Millicent Marcus: Cineaste, Polymath, Cognoscenti of Italian Culture

Professor Millicent Marcus GRD ’74 is a professor in the Yale Italian department, who focuses on Italian culture through literature, history and film. She is also the curator of the 7th Italian Film Festival, which is running from March 29th – April 1st at the Whitney Humanities Center. WEEKEND sat down with Prof. Marcus to discuss the upcoming festival, Italian film, and the importance of local roots.

Q. As a brief introduction, what does the Italian Film Festival hope to accomplish?

A. Ever since the death of the great Italian filmmakers — the ones who were so well known, like Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti — there’s this impression that Italian cinema is not producing anything worthwhile, and that impression is wrong. Our festival is a way of countering that view. It’s our goal to bring new Italian films, many of which are not distributed internationally, to the Yale community and to the greater New Haven community.

Q. This year’s festival is titled “New Films with a Regional Accent.” Why is there an emphasis on regional accents?

A. We have noticed in recent years that the greatest impetus in new Italian filmmaking is local and regional, and that is where the excitement is being generated. Interestingly, most of the films that we gathered for this festival are from the south of Italy. We’ve shown regional films in the past from the North and Central regions, but this particular grouping is focused on the South.

Q. Apart from the linguistic significance, is there a narrative difference in regional films?

A. I’m not sure it’s a narrative difference, but I think it’s expressing a tendency in Italian culture to return to local roots and a local sense of identity. It could be a reaction against globalization and Europeanization, and a desire to reaffirm ancestral roots and local cultures. Not in the sense of right-wing refusal, though — it’s really a progressive sense. If you have a firm rooting in the local and regional, that rooting can then open you up to larger realms of identity.

Q. You mentioned that Italian films are a source of identity. Is the film festival significant to the Italian-American community in New Haven?

A. I would certainly like to think so. We’ve been reaching out to them. Over these seven years I think the word has gotten out, and this is an event the community really looks forward to every spring.

Q. From a film perspective, what makes Italian films distinct from American or other European cinema?

A. The postwar Italian cinema grew out of a movement called neo-realism. Neo-realism, which began right after World War II, was an attempt to return to the reality of Italian life. It attempted to awaken the war-torn nation that had just emerged from 20 years of fascism and blindness to the reality of social injustice. The idea was to just take the camera and go out into the streets, the factories, the fields, and film things as they are.

Neo-realism had a huge effect on international cinema, and on the way Italy would be seen through international eyes. So you get cinema which is anti-spectacular, which feels home-made, which uses non-professional actors to a large extent and which is often low-budget. I feel that these new regional films are very in line with that tradition.

Q. You mentioned the great Italian filmmakers: Fellini, Visconti, etc. What was their tradition?

A. Visconti was one of the first neo-realists. He begins with a very austere truth-telling mode, but he later moved into grand spectacle, with wonderful results.

Q. Actually, I think I’ve seen an Italian film in that style: “Death in Venice.”

A. That’s Visconti! 1971. Yes, so you see how glorious his filmmaking mode became: very spectacular, with gorgeous décor, lush costumes and a fantastic musical score. Visconti evolved very far from his roots as a neo-realist.

Q. Are modern Italian films, like the ones that will be showing at the festival this weekend, closer to neo-realism or to spectacle?

A. I think that they’re hybrid films. They return to the regional, and to the sense of authenticity we get in local culture, but several of them are comic films, and that’s a whole separate tradition in Italy. Others have very serious social commentary, and that goes right back to the neo-realist tradition.

Q. Could you introduce us a little to the films that you’ll be showing this weekend?

A. Sure. Thursday night’s film takes place in Rome. The title is “Scialla,” which is Roman dialect for “take it easy.” It’s the coming-of-age story of a young man who speaks with a strong Roman accent. He discovers his father, who is a washed-up professor, and who speaks perfect standard Italian. It’s a comic film, with many touching moments.

The Friday film, “Benvenuti al Sud,” is absolutely hilarious. It’s a spoof of the mutual stereotypes that pit Northern Italy against Southern Italy. It exploits stereotypes, it critiques stereotypes, and is altogether a wise and entertaining film.

The Saturday film, “Terra Firma,” is much more serious. It’s the story of a woman and her children, who immigrate from Northern Africa to a little island south of Sicily, and deals with the collision between cultures.

On Sunday, we have a matinee. At 1:30 p.m. we have “Basilicata Coast to Coast,” a story about a group of musicians who decide to go on foot to a music festival. That means walking across the narrowest part of the boot of Italy, which is the experience of a lifetime.

“Focaccia Blues,” playing Sunday at 4:00 p.m., is a mockumentary about a true episode that occurred in a little town in the south, famous for “focaccia,” a kind of bread, which has to stand up to a McDonald’s that moves into town.

Q. Globalization?

A. Exactly. And I won’t give away what happens. It’s absolutely delightful.

Q. How are the films chosen?

A. I have a committee of graduate students, and we screen a lot of films together, and we vote. This year it was difficult because we had a theme. In previous years we’ve been more open. This year we really wanted to focus on regionalism, so that narrowed the pool of films we could choose from. But I think we managed to come up with a great selection.

Comments

  • godard

    prof. marcus, i think you are the strongest english-speaking scholar of italian cinema we have, but it’s time to embrace the fact that neorealism began during WW2, with visconti’s *ossessione* released in 1943.