign terms used to identify them. These new arrivals, many of whom should qualify as refugees, are fleeing extreme poverty and starvation, political persecution, and war. But many in Italy don’t want them, and the current ignoble government is pandering to, and feeding, their xenophobia and racism.



    Under new policy championed by the Lega Nord, Italy will send back undocumented immigrants before they can land and be processed in Italy’s centri di accoglienza. (These so-called “acceptance” centers often have functioned more as detention facilities.) Repubblica noted that 500 immigrants, including newborns, had been sent back to Libya in the first five days of May. Libyan authorities are known to be brutal to many returned immigrants, especially those who left for political reasons. Gangs of young Libyan men have attacked  immigrants to Libya from sub-Saharan African countries.



    The Lega Nord, led by Umberto Bossi and whose Roberto Maroni is Italy’s Interior Minister, is ecstatic. Not only has Premier Silvio Berlusconi wholeheartedly endorsed the leghista send ‘em back policy; he aligned himself ideologically with the Lega when he recently declared that Italy will not become a multiethnic country.



    Italy’s bishops objected, noting that a multiethnic Italy already exists and is a good thing. The Italian Left, which is good at expressing moral indignation if not much else, condemned the new immigration policy and Berlusconi’s support of it.



    But moral indignation, though insufficient, is necessary, and Alessandro Dal Lago, an editorialist with the left-wing daily Il Manifesto, has expressed it well. He noted that “when someone starving, sick or needy knocks at our door, it should arouse a primordial imperative to give aid.”  But by sending boatloads of those whom Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth” back to Libya, the Italian government has decided to renounce “any minimal humane consideration.”



    The policy, Dal Lago noted, “has established that citizenship…is the indispensable requisite for someone to be treated like a human being.”  So in the Italy of Berlusconi, Bossi and Maroni, citizenship has become the dividing line between “us” and “them.”



    “Among the migrants sent back without even setting foot on our sacred soil there are people fleeing war, massacres, and hunger,” Dal Lago observed. “By impeding them from requesting asylum and returning them to their ports of departure, Italy condemns them to detention, to oppression, and, as has been documented for years, to death.”



    Native-born Italians are leaving Italy and staying abroad. Desperate people from impoverished lands are coming into Italy, or are trying to. And now Italian Americans increasingly are claiming Italian citizenship. I have considered becoming one of them. It’d be nice to vote in Italian elections and travel freely throughout the EU. I would be lying if I said I felt no personal connection, no cultural affinity, to la madrepatria. (I’d hardly be writing for I-Italy if that were the case.) But is that enough? I admit, I’m not sure. 



    But I am certain that, given the ugly turn Italy has taken, particularly since Berlusconi’s return to power in alliance with the Lega Nord, I’m in no hurry. For now, one passport will do.


     

  • Life & People

    Isn't It Authentic?


    When it comes to marketing Italian food, “authentic” is the advertiser’s favorite come-on; there’s no better way to seduce consumers than to invoke authenticity, in sound and image. Even when the word itself isn’t used, the authentic nature of whatever food product is being hyped typically informs the ad campaign so that potential customers will believe the product is “real” Italian food, something that “real” Italians would eat.



    But the authenticity of these ads and the products they promote is much like a drag queen’s “realness” – a construction, a performance. The performance may be more or less compelling, depending upon the skill of the marketer or the drag artiste. But while no one believes that the bewigged man lypsynching “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves” is “really” Cher, advertisers need you to believe that their simulacra of cucina italiana are the real thing.



    Consider some marketing campaigns for Italian, or rather, Italianesque, fast foods. In 2005, Papa John’s International, the Kentucky-based chain founded by a paisan named John Schnatter, introduced something called the “Sicilian Meats Specialty Pizza.” The pizza was topped with four meats -- salami, pepperoni, “spicy Italian sausage,” and one that isn’t at all Sicilian, or even Italian -- linguica sausage, a Portuguese specialty.



    The “Sicilian Meats” pizza, despite its name, was pure americanata – excessive, even gross. But invoking Sicily, or some idea of Sicilian cuisine, constituted what the ad industry would call the “aspirational” aspect of Papa John’s marketing campaign. Meaning, that the company wanted you to believe that its greasy, high-sodium atrocity offered an authentic taste of Sicily. 



    Four years later, Papa John has phased out its Sicilian Meats pizza; it’s apparently standard practice for the chain to introduce a new “specialty” pie every few years. Papa John has moved on to another Italian region. The company now markets a “Tuscan Six Cheese” pizza, which “is topped with an authentic six-cheese blend of mozzarella, Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, provolone and Fontina.” Ah yes, authentic “parmesan.”



    But for disingenuous appeals to authenticity, you can’t beat Pizza Hut. The chain now is advertising its line of “Tuscani” pastas as so authentic that they win over sophisticated New Yorkers and Italians in Italy.



    The New York commercial purports to show customers, filmed without their knowledge, “Candid Camera”-style, enjoying the fare at a Manhattan ristorante called Tuscani. Dopo cena, the diners are told that they’ve been eating Pizza Hut pasta. And guess what -- they just love the stuff! It’s so good they can’t believe it’s Pizza Hut!



    “Tuscani” of course is totally ersatz -- the restaurant, the name, and the pasta. There is no restaurant in New York called Tuscani. The ad actually was shot in Provence, a now-defunct French eatery. A spokesman for BBDO Worldwide, the agency that produced the commercial, said, “We intentionally did not reveal the name and instead outfitted the restaurant as ‘Tuscani’ to reinforce our new product launch.” The sophisticated urban diners in the ad are actors.

    Michael San Filippo, the webmaster of About.com’s Italian language site, notes that “Tuscani” has “absolutely nothing to do with the Italian province of Tuscany …except that it's a homophone…”



    But San Filippo’s really outraged that this fake Italian name is attached to a spurious product line that includes one dish – bacon mac ‘n cheese – whose connection to Italy is remote, to say the least: “Most certainly the blatantly misspelled take-out pasta has never appeared in a legitimate restaurant in Tuscany, Italy nor has it been prepared in any Italian kitchen: bacon mac 'n cheese?! Meaty marinara baked Tuscani pasta in a box? Mi fanno schifo!”



    Pizza Hut’s attempts to convince consumers that their mass market merda is authentically Italian reached new lows with a commercial set in a “Cooking Class, Rome, Italy.” As in the New York ad, unsuspecting people – in this case, actual Italians – are served Pizza Hut lasagna – and they can’t believe it’s Pizza Hut because it’s just so good and…authentic. If you’ve seen this ad, you may appreciate this parody, which purports to translate the real comments of the cooking school Romans: http://nextround.net/2009/02/25/the-pizza-hut-in-italy-commercial-accurately-translated/

     



    You’ve probably seen the TV commercial for the Visa credit card that draws on several tropes of Italian authenticity. Set in what appears to be an Italian, or putatively Neapolitan pizzeria, the ad features a young, bald, and hunky pizzaiolo who, with amazing dexterity, spins and tosses the pizza dough over his upper body, while a kitchen crew of Italian-looking men watches with amused admiration. The ad’s soundtrack is Renato Carasone’s recording of “Mambo Italiano;” the song’s line, “Go, go, go, you mixed up Siciliano” synchs nicely with the pizzaiolo’s flamboyant antics.  



    But the commercial’s pizzeria is a set, and the pizzaiolo is Juan Hermosillo, a Chicano from California who is known for his talents as a “professional pizza tosser,” according to the ad agency that made the Visa spot. (I had no idea that pizza tossing, as opposed to pizza making, was a profession.) Hermosillo is the captain of the US Pizza Team,

    a “group of pizza makers and dough acrobats whose goal is to bring the world's attention to the talent and camaraderie of the pizza industry.” The Team has made pizza-making into a competitive sport, with four categories of competition – “Fastest pizza maker,” “largest dough stretch,” “freestyle dough tossing,” and “Best Pizza.” Interesting that "best pizza" is the last category listed at the Team's website.



    Italian food is the most popular “ethnic” cuisine in America. The ads I’ve discussed here -- and others I haven’t, like those for the Olive Garden restaurant chain – aim to exploit that popularity, and the desire for the “real thing,” to sell bastardized versions of cucina italiana. Or, like the Visa ad, to associate Italian foodways with affluent, consumerist lifestyles. Others, like the commercials for Barilla Pasta, feature romanticized images of Italy and Italian family life, accompanied by Andrea Bocelli’s pop-operatic warbling.



    None of this is “authentic.” But the mediated ethnicity of these ads does tell you something about how Italian food, Italians, and italianità figure in the American imaginary. Italians are an exuberant, fun-loving (but “family-oriented”) breed, and their irresistible food is the cynosure of their appealing way of life. A stereotype, to be sure, but indisputably more benign than that other, all too familiar one.      

     

  • Op-Eds

    There He Goes Again


    Sabina Guzzanti, the political satirist who may be the most outspoken woman in Italy, rocked Piazza Navona last July with a speech that was incendiary even by her standards. Speaking at a left-wing rally, she took on the increasing intrusion of the Vatican into the secular sphere, and blasted the pope for his relentless attacks on gay and gender-variant people.

     

    After warning the crowd that within 20 years, if current trends continued, the Vatican might be deciding who gets to teach in Italian schools, she dropped the Q-bomb: “But then, within 20 years the pope will be where he ought to be — in Hell, tormented by great big queer devils, and very active ones, not passive ones."

     

    When I heard about Guzzanti’s remarks, I thought, bravissima, you bold and fearless bad girl. (I also thought of the South Park movie, “Bigger, Longer, Uncut,” which featured a great big and very gay Satan – one of my all-time favorite cartoon characters.) I knew she’d catch hell for mocking the pope. But I never expected she might face prison. Italian law, or rather, the 1929 Lateran Accord between Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship and the Vatican, defines the pope as a “sacred and inviolable person.” So insulting him is a criminal offense, punishable by one to five years in jail.  And sure enough, prosecutors in Rome actually recommended that Sabina Guzzanti be indicted because of what she said in Piazza Navona.

     

    Nothing came of this, fortunately. Outrage in Italy, even among conservatives, as well as incredulous coverage in the international media, apparently convinced Justice Minister Angelino Alfano not to indict a citizen of a purported democracy for speaking her mind.

    Guzzanti, to her credit, hasn’t been intimidated. She continues to speak out -- against the Vatican, Berlusconi’s abuses of power, and censorship. But so does the Pope – now, against condoms. Last month, on a flight to Africa, he told reporters that condoms, far from halting the spread of HIV, were making the situation worse.

     

    Though preventing HIV entails more than condoms, they are essential to any successful HIV prevention effort. There is absolutely no question that condoms, when used correctly and consistently, prevent people from contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. But the pope, having recently attacked gay and transgender people as a greater threat to humanity than global warming, doesn’t pay much attention to scientific consensus.

                                      

    Leading scientists, HIV specialists, frontline health care workers, as well as government leaders and politicians, denounced the pope’s wrong-headed and irresponsible comments. The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, ran an editorial that pulled no punches in its criticism:

                  

    “The Catholic Church's ethical opposition to birth control and support of marital fidelity and abstinence in HIV prevention is well known. But, by saying that condoms exacerbate the problem of HIV/AIDS, the Pope has publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue.”

     

     (Sabina Guzzanti - Piazza Navona 7/8/2008)

     

    UNAIDS, the United Nations Population Fund, and the World Health Organization issued a joint statement noting that "the male latex condom is the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV.”

     

    Vatican spin doctors tried to calm the furor by claiming the Pope actually had said something else. The Vatican’s media chief, Federico Lombari, posting at the Holy See's website, wrote that what the pope really said was that there was “’a risk that condoms...might increase the problem.’”

     

    But The Lancet didn’t buy it. “Whether the Pope's error was due to ignorance or a deliberate attempt to manipulate science to support Catholic ideology is unclear. But the comment still stands and the Vatican's attempts to tweak the Pope's words, further tampering with the truth, is not the way forward. When any influential person…makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record.”

     

    But of course the pope and the Vatican aren’t even considering the possibility of a retraction.  Instead, they’re now attacking their critics with predictable boilerplate rhetoric. This week the Vatican put out a belligerent press release accusing the pope’s critics of trying to “intimidate” and “silence” him. The statement didn’t deal with the substance of the criticism of the pope, or address the scientific consensus about the effectiveness of condoms.

     

    The Vatican has gone so far as to say that HIV workers who have dedicated themselves to curbing the epidemic in Africa are some kind of latter-day colonialists imposing decadent, foreign values on Africans. That nonsense was neatly disposed of by Rebecca Hodes, of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, who said the pope’s opposition to condoms “conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans.”

     

    As someone with some 20 years of experience in HIV education and prevention, I was appalled by the pope’s remarks and heartened by the response to them. As a gay man and a nonbeliever, I’m fed up with his grotesque rhetoric and the arrogance and intransigence of the institution he heads. 

     

    That brings me back to Sabina Guzzanti and the threat to prosecute her for having insulted the pope.  That Italy would even have such a law on the books, more than 60 years after the fall of Fascism, is incredible. The notion that an individual can’t be criticized because he is a “sacred and inviolable person” invites laughter and derision – in a word, satire. And since satire is a powerful weapon against the pompous and the tyrannical, I hope Guzzanti, and certainly not only she, will continue to wield it. After all, it’d be a shame to pass up the ample opportunities this current pope no doubt will continue to provide.  

     

     ( Sabina Guzzanti - "Catechismo by Ratzinger")

     









     

  • Op-Eds

    Breaking the Silence


    Paul Ginsborg, the eminent historian of contemporary Italy, outlined some of the daunting challenges facing the opposition to Premier Silvio Berlusconi when he spoke at the “Denuncia: Speaking Out in Modern Italy” conference in New York last month.(See: Regime and Resistance) Though generally pessimistic, Ginsborg did cite one stratum of Italian society as a potentially effective opposition force, “i ceti medi reflessivi,” educated and civic-minded middle-class professionals whose standard of living has declined in the current economic crisis and who are appalled by the Berlusconi regime.


    Libertà and Giustizia (Freedom and Justice) is a civil society association founded as a vehicle for members of that social stratum to express their outrage over the state of Italian politics and their commitment to democracy.  The group recently issued a manifesto, “Rompiamo il Silenzio” (Let’s Break the Silence), which was distributed at the Denuncia event. The manifesto has gotten more than 200,000 signatures since it was posted online two months ago.


    “Rompiamo il Silenzio” opens with a quotation from the left-wing social theorist Norberto Bobbio: “The path of democracy is not an easy one. One needs to be continually vigilant, not resigned to the worst nor given over to a tranquil trust in the inevitably progressive fate of humanity…We are, we must be, democrats always on the alarm.”


    Alarm, according to the manifesto, “has never been as justified as now.” In today’s Italy there are “unequivocal signs of social decay: the loss of a civic sense, public and private corruption, contempt for legality and equality, impunity for the strong and constraint for the weak, freedom as privileges and not as rights.”


    “When social ties are put at risk,” the statement continues, “one is not astonished by secessionist ideas, racist and xenophobic outbursts, vulgarity and arrogance and violence in relations between individuals and groups. Most worrisome is the passive acceptance of all this that permeates the culture.”


    “Not seeing is not wanting to see,” the statement notes. “We don’t know how it all will turn out, but we are warning that democracy is in the balance.”


    Libertà e Giustizia “is not a political party, it doesn’t seek to become one, and it does not aspire to substitute for political parties. But it wants to give a positive direction to the growing dissatisfaction with politics, transforming it into participation and proposals.” 


    “Rompiamo il Silenzio” speaks a language of ethics and culture; it states that Libertà e Giustizia seeks “to culturally enrich national politics with its analyses and proposals.” The association seeks to become “the missing link between positive social ferment and the official space of politics.”


    The ethical language and appeals for political and civic regeneration don’t preclude Libertà e Giustizia from getting specific. The various documents, articles, press releases, blogs and polls at the association’s website take on such hot-button issues as Berlusconi’s and the Right’s efforts to undermine the Constitution and center power in the executive branch of government, economic crisis in Italy, the intrusion of religion into politics and the undermining of the secular state, political and economic corruption, organized crime, racism and xenophobia.


    Libertà e Giustizia does more, however, than issue manifestos and maintain a website. It also holds public meetings, conferences, seminars and demonstrations, all with the aim of promoting a new political culture and ethics. In March, it held an anti-Fascism rally in Milan.


    Founded and based in Milan, its leadership consists almost entirely of northern Italians, mainly academicians and journalists, and some attorneys and businesspeople. One of its founders is the internationally renowned author and philosopher Umberto Eco; its current president is the veteran journalist Sandra Bonsanti. Though its base and leadership is in the north, the association has chapters throughout Italy, including the southern regions of Campania, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily.


    For anyone acquainted with modern Italian history, the association’s name is a dead giveaway of its political orientation. “Libertà e Giustizia” reverses the terms in the name of the anti-fascist organization founded in Paris in 1929 by the refugees Carlo Rosselli, Emilio Lussu, Alberto Tarchiani, and Ernesto Rossi. Giustizia e Libertà organized resistance to Fascism, forming clandestine groups in Italy and engaging in a propaganda war against Mussolini’s dictatorship. Giustizia e Libertà partisans also fought in another great anti-Fascist struggle, the Spanish Civil War.


    Like its predecessor and inspiration, today’s Libertà e Giustizia is non-Marxist and social democratic in its politics, and committed to a market economy. Progressive, but not radical. It upholds the values expressed in the Italian Constitution, including secularism, decries abuses of power, and champions democratic political values and participation. So maybe, in today’s Italy, these men and women of “i ceti medi reflessivi” are doing something that indeed is radical.     


    Visit Libertà e giustizia online.  The association is still accepting signatures for “Rompiamo il Silenzio.”


  • Op-Eds

    Due De Stefano


    “What’s with you guys named De Stefano writing about the mafia?”


    So joked my cyberpal Francesco Raffaele Armando Pepe, in an e-mail he sent to tell me about a new book, “La penisola dei mafiosi: L’Italia del pizzo e delle mazzette” (The Peninsula of Mafiosi: The Italy of Protection Money and Bribes), by a Neapolitan journalist named Bruno De Stefano.


    Francesco, whose family migrated to Amsterdam from Naples (See Joey Skee’s “Francesco Pepe: My Dutch Paisan” ) is an amazing fount of information about Italian organized crime and its cultural representations, in film, literature, and music. He generously shares his findings, too. He’s sent me DVDs of films that have not been distributed in America, such as Francesco Patierno’s “Paterfamilias,” a scalding critique of male violence and misogyny, and CDs by Pino Mauro, a popular Neapolitan singer-actor known for his guappo (gangster) film roles.


    So when Francesco told me about Bruno De Stefano, I knew I had to check out this writer with the same cognome as mine.


    It turns out that De Stefano, 42, is one of Naples’ leading anti-Mafia journalists, along with the internationally known Roberto Saviano, Rosaria Capacchione (who, like Saviano, is under 24-hour police protection) and the venerable Giorgio Bocca. De Stefano has written for various daily newspapers, including Paese Sera, Il Giornale di Napoli, Corriere del Mezzogiorno (the Campania edition of Corriere della Sera) and the weekly, Metropolis. He currently edits City, a free weekly published by the Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera group.


    Francesco Pepe linked Bruno and me as De Stefanos writing about organized crime. But Bruno writes actual exposés and analyses of crimine organizzata. In my book, “An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America,” I examined the mythology of the Mafia, its cultural representations, in the context of Italian immigration to America and Italian American history. Needless to say, Bruno’s investigative reporting, from the ground zero of Neapolitan organized crime, is a far riskier and braver undertaking than my cultural criticism, written in the safety of my New York apartment.


    Bruno De Stefano has written three books, each published (by Newton Compton) in the past three years: “Napoli Criminale” (Criminal Naples, 2006); “I Boss della Camorra” (Camorra Bosses, 2007) and “La penisola dei mafiosi: L'Italia del pizzo e delle mazzette” (2008). Of his most recent title, Roberto Saviano has said, “I have read Bruno De Stefano -- a sharp, clear, hard book.” 


    The reviewer for Il Corriere del Mezzogiorno called “Penisola” a “documented essay about the Italy of protection money and bribes, rigorously journalistic reportage about the infiltration of the mafias in the institutions of the Belpaese.”


    Bruno, in a February 2009 interview with the daily Il Mattino, pulled no punches in his assessment of organized crime’s impact on Italy. He said that one of his aims in writing “La Penisula dei Mafiosi” was to “overturn the belief that the mafias represent a problem only for the South. Instead we face a plague of national dimensions that extends from Val d’Aosta to Lombardy, from Emilia Romagna to Lazio, down to Sicily.”


    In his books and articles, De Stefano shows how this “plague” infects Italian society, reaching into businesses large and small and governmental agencies, including even public health boards. 


    De Stefano says the “macchina repressiva” – the Italian state’s anti-organized crime apparatus -- has functioned fairly well. “But in some areas, the situation is now compromised and the engagement of the magistrates and the forces of order, though solid, runs the risk of becoming ineffective.”


    He also discussed a “Mafioso mentality,” saying that if Italy “had not been so extraordinarily permeable to the culture of “soprafazzione” (abuse of power), organized crime today would have far less influence and power.


    Asked how Naples “lives” these days, De Stefano replied, “Naples doesn’t live, it endures. If we put aside our useless, parochial pride, we cannot but recognize that our city forces us to live as prisoners of fear. The fear of being robbed or being killed. And to realize that, apart from reading the daily newspaper accounts, all you have to do is glance at the list of innocent victims killed in the last years. Today few have remained to defend Naples. The only ones who do so are those who went to live elsewhere, like Sophia Loren, Pino Daniele, or [pop star] Gigi D’Alessio. But it’s easy, as well as comfortable, to defend Naples if you live in Los Angeles or in [the wealthy Roman neighborhood] Parioli.”


    As Roberto Saviano says, sharp, clear, and hard.



    Bruno De Stefano’s blog: http://brunodestefano.splinder.com/



     

  • Facts & Stories

    Regime and Resistance


    “A regime and its opposition are intimately linked,” observed historian Paul Ginsborg. “The character of a regime demarcates the quality and quantity of its opposition.”


    Ginsborg, in his keynote address to the conference, “Denuncia: Speaking Up in Modern Italy,” held March 27-28 at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò (NYU)  in Manhattan, was concerned specifically with the nature of the regime of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, and the forces that oppose it.


    The British-born Ginsborg became a professor of contemporary European history at the Università di Firenze in 1992, after many years of teaching at Cambridge University. He has written several highly-regarded books, including "A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988," and "Italy and Its Discontents, 1981-2001," which radical scholar Perry Anderson has called “two of the most commanding histories of postwar Italy.”  


    Ginsborg, 64, also is a man of the Left who has distinguished himself as a passionate defender of democracy in his adopted country. He has been at the forefront of the opposition to Berlusconi over the past 15 years and has participated in campaigns to unify Italy’s fractious Left.  This soft-spoken, transplanted Englishman, of Jewish heritage, is one of Italy’s most prominent and respected public intellectuals.


    During his hour-long talk at Casa Italiana, Ginsborg noted how difficult it is to oppose a regime that, for all its abuses of power, operates within a political system that still is democratic.  He said that although he regards political satirist Sabina Guzzanti as Italy’s “bravest and most brilliant comedian,” he disagrees with her contention that Italy is no longer a democracy.  Contrasting Guzzanti’s “menaced” position in Italy – she lost her TV show “RAIot” and has faced intense harassment and legal threats – with the acceptance accorded great and scabrous 18th century British satirists like Hogarth, Ginsborg understands why Guzzanti believes that Italian democracy has been mortally wounded.

     

                                

     

                              Silvio Berlusconi by Sabina Guzzanti ("L'Ottavo Nano"- RAI TELEVISION)



    He maintained, however, that Italy, even in “the era of Silvio B,” remains a democracy. Voting rights, and freedom of speech and assembly continue to exist. The continued existence of these freedoms, he argued, “makes acquiescence [to the regime] more likely than opposition.”


    Ginsborg acknowledged that Italy is “a democracy of a particular sort,” while taking issue with the notion,popular elsewhere in Europe, that it is not a “normal” democracy, or nation. He noted that British democracy lacks transparency and restricts the flow of information, while even Sweden, often extolled as a progressive model, has perpetrated “negative eugenics,” including forced sterilization.


    Italy, like Britain, is a center-right country, and long has been so, he said. He went on to note that in the Berlusconi era, Italy has been variously described as neo-Fascist, as a “videocracy,” a “post-democracy,” and also as “nihilistic,” in the sense that Berlusconi’s regime is concerned only with the perpetuation of its own existence and its power. Ginsborg cited the regime’s “patrimoniasm,” in which the leader furthers the interest of himself and his clan, engaging in vertical patron-client relationships while demonstrating scant respect for public institutions. Berlusconi’s conception of freedom, Ginsborg noted, is essentially a negative one; it prizes freedom from taxes, freedom from the State, freedom from social responsibility.


    In today’s Italy, governed by Berlusconi’s “people of freedom” coalition, there is “a surface image of normal everyday life, with all the rights of a democracy” while at the same time the regime engages in a “constant undermining of formal freedoms.”  Berlusconi’s immense wealth and control of mass media, especially commercial television, means “there is no level playing field” in elections. He works to erode the balance of powers in Italian governance, constantly attacking the judiciary and the presidency, and “deriding” the legislature.  In February Berlusconi even suggested that Italy’s parliament could do its work faster and more efficiently if only party heads (capigruppi), and not individual legislators, were allowed to vote.


    After his comments about Berlusconi’s government, Ginsborg turned to the opposition.  Noting the difficulty of mounting an effective counterforce to a formally democratic regime, he nonetheless was unsparing in his criticism of the Left’s failures. The “official Left,” led by the Partito democratico (Democratic Party), deserves the “invertebrate” epithet bestowed by Perry Anderson in a recent essay in the London Review of Books. “The major political party of the Left refuses to fight,” said Ginsborg. “It refuses to see the dangers of this regime” and instead “puts its head in the sand and hopes things will get better.” Even worse, the party, and its hapless ex-leader Walter Veltroni, offered to work with Berlusconi after his most recent electoral victory. 


    Efforts to unite the “sinistra radicale” (radical Left), which Ginsborg has supported, have completely failed. Parties such as Rifondazione comunista, i Verdi (Greens) and others to the left of the Democrats, instead of agreeing upon a common agenda and putting forth new leaders, fell prey to ideological hairsplitting and in-fighting.


    Ginsborg, however, did single out for praise one prominent radical leftist, Nicola “Nichy” Vendola, the gay, communist regional president of Puglia. Marveling at the very notion of a gay communist leading Puglia, Ginsborg called Vendola “extraordinary” but noted that he is “very alone” on the political scene. He lost his recent campaign to lead Rifondazione and subsequently left the party, whose fortunes are at their lowest ebb since its founding in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Partito comunista italiano (Italian Communist Party).


    Ginsborg noted another oppositional tendency in Italian politics, which he termed “the opposition of the martyrs.”  When the organized Left is weak or embattled, exemplary heroes come forth to make personal sacrifices in defense of the Republic and democracy. In past years, the Sicilian anti-Mafia martyrs Placido Rizzotto and Peppino Impastato represented this tendency, which Ginsborg said is imbued with “Catholic symbolism.” Today, its exemplars are Roberto Saviano, the embattled author of “Gomorra,” Sabina Guzzanti, and outspoken journalist Marco Trevaglio.


    In a generally dismal political environment, there are social forces and actors who could present an effective opposition. These include those Italians who make up what Ginsborg called “i ceti medi riflessivi,” progressive, civic-minded members of the educated, urban middle class. Concentrated mainly in the professions and the public sector, these Italians actually comprise a majority of the Italian public, some 55 percent of the population. They “have high levels of culture” but are “descending in social mobility.” They earn university degrees, but often cannot find jobs commensurate with their education. They tend to be anti-Berlusconi, but they have not yet found their political voice or vehicle. They can be mobilized, as they were in 2002, in mass demonstrations. They formed the base of the so-called “girotondi” movement against Berlusconi, one that ultimately dissipated due to its own political timidity as well as the hostility of the “official Left.”


    The other source of opposition, Ginsborg said, can be found in Italian civil society associations that operate “between the family and the state.” Committed to peace, gender equality, and social justice, they include the various anti-Mafia groups in the south, the national and local ARCI organizations, and Catholic base associations. Ginsborg said that experiencing Italy’s “extraordinary and strong civil society” was “liberation” for him after his years in Cambridge, where “there is nothing but the university.”


    “Is there any hope?” Ginsborg rhetorically asked near the conclusion of his talk. “The simple answer is that given the nature of the regime it’s very tough to organize” an effective opposition. But there are “many forces, among the middle and working classes, that are just crying out for coordination and movement.”


    But who will provide that coordination, that mobilization of unorganized opposition into a movement, and how? That’s a question Paul Ginsborg, modestly and wisely, did not attempt to answer.  


     

    I-Italy exclusive interview with Paul Ginsborg about Italian democracy and more coming soon. Stay tuned

  • Life & People

    Another Sicily

    Both Hollywood and European cinema have produced countless films about La Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia. But Anthony Fragola wants to tell another kind of story, not about the Mafia itself but about the Sicilians dedicated to fighting it. Fragola, a Sicilian American who is a professor of film studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, has completed one documentary film, Un Bellissimo Ricordo (A Beautiful Memory), focusing on Felicia Impastato, the mother of the assassinated anti-Mafia activist Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato. (Impastato was the subject of director Marco Tullio Giordano’s acclaimed 2000 feature film, I Cento Passi.) Anthony Fragola’s latest documentary is Another Corleone: Another Sicily. The film, a work in progress, examines the anti-Mafia struggle of citizens and activists in the town indelibly linked to the Mafia by The Godfather. In addition to being a filmmaker, Fragola is an author. His short story collection Feast of the Dead (Guernica, 1998) explores Sicilian immigration, culture, and identity. I recently spoke with Professor Fragola about his films, the anti-Mafia movement in Sicily, and his personal commitment to documenting and supporting that movement.  

    You have made two documentary films, Un Bellissimo Ricordo, and Another Corleone: Another Sicily, both dealing with la lotta alla Mafia, the anti-Mafia struggle in Sicily. What motivated you to make these films?

    I began Un Bellissimo Ricordo because of an interview I read with Felicia Impastato in Donne Siciliane: Quindici storie vere (Sicilian Women: Fifteen True Stories), a book by Giacomo Pilati, published by Coppola Editore in Sicily. I was immediately struck by the courage and resiliency of all those women, and especially that of Felicia Impastato, whose son, Peppino was killed by the Mafia because of his open rebellion against it. What struck me was Felicia's courage, her relentless dedication to bring justice to her son's name, and her transcendent spirit in the face of desolation and isolation.

    We say, "one thing leads to another," but I prefer the literal translation of the Italian, “Da cosa nasce cosa,” “one thing is born from another.”  The Italian expression seems more creative, more of a wholistic natural process and cycle.  

    On a subsequent trip to Sicily, Salvatore Coppola [of Coppola Editore] took me to the cooperatives in the provinces of Palermo and Trapani. I have always been interested in land and sustainable farming, and I had read that in Sicily there were cooperatives set up on land the government had seized from the Mafia. The cooperatives were attempting to turn these properties into productive, self-sustainable, organic ventures that paid honest wages to the workers. What interested me was the story of the cooperatives and their struggle to be viable. But in order to understand them I had to first learn about the Mafia, especially under the brutal leadership of the Corleonesi, Luciano Liggio, Totò Riina, and Bernardo Provenzano, who waged a merciless terrorist war against the Italian state, killing magistrates, carabinieri, policemen, businessmen, innocent bystanders -- anyone who stood in their way to absolute power.

    In order to make a documentary, I needed to see what films had been made, study more about the history of the Mafia and the cooperatives, politics, economics - in short, I felt the need to understand this story in its full complexity. My model for this type of research is the Italian director, Francesco Rosi, whose political films are not well known in this country and are sadly underrated.

    Was it difficult to get people like Felicia Impastato, her surviving son Giovanni, and others to speak with you and to allow you to film them? Or were they eager to tell their stories?

    Both Giovanni and Felicia were very willing to share their story, not just with me, but with the world. Felicia told me that people from all over Italy and the rest of the world came to see them and that their house [in the western Sicilian town of Cinisi] was always open to visitors. Their home has now been turned into Casa Memoria where the work of promoting legality, civic consciousness, and the fight against the Mafia continues.

    In the biopic I Cento Passi, about Peppino, his younger brother Giovanni is depicted as an ordinary youth frightened by Peppino’s intense commitment and his boldness. But in the decades since Peppino’s murder, Giovanni has taken on the mantle of anti-Mafia activist. Does he see himself as continuing his brother’s work?

    Giovanni has characterized himself much as he was depicted in the film. After his brother's death, Giovanni found the strength and courage to continue from his brother's spirit. Last year marked the 30th anniversary of Peppino's death, and Giovanni organized a national day of remembrance in Peppino's honor. More than 5000 people attended, and [Sicilian singer-songwriter] Carmen Consoli gave performance in Cinisi. As Salvatore Coppola said, Giovanni is no longer Peppino's brother. Peppino was Giovanni's brother. The banner has been entrusted to Giovanni, who rightly deserves it.

    What do people involved in the anti-Mafia movement want the outside world to know about their struggle, and about Sicily today?

    First, I would say that they want the world to know that there is a strong anti-Mafia movement in Sicily, that Sicily is NOT the Mafia. The movement is gaining momentum, and there have been triumphs, such as the production of the new wine, I Cento Passi, from the Cooperative Placido Rizzotto. As Luigi Lo Cascio, the actor who played Peppino Impastato, stated at the public presentation of the wine at Giovanni's pizzeria in Cinisi, “Every time you uncork a bottle of this wine it's like firing a bullet against the Mafia.”

    Another Corleone: Another Sicily looks at the efforts of the national organization Libera to transform property formerly owned by Mafiosi into agricultural collectives with a social mission. A few years ago I visited the Cooperativa Sociale Placido Rizzotto, in San Giuseppe Jato. I felt that although the coop was a noble undertaking, it also seemed very fragile to me. What’s your assessment of the viability of these projects?

    As one of the professional associates working with that cooperative said to me last summer, “we are making steps, but they are slow.” But this month there was an event that demonstrated tremendous strides in the viability of the cooperatives. On March 12, the Bottega di Sapori e Legalità opened in Palermo to sell products from the cooperatives. The event heralded the combination of the forces of law and order, business, Libera, the cooperatives, and the citizens supporting La Bottega. My idea is to become a conduit for these products in the US. At this point I do not know if their production is sufficient for export, but it is one of the many aspects I plan to investigate this summer when I return to shoot more footage for Another Corleone: Another Sicily.

    What do you think it will take for “another Corleone, another Sicily” to flourish? And is it realistic to believe that the mafia can be defeated?

    It will take the combined effort of every aspect of society -- ordinary citizens, the government's commitment to help the cooperatives, support of investigative magistrates and the judicial system, the clamping down on ‘il pizzo’ [the “protection” money extorted from businesses by the Mafia] and ending the Mafia’s control over government contracts. Also, support for the cooperatives by purchasing their products. Support from Italian Americans and Italian American organizations would also be of tremendous help, not just financial, but moral support as well. And there needs to be a change in the misguided glorification of the Mafia as depicted in The Godfather. That is why I chose the title for my documentary, Another Corleone: Another Sicily.

    For example, Corleonedialogos.it is advocating a new type of tourism in Corleone, a socially responsible tourism. There are now Mafia tours of the region. People get on a bus, see where The Godfather was purportedly filmed, have lunch, get back on the bus and leave. This other type of tourism wants to take people to the places where activists such as Placido Rizzotto, who was killed for organizing the peasants, was abducted. They also want to show the positive aspects of the village. I, along with the others, was shamefully uninformed. I did not know, for example, that there is an anti-Mafia museum in Corleone that houses the more than 1000 documents that [anti-Mafia prosecutors] Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino prepared for the maxi-trials. [More than 300 mafiosi were convicted in the late 1980s in the Palermo trials.] But the museum lacks funds and may be closed. Italian Americans could show solidarity with the anti-Mafia movement by supporting the museum, the cooperatives, responsible tourism, and other ventures.

    You are a Sicilian American committed to documenting the efforts of Sicilians to bring about progressive social change on the island. What’s the source of your “impegno,” your personal commitment?

    Good question. Several years ago I was in Sicily to do more literary and film work. Nothing seemed to be going right. I felt isolated and unsupported. I felt I had lived a romanticized illusion, a myth of Sicily, and I doubted I would ever return to continue my work there. Gradually, through a series of events, including encouragement from Professor Antonio Vitti, who was then head of the Italian Department at Wake Forest University, I resumed my work, which led to A Beautiful Memory.

    Several years later [author] Giacomo Pilati asked me why I continued this work if I had lost my romantic illusions about Sicily. I can't answer that rationally. I can only say that it is in my blood. Because I was raised, in part, by my Sicilian grandmother, I felt deeply connected to Sicily even as a child. I believe it may be akin to William Blake's “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Perhaps I see Sicily in a more realistic, but much deeper way. I hope so. I can only say that after many years of working in isolation I have found my calling.

    Do you intend to continue making documentaries about Sicily? What are your upcoming projects?

    We shall see if I get the support in Sicily I need to do this. So far, I have made extensive contacts, and I am optimistic. I have a rough cut of a documentary about Margherita Asta, whose mother and young twin brothers were killed in a bomb blast intended for an investigative magistrate in Trapani. I want to finish that. I love fables and myths, and Sicily abounds with those. I have recently proposed an idea for a conference and a book on Francesco Rosi that I am excited about. Rosi's films are intelligent, complex investigations into the multiple realities, ambiguities, and paradoxes of Sicilian life, and he and his work deserve to be better known.

    And then there are other, more congenial possibilities. I am considering taking small groups on gastronomical tours of Sicily, staying at agriturismi [farm inns] that offer organic food grown and prepared on the premises. I am also communicating with the University of Catania about establishing a collaborative venture with UNC Greensboro, my home institution. You could live forever and never mine all the riches that Sicily has to offer. Maybe therein lies the source of my commitment.

    For inquiries about Anthony Fragola’s films, e-mail him at [email protected]

    For more information about anti-Mafia Corleone, see Dialogos, http://www.corleonedialogos.it/

  • Ride Him, Cowboy



     

    RAI Due, one of Italy’s state-owned television channels, will broadcast the complete, unexpurgated version of “Brokeback Mountain,” director Ang Lee’s acclaimed 2005 “gay cowboy” drama, on Tuesday, March 17.

     

    The broadcast of the complete film comes three months after RAI Due showed a censored version of the film that eliminated the scenes which established that Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) weren’t just herding sheep up on the titular mountain.

     

    That’s right – RAI Due decided that the sight of two men kissing and making love, and discreet, and un-explicit love at that -- would be too much for Italian TV viewers.

     

    What RAI didn’t count on was an outpouring of outrage from Italy’s gay community, and the incredulous, mocking commentary in the foreign press.

     

    “We want to know who decided to show ‘Brokeback Mountain’ ... with such blatant, 1950s-style cuts,” demanded Aurelio Mancuso, president of the Italian gay rights group Arcigay. “Who had the presumption to think an adult public could not handle the sight of kissing and intimacy between two men?”

     

    Good question. Faced with “Brokeback” backlash, RAI Due director Antonio Marano claimed that the broadcast of the expurgated version was just a mistake; the “wrong” cassette had been played. But in saying so, Marano perhaps inadvertently revealed that “at RAI there exist censored copies of films with gay subject matter,” as Arcigay’s Mancuso observed.

     

    He added, “We hope that Marano throws out all the tapes with cut scenes and that RAI Due can continue to make room for, hopefully even in prime time, stories about gay people.”

     

    (The uncensored “Brokeback Mountain” will be shown at 11:40 p.m.)

     

    Arcigay noted that there had been “thousands” of angry phone calls to RAI and letters to Italian newspapers protesting the butchered “Brokeback.”

     

    Censorship is unfortunately nothing new at RAI. In 2003, RAI Tre took Sabina Guzzanti’s satirical revue “RAIot” off the air after one episode because she mocked then-Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Guzzanti used her experience as a point of departure for a broader critique of censorship in her scathing, and often bitterly funny, 2005 documentary film, “Viva Zapatero!”

    Compared to what happened to Guzzanti, the “Brokeback” imbroglio might seem minor. But it’s not. The censorship of this landmark film is just one manifestation of the current homophobic climate in Italy, a pervasive atmosphere of intolerance fed by politicians, mainly but not solely conservatives, by the Vatican, and the media.  

     

    As anyone who’s watched Italian TV knows, it’s hardly a bastion of prudery. There’s an abbondanza of “T&A” on variety and quiz shows and much sexual innuendo. Films with sexual content are not routinely censored -- as long as the sex is of the heterosexual variety, that is.

     

    Some commentators have scratched their heads over RAI Due’s “Brokeback” bowdlerization, noting that the film is actually pretty tame in its depiction of same-sex love. As Ryan Gilbey commented in The Guardian, “Let's be honest: as accounts of untamed desire go, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is a little on the tepid side.”

     

    Maybe what unsettled the censors at RAI Due wasn’t just the kisses between Ennis and Jack, or their night of mostly-veiled passion in that tent. Maybe what really disturbed them was that the film portrays a love affair, albeit a doomed one, between two regular, masculine guys – maschi. “Brokeback” realistically depicts homosexuality not as the practice of an exotic minority but as an attraction, a bond, between men who in other ways are indistinguishable from their straight brethren.

     

    Italian TV and films just can’t seem to come to grips with that fact of life.

     

    Whenever there’s a gay rights march in Italy, you can be sure the media coverage will focus on the drag queens and other flamboyant types. (This used to be true of American mainstream media -- decades ago.) They’re certainly part of the gay rainbow, but why highlight them to the near-exclusion of the more ordinary men and women who comprise most of the gay population? You do that when you want to convey the message, to the bigoted or the merely uninformed, that “these people” are marginal, freakish, unlike “us” and therefore undeserving of consideration or fair treatment.

     

    Italian cinema isn’t much better. Unlike Great Britain, France, or Germany, Italy rarely produces non-stereotypical and credible film portrayals of gay people. The few it does mostly are the works of Ferzan Ozpetek, a Turkish-born, now Rome-based director who is, as far as I know, Italy’s only prominent openly gay filmmaker. And he’s at best a journeyman artist, not a major talent. He’s definitely no Gus Van Zant, or Rainer Fassbinder, or Derek Jarman, or Andre Téchiné.

     

    Speaking of Van Zant, it’ll be interesting to see what RAI does with “Milk,” the Oscar-winning biopic about American gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk. (The film is now out on pay-per-view TV and DVD.) Will Italian viewers get to see Sean Penn smooching his male co-star, or will they be left wondering whether Milk’s homosexuality was just a political position? 

     

     

     

      

     

      

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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