Although it’s easy to occasionally dwell on the numerous, painfully evident things that are wrong with this country – as referenced in my recent post, 10 Things I Hate About Italy – my love for this eclectic, eccentric land is immeasurable. It’s important to be objective, because when you really love someone or something, you learn to appreciate (and accept) both the good and the bad, pregi e difetti. Thankfully, in my case, for every negative aspect of life in Italy, there are at least two positives – otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to personally justify staying here.
So, what exactly is so great about this country? Where do I begin…
1. No one does atmosphere like Italy. Everyone knows life is best lived in the company of fantastic people, surroundings, and food/wine. So it’s safe to say Italy is essentially a triple threat in life. Although residents may occasionally be disheartened and disillusioned by all the political and economic problems, all it takes is a relaxing passeggiata through the centro storico (historic center) to make it all better. The sound of church bells ringing in the distance, impromptu concerts from street musicians, the amazing scent of fresh food – heck, even the smell of cigarette smoke swirling through the piazza – it all contributes to a one of a kind atmosphere that is entirely Italian, and so incredibly lovely. After a while, you become entrenched in it, absorbed by it – and you realize you are no longer part of the atmosphere, it is part of you.
2. Quality of life is an uncompromisable priority. It’s not that Italians aren’t capable of being as ambitious as Americans – they just don’t want to be. It has nothing to do with ability, but rather a true desire to make room for and savor pleasurable experiences at all costs. That may explain why this country tends to suffer and struggle to keep up with a globalized world that always demands more and more free time. The Italian infrastructure is designed to guarantee the simplest, most enjoyable things (like vacations) are built right into the calendar. Even on a daily basis, the day is broken down into time for coffee, time for a leisurely lunch, time for a stroll and a snack, then time for another coffee. It may be cliché, but the idea really is to work to live, not live to work. One could argue that’s also because job availability is scarce and opportunity for higher pay and job advancement not as great – but there’s a more deeply-rooted cultural belief that many Mediterranean countries share which, in my opinion, stems from the overwhelming amount of surrounding beauty urging everyone to get out and enjoy it as much as possible.
3. In Italian, Disney characters Huey, Dewey, and Louie are called, “Qui, ” “Quo,” and “Qua”:
4. Italians are refreshingly (and sometimes, brutally) honest. They will say what they feel and give sincere feedback, and expect the same in return. Something I’ve found hilarious for years now: on one game show, when the host introduces the contestants, he always asks the relative or friend in the audience to share the person’s best and worst attributes. I always get a kick out of it because the relative will respond with something to the effect of, “He’s really generous, and a great tennis player – but he’s terrible with directions and doesn’t know when to shut up.” The contestant’s reaction is usually just a little shrug, as if to be in humble agreement. People here generally seem more aware of their faults, and less likely to be offended by a truthful statement. Case in point: some Italians (especially Southerners) are so quick to mention when you’ve gained weight, it’ll be the first thing out of their mouths when they see you. I never knew how permolosa (touchy) I was until it happened to me. This kind of candor can be especially jarring to an American, who is used to keeping her lips tightly sealed for fear of offending someone by the mere mention of an overtly obvious fact. But apparently to them it’s just an innocent conversation starter, as if to say it looks as if you’ve been living the good life. Plus, what are you, blind? You own a mirror, so you’re clearly already aware of what I’m saying to you. So, you’ve gained a few pounds, big deal. This took a while to get used to, but once you do, you start to resent anyone who tries to prenderti per il culo or venderti fumo (take you for a fool/blow smoke).
5. Verbal communication is an art, and Italians are its masters. Oral examinations are part of their regular curriculum from elementary school on, partially to eliminate the risk of cheating on exams, but also to reinforce confidence and teach kids to be effective orators. Get into a discussion with any Italian, even a conventionally uneducated one, and you’ll be surprised at how effortlessly (and verbosely) they will lay it all out for you. Body language is also an essential part of this communication. This marvelously unique Italian method of gesturing is passionate, colorful, expressive, in your face – and most of all, it makes speaking the language so much fun. Also, it doesn’t leave much room for misinterpretation, as any successful communication should do. And many (like those pictured below) prove everyday that it’s entirely possible to drive a motorino while gesticulating wildly with your hands.
6. Old school courtesy and respect are still alive and well. Although I consider myself a well-mannered person, when I first moved here I almost felt like I was getting a refresher course in Manners 101. It made me realize how much our culture in the US has forgotten some simple gestures of courtesy, like greeting everyone who’s already present whenever you enter or exit a place, looking people in the eye with sincerity when you speak to them, etc. If you don’t behave this way in Italy, you’re easily labeled un caffone (rude/slob), and rightfully so. Fortunately, here you’re often reminded that basic social decorum is a beautiful thing, and thankfully, can still a priority in society today. Speaking of which…
7. This country doesn’t have a habit of breeding natural born killers. This is a critical point I discussed in a post after the Sandy Hook tragedy, and shouldn’t be underestimated. On a personal level, this means once my son starts school I’ll have one less major thing to worry about – also definitely not to be underestimated. Naturally, kids around the world will always go through their stages of being smart-mouthed, annoying, and rebellious – but the kind of horror stories you’ll hear from any American teacher about the complete disregard for basic human decency happening daily in some schools today is simply not tolerated here, and on a cultural level, seems to never be attempted in the first place.
8. Free healthcare, folks. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it may not be perfect, but at least it exists as an alternative to insurance. Complain all you want about the public sector and its bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, dizzyingly long waits, and surly staff – but regardless, the option is available to everyone, and many times, it’s more than decent (especially the quality of physicians). Also, prescription drugs are sold at literally a fraction of the cost of those in the US. By the way, as I also previously wrote about while pregnant, the maternity benefits are pretty stellar, too.
9. Exposure to the occasional PG-rated, passive-aggressive, mafia-style intimidation tactic: Case in point, photo below – a gesture regularly used to let you know someone didn’t like the way you parked.
10. All rules have exceptions, and everything is up for discussion. Italian society and people are very flexible, meaning that everything is up for discussion, all the time. The final answer may be no, but it’s never really no. From an American point of view, this could be seen as a negative, since in the US strict rule following isn’t only encouraged, it’s mandated. But making friendly banter, asking for and reciprocating favors, schmoozing, negotiating – it’s all part of the Italian’s DNA. They thrive on that interaction and confrontation; it’s when they’re at their best. And from perks to preferential treatment, charisma and having a way with people is strongly rewarded here, even when it’s undeserved (how do you think Berlusconi has managed to stick around this long?).
11. Holidays are about food, not gifts. It goes without saying that Italians are obsessed with food, but what’s great is there’s a specific food to accompany every minor and major holiday in the calendar year. Not only that, each region has its own version of said delicacy. Celebrations are centered around the traditional food, and less about decorations or bombarding children with countless gifts they won’t care about ten minutes later. All that extra stuff is cute and nice, but… dov’è il cibo (where’s the food)?
12. The language allows for some of the most colorful cursing on the planet. Aside from being insulting, curse words and ways to tell someone off in Italy are not only endless, they’re quite complex and fancifully creative. In true Italian style, some of the best involve lengthy constructions (almost always blasphemous ones), where you can pick and choose to damn the animal, saint, etc. of choice. There’s the classic “Porca miseria” (miserable pig), or the damning of inanimate objects, such as, “Mannaggia ai sandali di Cristo” (Damn Jesus’ sandals). Then, there are others built around an entire imaginary scenario, with a surprisingly concise delivery: for example in Rome, with just two words, you can hope someone’s dead ancestors rot in hell (“Mortacci Tua!”), and countrywide, with one simple gesture, you can really piss someone off by insinuating they’re a cornuto (a jackass who doesn’t know he’s being cheated on by his significant other). And then, there’s the most widely used of all – the equivalent of our “F-off”: when you’re absolutely disgusted with someone, only in Italy can you send them off to quel paese, or literally “that country” – the more tame version of the magical destination better known as “Fanculo.”
13. Healthy living and weight management is a no-brainer. Keeping yourself in shape isn’t about a trendy, fad diet. When it comes to nutrition, Italians have it all figured out, and they have for centuries. Obesity isn’t a problem in this country because of a few simple rules they consider to be second-nature: eat a balanced diet, cook with fresh ingredients, keep recipes simple, control portions, and avoid your car as much as possible. That’s it.
14. People are generally smart and very furbo (clever). You have to step up your game when you live in Italy; one of the worst things you can do is be fesso (naive fool). When everyone is clever, they all think they’re more clever than everyone else – so everyone is always trying to out-do everyone else’s cleverness. But hey, that’s Italy – and a characteristic that could be considered both the root of all its problems and catalyst of its successes. This dynamic makes for a society full of interesting interactions between citizens who are all pretty quick to the switch, and able to run rings around Americans when it comes to street smarts. That’s why in Naples, stealing a wallet from an unwitting tourist is the equivalent of taking candy from a baby. I bet they almost feel guilty doing it, like it’s not a fair fight.
15. Lastly, some of the people I love most in this world were born and bred here. Even if none of the above were true, that would certainly be enough for me.
Italy has once again earned its place on the cinematic map with a recent win for Best Foreign Film. Without having even seen “La Grande Bellezza,” I was just happy to hear that Italy had finally contributed something to the cinematic stratosphere that didn’t involve the usual tired storylines of sordid love affairs coupled with cheesy, heart-shaped graphics on billboards. It’s been a while since Italian cinema has been worthy of the honor.
Last night, one of the public television channels aired “La Grande Bellezza” so all of Italy could come to know the film that brought home the Oscar this year. I couldn’t wait to see it, especially since my new adventures in motherhood have prohibited me from sitting through any type of programming for longer than twenty minutes. Consequently, it’s been more than a year since I’ve had the pleasure of setting foot in a cinema – and for someone who considers herself a film enthusiast, that’s quite a punishment. So I got giddy when I saw the 9:30pm time slot on my DVR: just in time to send Luca off to dreamland and have a little serious movie time.
Maybe I’m just in dire need of cinematic sustenance, or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve barely held an adult conversation that doesn’t involve bowel movement color and frequency in more than a year – but this film completely overtook me, as any great one should. It struck me almost immediately, like those certain people you meet and instantly click with. This film and I understood each other on many levels.
Judging from the dismal reviews I had come across on the internet and radio here in Italy, I was prepared to be bored out of my mind. But when I heard it described as “Felliniesque,” that turned me on – I’ve appreciated the genre since my “Post-War Italian Cinema” course in college where we dissected the masterpieces of the likes of De Sica, Pasolini, and of course, Fellini.
Incidentally, to be referenced as “Felliniesque” is a double-edged sword: it can prove as off-putting to non-enthusiasts and sets too high of a standard for cult followers. From the first scene though, it’s clear “La Grande Bellezza” is an homage to the Fellini era. There are certainly those moments of pure randomness and chaos characteristic of the style, typically involving affluent characters who wander their world in a desperate insanity, searching to fill a void in their lives they can’t explain. Jovial nightlife scenes and lavish extravagance often mask their deep angst and emotional despair. But this film wins by achieving a contemporary twist and sociological depth which manifests its own identity in the persona of Jep, played by the phenomenal Toni Servillo.
Many Italians apparently had a hard time following the plot or finding any meaning in it at all (many Italians also love any excuse to crap all over their own country, but that’s another story). To anyone looking for a clear answer as to what this film is about, my most obvious personal observation would be: it’s the story of a man who has spent the past forty years making Rome his playground. He’s placed all of his energy and priorities on becoming part of the upper echelon of society, only to arrive at his sixty-fifth birthday forced to come to terms with the fact he’s wasted much of his life in a superficial, hypocritical circle of high-society people and their frivolous version of a city he once hoped to dominate.
Americans can’t resist a good film with suave Italian accents and sweeping views of Rome; that might be what sealed the deal with the Academy. But I would also hope they appreciated the irony and depth in all that exquisite beauty. That immaculate Roman scenery, in my opinion, was meant to directly reflect the outwardly perfect, impeccable appearance the Roman upper-class struggles to project. In truth, what lies beneath is another story, both in the people and their city. The protagonist spends a lot of time walking through this scenery, and I understood that to be a completely intentional way of juxtaposing the striking exterior beauty of the city with the ugly interior reality of its society’s aristocrats.
I also don’t find it a coincidence that the director chose not to depict the grungy state of the city itself: the Rome of today – not the tourist center, but the one real people live and work in every day – is littered with trash-filled streets, poop on the sidewalks, and triple-parked cars. Only those who live in or are intimate with Rome could recognize this inherent irony. That’s why I really loved this film: Sorrentino managed to present it in a way that it would be embraced instantly for the stereotypically intense beauty of Rome, while at the same time producing one of the greatest critiques of this city today, from the point of view of those who live it.
It was a perfect portrait of what it means to be a true Roman, who struggles with both the love and admiration for his city, as well as the frustration and utter disgust for the life it can enable. The excess and exaggeration of the Dolce Vita era is alive and well even today in the Italian capital – and its participants are just as out of touch with the real world as ever. The clean and exaggeratedly pristine scenography couples with the ideal many in that particular social circle try to portray, only to fall short and lose touch with reality altogether.
No doubt though, the reason I enjoyed this film so much is not only because I live in Rome, but because in my years working in this great city, I’ve been exposed to people similar to the characters in this film. So I can appreciate this film’s point of view and its sophisticated depiction of the soul of a complicated city and its varied inhabitants.
By all means, watch this film for its stunning imagery – just remember to look deeper to reveal the Rome buried beneath all the beauty. And as far as viewing this or any “Felliniesque” film goes, remember: Give it a chance. Don’t try to follow or understand a direct plot line. Approach it with a light heart and a keen sense of irony. And most of all, sit back and enjoy the spectacle.