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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Basilicata: Terra di Cinema - 2015 Year In Review

“It’s no wonder that the Southern Italian town Matera has been hailed the European Capital of Culture 2019, due to its unmistakable ancient beauty that has inspired art, literature, and film, amongst other things.”  -Ben Taylor, Journalist for Swide

Italian cinema masters Francesco Rosi and Pier Paolo Pasolini immortalized the region of Basilicata in their landmark films that remain today beacons of cinema. Rosi’s 1979 Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) was adapted from the book by Carlo Levi. The author explained, “The title of the book comes from an expression by the people of 'Gagliano' who say of themselves, 'Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli' which means, in effect, that they feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself—that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience." An intellectual to say the least, Levi grew up in Torino. He was a doctor, writer and visual artist. His anti-fascist beliefs and activism led him to flee the strong Mussolini presence of the North. Despite being openly known as a political exile, Levi was welcomed with open arms by the people of Basilicata. His book, Christ Stopped at Eboli was written about his year of exile living with the gracious people of Basilicata and how they coped with the profound poverty of that time. Rosi’s adaption of the book is a beautiful, heartfelt and tragic film. It’s a portrait of what we consider the “Old Country”- the land our ancestors left in search of a better life when they came to America. Pasolini’s 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew, on the other hand is biblical epic about the life of Jesus Christ. The film was mostly shot in the ancient Sassi of Matera and was named last year by the Vatican, “the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema.” Matera is no stranger to biblical epics. Many were shot in the Sassi area, including Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ.”

Fast forward to 2015 and the Matera-based Lucana Film Commission saw its busiest year ever. From Hollywood to Cinecittà to local filmmakers, both provinces of the region- Potenza and Matera served as soundstages for film crews creating cinema magic. I’ve been following all the news, so let’s look back at some of the highlights of 2015, the year in which Basilicata shined on big screens literally all over the world.

February kicked of the year with Hollywood crews heading to the Sassi of Matera to shoot the remake of the biblical epic Ben-Hur. The event drew scores of tourists, students and locals alike who flocked to the ancient city of Lucania. For over a month, the stunning Sassi served as a great natural set for yet another epic film. The remake stars Jack Huston in the lead role of Judah Ben-Hur, who survives years of slavery to get revenge on someone who betrayed him, and Morgan Freeman, who described Matera as an “extraordinary city and magical”. Ben-Hur will be in U.S. theaters next summer. 

In March and the beginning of April, Lisbon, Portugal festival goers attending the 8 1/2 Cinema Italiano film festival were treated to a special series in which three films made in Basilicata were featured:  Antonio Andrisani's and Vito Cea's Sassiwood, Rocco Papaleo's Basilicata Coast to Coast and Edoardo Leo's Noi e La Giulia. All films were huge hits and shown to packed theaters. Rocco Papaleo and Lucana Film Commission director Paride Leporace were on hand to discuss filmmaking in the Basilicata region.

In May, all of Matera celebrated as the ancient city was officially named the 2019 Culture Capital of Europe. That same month, Lucano director Giuseppe Marco Albano along with his producers and lifelong friends Angelo Troiano and Sergio Ragone were awarded the highest Italian cinema honor- the David di Donatello for their short film Thriller starring the Pugliese-born actress Anna Ferruzzo and Lucano actor Antonio Gerardi.

June brought Edoardo Leo and his Noi e la Giulia, shot near Matera, to Toronto for Canada’s Italian Contemporary Film Festival. I made the trip to meet Leo and talk about his experience filming in Basilicata. The opening scenes were shot in Rome, with the remainder of the film shot in the countryside of Pomarico, situated in the hills of Matera.

In August, a new documentary made its Italian premiere at the Lucania Film Festival, and the stunning panoramic images alone make it worth seeing. Shot in Matera, the film, appropriately titled, Mater Matera recounts the city's folklore, traditions and culture. From the unique landscape of the Sassi to the local culinary traditions to the festival of Matera's patron saint, Madonna della Bruna.

On September 18th, an event dedicated to the work of author Carlo Levi kicked off a year-long program of events in Aliano, a commune of Matera. Actor/director Michele Placido took the stage in honor of Levi, performing excerpts from several of his works including Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli. Fellow actors Raffaele Nigro and Rocco Brancati shared the stage with Placido along with local theater actors and musicians.

September was a very special month for me because I created my very own tour of Basilicata: Land of Cinema and trekked by car with my amore from coast to coast seeing the actual places in which some of my very favorite films were shot. We started out with Eboli, which is actually located in the region of Campania. Then, we headed through the mountains and winding roads to Maratea where scenes from the brand new web series, While were shot as well as scenes from the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. It's obvious why the city is called "Pearl of the Tyrrhenian". It is breathtaking. The way the mountains meet the water and then with the statue of Cristo Redentore overlooking the infinite sea, I can't image ever searching for another vacation destination.

After Maratea, we headed to Rionero in Vulture- the birthplace of actor/director Michele Placido and my great grandparents.. so it was fun to catch up with family. While there, we drove over to the neighboring town of Barile and met Daniele Bracuto, president of the local tourist association in Barile- Pro Loco and the movie association Cineforum Pier Paolo Pasolini. He graciously gave us a tour of the Museo della Civiltà Contadina, a beautiful space that pays homage to the past generations of the region. It was a very moving experience because it gave me some insight into how my great grandparents lived before they left for America in 1906.. and then to be there with my cousins made the evening even more special.

Our destination that day was Matera, but we also made a little detour to cruise through Bernalda, home to many talented filmmakers and the family origins of Frances Ford Coppola. I wish that we had more time because I would have loved to explore this beautiful, tranquil town. Then of course, Matera, where luck was on my side when I just happened to be passing through while legendary actor Flavio Bucci was shooting a film with director Antonio Andrisani. The film, “Il Vangelo secondo Mattei” is a take off on Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo which was also shot there. Andrisani tackles the controversial issue of oil drilling in the area and the adverse effects it is having on the region.

I was back in Rome by October and geared up for the Festa del Cinema. October was a huge month for Lucani filmmakers, and the Festa del Cinema brought some great opportunities to learn more about this land of cinema, including a screening of the 1977 documentary Roma a sud di Eboli: Viaggio nel Cinema di Francesco Rosi. I also got the chance to meet some of my closest social media buddies.. in particular the writer/photographer/film producer Sergio Ragone, who introduced me to a couple of very talented filmmakers Luca Curto and Davide Colangelo of Potenza’s stellar production/post production facility, Digital Lighthouse. Unfortunately, I had to return to New York one day before it premiered, but compliments to Rocco Talucci. His documentary film, A.A. professione attrice about the theater and cinema career of actress Adriana Asti, made its premiere on 24 October at the Festa del Cinema. Talucci is from Venosa, located in the province of Potenza. I interviewed him last year when I was working on an article about Claudia Cardinale. He has an affection for the cinema of yesterday and makes beautiful films about the players of those Golden Years. Rounding out October was a great event for the Milan Expo in which Francis Ford Coppola spoke about his roots in Basilicata. Coppola has always been outspoken in his pride for his Basilicata origins. In the 2007 video below, he speaks about the purity and beauty of the region.

November brought the premiere of Nicola Bisceglia's short film, Flipo con La Basilicata. Shot in the province of Potenza, the story centers on a Spanish college student awarded a scholarship in Italy. The short film, which is also the first installment of a series, premiered in Rome and is currently available to watch on YouTube through the film's production company, Vulture Video.

December was the month in which dreams came true for a number of young Lucani filmmakers. The month kicked off with the Potenza premiere of Ivan Polidoro’s La Sorpresa (The Surprise). It was an emotional night for the cast and crew, especially young actor Rocco Fasano who grew up in the region. Then, on the day after Christmas, the first episode of the web series While premiered on YouTube. The project was shot entirely in the region of Basilicata and was a labor of love for the young directors Alexander Maffei and Simone Martone who did just about everything themselves and what they didn't do, recruited friends and friends of friends to give them a hand. The end product is an intense, creative show that makes you wonder what will happen in the following episodes. Rounding out the month was an honor bestowed by "Corto Italiano" on two of Basilicata's most prolific filmmakers Giuseppe Marco Albano and Antonio Andrisani. Their 2012 Nastro D'Argento winner, Stand By Me was named one of the Top 5 short films of the last 5 years.

I've been writing about cinema in Basilicata for more than a decade now, but something was telling me that this was the year to begin an official series of articles, "Basilicata: Terra di Cinema". I'm glad I did because it has given me the amazing experience of truly writing from my heart. I care about each and every one of these filmmakers and I want to see their dreams come true. Although I didn't grow up in that majestic land, I share their pride in having origins in Basilicata. If you think that 2015 was something.. just wait until 2016. I already have some amazing interviews lined up, so I cannot wait to get started! Buon Anno Nuovo.. Evviva #Orgogliolucano!

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