Documentary producer Paolicelli (Dances with Luigi, not reviewed), whose family hails from Italy's south, frames a personal, modern-day quest for understanding within that region's ancient history.
Macaroni didn't come to Italy from China with Marco Polo; it was first concocted in southern Italy—and, of course, from there all else follows, writes Paolicelli, his tongue only partly in cheek. The Italian south is a land that managed “to miss the Age of Enlightenment entirely and find itself in the twentieth century without an intervening period of transition from feudalism.” Which is not to say that it is a land of ignorance. On the contrary, Paolicelli found southern Italy to be a place of enormous antiquity, “a culture rich in ancient lore and knowledge, but poor in textual or academic foundation,” yet more than fully up to speed regarding “instincts, morality, values and stunning human insights.” When Italy was unified into a nation at the end of the 19th century, southerners saw their language destroyed, their trade in agricultural products cut off, their land taken by northerners, mismanaged and looted. It’s not surprising that the people who had been invaded by everybody from the Longobards to the Nazis learned a thing or two about sacrifice and tenacity, developed powerful ties to family and friends, and maintained a strong affinity for their countryside, even though many left for the US. Much of the region features the kind of punched, rumpled, and parched landscape that gives birth to religions and expatriates, with noted exceptions like Sicily: a dramatic and beautiful garden brooding with evidence of a long past. If there are changes afoot on that land over the past few years, elements of the modern rubbing uncomfortably with the old, Paolicelli understands that “people could get tired of their history if they had been worn down by it,” even though that history has developed a highly creative and expressive group of people.
A splendid portrait, vivid and affecting. (Maps)