A Fistful of Focaccia

In addition to Placido, Focaccia Blues features several media icons from Puglia who call attention to the self-referential nature of this film while underscoring its southern roots. Famous television and film personalities Renzo Arbore (born in Foggia) and Lino Banfi (born Pasquale Zagaria in Andria) act out another more playful battle between the cuisines and reputations of two Apulian towns, Foggia and Bari. The humorous fictional television segments (a sort of ‘telecucina’) indicate deep pride in local delicacies such as the Cardoncello mushrooms for which Bari is famous and the Lampascioni onions of Foggia.[6] The comic rivalry between Arbore and Banfi highlights the film’s insistence on regional products and cuisine. Their exchanges also connect this gastronomic war to the United States through references to Afro-American music: Banfi declares that the Bari figures prominently in “No Bari no the trouble I’ve seen”, a deliberate mistranslation of the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” while Arbore retorts that Ray Charles speaks of Foggia in his song “Foggia on My Mind” (“Georgia on My Mind”). These soulful citations resonate with the blues of the title.

A cameo appearance by Bari native Nichi Vendola, LGBT activist and President of Puglia since 2005, in the role of a theater owner underscores the sorry state of Italian cinema. In a diatribe similar to Nanni Moretti’s critique of the pathetic quality and number of films screened during Roman summers in the first chapter of his film Caro diario (1993), Vendola explains to Dante that unless a film includes scenes of horror or porn, it will not be a commercial success. When he announces that “Il cinema è esaurito” he does not mean that his small theater is sold out, but rather that Italian cinema is in decline. He also tells Dante that audiences at the multiplex (which Dante mistakenly refers to as Plexiglas) disrespect the films they have supposedly come to watch as they play, eat, and talk on their cell phones. Dante brings the conversation back to food when he suggests that Vendola might offer local delicacies such as tomatoes, bread, braciole, olives, artichokes, and Negroamaro wine in the theater lobby. Vendola’ssmall, independent cinema obviously cannot survive with a handful of paying customers. The multi-screen theater complexes, which show mostly American blockbusters, threaten the very existence of such intimate venues. The pair reminisces about earlier, headier days of Italian cinema that produced comic successes such as Totò e i re di Roma (Monicelli 1951) or Totò a colori (Steno 1952), which Dante confuses with William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), itself a remake of an earlier American production (1925), filmed mostly in Italy and directed by Niblo and Brabin, with Ramon Novarro in the title role. Films featuring Totò were part of a golden age of Italian comedy, before the advent of multiplexes, which, like fast food restaurants, imperil more traditional establishments in Italy.

In Focaccia Blues, the confrontation between good guys (Dante, the local inhabitant) and bad guys (Manuel, the embodiment of McDonald’s) reminds us of the Western, that quintessential American genre of film. Cinematographer Rocco Marra’s shots of the golden fields outside the town of Altamura, which recall the vast plains of the western United States, reinforce that connection. The Western, predicated on the notion of the West as both a direction and a destination, has captivated writers and filmmakers as an expression of imperialist and pastoral yearnings. And the Western was inextricably linked to the quest for expansion in the United States and the policy of manifest destiny, with its narratives of justice and revenge. In the 1960s, Italian directors such as Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci manipulated the classical version of the Western genre that showcased the pursuit of civilization as the driving force behind American frontier life, pushing societal mores onward into uncharted lands. The Italian-style western or western all’italiana articulated a strikingly new interpretation of the American genre; the qualifier “spaghetti” was coined by critics in the United States to show their distaste for the European appropriation of the typical American story that featured cowboys in dusters with six-shooters on their hips, sheriffs with badges on their chests, and outlaws in black hats trying unsuccessfully to get away with evil deeds. Filmed mostly in Spain as well as in various locations in central and southern Italy, the Italian version of the Western sought to critique American expansionism in the far West, and even farther West in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Despite American critics’ attempts to disparage these films as mere “macaroni”, the new subgenre of the Western, which highlighted the brutality, violence and evil associated with civilization, took hold. One of the classic examples of the genre, Leone’s C’era una volta il West/Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), exposes the deleterious effects of progress as it recounts the bloodshed and mayhem that ensue when a rapacious railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) and his henchmen (including Frank, played by Henry Fonda in his first role as a bad guy) use violence to seize Brett McBain’s (Frank Wolff) ranch in order to control the water supply that is needed for the steam engine that will ultimately pass through Sweetwater on its way to the Pacific.[7]

Cirasola’s film addresses ideological differences by re-imagining history through a variation of the genre (the Western) that is linked inextricably to America. It is precisely Leone’s spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West that plays in the background when Rosa first beholds Manuel at Dante’s fruit stand. Various characters from Leone’s filmappear on a small black and white television as Dante helps the object of his affection select produce. Western-themed music accompanies Manuel’s arrival outside Dante’s shop; this melody evokes Leone’s character whose instrument, the harmonica, is his name. And although Leone’s hero Harmonica (played by Charles Bronson, who, like Fonda, was cast against type) does not appear in any of the scenes on television, the inclusion of a similarly haunting leitmotif signals his presence. Parallels and divergences emerge between Harmonica, who is bent on extracting revenge from Frank for having forced him to take part in his own brother’s hanging, and Manuel, an arrogant modern-day interloper in a Corvette who disrespects local specialties such as focaccia. Both Harmonica and Manuel are mostly, if not totally, silent. Leone’s hero, according to his buddy Cheyenne (Jason Robards) plays instead of talking, and Cirasola’s anti-hero never speaks. Both men encounter gorgeous, voluptuous women (Jill/Claudia Cardinale and Rosa/Tiziana Schiavarelli) only to leave them in the end.

The Western genre, like American fast food, has influenced culture all over the world. In Focaccia Blues we are meant to ponder the possible permutations of heroes and villains in this duel between artisanal bread and mass-produced fare. Following Michele Placido’s cameo appearance, Focaccia Blues opens in the United States, with Puglia native and journalist Onofrio Pepe proclaiming his determination to introduce Americans to Altamura’s focaccia. The documentary segment of the film follows the westward direction of this ‘civilizing’ movement, in which the old world educates the new world in the way of food. Yet the fictional love story shifts direction as a mysterious stranger arrives in Italy from the United States in his foreign car and outfit imitating the trajectory of McDonald’s. Cirasola’s comic love story recounts a new permutation of migration, from new world to old world, west to east. Just as the spaghetti western critiqued American imperialist expansionism, which resulted in the dislocation of native peoples, both at home and abroad in Southeast Asia, Cirasola’s tale of geography as culinary destiny criticizes the invasion of his native Puglia by American fast food. Manuel’s name, embroidered on his shirt, resonates with the culture of the southwest of the United States (or Mexico), suggesting perhaps that he is Latino. The selection of a Spanish name recalls an earlier linguistic misnomer given to Italian immigrants in the United States. They were called “dagos”, a pejorative nickname derived from the Spanish name Diego.[8] When Manuel heads east from the United States to Italy, reversing the traditional path which immigrants took a century ago, he dislikes what he finds. The bad guy leaves town empty handed, rejecting both the bread and the woman.

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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