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Monthly Archives: December 2009

On Saturday, December 5th, there was a demonstration in Rome, against Silvio Berlusconi, 73, the head of government.  He’s also head of many other things, including the media – both state owned and private – including television and some newspapers and major book publisher Mondadori.  And one wonders what else.  He is also Italy’s richest man.  In the past year he’s been mired in one scandal after another, with his wife, former show-girl/actress, Veronica Lario, 53,  leaving him with acrid comments about his compulsion for younger girls,  for whom he threw parties at his huge villa on Sardinia, inviting teenage girls from around Italy, and bringing them in on state transportation.   The papers had recently found him to be “friends” with a 17 year old Neapolitan girl (at the time they met), Noemi Letizia, which seemed to be the final straw for Veronica.

Veronica Lario, almost ex-wife of Berlusconi

Noemi Letizia, Silvio’s “friend”, now 18

The organizers of the anti-Berlusconi demonstration of yesterday, initiated over Facebook, claimed nearly a million participants; the police said 90,000.  Rather a discrepancy there, and likely somewhere in-between (a large in-between) lies the truth.  Or perhaps we should say that between the lies, perhaps there is the truth.

Gaspare Spatuzza

In the last days a Mafia pentito, Gaspare Spatuzza, in the context of the trial of a Berlusconi associate, Marcello Dell’Utri,  fingered Dell’Utri and Berlusconi as persons abetting the Mafia, who in turn aided Berlusconi politically (Sicily votes heavily for him).  [For those not in the know, Berlusconi has had numerous court dates himself, all so far smudged by the curious nature of Italian law.] Such charges have swirled around Berlusconi for years.  But then they also swirled around former “Socialist” premiere Craxi as well as former “Christian Democrat” Andreotti.  To say it’s an old story.  Currently Berlusconi, a former cruise ship crooner,  is attempting to have a new law passed by his Parliament (with a majority of Popolo delle Libertà, formerly Forza Italia, his own personal party, in collusion with Bossi’s La Lega Nord and Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale, formerly the MSI, the surviving fascist party) which would curtail the statute of limitations on laws which might otherwise put Silvio behind bars.  To say the head of the Italian government, in keeping with recent – and ancient  – Italian tradition, is deep in sordid matters.  A reading of Italian history, from the Roman Empire, to the Papacy, to the Renaissance, and modern history all betray the same (old) story, and a passing acquaintance with the language(s) of the peninsula confirm a vibrant and rich vocabulary of insult, anger, hatred, and violence, all of which surface in everyday reality in la bella Italia.   They’ve had 2000 plus years to hone these qualities to perfection.

–    Ehi, testa di cazzo!
–    Che cazzo fai?
–    Tuo cugino è un paraculo
–    Vaffanculo, fai solo cazzate
–    Porca puttana, mi hanno fregato sul resto della spesa
–    Sai dire solo stronzate
–    Quello te l’ha messo in culo
–    Me ne vado. Mi sono rotto il cazzo
–    Lì sono tutti dei coglioni
–    Ma va a cagare, stronzo
–    Quante pippe mentali ti fai!
–    Quella non c’ha le palle per farlo
–    Mi hanno fatto girare i coglioni stamattina
–    Con i tuoi soldi mi ci pulisco il culo!
–    Non mi frega nulla di quello che pensi

Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano

One of my favorite paintings, before which I have spent many hours at the National Gallery in London, as well as making tracings, a failed pastel, and sketched a kind of installation work centered on it.  It is one of a triptych of works, one other being in Firenze at the Uffizi, and the other one in Paris, at the Louvre.  This one is in the best condition, though the top section was lopped off somewhere along the line.  It was made in celebration of a battle which supposedly the Fiorentine forces won, but that is a lie – it was more a tie.  Very Italian that.

Andrea Della Robbia

Scissors in convent wall, Ravenna

Along with the travails besetting Silvio, in the last weeks there’s also been the case of Amanda Knox, 22,  young American girl caught up in another trial, for murder, in the lovely town of Perugia.  In brief, her roommate, an English girl, Meredith Kercher, 21, was found, throat slit and quite dead, two years ago.  Evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, pointed to a  22 year old Ivory Coast resident in Perugia, Rudy Guede, who fled to Germany, was caught and is already imprisoned following a “fast track” trial at his request.  It also pointed to Amanda’s Italian boyfriend of the time, Raffaele Sollecito, now 25, and Amanda herself.  Attempts of a cover-up, an apparent staged break-in, false accusations, curious behaviors on Amanda’s part, contradictory alibis and DNA samples all went into the mix, along with a scandal-minded Italian press combined to create a fine circus out of this.  This week Amanda was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years imprisonment, a judgment promptly complained about by the US press and by Senator Cantwell of Washington State from which Amanda hails, which found the Italian legal system wanting by comparison to the American one.

Amanda behind bars

Inside Italy, the past week also saw the former head of RAI, the Italian state television and radio system, and current President of LUISS (Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali), Pier Luigi Celli, publish a letter to his son in the newspaper La Repubblica in which he advised him, following his impending graduation from university, to depart Italy for more fertile grounds for his future.   This naturally begot a mixed response and a week of Italian newspaper and television discourse on the fine art of navel gazing.  There were those who, in typical Italian fashion, complained that the advice was idiotic since Celli was well-placed to find his son a good job – patronage – and he could count on doing well in nice corrupted Italia.  They didn’t say it that way but that’s what they meant.  Others commiserated, lamenting the frozen slow-motion quality of Italian society, where getting ahead is a matter more of who you know than what you know, and where the works are gummed up with low-level corruptions for getting your plumbing fixed, the post-office lines are legendary, and high-level corruption – like Silvio’s – merely amplifies that at the bottom.


Craxi and the crooner, 1984

[Craxi, the head of the Socialist Party and the former Premier, died in exile in Tunisia.  He was the mentor of Silvio Berlusconi, the current Premier.]

Some years ago, in 1993, having moved to Italy on my 50th birthday to carry out a long-time wish to live there, I quickly, through no particular effort on my part – basically going to some parties while riding in the short coat-tails of All the Vermeers in New York – lined up a producer and made a film there.   The producer was Enzo Porcelli, who was well-known as making more adventurous films, having done some with Bertolucci, Godard, and others, so he claimed, as well as B-grade schlock.  His ride at the time was Gianni Amelio, who was then making L’America.  He met me at a party and said, having heard I made films cheaply, he’d like to work with me.  I took the bait, and a few months later we were in production, working my way, unheard of in Italy: no script.  For a week we shot with the crew he suggested – a soundman, his assistant, a production guy.  I was doing camera on Aaton 35mm.  These guys were “pros” so I was told.  That meant they took boxes and boxes of crap to work with, when I just wanted the camera and the tape recorder and mike.  They dumped the stuff in the middle of my sets; they took a break now, a 2 hour lunch then.  After a week I stopped the production and said if we were to continue with these guys, we’d never come in on budget.  I fired the lot of them, including one alleged actress who froze like a deer in headlights as soon as the camera turned on.  Her Calabrian boyfriend came storming to my apartment/production office, pounded on the door, intimidated my production assistant into tears, and stood an inch from my face, announcing “sono Calabrese” which was supposed to send me quivering in fear to the floor.  I don’t recall what I said, but it was something like, “get the fuck outta here”, and he did, and I never heard anything more from our pumped up would-be hood.  His claim to apparent fame was he’d had a small role – virtual extra – in an Antonioni film.

Alberto Sordi, in Mafioso by Alberto Lattuada

The production resumed some months later, with a crew I chose – Theo Eshetu, an Ethiopian who had lived a long time in Rome,  a video-artist, and had never recorded sound.  He was my recordist and did fine.  Some guy who lived in San Francisco and wanted to work with me came over and was assistant (didn’t work out too well has he was hyper PC and found my foul mouth not to his tastes; from my side he basically didn’t know too much what he was doing); my production manager was an American-Italian living in Italy, Eve Silvestri.  Working my way, we cranked out the film fine, editing for the first time electronically for me, on an Avid, quite new in Italy at the time.  I was helped by my friend Edoardo Albinati, a writer now rather well-known, on some scenes where I wrote and he translated, or I suggested what I wanted and he wrote. The film was finished shooting in autumn, 1993, and we went into editing I think in December.  A week later I requested of Porcelli that he fire the editor, or more exactly the chain-smoking Italian Avid technician running the computer to my decisions, because I felt he didn’t really understand how the Avid system worked.  Porcelli declined, and we went on, and finished editing relatively fast, though Amelio’s film kept needing my hard-disk space, as he did endless long takes and hogged more gigabytes than there were at hand.   I tried to get the first take and for the most part that was it.   In February the edit was done, and it was time to mix, and Porcelli’s promise that there was a digital suite in Rome proved false after a visit to Fellini’s favorite sound studio on via Margutta,  where they’d said they’d have it soon.  In Italian that means in a few years if you are lucky.  I then shopped around and found a place in Vienna that could do it – I just needed to get the sound on external HDs and bring along the EDL (Edit Decision List – a computerized notation of all the elements of the film, where they went, and what had or had not been done to them).   We set a mix date, and when it was time to leave for Vienna Porcelli’s editor didn’t know how to generate an EDL or get the sound on the HDs.   In the same manner we missed two other mix-dates at other places in Europe, and I began to lose my patience.  I informed Porcelli (the name means “little pigs”) I’d set up a new date, now in July, and if we missed that, I’d take my name off the film.  Thus, in that month – with a Venice festival deadline looming – I took off for a sound studio in London, with the HDs, and five days scheduled for the mix.  Properly done this should have meant about a half-day loading the whole EDL into their system, and then commencing with the mix.  Instead, courtesy of Porcelli’s dear editor whom I’d asked be fired, we spent 2 and a half days searching for mislabeled sound, synching some places, and patching in lots of missing sounds from an EFX library.  I got 2 days to actually do the mix.  Porcelli complained I was taking too much time, and I exercised my Italian as above.

Photo montage by Theo Eshetu

On delivery of the finished film, I was due my final bit of pay, which in any event was very modest, but which I needed.  Enzo issued what in Italian is called a ricatto, basically a little slice of extortion, and told me he’d give me half my pay then, and then I’d get the other half after the Venice festival if I didn’t say anything bad about him or his production company, Alia film; otherwise he’d give it to a lawyer to sue me.   Playing the Italian film press for PR, he had previously planted stories that there were “problems” during the production, on the old “any PR is good PR” angle.   Arriving in Venice, Porcelli lurked around the edges of things while Eliana Miglio, the lead actress, and I and the others played the publicity game.  At the press conference I was immediately asked about “the problems” in the production, to which I replied that I couldn’t answer any questions because my producer would not pay me if I said anything bad.  End of press conference.

Andrea, Eliana Miglio, Paolo Glisenti (son, mother, husband)

The film played at the festival, and while a few far left critics gave it a nice review, the others were negative to scathing.  The film was called Un a te, uno a me, e uno a Rafaelle,  a line drawn from an early newspaper item at the beginning of the Mani Pulite scandal, in play at the time.  Had the film dealt with dirty doings from higher ups, which is what the scandal was about – corruption in the governing party, kick-backs, etc. –  instead of what I did, dwelling on the little everyday corruptions which make those at the top seem “normal,” I am pretty sure they would have lapped it up.  But I suggested it wasn’t the thugs at the top – Craxi and all – who made Italy dirty, it was Italian life itself that made such corruptions inevitable.  This was all done in a light-handed manner, a kind of comedy of manners, though there was one serious scene in which a character vaguely patterned on Raul Gardini internally presents to himself and the viewer the kinds of arguments that were used by people to justify their behaviors; in a subsequent scene the character shoots himself.  Gardini was a very big, well-known, dashing businessman, who ran an Italian yacht in the America’s Cup, but was deeply mired in the myriad scandals of Mani Pulite.  He committed suicide, which shocked the nation.  Perhaps my glancing intimations of this cut too deeply at the time for many.   Many of those critical were writers who were very pleased with my less-than-happy critiques of my America, but were disturbed when I brought the same eye to bella Italia. They tended to say I didn’t really know Italy well (even if Edoardo had written the most biting of the commentary).  It depends on whose bull is being gored it seems.

Raul Gardini celebrating a yachting victory

On the contractual date that Porcelli was supposed to cough up the balance of my delayed paycheck, nothing was forthcoming – nothing surprising about this in Italy.  I wrote him then and said we had a few choices:  we could go to court, and we’d both be dead before it was resolved; we could go to the press, and he being Italian, and Italy being Italy, he’d win in any such lopsided contest; or I could request that RAI 3 audit his production, which they had been led to believe was budgeted at $750,000 but of which only their $250,000 part,  plus another 30K from my leading star’s husband’s production company had actually been present.  Little Pigs promptly paid up the remaining sum.

I’ve been told in the years since that Uno a te has screened many times on Rai 3, something, so I was told, that doesn’t happen unless the audience figures are high.   A while back I took a look at the banged up DVD copy – from a VHS tape – I have of it, and it’s not a bad film at all.  And all too prescient about Italy today.

Strozzapreti sauce for pasta

One of my original reasons for moving to Italy was that in the US in the 80’s I’d met a good number of young Italians, who had left to try their luck in America.  I was curious how they could leave a place so beautiful, where every handful of kilometers can unveil a lovely small town, crammed with thoughtful architecture and wonderful art.  And the food ! It was hard to see leaving that behind for McDonalds and Burger King, American strip cities, and Las Vegas.  Admittedly New York has its energy, the West its vast and imposing landscapes, and the small town here and there has its charms, and cities like San Francisco or New Orleans their unique flavors.  But still, to leave Italy for more than a vacation seemed at the time a puzzle.   Five years in Rome, living “parallel” to the culture – to say I did what I could to side-step the more obvious unpleasant qualities of the place – helped me understand the compulsion to depart.

As lovely as it is, Italy is ossified, frozen in its corrupted culture, and when young and full of energy it offers little meaningful space for doing things.  Trivial things, yes – you can party, goof off, have “fun” but in an aimless manner; drag out university for years (because there’s no job when you leave), and live with your parents (because there’s no money).  If your sights are aimed elsewhere, what is on offer is a long, and lacking the proper connections, perhaps terminal waiting line.   From the most mundane of things – getting that plumbing problem fixed – to the more demanding, Italy offers an endless compendium of difficulty.  Enough to bludgeon even the most optimistic and cheery into a deadening submission.

The Italian motto is “Fidarsi è bene; non fidarsi è meglio.” To trust is good; not to trust is better.

To live one’s life under such a banner is to consign oneself to a permanent unhappiness, with fear that even a best friend might slip the knife in at some opportune moment.  Et tu, Brute? Unfortunately this motto is all too real in Italy, where nothing is to be trusted, one must keep an eye on everything, payments due must be coerced after a dance of attempted cheating is used almost by instinct and habit.  So while the evening’s ritual passeggiata seems full of social pleasure and joy, greetings with hugs and cheek kisses, in reality it is a social obligation, the daily wasting of an hour or two, mandated lest one be deemed anti-social, a solitario.  In Italy solitude is condemned as a mode of hell and having no friends is tantamount to being exiled from the community.


As hard as I am on bella Italia, I am not alone.  Like the young people I met in the 80’s, and others since, many have voted with their feet.  My wife Marcella, from Matera in Basilicata, says she does not wish to return to Italy to live, at least for the moment.  Quite recently her younger sister, Francesca, moved to try her luck in Ireland, having done a 3 month residency there and finding it more to her liking and more open to opportunities than her native land.   And my friends Eliana and Paolo tell me they are thinking of moving to Paris, and they more or less have suggested to Andrea that when his schooling is done (he’s studying acting at the Centro Sperimentale, the Italian national film school) he’d likely do well to move along elsewhere.   And a wonderful musician, Christian Ravaglioli, who we met near Ravenna last summer, visiting New York City in the last months, tells us he’d like to stay, but lacking a work permit must return.  Mr Celli, apparently, is not alone in his glum view of Italy in these days.  All the wonderful cuisine and wine, the sunny skies, the gracious architecture and spectacular art somehow fall short of providing the full needs of life.

As unhappy as it seems I make Italy sound, I think my own country is in far worse straits, as the readers of these pages know.  We are more corrupt and our corruption is more dangerous for our power.  And we are more dispirited as a people, ground under the feet of the corporate powers which now dictate our national life.   And somehow the poisons fed to us have paralyzed us no less than the malaise afflicting Italy has frozen their society.

Una mattina mi son svegliato,
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Una mattina mi son svegliato,
e ho trovato l’invasor.
(che è morto per la libertà)

O partigiano, portami via,
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
O partigiano, portami via,
ché mi sento di morir.

E se io muoio da partigiano,
(E se io muoio sulla montagna)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E se io muoio da partigiano,
(E se io muoio sulla montagna)
tu mi devi seppellir.

E seppellire lassù in montagna,
(E tu mi devi seppellire)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E seppellire lassù in montagna,
(E tu mi devi seppellire)
sotto l’ombra di un bel fior.

Tutte le genti che passeranno,
(E tutti quelli che passeranno)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Tutte le genti che passeranno,
(E tutti quelli che passeranno)
Mi diranno «Che bel fior!»
(E poi diranno «Che bel fior!»)

«È questo il fiore del partigiano»,
(E questo è il fiore del partigiano)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
«È questo il fiore del partigiano,
(E questo è il fiore del partigiano)
morto per la libertà!»