Sept 30 2016
Not long ago, in May, my wife Marcella showed me a notice she’d seen in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, a little polemic about all the five finalists for the Strega prize (Italy’s most prestigious literary award) being from Rome in this year’s round. Among those listed was my friend Edoardo Albinati. This naturally perked up my interests, and I sent him a brief note, and not much later was prompted to send him congratulations for having come out the winner. As a finalist he’d already been subjected to the literary press mill, and as winner he was due to be buried under an avalanche of journalists, critics, in paper and on TV.
And then, this month, came another round-about notice – he would be appearing in an event in Matera, Marcella’s hometown, where we’d been staying in or near since February. Last week we went to Matera to see him in company of a psychoanalyst and writer, Luigi Zoia, and field researcher and blogger, Luca Mori, along with, as it turned out, a somewhat too talkative moderator, Marino Sinibaldi who has a radio program on literature, Fahrenheit. The event was called Materadio, and was a broadcast.
Marcella saw Edo as he and his wife Francesca entered, and I went to briefly greet him as he worked his way to the front area in the cave-like space of the Casa Cave. We had a few words, and he advanced to the stage set and found his seat, looking rather, to my eyes, uncomfortable. After a while he came back out to talk with me a bit, and remarked how he wasn’t sure he could talk in the cave-setting there, as if the weight of the place would suffocate him. Old Matera – the Sassi – is composed of such places, houses and such carved into the soft tufo, formerly essentially caves, later decked out with facades, some ornately Baroque, but most very simple. Edo returned to his place on stage and had his 15 minutes of the 50 allotted. Afterwards he was hustled off for another hour of photos and short interviews with the press. I kept a discreet distance, and then joined by Marcella, we talked with Francesca while waiting for the press press to cease. Finally Edo emerged and we went to have a drink and some words before they returned to their hotel.
I met Edoardo in 1990, in San Francisco. A friend of his, writer Sandro Veronesi, (a Strega Premio winner back in 2004), had suggested he meet my friend Jim Nisbet – also a writer, of detective novels – who lives in San Francisco. Jim had done a little part in my Rembrandt Laughing, and tried to work with me on Sure Fire. And so fortuitously I met Edoardo there through Jim. And – so Edo told me over our drinks – back then he piled into my VW van of the time, and we drove to the famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and, he said, I had an accident on arrival. I do not recall this at all, and am certain I had no accident as I never had any in San Francisco, but maybe I bumped a curb or something. At all events, I met him and he me. Such are the odd ways in which I seem to meet my friends, living out of a van, a nomad on the earth.
Some years later, in 1994, having decided to live in Roma, we met again, and on lining up a film production, quite surprisingly to me, I asked Edoardo if he could help in scripting. It wasn’t really a script in the usual sense, since I don’t seem to work that way. Rather, as we went along, I’d have a scene in mind, and I’d ask – sometimes – either that he loosely translate a text I’d written and adjust it to be Italian, or I’d give him a vague generalized idea of what I wanted to convey, and he’d write out a long monologue or whatever. It was very much a collaboration, with me setting brackets, and Edoardo bringing his vastly greater knowledge of Italy – its cultural and political realities – into play, and writing what was needed.
Interestingly, when I took the film – along with Edoardo and a few of the actresses in it – to the Venice Festival in 1995 – the Italian critics, who had rather rapturously greeted my earlier films, harshly critical of America, mostly recoiled at Uno a Me, a somewhat serio-comic critique of things a la Italia. They accused me of not knowing enough about Italy, about having a superficial view, and, well, of failing to make a variant of Roman Holiday, celebrating all things Italian, but instead of having made a critique of Italy after the Years of Lead, and in the midst of the corruptions of Berlusconi and the Mani Puliti era. The critique had been my idea, and in truth I thought I knew enough about Italy to make such a critique. But the more subtle, inside, critique, had been Edoardo’s – he wrote the dialogues and monologues that carried the argument I had framed. Italy is a tribal society, and while it is perfectly OK for a Florentine to harshly speak of, say, Siennese, or any other city-state/culture combo, should a goddam foreigner make a critique of la bella Italia, then the tribal antagonisms dissolve, and a national tribalism congeals in defense of the often indefensible. Venice taught me that. My cultural stock in Italy never recovered from this assault – I went from “the most important American independent filmmaker” in the Italian critic’s press opinion to Mr Nada. In hindsight I’d have to say my critique has held up well over the years, and back a bit Rai Tre, which funded it, apparently re-broadcast it a good number of times, so I was told, owing to viewer requests.
In the years since Venice, when in Italy, I’d see Edo when I could. While living in Roma (1993-5, and then 1997-2001) I walked not a few times from my place in Trastevere to his writing offices just north of Piazza del Popolo, to his home in the north side of the city , and visited him a few times outside Roma, once in Sperlonga.
In 2006, shooting a quick, no money one-week or so feature with the actress from Uno a me, Eliana Miglio, and Simonetta Gianfelici, and Agnese Nano, whom I’d worked with in a workshop in Sicily the year before, Edoardo played a role drawn from his recent stay of 6 months in Afghanistan. The film, La Lunga Ombra, was about the undertow effects of 9/11 on Italian and European “intelligentsia.” Edoardo’s role was essentially as himself, a person who’d spent time in Afghanistan, being interviewed by a television journalist. The film came out quite well, but I couldn’t get anyone in Italy (or the US) to screen it – turned down by every festival. My view is that the politics of it were simply too severe for kiss-ass, corporatized festivals to accept while the Iraq war was in full flow. And probably a film made, however well, for $100 just couldn’t compete in the increasingly commercialized world of art.
After I left Italy in 2002 and returned to the USA, I saw Edoardo far less – circumstances of life. Though whenever passing through Rome in the following years, I tried. Once a meal in his home with Francesca, and the last time we met at a metro station and had a quick pizza nearby in the north of Rome. And now again, finally, in Matera.
I bought his book in the only bookstore in Matera likely to carry serious literature, and have promised myself to read it, in Italian, all 1,292 pages of it. It might take me quite some time, but when it is over my Italian will be a hell of a lot better than it is now. The book, so I’ve read, is about a famed and ugly case in Roma, the Delitto del Circeo, in the mid ’70’s, and is also a touch autobiographical.