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.


A supposedly not-fun thing that I should do more often

In 1973, the year oDancing on the beachf cholera, the sea surrounding the cities of Torre Annunziata and Torre del Greco, in the Gulf of Naples, was officially declared highly polluted, and therefore bathing was prohibited.
It remained prohibited for forty years, until a little bit more than a month ago when, on June 21st 2013, the mayor of Torre Annunziata has received a communication from the local Health Admistration Office, stating that it was now possible to bathe again in that sea. The communication arrived after the Arpac, the Campania Regional Agency for Environmental Protection, had run a series of tests in the waters of that sea, and found out that the levels of pollution were fairly below any risk.

Therefore “tutti al mare!”, “let’s all go to the beach”, as an old Roman song sung by Gabriella Ferri in 1973 (coincidently enough) would say.
Growing up I learned that going to the beach in Torre (whether it was Torre Annunziata or Torre del Greco) was synonymous of going to a very trashy place, both because of the environment and because of the people who would usually go there. And it could be used in a conversation either to make fun of somebody (“What a face! Where did you go to the beach? To Torre?!?!”) or to say something fun (if you are with a group of people and you suddenly say: “Let’s go to Torre tomorrow!”, everybody would laugh).

It’s in this cultural scenario that me and two friends decided to go to Torre Annunziata last Sunday, in order to spend the day at the beach.
In the 1960s, Torre Annunziata was a very popular beach. People would come from all over the region to get access to its dark volcanic sand and take advantage of the healthy properties of its mud baths. My grandparents used to go there, and always had good memories.
But with the cholera and the pollution, this golden age quickly faded, and what remained was just a bad name. I don’t know exactly where this bad reputation came from, but it definitely had to do with the organized crime that spread in the area during the 1980s. It is, in reality, a city with a rich history, one of the most important port areas of Italy and Europe.

We decide to go to the Lido Azzurro, one of the most important “lidi” on the shore, but once there we opt for the Lido Nettuno, beside the Lido Azzurro.
A Lido is a section of a beach that is privately managed by a company that provides various facilities (mainly beacBeach Umbrellah umbrellas and chairs) to those who want to stay in that part of the beach.
We could quickly notice that the Lido Nettuno is very old and probably it never was renovated. Our beach umbrella has holes in it (maybe for the wind?) and the beach is not really well maintained.
But most of all, as soon as we get there, we understand that we have been in some way trapped in a situation from which it will be hard to escape, as we had already paid our entrance fee: we discover that the main service offered at the Lido Nettuno is entertainment, with dance music played non stop throughout the day.
The Nettuno occupies a very narrow section of the shore and we are all very close to one another, with this incredibly loud speakers accompanying our stay.
Yet, one could not be but touched by the spectacle of humanity offered at this beach. Mainly working class people from Torre who seemed to find a lot of enjoyment in the music played. And it is thanks to them that I could look at all the experience from a different perspective and appreciate the place more.

The water was not really clean. As soon as we got there I couldn’t but notice a little child peeing in it. He was holding his father by the hand and they both seemed to think that they were doing the most normal of things. No, the water was not really clean. But it was fascinating. The black sand makes it darker of course, and there are bubbles rising from the ground, because of the volcanic activity. I was not so excited to get into it, though.

I would have never imagined to go to Torre Annunziata. Even though I was curious about it, I had always seen it as something improbable to do. There are so many beautiful places in Campania, why bother going there? Still it was a choice. An improvised choice, and maybe because of its improvisation it made a lot more sense. The debate in my group of friends is now whether we should go back or not. I don’t think I want to. It was not really fun, but still it was very different and demanding. It demanded the audacity of confronting something you would always avoid. And from that point of view it was very healthy. It’s possible that, in the next years, if the water situation keeps improving, Torre Annunziata will be again a beautiful beach.

For the moment it remains a good way to discover a reality in the South of Italy, that it’s usually hidden from mainstream culture.

Or maybe it’s the contrary: another way of looking at how mainstream culture impacts this country.

On falling from a Highway

That night I wanIncidente Irpiniated to get pizza with two friends. One of them had found good reviews for a place in Baiano. As we drove and got lost (it would have taken us a long time to find the “pizzeria”) we noticed unusual intense traffic on the road that from Nola goes to Baiano, and from which you can take the highway to Avellino.
That’s it. That’s how close I got to the tragic bus accident that last Sunday killed 38 people who were returning home in Pozzuoli, Naples, after a weekend trip to Telese Terme.
But when the morning after I woke up, and my mother told me about it, the first thing that came to my mind was how close I had been to the accident.
Not because I could have been part of it. No. Probably because my life had gotten close to that event, so terrible, that every one was talking about now on tv.

I always had this fear. I have definitely dreamed about it a couple of times. Falling off a bridge, a cliff, a viaduct, in a car. If I am not mistaken, in these dreams I am usually falling with my dad.
And it feels like something suddenly disappears in your stomach. No tragic ending in my dreams, though. The vehicle keeps falling for a long time, but never crashes on the ground.

After what happened last Sunday, I don’t think I am going to have these dreams anymore. It feels as if this televised tragedy has penetrated the collective imagery to the point that it can no more be part of the stuff of which dreams are made.
Maybe this is really what we mourn the most, when something like this happens: the collapse of fantasy, the disappearance of certain events from the realm of the imagination.

One of the strongest moments in the airing of the tragedy on television, has been the first interview to one of the survivors on television, a woman.
Her account of the tragedy was related in a state of complete shock, which could also be very similar to the liminal state between wake and sleep.

I transformed it into a poem:

Everything was ok
and beautiful
and fine
until we got to that road
I don’t know where.

We had to leave the hotel
and so we went to Pietralcina
for mass

and we were going back home
when I heard somebody say
we have a flat tire
well, the driver will stop and change it
I said

but it never stopped
and there were fires in the bus
it went faster and then we fell

me and my husband held
each other tight.
That’s the last thing I remember.