Italy’s Big Chill and a generation’s great mistake (“We All Loved Each Other So Much”)

vittorio gassman scolaWhen Alfonso and I visited in Italy in late January, only a few days had passed since the great Italian film director Ettore Scola had died. It was only natural that his name and his films would come up in conversation over dinner on a very chilly evening in Montalcino. In remembering his 1974 masterpiece, “We All Loved Each Other So Much,” my good friend and high respected Italian wine trade veteran Raffaella spoke about her father’s reaction to the film and how in some ways, he represented a generation of Italians who had lost their sense of idealistic purpose to the consumerism of post-war Italy. They had resisted and fought Fascism and Nazism only to find themselves swallowed up by the cultural hegemony that emerged in years that followed reconstruction. For today’s post, I’ve translated this wonderful and powerful piece by her. This, too, is Italian wine. Buona lettura.

Only twice did I ever see my father cry.

The first time was at my mother’s funeral. He barely covered his eyes as he sobbed openly. I was standing behind him, petrified by the outburst and amazed that a fully-grown man could be so overwhelmed by his emotions.

The second time was a few years later. This time, he didn’t lose his composure as he sat in his armchair and cried. He batted his eyes thinking that no one would notice.

I was on the couch and we were watching Ettore Scola’s “We All Loved Each Other So Much.” In case you’ve never seen it, it’s a wonderful and important film.

It’s one of the best movies from the era of classic Italian film. The story and script are seamless. The performances aren’t overacted. And the outwardly banal dialog deftly masks the tragic human condition with ironic, brutal style. It’s an important film because it tells the story of the failures of a generation of Italians in the post-war era.

My father’s generation.

My dad was born in 1921, an only son who lost his father, who was a lawyer, a university professor, and a member of parliament, at age 9. He studied classics and managed to pay his tuition by earning top grades. He went to war as an officer when he was just 21 years old after completing his law degree with honors while also graduating from the Italian Naval Academy in Livorno.

A star student? Yes, but during that era the Italian middle class was extremely well educated. Students had the opportunity to select their focus early on and few public school students opted for Latin and Greek studies. The curriculum was demanding. To give you an example, math class was held in Latin.

His generation grew up under Fascism, during the scholastic reforms instituted by Giovanni Gentile. This is not the place to explain or debate the politics of that time. But as strange and out-of-place as it might sound to say this today, his generation was rooted in classical culture, nationalistic pride and a sense of country.

In 1943, a week after the September 8th armistice, he was taken prisoner by the Germans, Italy’s now ex-allies, in the battle for Elba. He was loaded on to a train headed to a German concentration camp but he managed to jump from the car after passing through Bologna. He returned to Rome where he remained in hiding until he get up to Milan and join the Allied troops. He stayed in Milan until the end of the war. He was no longer an officer but a young lawyer at the beginning of what would be a brilliant career.

Once the war was over, Italy began to rebuild. It was a country that had been bled of its ideals. It was also a time when certain people began to revisit the past.

One day, two persons knocked on his door and offered to sell him a “Resistance fighter” certificate. He was a tall and athletic man and he handily kicked them out of his office. He went back to his work as a lawyer and that was enough for him. He was disgusted and disappointed by what was happening in Italy and he had lost interest in politics. As far as he was concerned, his work was what mattered most.

His decision not to take an active role in building a modern Italy with an honest and able political system was a huge mistake. Armed with the moral high ground and a desire to create prosperity for everyone, his generation hoped to build an economy that could compete with the great powers of the western world. But in their enthusiasm, they left politics to inept and often corrupt career politicians.

Members of the Italian ruling class began to divvy up positions of power based on what political party they belonged to. The corrupt entrepreneur in Scola’s film, played by Aldo Fabrizi, is the perfect example of real characters who became very wealthy during this period through underhanded business practices.

The same could be said of the lawyer, Gianni Perego, played by Vittorio Gassman. He embodies the unscrupulous get-rich-quick attitude of many of my father’s peers. They gladly sold their souls to gain entrance to the club of money-grubbing happy few.

My father never joined that club, nor did he register with any political party. When he asked his future father-in-law for my mother’s hand in marriage, my grandfather asked whether or not he already had children and whether or not he was a Freemason. The answer was no to both and my grandfather gave him his blessing.

Beyond his career in law, dad also followed in his father’s footsteps and pursued a career in academia. But his rise as a scholar was torpedoed for political reasons. He never really recovered from that setback and a nervous breakdown forced him to take a year off from work. He ultimately returned to the office but he never managed to shake the depression that would carry inside for the rest of his life.

By that time, the 1970s had arrived and with them came student protests, terrorism, and political chicanery. The shift in politics only continued to grow and he grew old without ever begin able to accept a youth movement that was different from his own.

When Scola’s film came out, he saw it in Italy and I saw it in America where I was living and working as an au pair. I don’t think he cried when he saw it that first time and neither did I. To me, it was just a great film.

It happened many years later. He was watching the movie sitting in his armchair and I was sitting next to him on the couch. He shed those tears in silence and they ran down the face of an old man and his memories.

Today, this is all ancient history, buried underneath layers and layers of recent history that have come to be called Bribesville, Berlusconi, and the Five Star Movement and so on and so on.

All that remains is the bitter certainty that they don’t make movies like this anymore. Cinematic narrative is no longer solid and real and the reason for this is that we have lost our faith and our ability to affect change.

Raffaella Guidi Federzoni

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