Abel Ferrara‘s latest film is a kaleidoscope of impressions that narrates the life of immigrants in Italy and their shared experience of desperation and an uncertain future in Europe.
While documentary film directors usually strive to make movies that follow a classical film structure, many filmmakers working within the fictional genre seem to think that making a documentary consists of putting together random impressions on a certain topic. At least that is my feeling after viewing Ferrara’s documentary of Rome’s largest city square, Piazza Vittorio. This kaleidoscope lacks a beginning, middle and an end or even a clear opinion, yet the film is thought provoking and intelligent. The film is not only a tribute to this neighbourhood of Rome, which in itself is an international melting pot in the city, but also to all the hardworking, migrant people of the world.
From an immigrant’s perspective
Willem Dafoe – apparently also a fresh immigrant to these quarters – comments: «I am always amazed, just like in New York, that everyone is not waking up and just killing each other… I think it is because of the extreme generosity of this neighbourhood and the Italians.» This is definitely an impression I am left with after watching the film. Clearly there must be something particular about the Italian culture that encourages people to embrace the refugees in such a humane manner, but at the same time I wonder whether their hospitality hasn’t reached a saturation point.
«Ferrara is trying to tell us that misfortune can strike us all and human migration is as old as human kind.»
In the opening scene of Piazza Vittorio an old woman shouts: «What filthy scum has come to ruin Italy? Close the borders to the scum!» She is obviously very upset after just being pickpocketed. There must be a reason why Abel Ferrara chooses to open his film with this outcry. It is perhaps in this scene that we can detect the main message of his film.
In the next scene we see a refugee searching through a purse while other paperless men are goofing around, spending yet another aimless day in the park. Refugees from Afghanistan say they used to have a better life, while others from Nigeria are thankful for the soup lines and other services provided by the Italians. Their testimonies carry a shared experience of desperation over their uncertain future. Ferrara grabs his chance to put his own sense of displacement up against theirs: «I have lived here two years. I am also an immigrant. I am not a journalist, I am a filmmaker and that is a big difference. I need a job, yeah, I need a job.» In this way Ferrara feels somehow connected to the immigrants – he himself moved to Rome recently where he finds it easier to finance his films after dropping out of Hollywood circles.
In the opening scene of Piazza Vittorio an old woman shouts: «What filthy scum has come to ruin Italy? Close the borders to the scum!»
Having directed films such as Bad Lieutenant (1992), King of New York (1990) and recently Pasolini (2014), Ferrara clearly has an eye for filmmaking and makes engaging observations. Unfortunately there seem to be no limits to his mosaic of impressions. You can, however, detect many Neo-Marxists statements that seem to hit the point: «We are all gamblers in this speculative world and at the same time we are victims of the mechanisms we have created,» is just one of them. Clearly the situation is getting harder for most people who are below the upper class of the society. The competition is getting tougher as the jobs, which traditionally were reserved for immigrants, are now being taken over by Italians themselves.
Do Re Mi
By repeating the great Dust Bowl ballad of Woody Guthrie «Do Re Mi» throughout the film, Ferrara makes a parallel to the Great Depression of the 1930s in the USA. However, most viewers will not make this connection unless they are very well acquainted with American history. This song refers to a time when Americans themselves were refugees in their own country. A great ecological disaster due to extensive agriculture forced hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken families to abandon their farms and migrate. At the California borders they were stopped by a police line, and the bulletin boards read «Go back! We ain’t got enough jobs for our own men!» Citizens of California made a clear distinction between themselves and the farmers of Oklahoma and felt that it was their right to close the state borders. Most probably Ferrara is trying to tell us that misfortune can strike us all, and human migration is as old as human kind.
My favourite scene in the film is of the hustle and bustle of the food market. Between the fish stand and the butcher, the camera suddenly notices a little crab making a run for it. In close-up, the camera follows the crab as it runs over the floor aiming for the streets of Rome. This scene grabbed me deeply. Obviously the desire to survive is universal and we will always make a run for it if we have a chance to do so. And perhaps at the same time we are dreaming of something more than just survival.