A Fistful of Focaccia

Juxtaposed against the story of the humble bread of Altamura, praised by Horace in the Satires and, as of 2003, protected by the European Union as DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta),[4] and the industrialized fare of a multinational conglomerate, is a whimsical fictional tale, reminiscent of Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, which champions the slowness over speed. A love triangle features two town natives, Dante Cappiello (Dante Marmone) and Rosa (Tiziana Schiavarelli, Marmone’s wife) and a tall, silent stranger Manuel (the director’s son Luca Cirasola) whose arrival in town, like that of a Western hero, suggests that a showdown is in the offing. Initially, Rosa is attracted to the handsome young stranger with his snazzy car and loud clothing in the same way that local residents were drawn to the air conditioning and novel food offered by McDonald’s. Yet Manuel’s disdain for the focaccia that Rosa so lovingly prepares leads her to embrace Dante, who has the utmost respect for the fruits and vegetables that he sells. In the end, the girl chooses the unassuming local guy in jeans and a flannel shirt; she rejects the debonair stranger for having discarded local tomatoes from her focaccia. In a send-up of an erotic encounter, Cirasola frames Rosa and Manual in a seemingly intimate moment. The camera ultimately demonstrates that food, not flesh, plays a critical role in this sensual experience when it reveals that Rosa has been kneading focaccia instead of making love to Manuel.

The film’s title signals the importance of color while underscoring the divide between Italy, land of the focaccia, and America, birthplace of the blues. In the plural, blues signifies both sadness and the music that sings of that sadness, a genre derived from African American spirituals of the deep south. Focaccia Blues underscores the transatlantic fascination for the quintessentially American musical expression.[5] 

Color also aids our understanding of the division between good guys and bad guys. In place of the white and black hats that distinguish good from evil in the American Western, Cirasola substitutes garish hues of blue, yellow, and red that are found in comic strips. In that same comic vein, the director inserts a hand-drawn map of the town of Altamura on which toy cars follow the action of his story. The underdog protagonist Dante drives a rickety blue three-wheeler, while Manuel, the American interloper in this lyrical Italian land, drives a flashy yellow Corvette while wearing a gaudy red jacket, which together form the color combination of McDonald’s signature golden arches. Manuel’s Chevy signals foreignness while Dante’s Piaggio exemplifies his native Italy. In this tale reminiscent of David and Goliath, of focaccia and the Big Mac, of Italy and the United States, the diminutive Ape or “bee” initially appears to be no match for the intimidating Corvette, whose name, according to Webster’s Dictionary, means “a warship ranking in the old sailing navies next below a frigate”. Like its driver, the muscle car fails to impress in the end when it breaks down. Together in the Ape, Dante and Rosa drive at a snail’s (or tortoise’s) pace past Manuel and his disabled Corvette.

A closer examination of this tale reveals the integral role of cinema in this tale of Italy and America. At the beginning of the narrative, we meet the protagonist Dante, who tells of his work as a greengrocer and of his passion for film. He loves the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables that he procures daily from local farmers. Dante explains his routine and his love for film in the same breath: “Prendo tutta roba bella fresca appena raccolta. Non vado mai al mercato generale perché proprio mi piace l’odore della terra. E poi, come passione mi piace il cinema.”

Even before Focaccia Blues begins, Michele Placido, in his cameo role of projectionist, reminiscences about movies. In a prefatory address to the viewer, the Apulian native and acclaimed Italian director and actor who has starred in many films including I tre fratelli (Rosi 1981), Lamerica (Amelio 1994), La sconosciuta (Tornatore 2006), and Il caimano (Moretti 2006), extols the virtues of film, the material and art form, as he inhales the aroma of the celluloid. This scent evokes his uncle’s cinema where, as a child, Placido’s character watched films and rooted for American bandits. The projectionist explains how movies help us understand life. He also tells of his appreciation of Focaccia Blues, the appetite or “gusto” for which reminds him of a pizza. Describing the story as “una piccola grande battaglia”, of a small focacceria against the “colosso” McDonald’s, Placido asserts that Cirasola’s film resurrects the flavors of his youth, which unfortunately no longer exist. Food analogies continue as the camera cuts to the canisters that encase the film, called “pizze” in Italian on account of their shape. Placido shows his appreciation for the good things in life while displaying a pizza: “Abbiamo già tutto quello che ci serve per vivere meglio. Basta sceglierlo.” Placido’s nostalgia for these old-fashioned cases and the reels they contain has become even more compelling in recent years. As of January 2014 films in Italy are transferred solely in digital format rendering the “pizze” extinct. Paolo Sorrentino’s 2014 Oscar-winning La grande bellezza is one of the last examples of celluloid filmmaking. These pizzas evoke another comestible – the focaccia of the title – in this contemplation of local versus global, independent film versus international blockbuster, handmade artistry versus industrial production.

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Bildnachweis: Mulberry Street (ca. 1900), Library of Congress (cc), https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8e/NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg/1200px-NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg