Q&A with Laura Napolitano - Director of Italian Cultural Institute of Melbourne

Located on a leafy street in residential South Yarra, the Italian Institute of Culture (Elm Tree House, as it is also known) was purchased by the Italian government in 1974. The building rests on centuries of local and international history alike. Built in 1857, throughout the decades this imposing house has accommodated notable Australians and Italians carrying out cultural as well as political functions.

Now the preferred venue representing and promoting Italian culture abroad – the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (IIC) is a hub serving as a second home for both first and second-generation Italians. The IIC – sometimes in collaboration with other promoters of Italian culture and traditions such as Co.As.It, Museo italiano, and the historically important Società Dante Alighieri– organises activities and events ranging from literary to cinematic, to festivals anchored in Italian traditions. These multifaceted events thoroughly bridge all sections of Italian culture, keeping up to date with social and cultural changes in Italy while always honouring also the national past. The IIC also offers Università per Stranieri di Siena-accredited language courses – thus further promoting Italy also linguistically.

I interview Laura Napolitano – IIC Director since November, 2017, and most recently serving as Deputy Director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Paris – in the velvety evening of 3 May. She welcomes me up to her office on the second floor. Open and accommodating, Laura readily answers all my questions and has much to share. What follows is our transcribed interview covering her role, the mission and vision of the IIC and her active engagement with the current Italian Cine-scapes festival, now in its second year running with films moving from past to present, and which draws from classic cinema to more recent films reflecting new trends in Italy – both societal, political, and artistic. The festival runs until December this year, with the first film shown in April, and ultimately brings into conversation the external both urban and rural landscape of Italy. It also explores inner landscapes relating to the impact the external environment has on the people dwelling in it and how they respond accordingly.

  1. Thank you very much, Laura, for granting me this interview. As Director for the IIC you are instrumental for promoting Italian language and culture here in Melbourne. Please tell me something about your role. What do you regard as your main responsibility?

A lot of responsibilities (she laughs). The institute organises events to promote Italian culture in every sector.  We are quite generalist so we promote everything: literature, art, cinema, theatre, but also science. So, it’s important to organise events of everything and each director has their own fields of interest. For me it’s cinema, literature and photography but we also organise Italian language courses and have a library where we offer free access to everyone. It’s important to remember that these three main sectors are the most important as part of my workday. I have to spend time thinking and organising events but also the language school and the library and all it takes to promote it. Now, for example, I am trying to reorganise the library and have more people coming. It’s a great resource that is not that known by the public [so it needs more shedding light on]. We also have an audio-visual library.

  1. Your institute bridges Italian language and culture. What are some of the more interactive cultural events organised by the IIC? – in the sense of people coming together in a more collaborative way?

The most interactive kind of event could be the lecturers. Last year we organised lecturers on Italian cinema and one was about the art and not very known cities in Italy – like a grand tour but not covering the main routes. People are able to interact with the teacher and we also had a few exhibitions on contemporary art; one last year on Vettor Pisani, an Italian artist, and Marco Fusinato; an Italo-Australian artist. So, this was the first of this series of exhibitions that I would like to have during my direction, trying to create a relationship between Italian and Australian artists; a collaboration more between Italian and Australian cultures.

  1. What is the main role of your institute and how do you marry the Italian and the Australian cultures, catering also for Australian members of your institute, or for Italians with Australian background? How do you connect Italian and Australian interests?

Whenever possible. But it is also important to remember that we are here to promote Italian culture and we try to highlight Italian artists who are not that known to the Australian public. So, the idea is to promote what is not already known to the public.

  1. What would you say is the main cultural event or highlight organised by the Italian Institute of Culture?

We have this festival: Italian Cine-scapes#2: Urban space and architecture portrayed in 9 movies (this is the second edition of a festival that was first organised last year). We have also just finished a collaboration with RMIT for an exhibition presented during the Melbourne Design Week and the occasion was also the Italian Design Day organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Vico Magistretti exhibition [in honour of a very] important architect and designer was also very successful. We presented the exhibition at the RMIT Design Archives and then for two weeks at the Institute. Another exhibition starts at the end of May and is on photography. A young woman photographer from Vicenza was in residence at Fabrica in Treviso. It’s a creative hub for photography especially sponsored by Veneto so she was there as a resident and created this book Sick, Sad, Blue. It’s a project on anorexia and in general she is doing a great job with the young people. She met a young anorexic woman. They started to correspond and it’s very powerful work. Also, we will have another exhibition organised with RMIT on contemporary art at the end of July and we organise a lot of concerts too, etc.

            We also offer a lot of cinema, of course, and a collaboration with the Lavazza Film Festival and the Melbourne Cinémathèque. This year they presented Ermanno Olmi as part of the Ermanno Olmi’s Realist Cinema category. We may also collaborate again with the Melbourne International Film Festival. We collaborated with them last year for a restrospective on Italian polizzioteschi 70s police movies [a tongue-in-cheek precursor to later Tarantino style movies].

  1. As mentioned, you regularly organise cultural events such as Italian film festivals here in Melbourne. One of the main ones is the Lavazza Italian Film Festival which last year drew crowds, also through Italian actress Valeria Solarino and filmmaker Lisa Camillo engaging in Q&As and representing their respective films. What is the process behind inviting such celebrities to Melbourne – how easy is it to attract them to come?

Well in this case it is the festival itself who makes the main effort and organises this. But we organised a discussion on Elena Ferrante and the documentary Ferrante Fever (2019). So, there was also a panel discussion organised with the University of Melbourne and Sydney University and the screening of L’amore molesto by Mario Mattone (1995) based on a Ferrante book. We also screened Per un pugno di dolari (Sergio Leone, 1964) representative of so-called spaghetti westerns].

  1. How do you choose the Italian films to be presented at the Cine-scapes festival? And how can you tell what films will draw the largest crowds?

The idea when we started last year was to present an Italian Cine-scapes in the sense of having movies that depict the Italian landscapes, the urban architecture and design in order to take viewers on a voyage to Italy and show to the public what is the urban environment in Italy. With classic and contemporary movies it is different. Each director shows a city in different ways, so it is interesting to have an idea on how, for example, time is represented in Italian cinema at one stage of history, and in another way in another film. Last year Voyage to Italy (Rossellini, 1954) shows Naples to the viewer. So, the idea is to have a balance between old classics and more recent films. Dino Risi’s Il vedovo (1959) features in the Cine-scapes festival and represents Milan and its urban architecture. And then we will continue with Sicilian Ghost Story (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, 2017). It is a contemporary beautiful film and also a mafia story set in Sicily even if it is not in an urban space in this case.  

Also, Fiore (Claudio Giovannesi, 2016) takes place in a prison and so it will be possible for people who attended the screening of Cesare deve morire (the Taviani brothers, 2012) last year - also set in a prison environment – to draw a connection with the 2018 festival.

We are not showing the movies according to chronological order. It is more important to have a balance between old and new and the focus is [as far as possible] on landscapes.

  1. So narratively, does a story develop differently if set in an urban as compared to a rural environment?

Yes, I think it changes a bit.

  1. Thematically, do the films shown in the Cine-scapes festival have anything in common?

No, nothing in particular, it is always about the space.

  1. What would you say could be the inner landscapes in this case? What would you interpret as inner landscapes?

You are referring to characters? A common thread is the way they interact with the urban environment. I think in most cases they are quite influenced by the external landscape, as in Indivisibili (Edoardo de Angelis, 2016). It’s a movie where you can really have these characters only in that kind of environment.

And in that particular movie the religious iconography is also important.

Yes, and in Miracolo a Milano (Vittorio de Sica, 1951) it is the same [in the sense that] the action as a character is influenced by the fact that they are in that place at that time. La donna della Domenica (Luigi Comencini, 1975) in turn, shows the “good society” of Turin.

  1. What value will audiences draw from watching the older or more classical movies in the current film festival? And would you say the eras reflected in the film are an accurate representation of contemporary life in Italy then and now? Is it possible to draw a link between past and present?

Yes, it is important for me to have people understand that Italy is a big country, not spatially but with regard to different regions with their own special characteristics. It could be very different 20 km apart. There is also an evolution in the urban space within the characters. Italy has changed a lot and you can see it. So, it is important also to show classical movies to appreciate the differences. But also, sometimes the environment has changed but people are acting the same  ̶  which is interesting. For example, with regard to the province (“la provincia”) The Birds, the Bees and the Italians (Pietro Germi, 1966) presents the old vices of Italian provinces so it is always funny but at the same time cruel in presenting the vices of Italian bourgeoisie.

… [In general], you realise that there are some traits that are always the same in Italian culture and sometimes from north to south, they could be the same or really different. It’s a way to present Italian diversity.

  1. So, could one say there is always an element of sameness?

Yes, probably. Not sure about the contemporary movies but as for the classical ones yes there is a strong Italian culture coming forth in old Italian cinema.

  1. What are some typical Italian traits, would you say?

[To give an example], La commedia all’italiana is not as well known. The characters are so problematic, never black or white, always with a lot of different faces. That was really strong in Italian cinema; the idea of showing this diversity and I think that now Italy has started representing the Italian character again (after a big crisis in Italian cinema where they stopped being introspective), but I am an optimist!

  1. Yes, Italian movies tend to be very captivating and in touch with the Italian culture and character. What are some of the most ground-breaking social changes in Italy in the past decades and how are these represented in some of the films in the Cine-scapes festival?

Yes, there were a lot in the last 20 years; maybe more a big evolution crisis in the 1990s so it dramatically changed the Italian panorama. There was a great political and economic change. These changes are reflected in contemporary movies because when you look at, for example, the cinema of the 1960s in Italy, they represent the economic boom with a lot of problems but also a lot of hopes in the future. And then cinema has become more anxious and perhaps more introspective – internalising, e.g., problems of family relationships. There are now [overall] less movies that present the relationships with the space or economic issues. They are less in the society and more in the private.

  1. This might be the inner landscapes being referred to?

The idea is to have movies that are not too much in the private as these are less interesting to the public, less understanding, etc., but at the same time, they are more open; presenting emotions, they are understandable for an international audience, etc.

  1. What would you say is the main message that this festival – and the films included – strives to achieve?

(she laughs) I don’t know. I have this impression that Italy is always represented as a beautiful country and that it’s old because we have this strong cultural heritage. So, everyone thinks about Italy as Leonardo, Caravaggio, Il Colosseo, Venice, etc., but they have lost [touch with] the complexity of the Italian cultural heritage. And there are also a lot of contemporary productions and a lot of new talents, and also Italy is really different from one place to another so this diversity and richness is important to show.

  1. Of the main actors in the films included in the festival, who would you consider the most outstanding?

I don’t know… I actually have a preference for classical movies so I really loved, for example, Il vedovo, starring Alberto Sordi. I would say Alberto Sordi but the female character is played by Franca Valeri; a very interesting actress who is not very known by the general public apart from in Italy so not on an international scale. She was a really good actress who gave outstanding performances in comedy.

  1. Can you see a difference in acting style from past to presence?

It depends on the movies. There are really good actors in contemporary Italian cinema who are not big international stars, for example Marcello Fonte in Dogman (Matteo Garrone, 2018) is really amazing.  

  1. Who would you say is the most impressive Italian actor and actress at the moment not necessarily having made it big outside Italy?

Well, drawing from the film festival program I would say the young actress Julia Jedlikowska in Sicilian Ghost Story [the film was conferred the Nastro d’Argento award for Best Production Design, the David di Donatello award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and another Nastro d’Argento for Best Cinematography] is rather amazing.  She is a Polish-Sicilian girl. If it would be possible to have her in other movies this could lead to a great career. And also, the young actress of Fiore, Daphne Scoccia, is brilliant. So yes, I will bet on the youngest.

  1. Is there any particular film that you would like to highlight in this Cine-scapes festival?

Yes, I would say Sicilian Ghost Story and La donna della Domenica. And also Mimi metallurgico ferito nell’onore  ̶  the only movie by a female director (Lina Wertmüller, 1972).

  1. Do the directors have anything in common and what type of audiences do the different movies get?

No, they are very different.

  1. What is the next major event organised by the IIC?

I think the contemporary world in Italy is very interesting. That’s why last year they presented five documentaries at the festival to let the public know that there are really good documentaries in Italy now, that highlight what defines Italy now and deal with education, immigration, women’s rights, and so on.

  1. Finally, what do you think should be Segmento’s main role as a promotor of Italian culture in Australia?

As it is a magazine in English it is important to give the public an idea of what is contemporary Italy. It is important to give the public information about new talents in Italy in all different fields and to talk about festivals, the contemporary art, and museums. There is a vibrancy that needs to be brought to the fore [something Segmento is very good at].

Grazie mille and thanks for your very enlightening answers. It has been a pleasure talking to you!