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.
Foodgasm of the Moment: Fiori di Zucca
Give me some fiori di zucca, and I am a happy woman.
These delicious flowers that blossom from zucchini plants are a national favorite in Italy - thrown in batter and fried, of course. Found in practically every bar, they’re one of the most popular, quintessential Italian street foods. But with minimal effort, you can quickly and easily make them at home.
There are variations on the recipe, but the simple and delicious one traditionally used in Italy is as follows:
- Zucchini flowers
- Mozzarella (the small “ciliegine” or cherry-sized ones work well)
*If you want to get creative, alternative ingredients include (but are not limited to): buffalo mozzarella, burrata, provolone, sun-dried tomatoes, speck, ‘nduja.
Stuff each zucchini flower with mozzarella and anchovy (one goes a long way). Twirl the ends of the “petals” to secure the contents before battering. Heat sunflower oil and beat a couple of eggs with a good pinch of salt. Dip each flower in the egg, then roll it through the flour and drop into the skillet. Each flower only needs about a minute on each side until golden brown perfection is achieved…
A true Italian delicacy!
"Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in…"
Mamma mia, I’ve been living in Italy for five years now. That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!
Along with the start of a new year, I suppose it’s as good an opportunity as any to pause and reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.
A lot has happened in five years: I moved across the world, changed jobs/apartments/cars more than once, gained friends, got married, bought a home, lost friends, perfected my Italian, became a dual citizen, totally assimilated into another culture, made at least a dozen trips over the ocean, and - oh, yeah - had a baby. Phew! It’s almost dizzying when I break it down into a list like that. It’s pretty amazing what you can do in five years.
I made my move to Rome in late fall of 2008, fresh from three and a half years of a blissful, care-free existence of beach volleyball, industry parties, and lychee martinis in Los Angeles. For in the great battle of long distance relationships, I ultimately “lost” and accepted the role of the person who would make the move to allow the relationship to continue to exist and ultimately flourish.
Carrie Bradshaw had New York City; I have Rome. Although I’ll never underestimate the power of Los Angeles, Rome has been my life-changing city. As trite as it may sound, I do believe in the concept of falling in love with a place. That head over heels, knock you on your ass feeling is the only thing that could actually push a person beyond a pipe dream and into a move as bold as mine. I had made the decision to move for purely personal reasons, but in truth had fallen in love with Rome long before falling in love with my husband. So the change intrigued and excited me, regardless of my relationship.
However, unlike my first experience with Rome as an inexperienced undergrad, this time there was a lot more already on the table after those amazing years in LA: a great start to an exciting career; a circle of bright, dynamic friends I adored; and a life I had built on my own that I was very proud of. My standards and expectations for a new beginning in Rome were about, oh, the size of the Hollywood sign.
That first year is a bit of a blur of a lot of work, gelato, and an endless amount of calls to the Italian consulate. I had spent my last year in LA networking with anyone and everyone who had any business in Rome, and I had some great job leads - but they all said the same thing: “We can’t hire you until you have a work permit and/or citizenship.” ”My dual citizenship will be coming through any day now,” I’d say confidently, since I already knew I was eligible through my blood line.
It was all just a matter of paperwork being processed, which I had already gathered and delivered almost a year before moving (I’ll save the details of what a rottura di palle that was). I was sure the bureaucratic bull was over, but I was wrong. In reality, my dual citizenship wouldn’t be official until almost two long years later, just a couple months before I was to be married and receive it by legal right anyway. Talk about a calcio in culo (kick in the ass).
Anyway, because of all the effort I put into networking, I did manage to hook myself up with a pretty fantastic freelance gig, and walked into a job a week after I arrived in Rome. I became Associate Producer of two international film festivals, one on the island of Capri and the other back in Los Angeles. It was a dream job: I dined with Heather Grahm, had drinks with Baz Luhrman, and hung out with Samuel L. Jackson and his family [sidenote: when he unexpectedly called my cell phone the first time asking who would pick him up at the port in Capri I almost peed my pants, seriously. The last thing you ever expect to hear when you answer your phone is: ”Andrea? Hi, this is Samuel L. Jackson…”].
Too bad the whole shebang was headed by a coked-up crazy man who slowly stressed me into oblivion. I lasted for two festivals, then had to get out. By the end of it all, the stress of the job and the move had aggravated an underlying thyroid problem which developed into a full-fledged disease, sending my TSH levels through the roof. It took many sleepless nights and a dizzy spell before I finally took a blood test and realized what the problem was. Thankfully, I then found a much more relaxed freelance opportunity with a private luxury events company before the stars aligned and I joined the multi-national media company I now call home. Once I finally got my career back on track, Rome and I began to get along much better.
On a trip to the States a family friend once told me: “You can live in the most beautiful place in the world, but it’s not worth much if you can’t share it with your loved ones.” As I nodded my head and said, “You’re right,” I realized that as much as that statement may have been true, part of me disagreed wholeheartedly.
I’ve been blessed to have directly shared this experience numerous times with my parents and visiting family members and friends. We’ve had repeated vacations and adventures in countless beautiful places many only get to see once in their lives, if lucky. And I’ve treasured each and every one of those times, since I know all too well they don’t last forever. People pack their bags and leave, and I stay. Or I pack my bags and leave, and they stay. It never gets any easier when we have to say goodbye.
Even when my family hasn’t been physically present, I feel I’ve shared this experience in my heart and mind with them all the time. All the beauty reminds me of them. They are a part of me, and have therefore also been present for every amazing sight, sound, and taste.
But most importantly, I’ve shared this experience with myself, which may be the most important thing a person can do. Nothing will teach you more about the world and about yourself than travel. Years ago I listened to the little voice in my head telling me to go beyond my comfort zone, and it has made all the difference. I’ve found that once you listen to that voice, it gets louder, and eventually it’s all you hear.
Of course, a decision of this magnitude has had its drawbacks. Living abroad can be lonely, polarizing, even depressing, at times. It’s about living two parallel lives, and juggling them can be exhausting. Striving to simultaneously enjoy your own reality while being present in another can sometimes feel like an endless whirlwind of translations, time zones, and choppy video calls. Plus, Italy is really, really freaking far from home. And the older I get and the more children and stuff I eventually accumulate, the harder the trip becomes. Rather than a jet-setting adventure, it’s now a process. And there’s nothing sexy about a process.
All the while in this adventure though, there has been one constant: the joy in finally being together with the man I love, which has managed to balance out all the hardships and has gotten me through it all.
Although it already feels like a lifetime ago, that chance meeting on a train in 2004 began to take on its own life once I made my move to Rome. I love a good story, and ours has all the makings of a great one: drama, adventure, irrational romantic escapades - the stuff Hollywood writers sweat to dream up.
It may sound like some kind of scripted fairytale, but the reality of that particular day was just a random encounter with a kind (and very handsome) stranger on a train. Fairytale? Pssh. Who needed it? What I was searching for at the time was clarity, and I had left for Europe with what seemed to be my last chance to find it. The last thing I needed was some Italian fling that would leave me even more confused. I was twenty-three years old and wanted to feel certain about something - and I got exactly what I wished for.
Since we met, indecision and indifference have been inexistent. I knew within the first couple of months: it was him, it is him, it will always be him. It was the kind of love I had always hoped for, and miraculously, it came when I was convinced I may never find it - a perfect combination of luck, destiny, and an open heart. That random encounter wasn’t about a romanticized, exotic love story; it was merely an appointment with destiny. It was one day that would set the wheels of a lengthy process of change in motion, and be the catalyst for a new future that awaited long in the distance.
Do I wish my husband would have been the one to move to Los Angeles back in 2008? Sometimes, yes. But it makes no sense to look back, especially since this is the city that brought me my life’s greatest gifts: my husband, my son, and a chance to grow and mature as a person in a way I never imagined. Rome is as much a part of me as I am of it. The challenge of the whole experience has changed me. It’s molded me. It has made me who I am, and I embrace that.
It all reminds me of a recent article about marriage circulating the internet lately, essentially communicating the notion that people don’t actually get married for themselves, but rather for the person they love; the idea that marriage is a selfless act, since you do it more for your spouse than for yourself.
What if the key to true happiness is occasionally sacrificing our own desires for the will of those we love - in both large and small ways - whether life-changing, or habitually insignificant?
In many ways, I feel my decision to move here was a major sacrifice I made for the person I loved. But, in five years, it has evolved into much more: a new life and a new existence, both literally and figuratively.
Brings to mind one of my favorite old Jimmy Durante songs:
It’s so important to make someone happy.
Make just one someone happy.
Make just one heart to heart you, you sing to.
One smile that cheers you,
One face that lights when it nears you,
One girl you’re - you’re everything to.
Fame, if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minute.
Where’s the real stuff in life, to cling to?
Love is the answer.
Someone to love is the answer.
Once you’ve found her,
Build your world around her.
Make someone happy.
Make just one someone happy.
And you will be happy too.
Indeed, I am.
Getting a private home lesson from a personal master chef: my mother-in-law, direct from Caserta…
La pizza con la scarola, traditionally made in Southern Italy at Christmas and New Years (but as far as I’m concerned any regular Saturday is a fine excuse).
Greek (kalamata) olives
Capers (rinsed, sparingly)
Hot pepper flakes
Christmas in Italy, step two:
"I struffoli" - little fried balls of deliciousness covered in honey, just like my Nonna used to make every year. My turn now… She’d be proud.
Here’s my recipe (sorry, it’s in the metric system - I’m used to it by now).
400 grams of flour
40 grams of sugar
1 shot of limoncello
Honey (ideally citrus-infused)
Mix flour, sugar, eggs, limoncello, and lemon zest in mixer until dough is formed (should be thick enough to be able to form balls). Work dough with a dusting of flour and section off into large clumps. Pull fingertip-sized bits of dough from the clumps one at a time and roll into mini balls (this is the most time-consuming part, depending on how big you choose to make them - they are typically very tiny). Give them a light dusting of flour so they’re all separated, then toss them into hot sunflower oil until they turn a golden brown color. Oil should be at least half-pan deep and very hot. Strain them and lay to rest on some paper towel in a serving bowl. Once all have been fried, remove the paper towel and pour honey abundantly over struffoli, turning with a large spoon to be sure all are covered. Sprinkle colored candies over them, and enjoy!
Christmas in Italy - step 3:
Primo (1st course) of linguine with fresh shrimp, zucchini, and pachino tomatoes, and secondo (2nd course) of baccala’ paired with frittura of calamari and shrimp.