LIGHTZOO Helen De Michiel


with Mira Sorvino, Rose Gregorio, and Matthew Lillard. Dir. Helen De Michiel. Written by Richard Hoblock and Helen De Michiel.

The title of this film will immediately cause some viewers to bristle at the hinted nostalgia, at the distant custom that apparently has no connection to Italian Americans in the 1990s. Nevertheless, with the title you begin to feel the strains of the music, the dance, the trance, the rhythms. But what is it all about? Mira Sorvino before Mighty Aphrodite. Italian American film before, after, and during identity crisis. Tarantella is a film about an Italian American woman photographer, Diana Di Sorella (Sorvino). Her mother’s death sends her back to her childhood home, where she has to deal with the memory of her mother, and embark on an exploration of the effects of her death. Having grown distant from her family and culture, Diana returns to her mother’s house to take care of the funeral arrangements, and to sell the house and belongings. Her return to the old neighborhood is for Diana a confrontation with all the things she had left behind, discounted, and tried to forget. She arrives still despising her background, which she will slowly begin to reassess through the help of Pina (played by Rose Gregorio), her mother’s neighbor and confidant. Pina introduces Diana to her mother’s hidden history via a “libro della casa” that holds scraps and pieces of her history from before her migration from Sicily to the U.S. Pina offers to become Diana’s comare and guide in her voyage through her mother’s story and possibly to herself. Through this process of associations, Pina and Diana’s mother, Pina and Diana, and eventually Diana and her mother, the last name Di Sorella takes on the added meaning of sisterhood. It will be this sisterhood to provide Diana with the tools for a fuller understanding of herself and her background. As the film opens we meet Diana the photographer intent at work photographing the intricate patterns created by contemporary architecture. Reflections, stark architectural and color contrasts, geometric oppositions, and the like, are the subjects of Diana’s photographs. No people. In fact, when three little girls ask her to take their picture she tells them to leave her alone, “can’t you see I’m trying to work.” This opening sequence is all important in establishing Diana’s difficulty in dealing with people and situations that appear to be less than organized, symmetrical, and controlled. Her apartment reflects this condition. Everything neat. Nothing out of place. Everything geometrically placed to complement everything else. Everything organized to contrast a life and culture she deems chaotic. But what Diane has in fact created for herself is a dead living space where order and the lack of intimacy reign supreme. Diana’s boyfriend, Matt, is similarly positioned as a supporting character in this facade. When Diana arrives home after her shoot, Matt greets her unemotionally. When she asks what’s up, he plainly states “your mother’s dead,” no emotion, no comforting comment or physical contact. He is, in effect, a part of the predictable furniture. While Diana is obviously shocked at the news, her reaction to it quickly shifts to a consideration of the situation and the danger it represents in that it may pull her back into an orbit of influence that she does not long to re-enter. In pulling a black dress from her closet, she asks Matt “is it Italian enough?” Of course, posed to her boyfriend, the question is rhetorical, expressive of the stereotypical image that a black-dress conveys, one that is associated with Italians in the popular imagination. What is more important is that the question demonstrates Diana’s distance from her culture and her own misunderstanding of the meaning and value of mourning: “Do I shroud myself in mourning for the rest of my life?” With this statement Diana defines her mother’s death as an imposition and influence that, in her eyes, defies even the finality of death. Whether an imposition or a catalyst, her mother’s death causes Diana to have to face her past, her neighborhood, her heritage, and herself. The first glimpse we get of Diana’s old neighborhood is in fact during her mother’s funereal procession. The faces and places she had escaped are now staring back at her as the procession weaves its way through the neighborhood. Diana’s sense of distance and non -belonging is palpable. When she visits a neighborhood caffè-bar, Diana’s conversation with the bar-tender, whom she appears to know, is about the neighborhood. While the man is rather glad to say that the neighborhood hasn’t changed much, and that “consistency is a good thing,” the camera tracks around the shop shows only men playing cards and having fun. As this first image of Italian maschilist culture sinks in. Diana’s sense of it is also stated in her answer to the bar- tender: “As long as you fit in.” In the tally that the viewer must begin to take in this film , we find ourselves accumulating a series of images and signifying elements th at stress and emphasize common-places about Italians: maschilism, oppressive family situations, etc. We are asked to look beyond these through a process of discovery that begins with Diana’s exploration of her mother’s diary, a tale that narrates her own mother’s defiance of male rule and tradition. As viewers, we have already been initiated by the film’s title into a particular cultural dimension. And, as we might have questioned the value of citing the tarantella, we must now extend our inquiry to include Diana’s search. The question we must ask is not whether or not these remote customs are useful to us today, but how they might be useful. The death of Diana’s mother acts as an initiation into her culture through an important ritual that she undertakes even against her misunderstanding of it: mourning. For those interested in following up the various manifestations of this custom in southern Italy and elsewhere, the work of Ernesto De Martino and Luigi Lombardi Satriani will be of interest. The black dress and mourning and the men-only public place are only a few of the stereotypes in which Diana herself participates. When she returns to her mother’s empty house she makes espresso and plays opera records. What these innocent and almost automatic actions reveal for us is that the line between stereotype and ritualistic or customary behavior is a thin one, as is the one between a culture one wishes to shed and the culture that has been made impalpable. Within the context of Tarantella the elements of mourning that are played out are of course removed from a more formal ritual. Even so, Pina’s help, and the recuperation of history through her mother’s diary, are important elements of mourning and confirmation of self-worth. The process of mourning is instigated by the recognition and the emphasis of a loss of presence. The concept and practice of mourning is equally applicable to emigration (remember le vedove bianche, and the celebration of emigration as a death), and to the loss of one’ s culture, as it is to the death of an individual. The death of a loved-one, a parent, and possibly the only link to one’s past is representative of the onset of a crisis which undermines not only day to day life, but also the order of relations. The tie between people and things (property) is an important part of mourning in cultures where the transmittance of goods from the household in not a given. In peasant culture, the loss of the head of the family was also taken to represent the loss of land, therefore the “presenza smarrita” (lost presence) refers both to the dead individual and to the landless children (“figli sterrati”). Lombardi Satriani observes that “without roots and without future prospects the lost presence will find, in the processes of refoundation and reintegration, the possibility of a new domesticity, of a new land. It will be a case of reinventing the world” (207). Tarantella is as much about mourning the loss of the daughter as it is of the mother. Through the course of the film, with the aid of Pina, Diana acquires the power to look beyond the surface of things. The tarantella is usually associated with happy -go-lucky and gregarious southern Italians. As Diana and Pina walk along the streets of the neighborhood they see a woman dance the tarantella accompanied by a guitar, mandolin, and accordion trio. “Talk about ethnic! I remember that from weddings way back. A bunch of old ladies jumping around in black. Isn’t it about dancing out poison, from spider bites or something?” observes Diana, making the only associations she knows of for the dance. Pina clarifies with “it’s an old tradition, especially for us. The music and dancing were supposed to cure the poison. Physical release of the pain inside. The tarantella is very powerful.” As the dancer approaches them, Pina, protective of the dance’s powers, says to her “Go away! That’s not the way it’s supposed to be! Tarantella is not like that." The reclamation of the function and power of the tarantella illustrates precisely the process of reinvention in which Diana must partake. Her condition is not uncommon and it is not only an Italian phenomenon. Rather, it is a symptom of displacement and a feeling of cultural incongruence that, as this film suggests, can be at least in-part be overcome by tapping into the past. When she volunteers to become Diana’s comare, she tells the younger woman, who doesn’t see the need for Pina’s help, that it’s good to be independent, but “be like that by knowing who you are not by being afraid.” The result will be a world of Diana’s own making well beyond the artificial one previously known by her, because it will be informed by history. Bibliography: de Martino, Ernesto. Morte e pianto rituale: dal lamento funebre antico al pianto di Maria. Torino: Universale scientifica Boringhieri, 123/124, 1975. Lombardi Satriani, Luigi M. e Meligrana, Mariano. Il ponte di San Giacomo. Palermo: Sellerio, 1989.


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