Film @ UMB Interview: Professor Vetri Nathan

Interview with Professor Vetri Nathan

Jacob deBlecourt


Professor Vetri Nathan will be introducing his new book, Marvelous Bodies: Italy’s New Migrant Cinema to the UMass community on Tuesday, November 13th at 3:30pm. The discussion will take place in Campus Center room 3450. Before his introduction, Professor Nathan sat down with Film @ UMB to discuss his studies and Italian cinema on a broader scale. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.


J: Great, so, Professor Nathan thank you so much for sitting down with us for our film blog. You’re our first interviewee so we’re very excited to get this going. You have a new book, Marvelous Bodies: Italy’s New Migrant Cinema which I’m very excited for. I wanted to start by talking a little bit about how you first became interested in Italian cinema.

V: Well I’ve always been a cinema fan. I come from India and it’s one of the biggest film-crazy populations in the world, with Bollywood. I grew up going to the movies–I think at least once a week if not twice a week–thanks to my parents. My mom’s a big cinemaphile so I’ve always been interested in movies. And then, of course, I got a scholarship to go to Italy to do my last two years of high school. Since then I’ve been into Italian studies and I think, connected with my love for film since a child, they kind of matched each other, found each other.


J: That’s wonderful. For this particular book was there a specific film were you were just like “I have to write a book about that” on a larger level?

V: Not specific films, but when I was working on my dissertation and doing my research at Stanford University, I was working on immigration in Europe. Once these films started coming out I started looking at them. You know, some were of really good quality and others were not. The point of the book is to sort of assess them as a cultural phenomenon rather than just write a review for a film–they are two very different things. So I wanted to just look at the phenomenon, look at twenty years of cinema and look at some of the key films that have come out that have been examining immigration–myself, as a non-Italian who lived in Italy.


J: Well, it’s interesting that you brought up the idea of a “cultural phenomenon” because originally I thought about asking you what drew you to migrant cinema and what drove you to Italian cinema but I guess the real question should be can you view Italian cinema without viewing migrant cinema?

V: Yeah, most of Italian cinema–migration is a new thing in Italy, it’s a bit of an identity crisis that Italy has been going through, thanks to immigration from the global south in general. You have [citizens of] African countries, Asian countries, the Middle East…because of general destabilizations in different parts of the world. Italian cinema is well known for the films from the sixties: [Michelangelo] Antonioni, [Frederico] Fellini, maybe [Pier] Passolini…all the kinds of “biggies” in terms of auteurs. So migrant cinema is not the first thing that comes to mind but it has brought a resurgence, I think, in Italian cinema from the late 90s to now.


J: I saw, in your book, you try to delineate between Neorealism and post-Neorealism. You remark how difficult it is to make that distinction because Neorealism is such a hard thing to define. Why do you think that is?

V: I think Neorealism is a bit of a stereotype in America, that people associate Italian cinema with Neorealism. That is a little bit because of, actually, critics and scholars like me who have–really non-Italians–who have focused on it and kind of fetishized it, so it kind of become synonymous with Italian cinema. Actually, Italian cinema is very varied, and even Neorealism itself consists of a variety of approaches to presenting reality, social reality. So I try to kind of explain that and kind of show audiences, even non-Italian audiences, readers, that Italian cinema has had so many varied approaches to understanding social crises, and that this is just another variation of approaches that have a conflicting relationship with representing reality…whatever that might be.


J: Absolutely, I think especially when you look at Italian history, that sort of ideation amongst Italians must be very prevalent. You referred to Italy [in your book] as sort of the quintessential other in Europe and to migrants as the external other as well. I’m wondering if you could possibly define what otherness is in your mind?

V: Otherness is a frame of mind; it’s a perception. It begins with defining what the self is and then basically people or groups of people who do not fall into that definition of self are the “other.” And I think there is this tension between these two identities that are imaginary ultimately. Which is why [using] cinema works, for representing imagination. They really delve into breaking down these things that we seem to think of as fixed and constant: what is American; what is Italian, and therefore, what is non? These are choices that groups make, and nations make, and they are often political choices. Cinema can explore it in a very interesting way. So, who belongs and who doesn’t? Who is included and who is excluded? A lot of these things are arbitrary, really.


J: Otherness is something I’ve personally be trying to study in film, so this is very helpful for my thesis as well. I’ve been thinking about not only how people view otherness, but how people who are considered “other” represent themselves. For example, something that I’ve noticed in a lot of commercially popular queer cinema is the films tend to focus on the taboo of being queer and in doing so reinforces the stereotype of that community. Do you see that at all in migrant film?

V: So, one of the basic premises of the book is it’s showing how cinema can be elitist, and that the migrants themselves do not have much of a voice. So these are absolutely Italian products made mostly by Italians. There is one film by a non-Italian director in the book, and even that he is the director but of course the whole film-making group is absolutely Italian. The intended audience is Italian. I use this concept of “detour” because, while the declared subject of interest are immigrants, they are actually talking about what it means to be Italian, for Italians themselves. So, it’s an inward looking kind of thing. Because cinema–and these are bigger productions, they were commercial, and so any kind of mainstream-intended cinema is going to involve a lot of resources that are not in the hands of migrants themselves. It’s a lot of representation of migrants but not by the migrants themselves.


J: Which was the film that you were referring to, directed by a non-Italian?

V: Yes, it’s called Io, l’altro, and interestingly it means I, the other. It’s a very good film, I think. It’s the story of two fisherman in Sicily, and one is Sicilian and the other is North African. And of course, they have lived–they are almost like brothers. It’s this kind of interesting story that is set in this age of terrorism, post-9/11…so there is this kind of suspicion. I think it is a really good film, but it is one of the few non-Italian directed big budget films.


J: In researching for this, I had seen that one of the other films you mention is Terra di Mezzo, and you’ll forgive my non-Italian pronunciation, and in looking up that film I saw that it focuses on different stories of different migrants. But I hadn’t considered the production aspect. How does that change the film for you?

V: Terra di Mezzo is interesting because it is made up of three shorts, and the first short was made by this emerging director, right? He’s Italian but again he was a young director; it was his first short. He won a prize for that short and with the money he won for the prize he made the other two shorts, a compilation in a way. So it’s interesting how a film talking about marginal communities gave voice to marginal, young directors. Now he’s Matteo Garrone, he’s an established director now, 20 years later. But he began by speaking about these things, of marginal communities really. Of the other. So, in a way, I think that these directors who are not mainstream got their chance by exploring non-mainstream subjects.


J: That’s very interesting because I study a lot of German cinema and I see a lot of similar themes, especially in New German Cinema–[Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s one of my biggest inspirations in film.

V: Of course, fantastic.


J: He also talks a lot about Germany’s migration crisis in the 1970s, especially with a film like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. And even into the 2000s you can see films like [Fatih] Akin’s Head On. Those films also address the changing socio-dynamics that are in Europe at the time. So, I guess my question is, what makes Italian cinema so special when it seems like a lot of these countries are going through similar issues.

V: There are common links, absolutely. What makes Italian cinema more interesting is that it perceives itself as Europe’s internal other, so it’s own stability of the European-self is in danger, kind of always threatened. So, when it comes to looking at Europe external others, it kind of makes the interaction more complex perhaps, more rich. For example, in Io, l’altro, you have this kind of marginal Sicilian fisherman, but visually he looks the same as the Arab “other.” That’s harder to do in a German film, where obviously there are visual differences between the German self. If you think of the ideal or stereotypical German body, it does not look like the Arab “other.” But in this film they are able to mingle those two because visually there’s not much difference between the two. Interestingly, it’s a little controversial but the character playing the Arab “other” is an Italian. They are able to do these things.


J: When you say “they are able,” do you mean to get away with it?

V: They are able to get away with it. Racially, in terms of Italy, is so mixed that the southern Italians have mixed blood with the Arabs so this kind of hybridity makes things visually interesting.


J: Let’s talk about hybridity. You had defined genre in migrant film in your book as between realist and humorist. Can you tell us about what those terms mean? And, as a film student, my experience has been with Rick Altman’s A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre. I was wondering if you could perhaps use Altman’s text to inform us on your definitions?

V: Mine is a little more Italian specific, in terms of a definition, because of this fetishization of Neorealism, both [from] Italians and non-Italian scholars. I define humoristic as a visual but also connected to an ideological distancing from realism. There are a variety of techniques; what is happening is that there are filmmakers in the late fifties who are starting to realize that just going out there and capturing reality is not possible–because of the various political complications at that time and how there wasn’t a difference between the left and the right. They were becoming this inbred community of politicians that all had agreed with each other ultimately. Politically and socially, it was really hard to portray that situation in realist terms. And so now Fellini comes with his baroque, over-the-top, representations of reality. Pasolini tries to confine the sacred and the poetic, so his is a certain realism. It’s a poetic, artistic explanation of how can we find the magic that is there in the working class. Antonioni tries to find an emptiness that lies between the upper and middle class. All these directors depart from realism because they don’t find it useful anymore to understand the tensions underlying the class warfare that is present in Italy. And I call this humoristic because I take it from [Luigi] Pirandello, the famous playwright who was using this concept of humor to show this split that one notices between reality and representation. The knowledge that reality does not follow representation creates humor, and the reflection one has in the mind of the difference between the mask and the face. It can be called a little bit of an irony, perhaps, compared to this optimistic, “let’s-go-out-and-represent-reality.”


J: With mask and face, it’s very commedia dell’arte, very Italian. In regards to Italian lineage, recently I watched Falling Down, the [Joel Schumacher] film, a film which could have been produced last week it’s that incredibly prescient to American sentiments right now. Imagine a large, regressive, pull backwards from the diversity and progressiveness in diversity and equity in the US. Is there is a sense in Italy of an Italian purity? How are Italians responding to these changing social make-ups in film and also politically?

V: There’s a huge backlash against any kind of hybridity. The current government that’s in power is absolutely influenced by the main leader of the League, Matteo Salvini. There’s a big backlash, and the kind of fear-mongering, the kind of national chauvinism that comes with that is immensely powerful and is leading to centripetal forces. On the one hand, they are against the kind of integration that [migration] could possibly lead to; on the other hand they are also going against the whole idea of European integration. That national chauvinism comes with not wanting any kind of influence. It goes back to a false idea that nations are monolithic, pure entities that have had no cultural influence at all, especially a hybrid country like Italy which has had influences from all over Europe and the Mediterranean.


J: Thank you very much, Professor.

V: Thank you.



Professor Nathan’s book is now on sale on Amazon. Copies can be purchased by following the link below:

One Response

  1. Ellen at |

    Thank you for this interesting and informative interview.


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