Writing for a living is at once a curse and a blessing: a curse because, believe me, writer’s block is real and hits when you least expect it. A blessing because nothing can really beat sitting down with your thoughts, day in day out, writing them down on a piece of paper - if you like doing stuff the old fashioned way like me, that is - and mould them into perfect little gems to gift to those patient enough to read. Inspiration can come from anything and anywhere, really, a quick shiver through the heart, a flash-like sparkle of excitement behind the eyes.
That is exactly what happened to me only a couple of days ago while I was on one of my regular inspiration hunts for l’Italo Americano, and I came across a suggestive, beautifully written piece by Riccardo Giumelli, of La Voce di New York. La Dolce Vita, he says, the very idea of it, that created by Fellini in the 1950s and made of places, scents, tastes and images, is so powerful and unique, so representative, it should become part of UNESCO’s Intangible World Heritage. I found the idea so utterly realistic, I initially believed his piece was on an actual, new UNESCO candidature involving the locations, imagery and actual lifestyle made popular around the world by Fellini’s cinematographic effort.
Because let’s face it, Fellini’s movie is art, but also mirror to a way of being and living that was very real then, and that in many a way remains entrenched in the world imaginary about Italy still today. This is why, Giumelli concludes, it wouldn’t be so out of line to make it a world patrimony: when leaving aside the glitz and glamour of Via Veneto, it is simple to see how La Dolce Vita in its essence was - and still is - a lifestyle made of little luxuries and pleasures, but mostly of a way to handle life that I can best describe with the words of another Italian icon, Lorenzo de Medici, who once wrote “Chi vuol esser lieto sia, del doman non c’è certezza.” Be happy and enjoy, as tomorrow remains uncertain.
Be happy, and rejoice of the little niceties of life, like an aperitivo with friends, a good plate of amatriciana, the crisp scent of Alpine air, a glass of red. Rejoice of the beauty itself of being able to have and enjoy these things. Truly, the same feeling can be perceived in other movies of those years, very different in aesthetics and content, but equally imprinted on the idea small things are those making life worthy. My thought immediately goes to the Don Camillo films, based on Giovanni Guareschi’s novels: in them, Fernandel and Gino Cervi are, respectively, the parish priest and the communist mayor of a small Emilia Romagna village, Brescello, where opposite ideals are not enough to mask how the two, in fact, quite like each other. Here, too, there is a specific portrayal of Italy, only apparently different from that of La Dolce Vita, as you’ll find the same carefree attitude to the small obstacles of life, which was typical of the postwar period (the Don Camillo saga was written and filmed shortly after the end of the war), and the same attention to places, their role in people’s life, a knack to show their beauty on screen.
Both movies (actually, the Don Camillo series counts five instalments with the Fernandel-Cervi duo) bring together two aspects I feel are still very much part of the “Italian way of life” today, two features we luckily have inherited from our parents and grandparents: an already discussed penchant, more often than not, to face life with a healthy dose of light-heartedness, and the evident importance of our country in defining us not only as individuals, but also as artists.
Don’t get me wrong, having a carefree attitude to life is neither simple nor always justifiable, yet, there is something intrinsically true in the way, say, our grandparents would tackle existence. If you’re pushing 40 just like me, or are a bit older, chances are they were born during the First World War, were children or teenagers during the Great Depression and lived through the Second World Conflict: an immense amount of pain and trauma to go through within the first 30 or 40 years of their lives. Yet, think about it, the majority of that generation - regardless from where they are from, really - trooped through life with a smile on their face. I always think that’s because, in the end, they shook hand with tragedy and look it in the eye, which certainly made it somehow easier to put everything after that into perspective. Italians have remained curiously good at this and I’m quite proud of my people for it: the economy struggles, jobs don’t pay much, but we have Florence and Venice, the Alps and caponata di melanzane, our family and caffè e cornetto at 7.30 am on the way to work, so life can’t be all that bad.
And then, of course, there is our Bel Paese: with its inefficient bureaucracy and messy train stations, with its traffic and endless waiting lists. Yet, Italy is every Italian’s first love and, as such, it remains in our minds and hearts always and everywhere. No surprise, then, to see how much it makes its way into Italian cinema and art, becoming often a character within the narration, a safe familiar harbour, the embodiment of beauty. It’s this connection between lifestyle and love -albeit not without criticism, of course! - that could truly become UNESCO heritage, this deep union between living a happy life and taking some of that happiness from what our homeland offers us.
Problems are real. Problems are many. But with a smile on, a one dollar espresso in your hand, and 5 minutes to think about the small pleasures of life, we may even manage to rise above them more easily.