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Monday, July 11, 2016

Lucia Grillo: Multifaceted Calabrese-American Gem

Photo by Alexo Wandael
If anyone epitomizes the Renaissance woman, it's Lucia Grillo. An actress, director, writer, producer, journalist and head of her own production company, she traces her roots to Francavilla Angitola located in the Vibo Valentia commune of Calabria. Now living in New York, Lucia hasn't forgotten her roots. And though she is wildly passionate about her work, she is deeply connected to her family. That connection serves as the driving force behind her films. 

Grillo calls on filmmaking to explore the realities of why people immigrate. She tells stories of humanity and how we are all connected despite how different our backgrounds may be. Her first effort was A pena do pana (The Cost of Bread), a touching portrait of a Calabrese mother and daughter struggling to make ends meet in the economically depressed southern Italy. Set in 1959, the story follows nine-year-old Mariuzzedda as she goes to work each morning harvesting olives, then to school, with a grumbling tummy.

Photo by Rene Besson
She begins taking bread on credit at the local bakery, until the day comes when she must pay her debt. The story was inspired by the relationship between her mother and grandmother, with Grillo playing the part inspired by her grandmother, a woman to whom she feels a great connection. When her nonna passed away in 2011, Grillo says that a part of her Calabria died as well that day. “No matter how much I knew and travelled Italy, I was not truly "in Italy" until I arrived at my Nonna's house. I was glad I got to make 'A pena do pana' shot in the house she built with my Nonno and where my mother was born.” Italian-American actor Vincent Schiavelli plays a key role in this multilayered film. At the time, he had relocated to Polizzi Generosa, the Sicilian town where his grandfather was born, and was working mostly in Italian cinema. “A pena do pana” is a unique work that features a wonderful performance by this beloved character actor.  
Grillo's father, Vincent, is one of the subjects of her 2010 documentary, Terra Sogna Terra (Earth Dream Earth) about the devotion that Italian immigrants have to the earth via their backyard vegetable gardens. The film is a humble-yet-fascinating exploration of the experiences and traditions our ancestors brought with them to America and how in this day and age of fast food and no time, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those immigrants are keeping their customs alive. 

Photo by Alexo Wandael
Though Grillo is a talented writer and director, acting is the thing she loves the most, and sadly, does the least because of her other commitments. She’s played Italian characters in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam and Tony Gilroy's Duplicity. As an actor and filmmaker, she takes pride in defying the stereotypes that have long ensnared Italians and Italian Americans. 

Among her countless commitments is her work as a producer and correspondent for the popular CUNY talk show, Italics Of the many interviews she has done for the show, her favorite was with Isabella Rossellini. “She is so beautiful, graceful and gracious, she seems to float rather than walk," Grillo says. Yet, I've run into her on the subway and she is just a regular New Yorker. An important history of cinema lives in her - Italian, American, independent, world cinema.” 

Grillo produced the Italics segment on Francesco Munzi, director of the organized crime thriller Anime nere. She was overjoyed at the film's success both in Italy and abroad, and hopes it will open the door for filmmakers like her who make films in and about Calabria.  

She is currently in development on her third film, which will be shot between Calabria and New York. Her first narrative feature, the film is titled, Na calma tigrata (A Tigered Calm) and will have dialogue in Calabrian dialect. She recently announced her production company’s acquisition of the film rights to Helen Barolini's novel, “Umbertina.” We’ll keep you posted on the progress. All of Lucia Grillo's films are available through her website,

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