Allora: Some Ideas on Italy in Masters of None

Master of None Season 2

I always say “allora”, Dev’s (Aziz Ansari’s alter ego) favorite word in the second season of Masters of None. I use it in my English conversations each time I am about to explain something to someone. In my case, however, it is not really a favorite. Not something I am proud of. It is more an expression that my parents and teachers wanted me to avoid since first grade: “Giuseppe! Stop saying “allora” all the time!” Nonetheless, it’s still here with me. To the point that usually, after about twenty minutes in a first day of class, my students are forced to ask me what it means, for the many times I have already used it. I liked hearing Mr. Ansari pronouncing it in that funny way. And I watched with awe and joy the Italian episodes of Masters of None. The idea of selecting a non-famous touristic destination as the setting of Dev’s life in the Bel Paese; the incredible (sometimes even excessive) homage to Italian Cinema and Neorealism; and the portrait of a generation of young Italians as “citizens of the world”, with their almost impeccable English and an elegant, positive, sympathetic way of looking at life (think about how they laugh at Dev’s idea of “me time” in the first episodes). All these things pointed towards a seemingly positive effort that Mr. Ansari’s was making in going beyond a stereotypical image of Italy. But does he really do that in the end?

At the beginning, I was falling for it. But then I just needed to see him back in New York City to realize that, no matter how beautiful and intensely unique his representation of Italy and Italians was, it still left me with a bitter taste, the feeling of a lost occasion. Because what Ansari can do so masterfully in his show (describing New York City’s complexity of characters, reflecting poetically on life in the Tinder Age, fighting the “whitewashing” of American mainstream culture, and offering the perspective of immigrant families to the rest of the world, among many other things) is completely lost in his representation of Italy.

I say this because once I decided to peek beyond the cinematographic references, the pasta eating and making, the wonderful piazzas, the hills of Tuscany and the comical sketches in narrow alleys, I saw a blank page. And now, after a couple of days of watching the show (I am only at episode 5), I really wish that somebody had filled that page with something else. With what, you might ask. Well, with the complexity of characters, and the many layers of life in Italy; with the many immigrants that live everywhere in Italy and whose voice is always silenced; with Italians who not only like sauce and export tiles or wine, but publish great literature (beyond Elena Ferrante), produce incredible electronica (Populous and Clap! Clap!), and still make great cinema (beyond Neorealism and Paolo Sorrentino). Even Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, the perfect symbol of an Italy that transcends tradition, climbing new peaks of creativity and innovation, is not properly “narrated”, as, I believe, it just comes out as any other Italian restaurant in the show. At a closer look, aside from Francesca, no other Italian character is developed, and in other situations that could have totally felt like some form of cultural appropriation and silencing.

One of the problems of contemporary Italy is that in a globalized world, somebody (too many!) decided to make a postcard out of it. And this has been happening for about fifty years or more. Italians conveniently enjoyed the comfort of that postcard and now struggle (as they always did) in finding an identity that goes beyond a list of stereotypes that have been always used to describe them.

Mr. Ansari seems to have the intention of ripping the postcard apart, but surprisingly designs a new one, leaving me, an Italian who spent most of his life trying to escape those postcards, trapped in them again. Let me make this clear: I don’t think Aziz Ansari is at fault of anything. I don’t think it was his job or his responsibility to save Italy from its stereotypes. Ultimately, I think that Master of None is a masterpiece that we should all look at as a model that is part of a new tradition of American film making (we can include Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham in this tradition) that is and is going to be influential for a long period of time.

No. I am not accusing Mr. Ansari of anything, and, to be completely honest, I don’t really know who to blame. Maybe I am mad at the “disneyzation” of the world (from which no one is immune), or maybe, again, we Italians enjoy being put in a postcard. Or there is a major effort that we Italians need to make to forget our traditions or look at them from thousands of miles away, in order to reinvent ourselves and our country. I just know that, to escape this other postcard, I had to go back to Nanni Moretti’s 1980s movies, like Bianca (I wonder if Ansari and Dunham ever watched them, given the striking similarities) or to that scene in Io sono un autarchico when Moretti vomits green blob as he learns that Lina Wertmuller is seen as a true representative of Italian cinema in the US (here is the video). And I’ll always walk around the world with Massimo Troisi in my heart, who, in Ricomincio da Tre, constantly had to re-assert his status of a Neapolitan who did not consider himself an immigrant, and had to convince the world around him that yes, he was Neapolitan, but he did not really need to migrate, it’s just that he really wanted to see the world. Again, trying to escape a stereotype that had been imposed on him.

The Summer of Frank

This is the cover of Zappa’s The Man from Utopia. This cover was drawn by the Italian comics artist Tanino Liberatore. It is collage of all the things that happened to Frank Zappa during his Italian tour. On the backcover there are scenes from the Palermo concert.

The short but intense documentary 1982. L’estate di Frank (1982. The Summer of Frank) by Silvio Cuccia, offers a triple perspective on the idea of belonging and identity. Cuccia was in the army when Frank Zappa toured Italy in 1982, and he decided to travel with his father all the way from Pordenone (North) to Palermo (South), his hometown, for Zappa’s last concert of the tour. But he could never reach the capital of Sicily in time for the show and a couple of months later his father would die and his life would change forever. The movie is, in some way, the attempt of reconnecting with something lost.

Massimo Bassoli, a journalist, instead, in the summer of 1982, as a dear friend of Frank Zappa, would be the one to assist the Italian-American rockstar/composer throughout the entire tour. Bassoli is the protagonist of Cuccia’s movie, by being the one to narrate a story of the past that will leave a mark in Italy’s music and social history, and in particular in the city of Palermo. Unfortunately, indeed, Zappa’s concert in Palermo will be mostly remembered for the riots that accompanied it. The concert was held in a stadium and the stage was positioned at the center of this stadium. The audience was sitting very far away from the stage and, therefore, when the concert started, many began to move towards the center of the stadium. It was at this point that the police attacked and the riot started. That concert only lasted about 20 minutes.
But apart from the bad events that characterized that concert, there was something else very different happening in those days: before the show, Bassoli took Frank Zappa in his father’s hometown, Partinico. In the movie, the journalist recalls that day in all its details, but Zappa’s visit to Partinico was very short. Maybe the times were different, and even if Zappa always felt a strong connection with Italy, it seems that this short trip was not a big deal for the musician. I am saying this, because it seems that he never talked about it to his children. And here comes the third perspective.The third perspective is that of Dweezil and Dana Zappa, brother and sister, Frank’s children, who decide to follow, through Bassoli’s help, their father’s route and visit Partinico. They are those who manage to “complete” the journey, by even finally meeting part of their Sicilian family. At the end of their trip Dana and Dweezil will receive the honorary citizenship from the mayor of Partinico, and are touched by the plans that the town has in order to maintain Zappa’s legacy alive.

The most interesting part of the documentary is the encounter of Dweezil and Dana with a different culture, which is, at the same time, part of their own identity. Their feelings are very similar to those of millions of Italian-American girls and boys who desire to get in contact with their heritage, their past, their deep identity.

You can watch the documentary on You Tube. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENYR4LkiYCg