Academic journal article Italica

The Return of History: Gianni Amelio's Lamerica, Memory, and National Identity

Academic journal article Italica

The Return of History: Gianni Amelio's Lamerica, Memory, and National Identity

Article excerpt

Marx writes that "all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice ... the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce" (245). In the first scenes of Gianni Amelio's Lamerica (1994) we are confronted with a cinematic equivalent of Marx's statement. Lamerica is in fact a (hi-)story twice-told that investigates Italy's past and present political situation by means of an historic parallel between two different moments in the countries' histories. The director Gianni Amelio wears Albanian glasses, so to speak, to explore Italy's present and past by comparing how the notions of nation state and national identity were put into question by Italy's colonial adventure in Albania, and how these same notions are nowadays challenged and displaced by the new structure(s) of "Empire" (as Hardt and Negri define the current space of late capitalism and phase of multinational market expansion). The film, while addressing the dramatic events of Albania in the early 90s, points directly to two specific periods in Italian history--the era of the Fascist regime and the emigration to America of the Thirties, and the present era of Neocapitalism--in order to explore the relations between the two different countries in two different times, both suffering from the same type of mass emigration. The recent role played by Italy in the 1980s and 1990s after the disintegration of Albania's government--when a multitude of Albanians were trying to reach Italian shores in search of the "Italian dream"--is paralleled with Italy's role in the first part of this century as a land of emigrants. Lamerica becomes a search for the alterity of the other, the other's other: Italy is to America as Albania is to Italy. This political agenda of the film is clearly stated formally at its very beginning: while the opening credits appear on the right-hand side, on the left side of the split-screen we see an old, grainy, black-and-white Luce newsreel chronicling the invasion of Albania by the Italian Fascist Army in April 1939. The use of the split-screen presents the viewers with a problem in the form of a question: why this historical comparison? Why the choice of the split-screen, a visual rupture at the onset of the screening in which the forgotten Italian colonial past reemerges thanks to these old images?

Through a close reading of significant cinematic passages, I will demonstrate how the newsreel footage is the darker and forgotten kernel that the movie attempts to unveil. It becomes clear as we unravel the circular and multi-layered narrative and visual structure of the movie that the opening scene operates as a master metaphor for the return of the repressed that Lamerica brings forth: something hidden that haunts both the protagonists and the story itself. On the one hand, this is made evident in the way in which throughout the film the notions of historical memory and identity are directly put into question and made to clash by Amelio's patient investigation of the effects of cultural displacement in the mind and body of the characters of the story. On the other hand, the renegotiation of thematic and visual motifs belonging to the tradition of Italian cinema is brought to the fore in an attempt to confront the untold stories of twentieth-century Italy.

A Cinema of the Past

In spite of its historic subject matter, Amelio's work does not belong to the group of Italian films defined by Rosalind Gald as "heritage cinema, a genre characterized by ... historical narratives, thematics of national nostalgia and spectacular mises-en-scenes" (158). (1) In Lamerica, on the contrary, there is a strong call for an anti-nostalgic approach to history. Lamerica should be considered as belonging to that group of recent Italian films characterized by generic hybridity between fiction and documentary, and by themes of immigration/emigration, diasporic movements, and asymmetrical cultural clashing that I would define as part of the "cinema of Empire. …

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