Sicily in the Movies
The Leopard, Cinema Paradiso, Divorce Italian Style
In the 1960’s Burt Lancaster starred in a film called ‘The Leopard’ about an elderly Sicilian aristocrat coming to the end of his days. The main character finds his world changing and his wealth dwindling, as his palaces crumble and his health deteriorates. The story is set in the 19th century when famous patriots like Garibaldi were fighting to unify the peninsula of Italy and the island of Sicily into a single ‘nation state’. Inspired by the book written by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian nobleman, the story follows the lives of a wealthy Sicilian family as their world changes for ever. It portrays a land of majestic palaces, civil unrest and fading dreams. To add romance to the brew Lampedusa wrote only one novel and it was discovered after his death, by a relative in 1959. The film is beautifully composed and uses a selection of majestic palaces (see below) including the beautifully named ‘Donnafugata’ (Escaping Woman).
Sicily has always been a land of stark contrasts, land-owners living in vast baroque palaces on the one hand, poverty-stricken workers on the other. When a cinema first comes to a little town in the centre of Sicily in the 1940s the town is trans-fixed by the weekly entertainment on offer. The locals queue for hours to gain access to the cinema, even taking a chair with them to ensure they have a seat. Cinema Paradiso (1988) brilliantly portrays life in rural Sicily in the forties. The action revolves around the projectionist and the young boy who helps him to show the films – always to packed and raucous crowds. When a new film arrives in town it has to be checked for unsuitable content by a lascivious priest. Years later the young boy returns to his home town for the funeral of Alfredo (the projectionist), he has becomes a famous film director. He looks up his childhood sweetheart. The film is poignant, joyful and tragic.
On a much lighter note, one of my favourite films based in Sicily is the hilarious and thoroughly Italian ‘Divorce Italian Style’ starring the handsome, brooding and petulant Marcello Mastroianni. Once again an impoverished landowner is trapped in a falling down palace, living with his extended family. Unhappily married he is secretly in love with his cousin Angela. He spends his days conjuring up wild and ambitious schemes to dispose of his wife. Then he’ll be free to marry the lovely Angela. This film, shot in black and white, shows the wonderful baroque buildings of Sicily, its churches and palaces. It also conveys the stranglehold the Roman Catholic Church had on the population and the exceptional power wielded by the local priest – especially in remote towns and villages.
In the last few years Sicily has appeared again on our screens as the stomping ground of Commisario Montalbano, the popular police detective, created by author Andrea Camilleri. In fact the town of Porto Empedocle where the TV series is based, has changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata. Vigata is the name of the fictional town where the Commisario lives.
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