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On Italian Politics, Landscapes and Two Movies about the Po Valley

On Italian Politics, Landscapes and Two Movies about the Po Valley

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’Albero degli Zoccoli)  by Ermanno Olmi, 1978

1900 (Novecento) by Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976

Bertolucci's film "1900" starring Robert De Niro and Gerard DepardieuI’ve been observing Italy since 1966 when I first visited this fascinating country.   Finally, last spring I became an Italian citizen just to catch up with the rest of the family (everyone else has dual US-Italian citizenship).   Since Italians now allow absentee voting, I’ll be able to vote in the upcoming elections scheduled for April 13, 2008.  That’s a first and the responsibility weighs heavily.  I consider myself an "informed" voter.  But just keeping up with Italian politics is a major challenge.  (In the US we worry when a third party candidate like Ralph Nader throws his hat in the ring!  Read on for the circus of Italian politics.)

Back to the geographer’s roots:  One of my favorite books about Italy was published by the Italian Touring Club in 1963:  "Understanding Italy, Vol. VII: The Landscape" ("Conosci l’Italia: Il Paesaggio").  Written by eminent geographer, Aldo Sestini, this volume describes the Italian landscape by cataloging ninety-five landscape regions and thirty-two sub-regions for a total of 127 distinct and identifiable Italian landscapes.  For those of you familiar with Tuscany, for example, can you identify Sestini’s eight micro landscape regions that make up Tuscany?

So how does this relate to Italian politics?  Well, like the Italian geographic landscape, the Italian political landscape is fragmented into forty-six, fifty or more political parties.  Indeed, under this last coalition headed by center-left leader Romano Prodi, his coalition had eighteen parties in the senate and twenty-three parties in the house.  The opposition (center right) balanced out Prodi’s coalition with the same number of parties.  The entire house of cards collapsed when Prodi’s Justice Minister, Clemente Mastella, resigned and precipitated a vote of confidence in Prodi’s coalition.  Head of the miniscule UDEUR party, with 1.4% of the national vote, Clemente’s party was key to holding the coalition together in the senate where Prodi had only a 2 vote margin out of 314 senators (his margin in the lower house of deputies was much larger).  Prodi’s fragile government collapsed when Mastella withdrew and Prodi lost the vote of confidence in the Senate.

Ok, you’ll ask, and how does this relate to Bernardo Bertolucci and Ermanno Olmi’s films?   I’m glad you asked!

These two films are about the struggle between the peasant class and the aristocracy in Italy’s Po River Valley (called the "Val Padana" in Italian).  Both present this class struggle at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and both feature the melancholy landscapes of the Po Valley as protagonist.  More importantly, both films call out to any Italian over forty years of age with their reminders of the religious, social, and political struggles that the country went through from 1900 until the present, actually.

Bertolucci’s film, 1900, was to be his epic on Italian history.  With both broad and micro brush strokes (the film lasts five hours) Bertolucci sought to paint the history of northern Italy through three generations, from 1900 to 1970, and through two socio-economic classes, the peasant farmer and the landowner.  If you are interested in 20th century Italian history including World War I, the rise of fascism, the struggle between the fascists and socialists, World War II, the emergence of the communist party and the subsequent post-war political struggles, this film is for you.  It features the landscape of lower Emilia, between Modena and Reggio Emilia — an Italy unfamiliar to most Americans unless and until you’ve bicycled through it.

Olmi's masterpiece of Italian culture, the film "Tree of Wooden Clogs"Olmi’s film is more circumscribed.  It follows the lives of three peasant families though the farm year around 1900 on the edge of the Po Valley near Bergamo, just a hundred miles away from Reggio Emilia on the north side of the Po Valley.  Olmi’s film is rich in landscape and peasant tradition, just as the Bertolucci film.  Indeed, I helped butcher the family pig on the farm in 1970 just as Olmi shows it in his film in the northern Po Valley.  In the area around Bergamo, as in much of Lombardy, religion and the Catholic Church play a much stronger role than they do in Emilia-Romagna where the Pope ruled over this territory so long.  In the latter, a strong reaction against Rome’s centuries of rule has settled over the landscape and over politics, spawning this as the heartland of the peasant class, the blue collar worker, and Italy’s communist and socialist local governments.  

Herein lies the link among these two films, the Italian landscape, and Italian politics.  Bertolucci’s film shows the rise of Italian socialism in Emilia Romagna and the heartland of the Italian resistance in World War II against the fascist government so strongly allied with Hitler.  This region, largely because of centuries of oppression by Papal States from Rome, was predisposed against Roman domination and had a difficult time swallowing fascism.  

We Americans are currently bombarded with more interesting politics than we’ve had for a long time.  I find it fascinating to read about the different constituents or voting "blocks" if we can call them that, supporting Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee.  We’re learning about the Hispanic voter, the black constituents, the older white woman voter, blue collar, religious conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and so on.  

In Italy all these same voting groups are further compounded by the layers of history that bring with them the "monarchists," the northern "separatists" and other regional parties (including the Northern League of Umberto Bossi in Lombardy, the Sud Tyrol People’s Party, and the Veneto Front League), various factions of the communist and socialist parties (imagine in the US if the Democratic or Republican parties had split six or eight times each over the last 60 years and you’d have as many parties as there are now in Italy).

This factionalism in Italy is made possible by the proportional representation method of electing parliament.  The basic concept at play is the idea that proportional representation allows even the tiniest constituent political groups to enjoy representation in parliament.  This makes it very difficult for government coalitions to form and to govern, however, resulting in governments that last, on average just over 12 months since World War II!

So getting to know Italian politics is like trying to get to know the Italian countryside.  If this interests you the two movies mentioned above provide a great starting point.  They present, in graphic images, both the landscape and one of the fundamental splits in Italian politics, that between the farm laborer a century ago (now representing the blue collar worker) and the aristocracy or land-owning class.  These simple distinctions are now gone, of course, but the divide that separates the haves and the have-nots, the farmer and the industrialist, the socialist and the aristocrat, the blue collar factory worker and the government bureaucrat, still rule Italian politics.

Enjoy these two films and wish me luck in deciphering Italian political parties so I can vote in April!