The Non-Professional in the Reception of Italian Cinema Abroad

In 2016 and 2017 the Italian films nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film were the documentary Fuocoammare/Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi) and the docudrama/feature A Ciambra/The Ciambra (Jonas Carpignano) respectively.  Despite the fact that neither film was eventually selected as an official nominee by the Academy, their international trajectories are revealing about the mechanisms through which Italian films without well-known directors acquire legitimacy, and the role played by neorealism in this process.

Despite the ‘crisis’ of Italian films at film festivals, both Fuocoammare and A Ciambra were embedded in the festival circuit, and their positive reception was due largely to the connections between festival promotion and a critical reception that linked them to the prestige of Italian neorealism. Fuocoammare was Rosi’s first film after his Sacro GRA won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2013: an account of the migration crisis on the island of Lampedusa alongside the experiences of a 12-year-old local boy, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016. Its reputation was particularly enhanced by its championing by jury president Meryl Streep. Streep later hosted a private screening of it in New York, where she emotionally described it as ‘a documentary, I guess. But it’s also art’. 

A Ciambra, meanwhile, which tells the slightly fictionalised story of a young Roma boy from Calabria and his relationship with the local migrant community, was presented out of competition at Cannes in 2017, in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs. There it was sold in a deal negotiated by the super-agency William Morris Endeavour, with US rights being picked up by IFC Sundance Selects. To understand why WME and IFC got on board, it is important to understand A Ciambra’s production history: it was partly financed by the Emerging Film Fund for up-and-coming directors underwritten by Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia productions, and Rodrigo Teixera’s company RT. The association with Scorsese, credited as executive producer on A Ciambra, and Teixera, producer of Call Me By Your Name, was frequently mentioned in press reports and reviews of the film. 

While Fuocoammare did not have such high-profile backers, both films, despite their genre differences, are interesting for how they were received by the press outside Italy. Both address social questions in an unspectacular way that is relatively unusual with respect to other films that the Italian film industry’s Oscar committee decides to put forward; these tend to be by more established directors, with much more elaborate production values (apart from, arguably, Crialese’s Terraferma, selected for the 2012 awards). Fuocoammare’s direct and harrowing account of the way that the Italian state processes migrants arriving on Lampedusa saw it screened at humanitarian festivals such as the UNHCR Refugee Film Festival, as well as more usual venues such as Telluride and Toronto, and it received publicity when then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi declared that he would bring DVD copies to give to heads of state at an EU migration summit in March 2016. It also premiered on television on Rai3 in October 2016 as part of the National Day of Remembrance of Immigration Victims.

Samuele Pucillo meets Sergio Mattarella

A Ciambra, meanwhile, despite its subject matter of migration and the marginalization of the Roma, received much critical attention for its use of the non-professional actor, the boy Pio Amato, who plays himself. The recourse to neorealism by critical reviews is hardly surprising, given the movement’s totemic values outside Italy, and the failure of most of Italy’s popular cinema to circulate internationally. The discussion of the non-professional as an aspect of neorealism functions of course, as a legitimating trope. The New York Times said that A Ciambra ‘provides fresh evidence of the continued vitality of the neorealist impulse. […] The actors are nonprofessionals playing versions of themselves’, and compared it to the work of the Dardenne brothers and Bresson. Other comparisons recur to De Sica and Truffaut. Meanwhile, The Guardian’s review of Fuocoammare, reproduced in much of the film’s promotional material, declares that ‘I’m tempted to say Samuele is a descendant of Enzo Staiola as young Bruno in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.’ Both Pio and Samuele are read as avatars of the boy non-professional of neorealism, and of Italian film heritage itself.

In addition, though, the non-professional who springs to prominence, like Pio, is a hallmark of the independent film, and as Cindy Wong points out, a staple of the festival film: ‘Nonprofessional actors tend to provide the festival films more legitimate claim to authenticity, to substantiate the claim that a serious filmmaker does not want the audience to be distracted by the glamour of the familiar faces of the actors’ (C. Wong, Film Festivals: Culture, People, and Power on the Global Screen, Rutgers University Press, 2011, p. 85). The very presence of the non-professional at a big festival such as Cannes or Berlin is also a kind of performance, where they are paraded for the cameras. The pictures of young Samuele Pucillo from Fuocoammare meeting Italian president Sergio Mattarella at Berlin were widely circulated [FIG 1], while the UK DVD of A Ciambra contains a featurette ‘Dalla Ciambra a Cannes’, where the director Carpignano takes an uncomfortable Pio and his family to buy clothes for the premiere, and highlights his out-of-placeness on the Croisette [FIG 2]. This flaunting of the difference of the non-professional, and the frisson their unconventional and ideologically charged appearance, provides, could also be seen in another Cannes hit that year, The Florida Project (Sean Baker). It’s further evident in appearances at Cannes by other non-professionals in recent years, such as the young performers of Claudio Giovannesi’s Fiore (2016), and Alice Rohrwacher’s Le meraviglie (2014), or non-Italian performers such as the stars of Girlhood (Sciamma, 2014) and Mustang (Ergüven, 2015).

Pio Amato on stage at Cannes

The trope of the discovery of the non-professional actor was important to the promotion of A Ciambra: Carpignano frequently repeated in interviews the story of meeting Pio when he went to the Ciambra, an area outside Gioia Tauro where the settled Roma live, to recover his stolen car. He and Pio immediately hit it off and he cast Pio first in the short, A Ciambra, and then in his first feature, Mediterranea. The casting of Samuele Pucillo, however, was somewhat played down, with Rosi insisting only that he came across Samuele while living on Lampedusa: he has never mentioned that Samuele is the younger brother of Filppo Pucillo, star of Crialese’s Terraferma (and his Respiro and Nuovomondo). The strategic decision to cast Samuele, with his ‘neorealist face’, to play himself in the documentary appears much more accidental than it was, with Samuele already embedded in the circuit of Italian film stardom.

Both Fuocoammare and A Ciambra illustrate the importance of the legitimating label of neorealism, and, despite their genre differences, the importance of the non-professional who becomes a kind of ‘star attraction’ on the festival circuit, an object of curiosity and a marker of authenticity for a cinephile audience.