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Italians and Turks

September 1st, 2003

bicyclethief.jpgBY ANDREW DARREL

I read in one of Rome’s new free newspapers a couple of weeks ago that some survey had found that the Italians are the unhappiest people in Western Europe. The article didn’t specify how the institution that conducted the survey chose to measure unhappiness, or how they got around the difficulty of defining unhappiness consistently for speakers of more than a dozen languages, or whether they had considered how willingness to declare oneself unhappy might vary from country to country. It just made this assertion, and left its readers to glow with secret pride.

That Italians assess themselves as especially unhappy shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has paid the least attention to what they say about themselves in their films and novels.

Anyone reading books with titles like Boredom or That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, or watching films like The Bicycle Thief or The Earth Shakes will not fail to get the impression that the mass of Italians lead lives of noisy desperation. And yet I don’t think that it has really registered with most English-speaking people, even the declared Italophiles, that Italians have such a dark view of themselves and of life in general. Only a tiny number of their books are in print in English at the moment, and I should think only two or three films a year get distributed in the English-speaking world, and those not widely. Most of whatever impression we have of the place and people — if, for the moment, we forget about advertising — is, I suspect, derived from what outsiders have written. We have, after all, such wonderful holidays here, and then go home and write them up, taking for granted that if we were inexplicably happy then the locals must have been, too.

For English people of my generation the authority on Italy was E.M. Forster, and what he seemed to be telling us was that the answer to all our woes was to go off to Italy. Italy would take us out of ourselves; we would learn to behave in an unseemly way in public, just like Italians, and all would be well. Some would say that this is an unsubtle interpretation of Forster, but I have any number of friends and acquaintances who maintain that this is essentially what he thought, and that, in their experience, mutatis mutandis, he was right. Taken in by the interesting medicinal effects the place has on us, however, we don’t bother to ask ourselves whether Italy does the same thing for Italians.

Back in 1997 an old friend from London reported to me that she had seen a strange film that I might enjoy, Hamam — il bagno turco, directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, a Turk working in Rome. The hero is a Roman interior decorator, rich, successful, married. He inherits an old Turkish bath in Istanbul from an aunt who ran away to Turkey years before, and since he is fed up with things in Rome (his wife is having an affair, and, if I remember aright, he himself, like so many Roman men, is having difficulty getting it up), he decides to go off to Istanbul and sort out the inheritance. He intends to sell the hamam but finds that the paperwork takes ages and that he has nothing particular to do except wander around the city. He moves in with the family of the hamam’s old caretaker, is courted by the daughter, but has an affair with the son. The pace slows down, the film becomes leisurely, spacious, in a way that no English-speaking director would allow nowadays. Our hero is transformed, it seems, and then comes a dénouement which promises transformation for his appalling wife, too. To English eyes the plot is by now a bit of a cliché — frigid person goes somewhere hot and lets down hair — but it is treated beautifully. What shocked my London chum, who has been taking Italian lessons for years and spends her holidays in Tuscany when she can afford to, was that an Italian film of the Nineties should have essentially the plot of certain novels of the 1910s that she had read at university. What dreadful decline has there been in Italian life and culture that they should now find themselves in the position that the English were in in 1910? Why should the doctor need to cure himself?

Well, yes, Jane, good question. I couldn’t say, myself, whether this film is a symptom of a change in society or whether Italy has always been like this. Former students of mine here say that Rome in the Sixties was really fun, in the way Naples still was in the Eighties and Nineties, and that is has just got sadder and sadder, more hectic and confused. Others say, no, the basic conditions of life here for most people have always been shit, and that Forster — and Goethe before him and Frances Mayes after him — were just self-deceivers. I’m not sure, either, that Rome has that transforming force on the booty-hunters from the North that it used to have: if Italy has changed, so have we. Today, travelers who come to Italy expecting to be taken out of themselves by the blue sky and the men and women under it are more likely to go away instead with a thorough appreciation of the tactile values of Giotto and the corruption of the Papacy. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Darrel | Link to this Entry

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