I’m a half-bred Italian, meaning my parents are Italian but I grew up in the Hudson Valley, in New York, and even if I spent every summer in Napoli visiting family and lived in Rome for two years, I can never claim Italy as my own. I have the name and the looks and the Italian husband, but I don’t have the ease of language and dialect, the sense of history, and the cultural references. Growing up, I knew that there was much more than the post-war Neapolitan traditions that my parents exported to the New York and since I was a teenager, I’ve been trying to educate myself with Italian lovers, history books, music, film, novels, newspapers, radio, to get to some closer sense of a country and culture that I love.
Luckily, there is Toni Servillo to help me with my identity crisis and through him, I (and you!) can navigate the densely woven intricacies of Italian society with a dose of contemporary history.
This isn’t a gush about a celebrity crush, even though I do think he’s sexy and want to jump his bones. Every film I watch with Toni, I learn something new about the things that my parents hid from me because they didn’t know how to explain it.
Maybe it’s because he’s from Napoli too that makes me stare at him on the screen like he’s a prophet. He’s most recently known as the star of the Oscar-winning La Grande Bellezza, but he’s also a prominent stage actor as well as a film actor. Google him. His characters hide a world inside of them that gets revealed in gestures, tones, and at times epic monologues. I want to hang out with them, even if they’re boring, cruel, and misogynistic because they all seem to show me something that I want to know.
Let me try to show you what I mean:
The film tells the story of two men both named Tony Pisapia – one a football player and the other a ballad singer – fall just at the height of their careers. Toni plays Tony the lounge singer who has had his successful career ruined by scandal. Despite his loss of fame, friends and family he continues his life with pride and willpower. You can see he’s an arrogant, selfish asshole, but that perseverance and strength is admirable.
What it teaches me: You can own your fuck-ups instead of feeling sorry for yourself. It also teaches me how to go on t.v. and not let the presenter make you a victim.
Toni plays the solitary, secretive man that lives in a Swiss hotel. Punished by the mafia for some past transgression, Toni spends his life in the hotel making bank deposits with money delivered to him in a suitcase twice a week. Despite avoiding most contact with people, but starts a romantic and non-sexual relationship with the young barista in the hotel. This ends in a slow-moving, sad disaster at the end.
What it teaches me: Most people have something to hide. Most people are sad and lonely. The mafia is scary.
“Project for the Future: Don’t underestimate the consequences of love.”
This bio-pic is about Giulio Andreotti, who’s political career spanned over five decades who served as prime minister of Italy for some time in the 70s and early 90s. The film charts the scandals, murders, and corruption that surrounded his career and what he did to remain at the top. Toni transforms himself completely in this film to become Andreotii – short, high voice, and incredibly composed. He’s mesmerizing and seeing him walk across the screen freaks me out. The end of the film shows the start of the ‘Clean Hands’ investigation of the political dealings between the mafia and government officials signalling the end of the Christian Democratic party.
What I teaches me: 1970s political history, the Brigate Rosse and the murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The power that the Christian Democratic party held for decades. Some of the reasons why my parents chose not to move back to Italy.
This tells the story of the fall of Leda, a fictionalised account of Parmalat, the giant milk and soft-drink company, Italy’s version of the Enron story. For 10 years, the company covered up their debts through fake bank accounts. When it finally fell, it was revealed that the company was 14 billion euros in debt and thousands of investors including middle-class Italians who had bought stock had lost their money. Toni plays Ernesto Botta, the financial director of the company and mastermind behind the cover-up. Rather than playing Botta as a greedy, sleezy, financial guy, he portrays him as a solitary man with whose only passion is for figures and the company and eschews any type of flashy lifestyle.
What it teaches me: A little bit more about the story of Parmalat and how many problems arise in Italy from an unwillingness to let go of a small-business mentality and modernise. And also how easy it is to lie to the public and paint a stable and happy picture when everything is rotting underneath.
Jep Giambardelli is an aging theatre critic and socialite and likes to throw parties in Rome. Through a growing sense of ennui and boredom, he reflects on his life and past. As Jep, Toni plays a person comfortable with life that views his friends with distance and irony. He seems to think there is little substance below the hypocritical night life of the Roman social elite, but he doesn’t want anything different, or doesn’t think it is worth trying to find something different. It is a languid, sensuous film and one of my favourites.
What it teaches me: That I still love Rome despite its defects and that I don’t want to live like Jep even though he has an amazing wardrobe.
An unpopular Italian party secretary escapes and disappears just before a general election. His twin brother, Giovanni, a reclusive philosopher who is recovering after a stay in the mental hospital, steps in. Toni is again so fun as the twin who enjoys greatly the game of impersonating his brother. Through poetic language, banter and eccentric behaviour, Giovanni adds freshness and relevance and turns public opinion. It has a mysterious ending when the brother comes back.
What I learned: Does it only take an outsider unafraid of risks to speak through the political circus machine? Italian politics is frustrating and complicated, but reading the newspapers and commentary and watching films like this, I can almost, almost, almost get a bit of what’s going on.