New Beginnings #3: Looking Backwards to Start Anew: Migration and Contemporary Cinema in Italy

fire-at-sea
‘Fuocoammare’ (Fire at Sea) by Gianfranco Rosi, 2016. Attribution: Film Poster, non-free image posted under fair dealings rationale for research purposes only, IMDb, 2016.

A memorable scene of 1917 Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedy short The Immigrant denounces the brutal mistreatment of newly arrived immigrants – many of which were Italian nationals – in New York by local public officials. Unsurprisingly, the sharp antithesis between the temporarily captive status of migrants and the caption ‘The arrival in the country of freedom’ did not please the state film censorship, which accused the comic actor of outrageously disseminating anti-Americanist sentiments. More than 80 years later, in 1998, The Immigrant was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant’.

Numerically speaking Italians count as one the most significant migrant communities of the twentieth century; nevertheless, the artistic portrayal of such mass phenomenon within the national borders has blossomed only recently. With the beginning of the new millennium, a fascination with past Italian migration captivated filmmakers, journalists and novelists. In Emmanuele Crialese’s 2006 drama film Nuovomondo (New World), the arrival of a poverty-stricken Sicilian family at Ellis Island on a foggy winter morning impeding the view of the Statue of Liberty is a subtle, photographically exquisite reference to Chaplin’s groundbreaking production. The parallelism between the two works is self-evident in the sequences following the disembarkation, in which the camera focuses upon the humiliating physical and psychological examinations undergone by migrants.

Ten years following Nuovomondo, the documentary turned crowdfunding website, ‘La storia vergognosa’ (The shameful story) gives further proof of the renewed national artistic enthusiasm for the dark interstices of past migration. Started in December 2016, the project aim is a cinematic investigation of early twentieth-century south Italian emigration to the Americas. To dispel any doubts about possible links with the transdisciplinary, booming interest in so-called ‘cultural memory’, French film essayist Chris Marker is quoted in the home page: ‘Memory isn’t passive, it’s an act of resistance’. How can the belated reconstruction of migrant stories become an act of contemporary resistance? Director Nella Condorelli explains to us what appears to be the project’s ultimate transnational and transhistorical goal: ‘Considering the migrations of our own time, the archetypal context expands. The very long voyage of Sicilian peasants towards a better future is the perfect metaphor for all of today’s dramatic voyages of hope’.

 La storia vergognosa isn’t an isolated case in the contemporary cinematic panorama of the boot-shaped peninsula. In February 2016, the Italian current-events documentary film Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) by Gianfranco Rosi was deservedly awarded the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival. Shot on the remote island of Lampedusa, Fuocoammare is the first courageous cinematic attempt in Italy to explore the critical relationship between Sicilian islanders and refugees, and was described by the living goddess of acting, Meryl Streep, as ‘urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking’. Discursively built on the dichotomy between lighthearted and ghastly moments, the documentary juxtaposes the locals’ daily business with distressing footage of rescue operations in the open sea.

One hundred years later and despite their manifold differences, it appears to me that Chaplin’s The Immigrant and Rosi’s Fuocoammare recount a highly analogous and geographically specular story. A story that, I believe, permits unexplored parallelisms ultimately enhancing critical empathy. It is the very hope of anyone researching memory studies that the employment of the didactic resources offered by our history may serve as a ‘new beginning’ in the counteraction of perpetuated global inequalities.


Daniela Zanini is a first year PhD candidate within the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the School of Advanced Study. Her interdisciplinary research looks at contemporary Italian literature of mass emigration, examining the role of narratives of migration in cultural memory and trauma studies. For more information regarding the crowdfunding project and film,  ‘La storia vergognosa’, check out the following link: http://www.lastoriavergognosa.com

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