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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Documentary Filmmaker Matteo Troncone on Pizza, Napoli and the Art of Arrangiarsi

Matteo Troncone at the Mill Valley Film Festival
Matteo Troncone's heartfelt documentary Arrangiarsi is the most refreshing contemporary film about the south to be shown in America in a very long time. Why? Because it's a film about the people of the south, the spirit of the south and the pride of the south. After one criminality film after another about the stereotypical southern poverty and people being abused, bullied and silenced by gangsters, finally there is a movie in which the element of organized crime takes just one segment and the people are positive in confronting it. The characters in Arrangiarsi are real. They are not actors reading a script. This is a rare and extraordinary opportunity to hear about the south from southerners born and raised there- southerners who did not flee. Instead, they stayed to withstand all the obstacles and challenges out of the love and loyalty they feel for their land. That is why the story is so fascinating and compelling. Troncone's film is rich and generous in its portrayal of the south. You will walk away informed not only about the people, but also about the history and values of southern Italy, how the monumental unification of 1861 impacted its economy and why the great brigante Giuseppe Garibaldi is not every Italian's hero.

The film is fiercely charged with emotion because of Troncone's honesty and openness. He originally set out to make a documentary about the process of Neapolitan pizza-making, searching for the secret to its unparalleled taste and texture. While interviewing Neapolitans, he learned about the term Arrangiarsi, which refers to their art form of arranging things in order to make the best situation out of virtually nothing. As Troncone's personal and professional life was all but falling apart when he set out on this journey, he realized that he was already taking part in the act of arrangiarsi. 

Speaking of those Neapolitans, the film is filled with a whole cast of beautifully flawed, soulful characters who you will miss once the film is over. Troncone also introduces us to his parents and explains the challenges of their relationship when they fell in love as his mother was from the Veneto region and his father from Naples. In his explanation, he visits the word "Terroni" and his characters are full of enthusiasm when they explain that this once vergogna (shame) of being southern has become a sense of pride to recognize their origins.

Photo by Matteo Troncone
Although the film takes sharp twists and turns, Troncone always manages to return to his original motive, which is finding the secret to Neapolitan pizza. After hearing from men and women of all ages and backgrounds who argue the possible secret being the water or the heart of the person making it, he actually took his investigation to the experts and in doing so, revealed a number of interesting facts such as the chemical balance of the water of Napoli, the process of cultivating the famous San Marzano tomatoes, and the differences in wheat for sweets vs. pizza crust. He also touched on the notorious corruption that goes on in the olive oil industry.

After seeing the film, I had quite a few questions about the production and the dedication behind such a poignant work. Matteo Troncone was kind in answering my questions, revealing his wholehearted devotion to the project. 

It took you 8 years to finish this film. What kept your dedication going for almost a decade? At any point, were you tempted to throw in the towel.. and if so, what kept you from doing so?
I believed in the project from the very beginning. That fire and passion for the concept; not to mention the pizza, kept me going. I was determined to see the film through to its completion. I liken it to having a child. You would never abandon your baby. While there were MANY obstacles to completing it, throwing in the towel was never something that I considered. After all, "arrangiarsi" is the art of over coming an obstacle.
I truly believed in the concept; that pizza is a form of "arrangiarsi". And I also thought it was particularly interesting that the filmmaker was in a way, living the subject matter and coming from the perspective of a street artist himself.
Naples is a rough and tumble place. To make a film about a street food and the art of being resourceful and over coming obstacles without living it would be an artistic error in my view. Having a lot of resources like a big crew, great equipment and money would make it a completely different film and lose the sense of authenticity and personal experience which makes the film so unique. The obstacle in this case was the path.

Time after time, we see the same old Mafioso and criminality stereotypes in films about the south of Italy. Your film is so refreshing because it shows the true spirit of the people. However, they did talk about the element of organized crime in Naples. How much of a concern is it for them and is it present in their daily lives?
For all of my interviews I asked that question. They all spoke about the Camorra and the mafiosi that have infiltrated the town, especially since WW2. This was thanks to the Americans and the British who when they invaded, paid the mafia, strengthened them by making them mayors and police chiefs, and kept them in power. The Napoletani refer to this as the "system".
It is a reality with which they live on a daily basis. You sometimes are reminded of it when the garbage has not been picked up for weeks (the Camorra controls rubbish collection). And reminders are there often, from Camorra rival gangs murdering each other, to the drugs on the streets particularly in the periphery of the town, to the corruption they see in the government. The government can be slow to respond because of the lack of resources, infrastructure and organization in public facilities. It has gotten better since Luigi De Magistris became the new mayor. Yet I'm afraid the problem runs very deep.

Photo by Matteo Troncone
As an Italian-American growing up here, which qualities in the southern Italians did you identify with and see in yourself?
The openness, playfulness, and passion for sure. The name of my company is called "Solare". Solare means to be lit from within, to be connected to soul and to be sunny. The people of the South are particularly known to be "solare". I also have learned to embrace my own chaos as well. I find that from chaos, can come creativity. Nietzsche said, "One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star". Another aspect of the South is being a master of arrangiarsi. As you see in the film, I have developed that skill quite well.

How did the project, and meeting all those interesting people change you?
The project profoundly changed me in many ways. I learned to trust my voice and my own inner guidance deeply. This is arrangiarsi in the meta-physical form. This is making something out of nothing; or no-thing. The editing process which took me 3 years to complete was a practice in working with my ego structure. I had many people who were giving me unsolicited advice, trying to put their stamp on it and projecting their own fear and blocked creativity onto me and the film. This was a powerful opportunity to listen deeply to my own voice and artistic calling rather than trying to please the audience, being influenced by someone else's ego agenda, or trying to make the film commercial, instead of staying with the artistic vision. Not "knowing' is actually a great advantage sometimes because you are open to possibility and magic rather than confined by a preconceived agenda. This was a powerful lesson and changed my life as an artist.

In our messaging, you told me that you love the people. Just during the couple hours spent watching the movie, I developed an affection for them, too. Tell me what made these people so special to you..
What made the people special to me was their kindness, passion and joy for what they do regardless of financial remuneration. They were eager to share it with me so openly. Of course the street artist Peppe Martinelli was a favorite because I found him to be so funny, deep and articulate. He loves performing and his joy and creativity shines through immensely. I also felt respected and honored by these people; by them offering me their heart.

After having had this amazing experience, what is your message to your fellow Italian-Americans? Do you recommend they also visit the land of their origins?
I would NEVER discourage anyone from traveling at all. And to learn the language and speak it can activate something in your DNA I think. I think most Americans are thirsty for ancestral knowledge that is connected to the land and their language. It is human nature to have this yearning. Native Americans know deeply how crucial this is to keep their culture thriving. Apart from indigenous First Nations, The United states is a country of immigrants who left their land, and language in most cases. To return to the land and culture can be very important in the soul's journey.
As it says in the film, "Before bringing me to Italy to meet her family, my mother told me, "You will find out who you really are".

What’s in store for the film? Do you have any upcoming screenings confirmed?
Presently the only way to see the film is the tour. In the spirit of arrangiarsi, rather than be solely dependent on film festivals or distributors, I have been "arranging" my own screenings with venues and theaters in towns where I feel the project will resonate. The first three screenings this year have all sold out. Italian organizations, pizzerias, and even a buffalo mozzarella dairy farm have all approached me about creating screenings for their communities and patrons. This is an alternative way to disseminate the film and a fun way to personally meet people who are passionate about Italian culture, pizza and also the film's theme which is: "...there's always a way". The film was also recently selected for AMDOCs in Palm Springs in April, the largest documentary film festival in the states. My website has screening information as it is confirmed. 

To sum it up, the film is a testament to the power of storytelling-  telling your own story with your unique way of seeing the world. It is deeply insightful with light moments of laughter and tender moments in which your eyes will fill with tears. As to the pizza's special ingredient, Troncone gives you enough information to reach your own conclusion. I'm going with heart because that’s also the main ingredient of his film. 

Click here to visit the website. You can also follow Arrangiarsi on social media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Check out the trailer...

- Jeannine Guilyard

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