A Fistful of Focaccia

Whereas the traditional way of preparing film “pizze” (film canisters) is no longer viable due to technological advances, the western all’italiana (spaghetti western) continues to inform the history of exchange between the cultures of Italy and America. Consider Quentin Tarantino’s admiration for another master of the genre, Sergio Corbucci. In ways both obvious and subtle, Tarantino’s latest Oscar-winning film, Django Unchained (2012) revisits Corbucci’s Django (1966). For example, Franco Nero, who played Django in the Italian original, meets the new Django (Jamie Foxx) at Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo di Caprio) ranch. When Foxx’s character introduces himself to Amerigo Vessepi (whose name, in typical Tarantino fashion, is a playful interpretation of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer whose name graces North and South America), he tells him that the “D” is silent in Django. To that, the Italian owner of a mandingo (fighting slave) responds “I know”. And well he should know since the actor Nero inhabited that very same role almost fifty years earlier. In an interview with Charles McGrath in the New York Times, Tarantino acknowledged the importance of spaghetti westerns on his oeuvre, including his most recent film:

I’ve always been influenced by the spaghetti western. I used to describe ‘Pulp Fiction’ as a rock n’ roll spaghetti western with the surf music standing in for Ennio Morricone. I don’t know if ‘Django’ is a western proper. It’s a southern. I’m playing western stories in the genre, but with a southern backdrop. (McGrath 2012: 18-20) [9]

How do we define Focaccia Blues, with its combination of documentary and fiction? There are no neat parallels between this work and “slow cinema”, a form of art film seen in the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, as well as in Michelangelo Frammartino’s more recent film set in Calabria, Le quattro volte (2010), which focus more on image and design than character and story. Also referred to as “contemplative cinema”, this method of filmmaking privileges long takes with little or no narrative. As Elsaesser indicates, cinematic slowness, however represented, may be interpreted as an act of organized resistance in the same way that the Slow Food movement reacts against the velocity of food production and all its attendant problems. He asserts that slow cinema:

counters the blockbuster’s over-investment in action, spectacle and violence with long takes, quiet observation, an attention to detail, to inner stirrings rather than to outward restlessness, highlighting the deliberate or hesitant gesture, rather than the protagonist’s drive or determination – reminding one, however remotely, of the ‘go-slow’ of industrial protest, but also the ‘organic’ pace of the vegetal realm. (Elsaesser 2011: 117)

Whereas Cirasola’s film certainly champions slowness, and it allows the viewer to contemplate the filmmaker’s native land in the long shots of the countryside, its considerable narrative disqualifies it from this particular categorization.

Focaccia Blues differs from the mockumentary, which contains fictional content in a documentary form, and from the docudrama, which contains documentary content in a fictional form. According to Lipkin et al. both of those hybrid forms have sensitized popular audiences to the aesthetics and form of integrated genres. Indeed, Focaccia Blues consciously vacillates between authenticity (documentary material) and hyperbole (fictional love story). Cirasola’s film, by combining fact and fiction, transcends both as it stirs viewers to gastronomic consciousness in what Lipkin et al. describe as the power of such hybrid models: “Adding popular reach to formal grasp as they do enables some films and programs, at certain times, to punch significantly above their apparent weight” (Lipkin et al. 2006: 11-26). Yet perhaps the most appropriate designation for Focaccia Blues is docufiction, a term coined by Rhodes and Springer (2006: 5), in that this film synthesizes fact and fiction through the dramatic tale that illustrates, in albeit exaggerated fashion, an actual event.

The distinct regionalism that informs this docufiction must be considered as well. Both the director and the co-screenwriter/producer Alessandro Contessa hail from Puglia; Cirasola was born in Gravina in Puglia, in the province of Bari, and Contessa was born in Francavilla Fontana, in the province of Brindisi. Cirasola’s earlier films are set in Puglia; for example Albania Blues (2000) and Bell’epoker (2003) focus on stories relevant to that region, that of Albanian boatpeople and of an elegant and storied community theater respectively. With funding from the Apulia Film Commission, the region of Puglia, the town of Altamura, the province of Bari, and the association “Amici del Fungo Cardoncello”, Focaccia Blues illustrates the emerging trend of regional over national cinema. As Ravazzoli (2014: 167) points out, the strengthening of regional film production occurs at the expense of a unified national Italian cinema. Such disparate, regionally accented production has positive as well as negative results. While this relatively new phenomenon undermines the commonality of meaning and image in the national cinema, it allows local constituencies to create new meanings, images, and representations according to Ravazzoli.[10]

Whereas some critics may contend that the insular nature of regional production, which has increased exponentially in recent years as Ravazzoli documents,[11] may result in a provincial perspective, this hybrid film appears to challenge viewers with its creative vacillation between documentary and fiction. What Muscio identifies as “an interesting dialectic between cultural traditions and innovative style” (Muscio 2008: 177-194) in Sicilian filmmaking applies to Focaccia Blues insofar as the film, which champions traditional ways of life, tells the story in an unconventional and hybrid format.

Cirasola’s film portrays an Italian triumph of focaccia and spaghetti western, of food and cinema. It also affirms the power of small films such as Focaccia Blues, which was produced on a relatively slim budget (approximately 350,000 Euros) and had limited distribution (it has yet to be shown in commercial theaters in the United States). With only a few copies in print at the time of its debut, the film remained in cinemas for almost a year and won special mention in three award categories, Nastro d’argento (2009), Ciak d’oro (2009), and Globo d’oro (2010). Focaccia Blues illustrates how tradition, combined with novel ideas, prevails. The film’s director and his protagonist Dante, like his illustrious 14th century namesake, continue that legacy of innovation within convention today.

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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