Letter from Lamerica: (Com)Promised Lands

By Áine O’Healy

lamerica-gianni-amelio.jpgLamerica, 1994

Gianni Amelio’s important feature followed the first mass migrations of the new Europe

Lamerica, which won the Director’s Award at the Venice Film Festival and the Felix Award for Best European Film in 1994, is an epoch-defining feature that confirmed the international reputation of Gianni Amelio. He had gained long-deserved recognition as one of Italy’s most accomplished contemporary directors in the early 1990s with the critically acclaimed Porte Aperte (Open Doors, 1990) and Il Ladro di Bambini (Stolen Children, 1992), the second of which, despite its blistering indictment of contemporary Italian society, scored an unexpected triumph at the box office. The success of these films prompted the producer Mario Cecchi Gori to allow Amelio complete artistic freedom in embarking on his next project, Lamerica, his most expensive and ambitious film to date. Shot entirely in Albania, the work further develops the devastating critique of contemporary Italy at the heart of Stolen Children, while inviting reflection on the importance of history and memory, the fragility of identity and the turbulence of globalisation.

Amelio’s inspiration for Lamerica was prompted by live television reports of the arrival, detention and deportation of thousands of Albanians in Italy’s South-Eastern region of Puglia in August 1991. Watching the images of destitute men and women who had undertaken the futile voyage across the Adriatic aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy ships, the director was reminded of the desperation that drove his own father and uncle, along with many other impoverished Italians, to emigrate to the Americas years before.

Soon afterward Amelio travelled to Albania with two screenwriters, Andrea Porporati and Alessandro Sermoneta, to explore ideas for a new film. He claims that his journey to Albania was motivated by a desire to find the Italy of the past, a country so poor that untold numbers of its inhabitants were obliged to seek a living elsewhere, and whose history had been forgotten by contemporary Italians. Obliquely invoking the memory of these forgotten forebears, the title of his film is a strategic misspelling of ‘L’America’ (the quasi-mythical promised land of the poor and dispossessed), in imitation of the improvised spelling found in letters written by semi-literate Italians who had emigrated to the New World many years before.

The images of contemporary migration offered by Lamerica had a striking topicality for Italian audiences at the time of its release. Italy had cast off its status as a nation of emigrants during the 1980s and, as a result of growing prosperity, had rapidly become host to hundreds of thousands of foreigners. It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the state began to issue legislation to cope with the new demographic realities. Yet nothing prepared Italy for the massive exodus from Albania, a country that had remained fiercely isolated until after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

In March 1991, several densely crowded ships arrived in the harbours of Puglia, carrying about 24,000 Albanians without passports or material resources. Despite some initial perplexity, the Italian authorities allowed them to stay. Though Albania’s government became increasingly aggressive in its effort to curb the flow of migration, other Albanian ships managed to make the crossing on 7 August, with almost 18,000 on board. On this occasion the immigration authorities, claiming that Italy lacked the resources to receive the new wave of arrivals, repatriated almost all of them within a few days.

Lamerica unfolds in Albania in the weeks preceding the journey of dilapidated ships carrying passengers whose dreams of making a new life in Italy were shattered upon their arrival in Puglia. Its powerful interweaving of fictional narrative and recent events, and its use of authentic locations and a supporting cast of non-professional actors prompted several reviewers to invoke the masters of Neo-realism. Lamerica undoubtedly depicts circumstances that are strongly reminiscent of scenes and settings from post-war cinema – devastated towns swarming with ragged children, the difficult quest for food, and the theft of shoes and tyres.

Despite the evocative power of these images, however, Amelio did not intend to emulate the aesthetic effects of Neo-realism. Unlike the post-war directors, he had at his disposal a large production budget, and chose to shoot the film in Panavision, with sweeping, wide-screen vistas more reminiscent of the American films he had admired as a youth than of those made by the Neo-realist filmmakers. Some of Amelio’s commentators, including Guido Aristarco, a prominent critic of the historical Left, denounced the ‘spectacular’ implications of this artistic choice, which was deemed inappropriate to the subject matter. The director has explained his choice of the anamorphic format, however, as a self-conscious attempt to announce his distance, not only from Neo-realism, but also from a first-hand experience of contemporary Albanian realities.

A similar attitude of self-reflexivity informs other instances of intertextual commentary within the film, as Amelio engages dialogically not only with Neo-realism but also with Fascist documentary filmmaking, contemporary Italian television and global media culture. Though Lamerica is generally discussed in terms of its realism, which demands the successful masking of the techniques of illusion, it should be noted that the film frequently draws attention to the constructedness of its own realistic effects through citation and other self-reflexive strategies, thus distancing itself from any claim of representing an unmediated reality.

Lamerica’s opening credit sequence pointedly incorporates a direct citation from Fascist cinema. As the credits roll on the right side of the screen, an Italian newsreel from 1939 is projected on the left, reporting the occupation of Albania by Italian military forces. Produced by the documentary wing of the state-controlled cinema, founded with the objective of bringing Fascist propaganda to the masses, the selected footage presents the arrival of the Italians as a benevolent, civilising intervention enthusiastically endorsed by cheering Albanian crowds. Amelio’s contemporary viewers, unlike those who first watched the newsreel, know that Mussolini made the decision to invade Albania, not out of any sense of benevolence towards the Albanians, but in order to prepare for the invasion of Greece, and can thus recognise this report as deceptive propaganda.

The screening of the newsreel as a preface to Amelio’s narrative, which presents two Italian businessmen arriving in Albania in 1991 to a similarly enthusiastic, if more informal welcome, suggests a parallel between the exploitative motives underlying the Italian invasion of 1939 and the self-interested ambition of the Italian entrepreneurs. At another, more self-reflexive level, however, the use of this footage provides an immediate demonstration of cinema’s capacity to manipulate and mythologise, thus calling into question the ‘truth’ of all cinematic representation, and implicitly problematising the perspective of Lamerica itself.

Set in the port of Durrës, the opening scene shows how, after almost fifty years of isolation (first under dictator Enver Hoxha and then his successor Ramiz Alia), the country has opened its doors to investors from abroad. Although a ban on foreign travel continues to prevail for Albanian citizens, hundreds of youths have gathered near the harbour in the hope of boarding a ship bound for Italy.

Amelio’s protagonist is Gino Cutrari (Enrico Lo Verso), a young Sicilian businessman who arrives in Durrës in the company of his older partner Fiore (Michele Placido) with the declared ambition of setting up a shoe factory. Though the two have no intention of producing shoes, they plan to use grants offered by the Italian government for the establishment of businesses in Albania, and must select an Albanian citizen as the titular president of their enterprise. Suspicious of the candidates recommended by their Albanian middleman, they search among the occupants of a recently liberated labour camp for a more malleable figurehead, and ultimately select Spiro Tozaj, a senile veteran of the camp (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli). Deranged enough to believe he is still twenty years old, the old man is nonetheless found capable of signing his name. He soon evades his would-be associates, however, leaving Tirana by train, and Gino is obliged to pursue him through the Albanian countryside.

After locating him, Gino discovers that the old man is really Michele Talarico, a Sicilian who deserted the army during the Fascist occupation and subsequently assumed an Albanian identity. Though Michele imagines he is returning to his wife and small son in Sicily, Gino manipulates him into accompanying him back to Tirana. When Gino’s jeep is stripped of its wheels in a remote outpost, the two men are obliged to continue their journey on a truck packed with Albanians attempting to emigrate to Italy. Arriving in Tirana, Gino discovers that his scam has been exposed, and he is arrested and jailed. Later, a police commissioner abruptly releases him, advising him to leave Albania without delay. Deprived of his jeep, clothing, money and passport, he arrives at the harbour, undistinguishable from the Albanians around him. Here he observes a young girl teaching a few simple Italian words to those waiting nearby, and he stops to listen to the language, as though hearing it for the first time.

Throughout Lamerica the director demonstrates remarkable economy of feeling, never conceding to sentimentality. This restraint serves to heighten the emotional impact of the film’s conclusion, a seven-minute sequence, which is set on a crowded Albanian ship en route to Italy and stages the unexpected reunion of Gino and Michele. The musical score by Franco Piersanti, used sparingly until now, dominates the scene, reinforcing the elegiac mood suggested by the narrative events. The instrumental theme that emerges in the film’s final minutes is a melancholy adaptation of the popular wartime polka Rosamunda (known as Roll Out the Barrel in English-speaking countries) which has been associated in previous scenes with Michele’s fragmented retrieval of a youthful Italian identity. When the melody returns at end of the film the tempo is slower, and the instrumental arrangement has a plaintive, yet imposing tone, investing the images of poverty and dispossession on the visual track with haunting dignity and power.

This essay features in The Cinema of Italy, edited by Giorgio Bertellini and published by Wallflower Press in their 24 Frames series (1–903364–83–3; £16.99). It is available at the special price of £12 for Vertigo readers (offer@wallflowerpress.co.uk)