Movies, Personal

Crazy Italians: On the Cultural Disconnect Between Myself and Italian Cinema

Nearly a decade ago, when I was living in Australia, I went for a couple of organized tours of parts of the country I had never been too.  One such tour occurred in the southwestern corner of Western Australia, an area that is one of the most beautiful I have ever been to in my limited travels. On this tour were, say, 11-12 people.

Four of them were Italian.

They were some of the loudest, most obnoxious people I have ever met:

  • they fought with each other, the guide, and us, and alternatively praised each other and us out of proportion;
  • they interrupted everyone;
  • they constantly switched languages so that you would be listening to what one was saying and then you couldn’t hear the aside to the friend;
  • they ignored most of the guide’s and tour company’s rules and guidelines whenever they felt like it (but also chastised others for rule breaking);
  • during a canoe race, after they had been given admittedly limited instruction on how to canoe (which they talked through), they all paddled on one side, causing their canoe to turn immediately into the next canoe, tipping that one over and causing the loss of the latter canoe’s belongings (this group has also ignored the instructions as they had not secured their belongings in the watertight, buoyant containers), including three digital cameras; etc.

We got to calling them ‘Crazy Italians’ (pronounced with a heavy Italian accent) behind their back and then eventually to their faces; they reveled in that.

It seems a little funny to me that I would have so many issues with so many Italian films as Italian movies (mind you, Italian movies in English) were among the first foreign films I discovered and loved. I am speaking of course of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Now, admittedly, just because one loves one genre doesn’t guarantee that one will love all films from a certain country – I went through a samurai movie phase, but can’t say that I love Japanese cinema unconditionally, and regularly have a similar cultural disconnect issue with the Japanese – but I still feel like something went wrong.

I don’t dislike all Italian cinema, obviously.  I find the films of Antonioni, Bertolucci, Leone and Rosselini to be anywhere from interesting failures to among the greatest films of the 20th century.  More recently, I have seen at least one exceptional film from Italy: Marco Tullio Giordano’s Best of Youth. But, on the whole, I have a huge problem with most Italian movies I see.

I came to this realization while watching Asia Argento’s ridonculously self-indulgent mess of a debut film, Scarlet Diva. I have seen few of her father’s movies, but the ones I have seen are rumoured to be among his best.  I can’t say that I have been particularly impressed with Dario Argento’s abilities, or his concept of horror – my limited experience with him suggests that we find different things scary – but I can see his utter disregard for internal coherence – and much of Italian cinema’s disregard of it, what we might call the “fantastical element” in Italian cinema – in his daughter’s debut, even if there are no glaring plot wholes (in the shreds of a plot) in it.  Though there are moments in the film that are quite funny (the entire Gus Van Sant gag, for example), and others that do create pathos well, there are so many more moments where she fails to effectively convey what she is trying to say, even though it is fairly obvious that she is trying to make a point about how the film industry treats women. The film is full of unnecessary jump cuts, drug / alcohol trips and all sorts of other things you might expect from a first time director.  In fact, the film has two giant signs hanging around its neck: “This film was made by a first time director” and “This film was made by an Italian.”

I think the reason I can tolerate (and in some cases venerate) Antonioni et al. is because they don’t generally have that fantastical element in their work.  They often operate within (or more particularly, without) the genre cliches of English language cinema and, more often than not, set their films in a world where the supernatural is not present or at least barely present.

But the majority of Italian films that I have seen do operate in a world where the supernatural plays some kind of influence – or have characters who believe such things, or at least have a filmmaking style influenced by films about the supernatural, as is the case with The Scarlet Diva – and I can’t abide that if the characters aren’t interesting.

And that is the other problem: Italian films tend to be populated with Italians of the kind I met on my trip, the kind of people I don’t need to see again, even on screen.

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