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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Luigi Di Gianni: Understanding History Through Cinema

"Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.” 
-Albert Einstein

My great-grandparents shortly after arriving in America
Most Italian-Americans in their 40’s are third generation, which means our great-grandparents were part of the 12,000,000 people with hopes and dreams who arrived on Ellis Island during the mass immigration of the early 1900’s. Many of us are lucky enough to have known at least one of those brave souls. In my case, it was my great-grandmother Rosa Maria Nigro who immigrated to western New York from Rionero in Vulture, located in Italy's southern region of Basilicata. She came to America as a teenager in 1906. She married, raised four children (one of whom was killed on D-Day in World War II) and modestly lived the American dream. She passed away in 1980 when I was 8-years-old but she made a lifetime impression on me and has never left my side. 

I grew up like most Italian-Americans born in the 1970s. We did not learn the Italian language except for a few choice curse words, which made their way down through the generations. We had Sunday sauce and grew up with the cinema of Italian-American filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Sylvester Stallone and Dom Deluise. I knew my origins were in the south of Italy, but I was always told “near Naples”. In my 30’s after having visited Italy many times as an adult, I felt the longing to know and to find the exact land of my origins. My genealogy search led me to Basilicata. I tracked down some cousins that still live there and shortly thereafter, visited. The first time, I took the train from Rome to Foggia. I was surrounded by these beautiful, warm people and I felt that I was truly going home. When I arrived in Foggia, two of my cousins met me to take me to their home in Rionero in Vulture. Along the way, I just looked out the car window. I saw mountains that reminded me of the Catskills along the highway between Woodstock and Manhattan. I remember thinking that my great-grandmother must have felt right at home in New York State. 
Top: Monte Vulture, Basilicata
Bottom: Mount Tremper, New York
When I arrived in Rionero in Vulture, I found a lively, bustling town filled with people, shops, bars and pizzerias. I’ll never forget eating my first pizza in Basilicata from a small place called OK Pizza.. It was like a slice of heaven. During those days, I fell in love with the people, the landscape, the culture and the way of life in the region. I fell in love with Basilicata. I’ve returned many times since then. Despite the average American travelogue description of Basilicata as "desolate and hard to reach"... all it takes is one direct bus from the Anagnina metro station in Rome or two trains from Rome's Termini station.

Interviewing Edoardo Leo in Toronto, Canada for the 2015 premiere of "Noi e la Giulia"
Having worked as a journalist for Fra Noi Magazine of Chicago writing about Italian cinema for the last 13 years, I have covered films made all over Italy. Recently however, I've noticed an increase in the number of film productions taking place in Basilicata. The region is emerging as a land of cinema. Just this week, Veloce come il vento, which was shot near Materawon six David di Donatello awards (the Italian Oscar) and the Rai Television series, Sorelle, that was shot in Matera is leading in ratings. In trying to cover all the cinematic activity happening in the region, my editor and I decided to start a series called “Basilicata: Land of Cinema”. I've talked with countless filmmakers like Edoardo Leo and Flavio Bucci who have praised the people of Lucania and their beautiful land. I also talked with Rocco Papaleo about his own origins and beautiful film Basilicata Coast to Coast

In addition to the Italian productions being made there, Hollywood is also filming its share of cinema in the region. In 2016, the Sassi of Matera was featured in the remake of Ben Hur. Scenes from this year's blockbuster Wonder Woman were shot there. In 2018, Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix hits theaters and in 2019, Mel Gibson will start production on Resurrection, his sequel to The Passion of the Christ which was also shot in this beautiful ancient city.

Matera 2015 with Flavio Bucci during the shooting of
Antonio Andrisani's “Il Vangelo secondo Mattei”
One of my favorite quotes came from writer/director Massimo Gaudioso when I asked him about shooting his film, Un paese quasi perfetto in the town of Castelmezzano:
"For me as well as the whole cast and crew, it was a wonderful, human experience. The enthusiasm and the willingness with which we were welcomed is indescribable. I remember that after the last take, we all broke into tears: something that had never happened before, and that I will always carry with me. We involved the entire town and mobilized the entire province. Many locals came to the auditions, people who had never acted nor had ever seen a production with a film camera. I chose many of them as extras because their stories, their faces and their childlike enthusiasm filled the film. I even gave a role to the oldest person in the town, Aunt Catherine at 102-years-old. What a force of nature! There was always a wonderful atmosphere on the set. The sound was crystal-clear due to the air purity and even the light was perfect. What can I say: I hope that the movie projects at least one tenth of these good vibrations."

Nando Paone, Fabio Volo, Silvio Orlando and Carlo Buccirosso in "Un Paese Quasi Perfetto"
(Gaudioso's exact words in Italian)
"È stata per me è per tutta la troupe, attori inclusi, un'esperienza meravigliosa umanamente. L'entusiasmo e la disponibilità con cui siamo stati accolti è indescrivibile. Ricordo che dopo l'ultimo ciak sono scoppiati tutti a piangere: una cosa che non mi era mai capitata e che porterò sempre con me. Abbiamo coinvolto tutto il paese, anzi mobilitato un'intera provincia. Sono venute tantissime persone ai provini, gente che non aveva mai recitato nè aveva la minima idea di cosa fosse la macchina produttiva di un film. Ne ho scelti tanti, anche per fare ruoli minori. Con le loro storie, le loro facce, il loro infantile entusiasmo hanno riempito il film. Ho fatto recitare perfino la più anziana del paese, zia Caterina, 102 anni, una forza della natura! C'è sempre stato un clima splendido sul set, il suono era cristallino per la purezza dell'aria e anche la luce era ideale. Che dire: spero che nel film si senta almeno un decimo di queste buone vibrazioni."

My curiosity about my great-grandmother's life and why she would leave a beautiful country like Italy led me to visit her town and see her land with my own eyes. Since that first visit in 2002, I've been back numerous times and in 2015, I met filmmakers Davide Colangelo and Luca Curto of Potenza's mega film production facility, Digital Lighthouse. They showed me a stunning video they made with actor Antonio Gerardi, also of Basilicata origins. The video shows the natural, unpolluted beauty for which the region is known. Check out the video...

I also met producer and journalist Sergio Ragone, who is known for his beautiful essays and writings on Lucania. He just published a book, which is getting lots of critical acclaim, Potenza Visibile. I interviewed him a while back about his "Orgoglio Lucano" (Lucano pride) and he was so articulate in his sentimental descriptions of Basilicata. He also collaborated with his close friends Angelo Troiano and Giuseppe Marco Albano on the short film Thriller, which won a David di Donatello.

At the Rome Film Festival with Sergio Ragone, Luca Curto and Davide Colangelo
Last year, I attended a fantastic annual film festival in the town of Bella, which had an evening dedicated to the next generation of the region's filmmakers. Several innovative short films were shown with each director there to present his or her work. Other evenings featured longer or more high profile films made in Basilicata like Emanuela Ponzano's La Slitta (The Sled).

At the Bella Basilicata Film Festival with the new generation of Lucani filmmakers 
The more time I spend in Basilicata, the more confused I am as to why my great-grandmother left. Sure, times were tough, but many stayed behind. So to understand on a deeper level why she felt she had no choice but to leave, I turned again to cinema. This time, I searched beyond the modern cinema made by the young filmmakers of the region because I wanted to get as close as possible to her point-of-view. That's when I discovered the documentary films of Luigi Di Gianni and to put it simply, they gave me closure. I finally understood what she left behind and why she had to leave.

I met Di Gianni recently in Rome. We discussed the simple and direct message of his work. His films are pure in their honesty but visually decadent in the framing and composition of their shots. The dramatic, slightly dark music takes his films to yet another level. Through the medium of cinema, Di Gianni explored and documented the extreme poverty that existed in the '50s and '60's. With films like Frana in Lucania (1960) and Viaggio in Lucania (1965), Di Gianni paints a picture of a strong, resilient people, describing the atmosphere as “una stanchezza senza speranza” (an exhaustion without hope) but also showing some economic growth, particularly in the shots around the lakes of Monte Vulture. Maybe it was the beginning of the end, and the people of Lucania were finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. In these films, although Lucania seems desolate and its people truly exhausted, the unique landscapes with the mountains, sea and olive trees are stunning. And those people, exhausted as they are, have a strong sense of determination about them in their eyes and in their confident movements as they work with their comrades, neighbors, family and even their animals to survive and make Basilicata the treasure it is today. 

Watch Frana in Lucania... 

Although my great-grandparents left in 1906, my great-grandmother’s brothers stayed and endured the hardships, and their families have prospered and today are examples of the beautiful, contemporary region that Basilicata has become. Sure, nothing is perfect and the region has its problems like every region has its own problems. But if you look at these films of Luigi Di Gianni and compare them to the films of today being made in Lucania.. the way of life has made a 180 degree turn. The strength and hard work of the Lucani have transformed the region into something that perhaps people 60 years ago could never have imagined. Thanks to cinema and filmmakers like Di Gianni, this transformation is documented on film. Having traveled throughout the entire peninsula of Italy during the last 20 years, Basilicata is where I have felt the most at home. The kindness and generosity of the people, the rich products of the land and the magnificent natural beauty of places like Maratea, Castelmezzano, Monte Vulture, Matera, Ripacandida, Bella, Muro Lucano, Craco, Bernalda and San Fele just to name a few.. are the qualities that set Basilicata apart from other regions of Italy. 

Watch Viaggio in Lucania...  

I often get frustrated when I see the constant references to the days of Carlo Levi's Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) in descriptions of the region. But after watching the films of Luigi Di Gianni several times over, I realize that it is necessary to acknowledge the poverty and hardships of yesterday’s Lucani. It wouldn’t be fair not to. But it’s also important to show the modern region for what it is today. I am sure today's Lucani are grateful to the people of past generations who with their blood, sweat and tears built a rich, decadent land that produces world renowned olive oil, wine, water and other sought-after products. 

Interviewing Director Luigi Di Gianni at his home in Rome
When I spoke with Di Gianni, I asked him what his advice is to young filmmakers. He said that as a filmmaker, "You have to make sacrifices. Keep busy shooting and working, using your own instincts and emotions. Don’t be an opportunist or give into political correctness." I see this in the work of the young filmmakers of Basilicata. The films being made there today are authentic, honest reflections of life in contemporary Lucania. The stories are often told with the unique Lucano sense of humor that I believe has helped generations of Lucani survive, endure and prosper. They are also told with “orgoglio lucano”, a well-deserved emotion that is a driving force and inspiration behind all filmmakers, journalists and storytellers of Basilicata origins.

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