Caro Diaro and Other Films
Audiences everywhere realize that the goal of contemporary images is not to beautify our confused daily realities, but to present these from an uncomfortable angle. Where we expect clarification and analysis we find pebbles leading to a sense of incompleteness. As Nanni Moretti reminds us in Caro Diaro, it is neither the departure nor the arrival that fascinates many Italian filmmakers but the journey, the crossing. Indeed, this metaphor for movement discloses a sort of representation not meant to be artistically perfunctory. On the contrary, these films are exemplary and superb. Italian cinema is by no means dead, as many professional and pedestrian critics conveniently mumble. When I advance that we plod through films that reveal an element of want, it is to say that these works have no happy endings. Sure, plots have a beginning and a middle, but the ending seems truncated.
Filmmakers start from some imaginary line behind the spectators’ shoulders, and move in front of us, taking detours, dashing forward and coming back, vanishing in unexpected horizons. More than a cinema of faces and close-ups, contemporary cinema from Italy is composed of travelling and dolly shots that nudge their way from one space to another. I would like to go back and talk about a handful of films made in the early 1990s: Sud (1993) by Gabriele Salvatores, Lamerica (1994) by Gianni Amelio, Mille bolle blu (1993) by Leone Pompucci, and Caro Diaro (1993) by Nanni Moretti. There is no particular reason why I chose these films. They just happen to have been presented at the same time at a festival one year.
Gabriele Salvatore (what pleasant scenes in Mediterraneo) places in Sud four characters, become terrorists unawares, in a voting office. In this most incongruous of settings, the filmmaker studies the actions of his characters, who sadly realize they will never be able to change the corrupt system that controls the Southern Italy. The sight is quite horrific, and yet we spectators cannot stop laughing. We cry, we laugh, we pray that somewhere in these closed quarters, purposely under-lit, there is a flicker of hope. Ciro Ascarone, an ex-union man, deep in depression, brings his tribulations to a halt by going to prison. This shy man paradoxically finds new energy during his crisis, freeing himself of the drug addict he used to be, and becomes the spokesperson for the men and women forced to leave their homes. Escaping to foreign places: what other choice do these people have?
Between Senator Cannavacciuolo (who buys the votes of the poor) and his daughter (who leaves her father to live in Milan) is there truly a major difference? The country’s political destiny, Salvatores tells us, now more than ever, depends more on the individual than on collectivity. Italy is less and less Italian, and more and more Italic, that is, less a nation of a single people concentrated in a single parish and more an agglomeration of independent, nomadic individuals. Ciro could very well repeat what the Mayor of Stromboli in Caro Diaro screams: ‘It’s the end of Italy of the past, we need a new Italy, we need to transform this country inside outside.’
In truth, Moretti is right when he presses upon us that he prefers ‘being part of a minority to being part of a majority’. What has then happened to the Italy of the past? Where can we find it? In Leone Pompucci’s Mille Bolle blu.
Mille bolle blu
It’s 1961. Renters of an apartment building await the solar eclipse, and what nirvana this momentary darkness will bring them personally. A blind man gets an operation with the hope of seeing the sun; the progeny of a dead man (not yet buried) squabble about their inheritance; a young woman marries so she can erase the love of an ex-boyfriend come to haunt her on her wedding day; a small time crook spends his day making love with a girl who sings ‘Mille bolle blue’, before he goes back to prison; all the while, on the rooftop kids are betting on who farts the loudest.
Pompucci has the eyes of a young Fellini. He loves film, his characters, and he is a master of the Baroque language of Southern Italy. Emigration are years of suffering, yes, but of happiness as well, for those who left their hometowns, but also for those who stayed behind. It is not the departure, nor the arrival points that matters. The narrator, an emigrant from Argentina, revels in his childhood memories. Nostalgia might be overwhelming, perhaps, yet it is remodeled by the events that have unfolded since his departure. The story reels out in a limited environment, each tale converging into the main plot; reality is a mirage that fades away. We laugh at the subtleties, but at the end we gasp: ‘Life goes on regardless.’ People marry, people divorce, people remarry, the bad guy gets hooked to his evil deeds, and pays a price when he is caught. Like in Sud, characters find themselves in cages, symbolic and real. When in prison, one dreams of America.
Lamerica by Gianni Amelio – he directed the magnificent Il ladro di bambini, which won the Leone d’oro in Venice – starts where the other films end: in prison. This is Albania of the 1990s. These are corruption years. In order to launch a shoe factory Fiore (Michele Placido) and Gino (Enrico Lo Verso) attempt to buy the favors of a dishonest post-communist Albanian politician. These Italians need a president for their factory, but he must be Albanian; he will also be a puppet hanging to Fiore’s strings. They find this person in Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), a man locked up in a Albanian prison. Satisfied, Fiore returns to Italy, leaving Gino the job of putting the final touches to their arrangements. Unfortunately, Spiro is nowhere to be found. Gino travels across Albania in search of Gino. The two men finally meet on a ship taking them from Tirana to the shores of Sicily. The plot twist reveals that Spiro is not an Albanian at all, but a soldier from Sicily arrested during World War II; he has spent over thirty years in an Albanian jail. Gino must deal with the facts at hand. But these facts are succinctly described by a only fact: Albanian men and women share a single yearning, to escape to America; that is Lamerica – Italy become America for Albanians.
Discernibly, Italian emigrants of the past are compared to Albanians of the 1990s. This road movie – what else can we call it? – starts in hell and makes its way to ‘paradise’. But is there paradise? The two men are the two sides of the same medal, the silvering of the same mirror. Two departures, a single movement, one to realization, the other to transformation. In Lamerica, men leave one place, yet they might never reach their destination. If there is disembarkation, it is at one’s own risk. How are we to make sense of this mosaic of lives lit by torment and exile? Booked as they are for a journey without end.
Nanni Moretti’s answer is probably the most personal of the filmmakers of his generation. Winner of the Director’s Award in 1994, Moretti uses Caro Diaro as a visual and sound diary kept by a man who has reached a turning point in his life. Born 18 August 1953, Moretti, now forty, learns he has cancer. This news sparks the filmic diary.
He speaks plainly about death which also encompasses, his through philosophical meanderings, the death of Italy. Unlike Pompucci, Moretti never succumbs to nostalgia. What disturbs him most to realize that all his past analysis of reality was so off the target. During a chance meeting with Jennifer Beals and Alexandre Rockwell, Moretti confesses through wordplay and translation that he is considered by many to be a ‘madman’. Yes, a madman for a new kind of life. What is this new life he is aspiring to?
Critic of critics, he admits to enjoying Flashdance more than Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. His inclinations have changed, or will have to change. Caro Diaro is a love song, more than a cry for revolution. Condemning as he might be of tourism, children, and Italy, Moretti loves Rome, the Tyrrhenian islands, Italians. He chooses to stay in Italy during the summer months when Italy is invaded by tourists. Something he has never done before.
He divides his diary into three sections – On My Vespa, The Island, and Doctors. Moretti jumps on his Vespa and visits every Roman district he has never seen. Leonard Cohen’s ‘I’m Your Man’ on the soundtrack is at once sarcasm and flattery. The madman is the man.
The journey begins in the city and ends with his brush with death. None of his targets is hit. What is left is at the return raised to a different level. Life is a spiral, he can come back but the arrival is elevated a notch. Moretti might leave Rome but when he comes back it is not the Rome he left. He has changed by his experience abroad on the islands – Salina, Lipari, Alicudi, Stroboli – and of course by his appointment with Dr. Death.
A pause during a long sequence occurs at the spot where Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered. Keith Jarret’s Koln Concert (Part One) on the sound track. The allusion is two-fold: a whisper to a fellow Italian filmmaker, and also a signal for the fatality that awaits him. Moretti is the protagonist of his own demise. And he is a subject in search of an object of desire? This object of desire prompts the end of life. Back in Rome, he Moretti tries by scratching himself to tear out the cancer eating from within.
If, at the beginning of the film, the spectator smiles and laughs, for instance at television, we soon observe that this hell is preferable to the dictatorship of children who control the lives of stable families. Consider the scene when in Stromboli (where Roberto Rosselini filmed Ingrid Bergman praying to heaven). Moretti amusingly embarks on a conversation with his friend Gerard on the present state of soap operas. As soon as the plot of a particular show is uncertain, the two men question American tourist about recent predicaments. Everything might be film, but film lays bare the concreteness of reality. Moretti’s love of the world of entertainment does not make him shrink away from the monsters his society has built. He teaches us how to love our Frankensteins. He does not shy away from attacking, for different reasons, both those who desert this reality and those who stay behind.
Moretti swallows life. But first he must confront his own faint-heartedness. Life is about to scoot away. Pill after pill, doctor after doctor, Moretti cannot give up. He fights, because there is no possible evasion. He sits down and is about to drink from the glass of water, and in so doing he chooses to oppose apathy. He declares war on death. His death but also the death of his country. Moretti is a denotation for the individual and the collective. There is himself, there is Italy. There is the Tyrrhenian Sea and there is a class of water. It is with a glass of water that he decides to defy death. Water, the weapon against dissolution and destruction.
The final shot, a freeze frame, does not kill. The abeyance gives birth to the battle against what kills. What should be a cutoff (nostalgia, regression) is in fact optimism and reassurance. What should be inadequacy and shortcoming turn out to be competence and aptitude. Precisely, from insufficiency rises effectiveness.
Moretti, Salvatores, Amelio, and Pompucci submit adaptation to denial or rejection. Italy is disintegrating, of course, but the peninsula remains a freeway. Withdrawal into nostalgia should be replaced by adjustment. These four films might be the first attempts by contemporary filmmakers struggling to include emigration and immigration as unconditional components of Italian history.