When I first moved to Italy, my most poignant references to the country were De Sica's Bicycle Thief (1948), all Fellini's La dolce vita (1960), and Pasolini's Mama Roma (1962). OK, shoot me--I love cinema. Italy didn't entirely resonate uniquely from these and other films. (But then, do people move to my native New York and assume everyone says, "You talkin' to me?") That said, there was something that I found quintessentially Italian that resounded from these films after having spent several years living in the country.
When I arrived in Italy, I was picked up at Rome's Fumicino's Airport by a film producer, ironically named Marcello, in his Cinquecento and he proceeded to take me on a midnight tour of the city. In fact, if there were a more perfect way to explore Rome at night, I cannot think of one. Sure there were no paparazzi following us around the streets of Rome but driving around Rome late at night was spectacularly fun as scooters and bicycles zipped around the streets. And when Marcello asked me, "What would you like to see?" I had immediately answered, "La Fontana di Trevi." So there I was at the Trevi Fountain with a Marcello, without an Anita, and I was still unable to put my finger on why the cinematic scenes which introduced me to Italy were both too much and too little by means of conveying a cultural truth about this city. As someone who did not come to Italy as a tourist, it was not as if I was looking for tourist attractions searching for things to do in Rome. The best way to engage with with the local community is to learn the language and live and work in the region.
It wasn't until I moved to Emilia Romagna (partigiano territory) when I experienced the quotidian movings of society and became fluent in the language that it struck me how the Italy of cinema was both too much and too little to convey the cultural complexities of this society. Too much because neorealist cinema set out to depict the dire economic and social conditions post World War II and the changes in Italian society due to economic and political oppression and sheer desperation. And Fellini, who was a part of this movement but whose body of work largely departed from neorealism after Variety Lights (1950), as his filmmaking was heavily baroque and fantastical, the cinematic version of sorts of magical realism. Yet even being informed by and coming on the heels of neorealism, Fellini's Italy depicted the passion of this society, fiery impulses surrounding the culture of food, the intrigue of romance, and all the surreal workings of various scenarios from street life, traffic, and fat men on the beaches of Rimini. It wasn't anything specific that neorealist filmmaking conveyed in the grainy documentary-like style or subject --the poverty, the cyclists, the large-breasted woman, prostitutes. There was an joie de vivre of sorts about Italians that was evidenced in the everyday, even while complaining about something.
And so one day, I went to a local enoteca to pick up a bottle of red wine and there, on the street in front of my destination was a bicyclist talking with a woman in a car and another man on foot. I have no idea what they were discussing, but as I passed them on my bicycle, the man standing with his bicycle said, "Well say what you wish about the church, but the Vatican is filled with a bunch of pedophiles!" and his interlocutors laughed in agreement with these harsh words which not only rang true to many in Italy, but there was this ability to break the sacred with the reality of the day. And Italians do not mince words when it comes to social or political scandals.
For what I was to learn in my years of living in the country is that Italians thrive at dialogue of all sorts--from discussing food while eating a meal (even planning the next meal) to debating every subject under the sun. These representations in cinema of this aspect of Italian culture are replete in the films following neorealism, from Lina Wertmüller to Nanni Moretti. There is still the very real culture of IRL (in real life) that is refreshing to those of us in the UK who spend too much time online and I recommend those who travel to this amazing country to partake in the culture of dialogue. Sit at a table with Italians and the world will open up through narrations of what might otherwise be a banal event that spirals into veritable intrigue.