Cinema As Mirror:
Italian History and Culture Through Film

by Frank M. Lanzafame

National Italian Honor Society Induction
Nazareth College, April 1, 2006



Good Afternoon. I am a 2nd generation Italian American and grew up hearing my grandparents speaking the dialects of Naples and Sicily and still very much enjoy hearing those sounds. I studied Italian in high school for 3 yrs and then let my Italian lie dormant for all too many years. The understanding remained, but grammar skills fade with time and lack of use. Several years ago, I happened across the Casa Italiana's Elderhostel where Prof. Vitti was teaching a course in Italian culture through film. I owe the passion I have for film to her inspiration and enthusiasm. 

What is a Chemistry Professor doing talking to the National Italian Honor Society about Italian Film? -- particularly when Prof. Vitti and her enthusiasm are right here. I asked myself the same question when Prof. Vitti asked me to do this. Perhaps the answer is my passion for Italian Film and my use of it as a vehicle for exploring Italian History and Culture. It is my hope that by sharing this approach to Italian film, some of you might be inclined to follow a similar path, exploring those aspects of Italian Society, History and Culture which interest you and using film as a vehicle for exploration, accompanied by parallel reading in those areas to which you are attracted. 

I began collecting and studying film to rekindle the language and to explore the culture and history of Italy about which I knew relatively little. There is always more to learn as learning is a life-long pursuit. Formal education merely starts the process, but does not complete it. One of the goals of college is to learn how to learn and to get started. 

Director Francesco Rosi, one of my favorites, has said that "cinema bears witness to, and is a mirror of, the society and reality which produce it." It is a pleasure to gaze into that mirror and pursue those aspects one finds interesting. The one limitation to film is that it is a passive medium and only allows you to focus on comprehension without developing your ability to communicate. Upon repeatedly viewing a film, I do concentrate more on the grammar. This can help with the basically passive nature of film. My major regret in pursuing Italian is not having done it while I was as young as many of you.  

Exploring Italy through film is rewarding. Most of us travel to Italy only occasionally, but with film, the exposure can be frequent, detailed and satisfying. Visits to modern Italy don't present the view of Italy of the past which a period film can provide. Certainly the monuments are there, but the original inhabitants are gone.  

For example, this past summer I visited the Borbon Palace at Caserta and it was a remarkable experience. It is quite another to view it in Lina Wertmüller's 1999 film Ferdinando and Carolina as it comes alive with the costumes, people, and language of the period. Wertmüller's films are rich in detail, including her attention to dialect. In this film, Ferdinando spoke the street Neapolitan dialect for which he was known, members of the court spoke an educated standard Italian, while Carolina, one of the daughters of Maria Theresa of Austria spoke Italian with a thick German accent. The difficulty she has understanding his dialect is a source of some humor in the film.  

It is my hope that by looking at a few examples, you might be attracted to using film as a vehicle for your own study. At Nazareth, the media center has a good collection of film and equipment for viewing. You may take a film into one of the viewing rooms and begin your exploration. If you begin with film, you may be inspired to read a bit more of the accompanying history which comes alive through film. Alternatively, you may be attracted to a particular director whose work you admire and then begin your study with the work of one director. Invariably, you will be drawn to read more about him and to explore those directors who influenced him. There is a wealth of books dealing with Italian film. I have listed some on the list of references as well as on my web page. I have a personal web page dedicated, in part, to things Italian, including how to search for and buy films, required equipment, and books of interest to assist in your study -- basically, the resources I have discovered in my own search.  

We can examine an event or period from various perspectives by contrasting a number of images from the mirror, produced by several directors. Each director may focus on a single aspect of the time or period and also bring his own prejudices and politics to his work. If we examine an era and region through the work of a number of directors, we can flesh out some of the details and average out the perspectives of the individual director to gain a more balanced view of the underlying realities and a better look into the Mirror.  

One of the areas I began with is the History of the Risorgimento, the Unification of Italy. I will use it today principally as example of what you can do to pursue your own interests. There is a wealth of films and literature dealing with that period. I found the Risorgimento a particularly fascinating period. As I began to study, I wanted different points of view and also to know more of the influence of various Europeans Powers over the events in Italy as each was motivated in maintaining its own power and interests in Europe and less interested in Italy per se. Even the British who generally looked the other way when Garibaldi landed at Marsala to begin driving the Borbons from Southern Italy, were more interested in the effect on French influence although they had some sympathies for the Italian cause. There were some British volunteers among Garibaldi's 1000.

If we begin with a very popular, classic film such as Visconti's 1963   Il Gattopardo [The Leopard] which is based upon the book of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, we get one view of the Risorgimento. When one falls in love with such a classic, one is moved to read the novel in either English, or the original Italian, and to investigate the circumstances surrounding its publication. Further, the details of the making of the film, -- the choice of Lancaster to play the lead and the numerous tales of its production are interesting. Much of this information can be found on the extras which come with the DVD version of the film. But this film is only one view of the Risorgimento, the change in society as viewed by a member of the aristocracy -- the Prince of Salina, magnificently portrayed by Burt Lancaster. Concurrent with Garibaldi's landing at Marsala, the prince is reflecting on the end of both his way of life and life itself. His young nephew, Tancredi, is a foreward-looking member of the next generation whose famous comment to his uncle is that "If we want things to remain as they are, they must change". This paradox suggests that the underlying realities will not change and the wealthy will still maintain power. The ballroom scene shows us that life was very good for the aristocracy. The immigrants from Sicily were not members of the aristocracy, but often contadini or peasants.

While we can no longer travel from Marsala to Naples with Garabaldi's troops, with Rossellini's 1960  Viva L'Italia, done for the Centenary of Garibaldi's campaign to unite Italy, and the diary of Cesare Abba (one of Garibaldi's 1000), we can experience this march across Sicily and get some sense of the politics, influences, and pressures involved. From his landing at Marsala, West of Palermo, on March 11, 1860 to the final battle at the Volturno River, North of Naples, and the famous meeting with Victor Emanuele II at Teano on October 26, 1860, we can relive this experience with this fine film.

A different view of the Risorgimento is provided by Florestano Vancini's 1972  Bronte: Chronicle Of A Massacre Which The History Books Have Not Told where one sees that this revolution was (at least for the contadini) a failed revolution as we examine the hardships they suffered in their feudal society. Many had hopes for better life with the removal of feudalism and expected a piece of land to work. For many, the Borbon king was replaced by the King of Piedmont and little actually changed in the lives of the contadini. The contadini had expected Garibaldi's promise of freedom and land to be fulfilled after joining to help defeat the Borbons. When pressures from the land holders and Cavour prevented Garibaldi's keeping the promise, the contadini revolted and, at Bronte, this revolt was put down harshly by Garibaldi's lieutenant, Nino Bixio. Vancini's film gives us a sense of the feudal life of the contadini, the political forces which controlled the land before and after the removal of the Borbons and a reminder of Lampedusa's famous comment in Gattopardo that in order to remain the same, things had to change. When it was over, the Borbon king had been replaced by the Piedmontese, but the life of the contadini remained much as it was.

Yet another film dealing with 19th century Sicily and its feudal society is Lavia's 1996 film, La Lupa, based on the text by Giovanni Verga. While the sexual content of the film is rather strong, we do get to see what it meant to live under this feudal system from the relationship between the contadini, the land-owning baron, and his gabelloti. We see the manual harvesting of wheat, the ancient technique of wind-winnowing of wheat from chaff, and the crushing of olives to make oil.. This was filmed in Vizzini, the village in which Verga was born and gives us a sense of the Sicily into which Verga was born.

With Garibaldi's remarkable success in ousting the Borbons and turning over the Kingdom of Two Sicilies to Vittorio Emanuele II of Piedmont we find that two regions remained separated from a united Italy -- Venice and the Papal States.

Venice was still held by the Austrians who were driven out in 1866. Luchino Visconti's 1954  Senso provides a sense of life in Venice during the last days of Austrian rule. The film opens in the spring of 1866 where a performance of Il Trovatore ends up in confusion due to an anti-Austrian demonstration. While essentially a tale of love and betrayal between a Venitian Countess and an Austrian Lieutenant, this period film provides a look at Venice in 1866.

The Papal States were controlled by the Pope with the backing of the French. Luigi Magni's 1977  In Nome del Papa Re provides a glimpse into the politics of the temporal power of the papacy. The name comes from the chilling command of the Pope's temporal authority -- 'Open up in the name of the pope king". Three young men blow up the French Barracks, and are tried in a papal court and sentenced to death by beheading. There is one monsignor who tries in vain to save them. The Pope, Pius IX, prevented the complete physical unification of Italy until the Franco-Prussian war began in July of 1870, the French Garrisons were removed from Rome and provided the King of Italy with the opportunity of siezing this last piece of Italy in September 20, 1870.

While physical unification was accomplished, old attitudes were ingrained and it would be many years before Italians begin to identify with a united Italy and not see themselves as Sicilians, Neopoletans, Romans, Florentines, Venetians, Milanese, etc. We begin to appreciate the phrase attributed to by Massimo d'Azeglio, the former prime minister of Piedmont, 'We have made Italy: now we have to make Italians.'

Period films with parallel readings can provide a delightful vehicle for studying and experiencing in a very real way, these fascinating pieces of history. This has just been a brief description of one of the many possibilities. There are many other films dealing with the Risorgimento and the period of revolutions earlier in the19th century Italy. I hope that I have pointed a way for some of you to begin your own journey of discovery into Italian Culture and History.

Join us for a different look into the Mirror tomorrow afternoon at the Casa when we present Francesco Rosi's 1972 The Mattei Affair. As usual, these Sunday films are open to the public and free of charge.

Thank you for your attention.



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