beautiful but bleak
SXSW premier preview: Italy Love it or Leave It offers a nuanced portrait of theduality of contemporary Italy
To Americans who primarily know Italy as a tourist destination, the country's recent dour economic headlines — not to mention the scandals of its former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi — have been a window into its ludicrous political landscape. Add to this an already high unemployment rate further exacerbated by companies moving jobs abroad, and the outlook for young Italians is bleak. In fact, many of them are leaving Italy for other European countries.
In the SXSW documentary Italy: Love it or Leave it, Italian filmmaker couple Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi documented their own struggle with the question of whether to stay or go.
When the pair was evicted from their Rome apartment, Hofer saw it as the perfect opportunity to make a break for Berlin, but Ragazzi — ever the obstinate lover of Italy — preferred to remain. When Ragazzi's protestations (But espresso! But Sofia Loren! But the Roman aqueducts!) proved futile, he convinced Hofer instead to do a six-month cross-country tour examining contemporary Italy and its foibles.
Ragazzi's hope, of course, was that they'd fall back in love with their country and remain in it.
Scuttling about in a classic Fiat 500, they eschew tourist cities for those lesser known to Americans. Among their stops are the industrial north, the coastal resort of Rimini, a garbage-ridden Naples and mafia-plagued Sicily (yes, still).
At each destination, they meet with experts fighting for the good of their country — from factory workers to writers to environmental activists to local politicians — continually plying interviewees with the same questions: Why stay? And, what can you change?
Despite being in the pro-Italy camp, Ragazzi thoroughly explores the case for departure. The pair visit a Berlusconi rally where supporters viciously defend the former prime minister (and sing disturbingly propagandist ditties), and they later talk with a Sicilian farmer who is his town's lone holdout against the local mafia, despite having had several of his trucks lit on fire and been ostracized from friends and family. Then there's the environmental concerns. Much of Italy's industrial waste, produced in the north, is disposed of in the south where a great deal of the country's food is grown.
The filmmakers don't dwell on it, but they make a poignant point about Italy's homophobia as well. Over images of Hofer and Ragazzi folding their sheets together, audiences hear audio from a political rally denouncing equal rights for gay families. The frame is heartbreaking and effective: why exactly should they fight to stay in a place where other citizens cheer their inequality?
The trip isn't just personal, though. One of the most effective devices in this documentary is how its protagonists weave in brutal statistics conversationally. We learn that one in four Italians lives on the povery line and a third of Italy's sewage flows into its lakes and rivers, but Hofer and Ragazzi never let the numbers sound pedantic.
The cultural touchstones that Ragazzi cites may not be reason enough to stay, but the fact other people are working for change certainly offers hope. They meet with filmmaker Lorella Zanardo, a leader in a feminist blog movement that convinced companies to pull sexist ads off the air. Then there's the immensely popular, openly gay governor of Apulia, Nichi Vendola, who many anticipate may give Berlusconi's party a strong opposition candidate in the 2013 election.
Playing the skeptic and the lover, Gustav and Luca's opposing viewpoints offer a natural tension to the film, providing personal stakes that are so easy to forget in a documentary. They bicker about everything from traffic rules to their possible international move, and yet their arguing is oddly charming. Maybe it's their Italian gallows humor. Throughout, their arguments illustrate the country's duality: beautiful but bleak, spectacularly creative yet horrifically so.
Perhaps I'm biased (half my extended family lives in Italy), but I can't help but root for Hofer and Ragazzi to stay in Rome. Italy Love It or Leave It shows them to be talented, convincing storytellers, the kind Italy clearly needs right now.
Italy Love it or Leave it screens at the Alamo Ritz 2 as part of SXSW Global on: Saturday, March 10 at 11:30 a.m.; Monday, March 12 at 1:15 p.m.; Wednesday, March 14 at 11:30 a.m. This marks its North American premiere.