Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Mazzucco’s Perfect Day: A novel of importance versus impotent political theater

“The Week of Foreign Cultures” was the ostensible excuse for inviting Melania Mazzucco to present her best selling novel, A Perfect Day, (Un Giorno Perfetto), but really, no excuse was necessary. It was a great opportunity to become familiar with this interesting new writer and as it turned out, it was also a great chance to ponder the efficacy (or the sad irrelevance) of French political theater.

Clicca qui

Clicca qui

First the novel, which is just appearing in bookstores in its French translation, as Un Jour Parfait. This being the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, a sort of imaginary land you might call Franco-Italia, the presentation was a mélange of two languages and two cultures. But one thing was certain, here literature would be talked about, rather than read. Mazzucco was interviewed by Fabio Gambaro who, to his credit, refrained from long winded introductions to his questions, and managed to steer Ms.

Cliquez!

Cliquez!

Mazzucco to explain the most pertinent aspects of her work.

Melania Mazzucco hardly needed any steering, though. She was dazzling, with her insightful comments and fascinating take on Italian civilization at this point. It is a point of crisis, she said, a point where Italy has stopped moving forward, as it comes to grips with the fact that the future will be nothing like the past. She is afraid that the country will follow the same trajectory as the Venetian Republic, which in its heydey, was a cosmopolitan city that conferred full citizenship on all residents who had paid taxes for a certain number of years. At some point, the city became self-conscious about its role and its culture, and severely limited this welcome. To Mazzucco’s thinking, this was one of the direct causes of the decline of Venice, and could very well be the impetus for the decline of Italy of today.

Click for info

Click for info

She also stated that she began to write this novel as soon as she finished with her earlier best selling work, Vita, a story that takes place exactly one hundred years earlier. In that novel, an Italian family moves to America to start a new life. In this novel, A Perfect Day, Italy has become the new land of opportunity for thousands of immigrants. Somehow, Mazzucco does not see Italy being able to handle that role.

The novel has been made into a major motion picture by renowned film director Ferzan Ozpetek (Un Giorno Perfetto at IMDb). In that adaptation, the story has been focused on two main characters, a working class Roman woman and her estranged husband.

When asked about her reaction to seeing her characters on film, Mazzucco said that it was a joy and a painful experience at the same time. It caused her great joy to see her characters come alive in the imagination of another artist, but she suffered, seeing that the main character, Emma, had come alive in a different way than she knew her. Ozpetek’s Emma, in the screenplay by Sandro Petraglia, is much more of a victim than Ms. Mazzucco had imagined her – after all, Emma chose her own life, and consciously made her decisions. I guess this is the kind of feelings that all parents have about their offspring, hoping they will become brain surgeons, and having to accept them when they become street mimes instead. Nothing wrong, just … different.

Here is a link to Variety’s review.

THE DISRUPTION!

At a certain point, after the questions and answers had been going on for almost an hour, I became aware of a group of people coming up the aisles from the back and taking seats. A fellow came and sat in the empty seat beside me, and two others sat in the first row. One ot those in the first row couldn’t contain himself, and after a couple of minutes, interrupted Gambaro and said he would like to ask a question. Mr. Gambaro told him that in a short while he would open it up to questions from the audience. The fellow next to me, who had been leaning about in his seat, holding his head and looking generally dismayed, eventually got up and went to the back, and when the questioning was over, the pony-tailed gent in the first row was invited to ask the first question. However, instead of asking a question, he launched into a short speech (in French) about the rights of people to cross borders, and asked the assembly to give him three minutes of our time. Then he invited his seat mate to read a letter, written by an inmate at a refugee center in Rome and translated to French. It was an embittered and accusatory statement about the ill treatment that he had received, calling the place the Guantanamo of Berlusconi and of a list of other Italian politicians. It accused the Red Cross workers of being prison wardens in that Guantanamo.

When he was done, Melania Mazzucco graciously attempted to tie this in with what she had been saying all evening, about the need for Italy to take the hard steps that are necessary to become a modern multicultural society, and that seemed to mollify the leader somewhat. The director of the institute, who was also seated in the first row, wouldn’t let it go at that, however. She countered with a somewhat polemical response, asking the intruders, who were apparently French, if they had also been to various other cultural centers, going so far as to name some by name, because “Italy is not a country of Nazis.” I understand her feelings, the interruption had been rude and unnecessarily hostile, and as the director of the cultural institute, I imagine that she felt personally violated and insulted. Nevertheless, her argument was specious and unpleasant. What did it matter if they had or hadn’t gone anywhere else? The accusations were about the Italian situation, not about anywhere else. But her second point was quite a bit more relevant. She said that she knew many people who

Melania Mazzucco

Melania Mazzucco

worked for the Red Cross and did not think that the characterization of them as prison wardens was fair. The “revolutionaries” shrugged this off, and distributed their flyers, a sort of manifesto calling for the elimination of all international borders. It was not signed by anybody, and gave no indication of who they were or how they wished to be engaged. When the generic flyers had been distributed, the whole group left, seemingly uninterested in knowing anything more about what was going on in this room.

It was a great contrast. Melania Mazzucco, who with her thoughtful, insightful and engaging literature, is trying to move Italian society forward, and the manifestanti pushing their way to the front to impose themselves on people, without the slightest regard for who we were or what this evening was all about. Certainly, the manifestantes went away thinking that they had really accomplished something, had pushed the problem into our faces and made us think, but in this they would be wrong. They just managed to make a grand display of irony. In order to protest the barriers built by Europe to keep out foreigners they were disrupting the celebration of other European culture in Paris, and in this case, a novel which in a far more coherent way, also is trying to break down those barriers. What they did was pure political theater, performed for the pleasure of the actors alone. They can now smugly put themselves to sleep tonight, on the surface they had stood up for human rights, but on a subconscious level, they had fed their hungry chauvinistic egos, by emphasizing the barbarism of France’s European neighbors while downplaying France’s own sins in this area (the appalling situation at Calais was reduced to a “political spectacle” in their handouts) and by neutralizing an incursion of Italian culture in the glorious capital of France weren’t they doing the devil’s work that they were so riled up about? It was pure activist masturbation. And it was completely ineffectual, it was sort of like protesting the incivility of modern society by shouting at the person sitting next to you on the subway. This type of action does more harm for the people it tries to help that they know.

But they were sadly charming, with their manifesto calling for the dismantling of all state borders. It’s like calling for the abolition of money, demanding that people stop speaking English, or that all universities immediately confer degrees on all their students. It’s a meaningless demand, because it ignores all the steps between here and there, and would create ten new problems for every old one solved. They reminded me of the 1970s. Does anyone remember the 1970s?

THE MANIFESTO!

In any case, these people have their hearts in the right place, so as my own little gesture of solidarity, I give here my English translation of their French language manifesto. This is the entire manifesto, unsigned. It takes as its theme, “Sublimons les frontiers” the hardly translatable slogan of this week’s “Semaine des cultures étrangères.” Let’s sublimate/ idealize/ celebrate/ evaporate the borders.:

Apart from the exhibitions, debates, art openings concerts and other celebrations to which we have been invited under the heading of “Let’s Celebrate the Borders,” it would seem appropriate to ask ourselves what does this geographical and political space, the Schengen Area, really mean, this place where the borders have supposedly disappeared.

What does the disappearance of borders within this area mean in reality?

First of all, it means the externalization of border controls at the European gates, in agreement with countries like Libya, Turkey and the Ukraine, where camps have been financed to detain foreigners deemed undesirable. It is also the stepping up of controls inside the territory and diffusion of checkpoints at consulates, police precincts, detention centers and also on the streets, where every identity check can lead to expulsion.

It is the transborder cooperation for checking and internal security: every country that wishes to be part of the European Union is forced to develop surveillance techniques at their external borders. In other words, to become part of Europe, they must mobilize to make a grand show of putting up solid borders.

It is the judicial standardization which allows countries to make unapproved visits into a crime in order to punish undesirable foreigners and to lengthen the legal limit of detention time in order to give authorities the chance to expel them.

It is the construction of ever more prisons, detention centers and waiting zones in order to better manage the flow, that is, to detain, separate and expel foreigners.

It is police cooperation in all the countries, notably via Frontex, to better hold back people before they ever get their foot into the territory and to organize European group expulsions, which are less costly than individual expulsion.

It is the standardization of the list of countries requiring a visa, in other words, the poor countries from which visitors are not welcome. It is therefore possible to exclude people from the entire territory of the EU.

And in spite of all this, men and women who have been refused entry continue to choose to cross the border.

These borders, which have supposedly disappeared, and which we are now “sublimating,” what are they?

They are Somalis who have starved and thirsted to death, burnt by the sun, left dying for dozens of days in rubber dinghies cast adrift between Malta and Italy.

They are Eritrean women raped on a daily basis in camps in Libya, financed by the EU.

They are the Africans who have drowned in the Straits of Gibraltar while trying to reach the Spanish shores.

They are the teenagers who try to escape war and who call for our help from the immigration prison at Pagani in Greece.

They are the hundreds of Afghanis, Iraqis and other human beings who find themselves starring in the political spectacle of their own burning huts at Calais.

They are the eleven people burned alive in their detention center at Schipol in the Netherlands.

They are also Gaganpreet Singh K,. 20 years old, asylum seeker, imprisoned in Austria, who died while on hunger strike for over a month; Salem Souli, left to die without proper care at the detention center at Vincennes; Hassan, who died after suffering all night in the identification and expulsion center in Turin; Armen who died of illness while imprisoned at the center in Bruges; Mabruka, a Tunisian mother who committed suicide the night before her expulsion, in the Ponte Galeria prison in Rome; Kazim, 22 years old who killed himself in his cell at Canet in Marseilles or Ebnizer Folefack who hung himself at the center at Merkplas after being savagely beaten by the police who were about to expel him.

Europe, finally, they are the thousands of nameless people who have been controlled, detained and forceably displaced in order to better exploit them and to preserve the well being of some few others.

But all the barriers in the world, all the helicopters and boats of Frontex, all the most sophisticated systems of control and all the files can never stop the thousands who, by choice or by necessity, decide one day to set out for a better life somewhere else. Whether it be in Belgium, Italy, France or anywhere else, some nameless people, with or without their proper papers, are sometimes able to revolt against the checkpoints, the detention centers, the expulsions. With all of them, with all the people that are able to jump the borders and escape the detention centers from Milan to Vincennes, by way of Gandufa in Libya and Rotterdam or wherever people are detained, expelled or killed, we proclaim our solidarity.

DOWN WITH BORDERS!

September 30, 2009 Posted by | cinema, literature | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Orestes: Pasolini Lost in Africa

Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana. Pasolini’s genius shines through, even when he stumbles.

In 1970, Pier Paolo Pasolini went to Africa to shoot film and make notes for a possible film based on the trilogy of Greek tragedies, the Oresteia by Aeschylus. The resulting documentary has a great impact in two ways: showing what a potentially great film this could be, given the resources and talents of the great filmmaker, and showing what a disastrous concept that this project really was. The project was eventually abandoned, and the reasons why may be evident right here in this film.

murderofAgamemnon

Pasolini begins by giving a short synopsis of the trilogy Oresteia in voiceover, as we see the faces of people on the streets of Uganda and several other countries. After the synopsis, he begins assigning these people possible roles in the first play, Agamemnon. There are returning warriors, an unfaithful wife and plotting offspring and just like that, we are drawn in, because we can immediately see the larger than life characters of greek tragedy merging with the throbbing humanity in these images. The magic is powerful

Agamemnon

Agamemnon

and there is the feeling that Pasolini could go on just like this with his project, narrating the action in voiceover, and depicting the scenes simply with the faces and gestures of the people.

In fact, maybe Pasolini should have gone ahead in just that way, making this his private Greek tragedy overlaying a collage of fascinating African scenes. At least then there would be an honest distinction between the European fantasies and the African realities. Everyone would have come together on their own terms and would be able to go their separate ways at the end.

But Pasolini believed in the correctness of his approach, and the beneficial effects of the progressive forces he represented. He had high hopes for his film. However, the scenes with the African students in Rome brings this high flying project crashing back to earth.

About ten minutes into the documentary, we are transported to an auditorium at the University of Rome. Pasolini is there with a group of African students, all male, all dressed formally, many wearing jackets and ties. He explains to them that he wanted to make this film in Africa because he saw so many similarities between modern Africa and Ancient Greece. So the question that he puts to the students is, should he set the story in 1960, at the time of independence, or in 1970, that is, in the present day. The question seems incredibly banal, superficial and irrelevant. Doesn’t he want to hear the students’ opinions on anything they have just seen, or is he just interested in some technical advice?

The faces of the students are like stone. This is 1970, they certainly know that they are in the presence of one of the great artists of the new “revolutionary” Italy, the part of society that is really their hosts and protectors in this storm tossed and politicized Europe. Yet they seem torn, and unsure what to say. In many instances, the

Ethiopian student

Ethiopian student

speaking of just a few words is enough to allow a break in the impassivity and let through a peek at the sea of discomfort beneath. One student, from Ethiopia, speaks in measured objection to the concept, and seems to be controlling an urge to shout out his protests. He doesn’t know Africa, he knows Ethiopia, you cannot generalize about the whole continent. Another student objects to the use of the word “tribes” and wants to refer to races and nations instead. Pasolini’s response sounds insensitive and dismissive, telling him that it was the European colonialists who had drawn the maps of Nigeria, and thus Nigerian history was a falsehood. The student is visibly frustrated, but keeps his counsel, and accepts the great filmmaster’s observations.

The students know something is wrong, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. But Pasolini is oblivious. The rebel, iconoclast and literary revolutionary pictured himself outside of the colonial and imperialistic hierarchy of European and Italian history, as though his good intentions alone were enough to subtract him and cleanse his project of the stain of colonialism. We never see a frank and open discussion of the meaning of the director’s relationship with his subject, Africa, no matter how many times the students dance around the problem with their inarticulate answers. It is difficult to watch.

Mercifully, the African footage comes back on, following the storyline of the second play, The Libation Bearers. The action is brutal and murder is the pivotal action in this play. The tone is different in this footage as well. There are scenes of war, executions, mourning, graveside rituals. Some of this is newsreel

Orestes

Orestes

from the war in Biafra, Nigeria. Pasolini may be in over his head here, but he pulls it off, bringing these scenes together with the help of the words of the iconic Greek drama. The Africans in Pasolini’s viewfinder grow immensely symbolic, and he finds the main character, Orestes, in the person of an exquisitely expressive African man who calms the air with his powerful presence. Once again Pasolini reminds us of his unequaled sense of cinematic art and his deep understanding of what is beautiful in a man. But then there is the musical interlude, a combination of exquisitely hysterical riffs by the Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, and some excruciatingly absurd singing by two African American singers, Archie Savage and Yvonne Murray. He sings overly legato lines in a Paul Robeson bass voice that could be effective, but she has a problem coming to terms with her segments. This is operatic, in the way that opera sounds when caricatured by someone who hates opera. And Miss Murray certainly looks like she hates this gig. Her voice is annoyingly shrill and hollow at the same time, her melody repetitive and impoverished. This is the exact opposite of bel canto, and if there were a performance indication at the top of her page, it would probably say something like “a squarciagola.” In other words, shout like a hoarse hyena.

In the second session with the students, Pasolini begins with a question about whether these Africans identify with the character of Orestes discovering a new world. He gets the same cryptic and troubled answers as before. He does manage to get them talking about the uniqueness of the African soul, though, when he switches to a discussion of the power of traditional culture to ameliorate the effects of modern consumerism. But when he asks them how he should continue the story, and how he might render the transformation of wrathful Furies into forgiving Eumenides, he is back to talking about his project as though it were a game or a masquerade. These students are talking about their destinies, the lives and deaths of their countrymen, their own identity, and Pasolini wants to focus on the minutiae of scene building for his film. In all, there are no smiles in this room, no enthusiastic confirmation of Pasolini’s insight into Africanness, no spontaneous identification with the African Orestes.

handsupThe African footage returns with the final play, Eumenides, as its focus. Pasolini searches for the way to present that transformation of the Furies. He shows scenes of street dancers, processions, wedding receptions. These are wonderfully evocative scenes, and his possibilities seem to multiply before our eyes. Truly, Pasolini could make a great film out of this project, in spite of it all.

But Pasolini must have been profoundly disappointed by the responses from the auditorium, and considering the depth of his knowledge and his appreciations of irony, and his genuine humility, I don’t think that the true nature of the problem escaped him for very long. His questions had ignored the real problem that was there as plain as day. Could this Greek Orestes have any significance to the African situation, and indeed, why should it? Did he have the license to make such a film, using Africans as his workers, forever ordered here and there and never given the chance to make their own decisions and create their own tragedy as they saw it? Wouldn’t his film be in many ways just another exercise in colonialism?

For some reason, Pasolini never completed this project. In a way, it is a great pity, for Pasolini could have simply ignored all those extraneous implications, could have followed his own artistic muse, and created a

DVD

DVD

personal work of immense beauty. But being such a politically engaged artist, he could not travel alone, he had to have a revolutionary context, and sadly, that context did not exist. Thus, the documentary remains, a solitary, powerful statement showing the tragic disconnect between European and African, and judging from the difficulties encountered by both Pasolini and his musicians, the inability of either one to truthfully express the beauty of Africa using the tools of European art. Perhaps someday it will be possible, but not in 1970, and probably still not today.


Critique by Anne-Violaine Houcke in Critikat (en français)

May 23, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment