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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review: 'My Cousin is the Mayor of New York'

When Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City was elected in 2014, he thanked a number of people in his televised inauguration. Among them were Italians, specifically in Rome, Sant'Agata de Goti (Near Naples in the Campania region) and Grassano (near Matera in the Basilicata region),  the cities of De Blasio's Italian ancestors. Mio cugino è il sindico di New York (My Cousin is the Mayor of New York) recounts the preparations for an event in Grassano in which Mayor De Blasio revisits his origins. The film will be shown May 1 at the New York City Independent Film Festival.

The film begins with a road trip as we hear a voiceover of Mayor De Blasio being sworn in and thanking the people in the towns of his Italian origins. The director of the film, Vincenzo Lerose, is in the passenger's seat as his father drives south from Torino to Grassano. Lerose's father was born and raised in Grassano. He left when he was young to find work. That search led him to the Piedmont region in northern Italy. When he reaches Grassano, he comes alive. His enthusiasm and affection for the town and its people are sweet to watch. Lerose introduces us to a whole cast of characters who each have an opinion about the mayor and the upcoming event. His grandmother, who proclaims that Mayor De Blasio's 2:00pm arrival will interfere with lunchtime, is the treasure of the film. It's great to be in the kitchen with a real, authentic Italian grandmother. 

A modern mall in Tito, Basilicata
For as much as I appreciate the fact that a film made in the region of Basilicata will be shown in New York, I originally did not intend to write about it. However, the screening is starting to gain momentum, so I feel that I should address the issues I have with it. Given how much I write about cinema made in Basilicata, it wouldn't be right not to. 

I'll start off by saying that if you're an American wanting to see the "Old Country," this is your film. You will love it. If you have traveled to the region numerous times like me, and have spent hours talking with the next generation that understands Lucania's difficulties but feel they can make a difference, then skip it. Otherwise, you will just feel frustrated and sad. 

A snapshot made during my layover at the
Grassano bus station in November 2016
Let's look at the positive aspects. We are treated to a nice tour of the narrow streets of Grassano by car. We meet many of the town's cittadini (citizens), including a woman who immigrated to America with her family but never felt at home. Then, about 46 minutes in when Mayor Bill De Blasio finally enters the frame, you will probably get the chills. I identified with this scene on such a personal level because in 2002, I did the same thing. An old photo led me to the family of my great-grandmother in Basilicata. I made the trip to meet the children and grandchildren of her brother who was left behind when she set out for America. It was a deeply moving, beautiful experience. There is something very emotional about watching a character go through this in a film.

There are so many different ways this event could have been covered and I have a great deal of respect for artistic expression and individuality. I just would not have covered it in the way the director chose. Lerose himself is not from Basilicata. He was born and raised in Torino, and I felt this. Perhaps he is fascinated by the stereotypes and caricatures of the Lucani. They are certainly a fascinating people. I felt that he was egging them on a bit and possibly manipulating the scenes so they would "act out" more than they would have without his persuasion. I think the terms "New York" and "money" were thrown around too much. Mayor Bill De Blasio is more than just a wealthy New Yorker. He is an Italian-American with strong family values and is very connected to his roots. For me, this egging on of the characters, including children to joke around and act like contadini in anticipation of the big New Yorker visiting their tiny village, undermined the significance of the visit and undermined the class and intellect of the people. Instead, I would have appreciated learning more about the history of Grassano and De Blasio's ancestors. The last name of his grandmother was Briganti. A briganti is a freedom fighter, so I would have liked to see that road explored. There was a quick scene with journalist Mariangela Petruzzelli. She is a well-informed, well-traveled, Basilicata-born-and-raised Rai journalist who could have been a great interview and a wealth of knowledge for Lerose. Instead, she appeared in an irrelevant scene that ended with her asking her cameraman why the recording failed. When the film ended, I just didn't feel informed on anything.

Mariangela Petruzzelli speaking at the 2016 Bella Basilicata Film Festival 
Grassano has an interesting history indeed, having gained worldwide fame as the town of exile for the anti-fascist writer, artist and doctor Carlo Levi, who went on to document the poverty as well as the kindness and generosity of the people through his literary works and art. Levi's story was famously told in Francesco Rosi's 1978 film Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli). I applaud Lerose for showing Grassano today. However, it would have been nice to see and hear from the inhabitants on how the town has evolved since those desperate times. Instead, the young people seemed just as desperate as their ancestors nearly 100 years ago.

A painting by Carlo Levi created during his time of exile in Basilicata
For me, the saddest aspect of this film was hearing that desperation and cynicism from the young people..

"Having a mayor with lucanian roots in America fills us with pride but concretely speaking, it can't change that much."

"As in everything, there's the initial excitement but in the end, it doesn't go anywhere. In the end, everything in Basilicata goes this way."

Matera, Basilicata- 2019 European Capital of Culture
I want to say this to those young people of Grassano: Every region of Italy and every country in the world has poverty. It's true that the poverty in Basilicata was once crippling. But the region is on the upswing. Matera, a tourism goldmine, is not far from Grassano. When I was there this past November, I was chatting with a server at the hotel- a woman who lives near Bernalda and commutes by car- an hour everyday to work. There are opportunities in Basilicata.. but you have to be clever, flexible and aggressive. The opportunities most likely will not come to you.. you have to search for them and find them. I am ending these thoughts with a poignant video that was recently made in Matera. It speaks to the new era of job opportunities and how people from other countries in Europe and the Americas are now immigrating to Basilicata. Be careful... I may be next..;-) Love and appreciate your region, Lucani. You don't realize how lucky you are to live there.  Click here to watch the video.

Below is a compilation of the filmmakers and movies we have profiled in our series "Basilicata: Terra di Cinema".. Click on the titles to read about the great young talent in Basilicata.

Luigi Di Gianni: Understanding History Through Cinema

A Matera incontro per presentare il VI Meeting Internazionale del Cinema Indipendente

10 Films Shot in Basilicata are in the Running for a David di Donatello Nomination

Interview: Animator Donato Sansone

Interview: Alessandro Masi - A Lucano in Hollywood

Basilicata Filmmaker in the Running for an Oscar

A Visual Tribute to Mark My Last Day in Italy's Magnificent Region of Basilicata

The 13th Edition of the Bella Basilicata Film Festival

The First Image from Claudio Santamaria's The Millionairs - The first collaboration of the Basilicata and Calabria Film Commissions
The Documentary Film "Matera 15/19" 
Interview: Actor Walter Nicoletti of “Jesus VR - The Story of Christ” 
Film Shot in Basilicata is Headed to the U.S. 
Il Cinema di Basilicata al Lucania Film Festival 
Short Films by Lucani Filmmakers take Center Stage at Cinemaratea 
Interview: Executive Producer Nausicaa La Torre on joining "Flipo con la Basilicata"
The Documentary "Emilio Colombo. Memorie di un Presidente" to be presented in Potenza 
A Big Week Ahead for Short Films Made in Lucania 
"The Prince of Venusia" by Silvio Giordano to Premiere in Potenza
Basilicata protagonista della XIV edizione dell'Ischia Film festival: la kermesse cinematografica dedicata al cineturismo
Verdone, Sorrentino and Tognazzi in the lineup of Basilicata's Maratea Film Festival
Interview: David Cinnella, Producer of Indie Western to be shot in Basilicata 
Interview: Cinematographer Michele D'Attanasio on "Veloce come il vento" 
Documentary on the Family of Frances Ford Coppola getting International Attention 
Basilicata: Terra di Cinema - Cinque Domande per Nicola Ragone 

"The Young Messiah" in American Theaters March 11 
Interview with Filmmaker Andrea Filardi 
Interview: Director Massimo Gaudioso on his new film "Un paese quasi perfetto" - made in Basilicata 
Filmmaker Vania Cauzillo presents her Documentary “La ricerca della forma, Il genio di Sergio Musmeci” in her hometown of Potenza 
#Luogoideale is not your average Hashtag- It Represents a Culture steeped in History and Pride
To mark the Carnevale of Satriano in Lucania.. We revisit my interview with Filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino   
The prodigious, natural talent of Basilicata-born visual artist Walter Molfese 
Basilicata: Terra di Cinema - 2015 Year In Review

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