Italian filmmakers: 'Life can be very different...things can change'

Filmmakers Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi. Still from their documentary 'Italy: Love It, or Leave It.'
This article appears in the Q&As with Vinnie Rotondaro feature series. View the full series.

The documentary Italy: Love It, or Leave It tells the story of two Italian Gen Xers touring their country and investigating its problems with a question in mind: Is it worth it to live here any more?

As filmmakers Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi reveal, many of their friends have already left the country, fed up with Italian society and alienated by its politics. “Italian universities are nepotistic and self-referential,” one says. “I joined my partner in Switzerland, where he and I can finally marry,” says another, who is gay. “The lack of job security…salaries that forced me to live with my parents” are reasons given for leaving. “I want to raise my sons in a country that reflects my values,” a mother explains.

Gustav and Luca, who are in love and living in Rome, wonder if they should follow suit. They make a plan to move to Berlin. But not before taking a good, hard look at the problems they wish to escape. Almost every issue examined in the film has an analog in America, from the mistreatment of immigrants, to the abuse of workers’ rights, to Italy's turbo-charged, polarized, oftentimes reactionary politics. In the end — spoiler alert — the duo decides to stay, though not for the reasons you might expect. 

NCR reached out to Gustav and Luca to speak with them about their film, and to talk about the challenge of creating social change when everything seems to be going wrong. 

NCR: What is the Italian title of the film?

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Gustav: It’s Italy: Love it, or Leave it.

In English?

Yes, we kept it in English.

That’s interesting. In America “love it, or leave it” is kind of an old-fashioned, blue-collar thing to say. 

Well, there was a short version for TV and that was in Italian, Italia: Amala o Lasciala. But for the cinema version we always kept the English title, because it works also in Italy. People understand it. 

The documentary really struck me. It was clearly by young minds for young minds, heavy while still being funny. But more importantly, all the problems you explore in Italy, they exist right here in America. Workers getting screwed, political corruption, environmental degradation…

The fanatics of the Tea Party… 

Exactly, there are American versions of all these problems. Were you aware of that when you first started making this documentary? 

It was very interesting for us. When we started to make this we were thinking mainly in terms of an Italian film about our own country, and this feeling of what attaches us to a place. And I think Italy is very special because it has many different facades. You have all of the extremes in a very small space. But then when we started to show the film around the world, it was great to see that people everywhere could relate to it. In the U.S., or in Brazil, or in Japan, this notion of “why should we stay in a place?” “How can we change a place?” Or “should we stay in a place in order to change it?” “Should we just give up?” These shades of grey existed in other countries. And that was surprising, and we were really happy that the documentary hit on a universal issue. But it’s also a little bit worrying that the whole world has moved in that direction. Paying workers less, not caring about the environment, political fanatics that make social harmony difficult…

…the objectification of women. 

Yes. So, Italy is always a little more extreme. Nowhere else is the merchandization of women in media, for example, so publicly accepted. This goes for other issues too. In the 1970s, Italy was ahead for progressive thinking people, but over the 80s, 90s, we got more conservative. So issues like women's rights, where progress was accomplished, it was taken for granted and chipped away at little by little through this media system of ours, which of course was created by [ex-Italian Prime Minister] Silvio Berlusconi.

What kinds of reactions did you get from people in other parts of the world to this film?

People were very thankful. In the first part of the film, we see all the problems, the bad side. But  the closer we got to the south of Italy, we started meeting people of different ages, different sexes, that were doing something against the status quo. Not just complaining. But trying to help -- in different areas of society, people working for change. So I think the message young people liked was that there is a possibility for change. But to get there we need to work for it. Change doesn’t happen on its own. We need people who are committed and believe in it. The choice at the end for us to stay in Rome, in Italy, that was not in the general mood of the country. People were saying “we have to leave.” So the fact that we stayed was totally against the mainstream. 

I think a similar mentality, or sense of dissatisfaction, also exists in America. People aren't moving away, but so many are fed up. The sheer number of things going wrong in this country is mind boggling. Racial tension, protests in Ferguson. Many of our waterways are being destroyed. You can’t live in many of our best cities — New York City, for example, has become so expensive. In the beginning of the film, you quote an Italian expat saying, “This country doesn’t reflect my values.” In America, I think you would be able to find many people — conservative, progressive, young, old, men, women — who would say the same thing. “This country doesn’t reflect my values.” It’s almost like we’re paralyzed by the question of our values…

You know, sometimes you don’t realize with whom you share a country, or a space. So I always think it’s always a good exercise and experience to get out of our own bubble to see that the world is also made of people who think in a totally different way. It’s an experience everybody should have, to get out and take notice. Maybe you say, “okay, this is not my cup of tea, and they will probably go on with their crazy views.” And that's fine. But what we have to do is to convince people, especially young people, that life can be very different. That things can change. 

For example, if you look at France, many people there had this feeling until the attacks of [Jan. 7th] that there are no values anymore. People felt as if they didn’t recognize themselves in their country. But what happened after the attack at the kosher shop and at the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, was something really incredible. People really remembered what the values of French, or I would even say European, society are: liberty of expression, freedom of speech. The value of freedom. [Gustav added later: "and to remember that a state should be secular, and that we should never allow religion to determine politics."]

Your documentary suggests that some of the problems we face today are complicated by old ways of thinking, or unbending old-school values. When you ask if it makes sense for a young person to stay in Italy, given the way things were going [in 2011], an older woman at a Berlusconi rally offhandedly answers you. Anyone can make a future for themselves, she says, so long as they “work hard enough." As if people can simply work themselves out of an opportunity gap. At the same time, the documentary also suggests that old-school thinking may be the solution to some of our problems. The reasons given for staying in Italy, for example, are very philosophical, very virtuous. The writer Andrea Camilleri says that leaving your country when the going gets tough is “the equivalent of a desertion." He says, “when you run away, the void you leave behind is inevitably filled by the negative things you are are escaping from.”

He was incredible…Oh, Luca just arrived.

[Luca arrives]

Luca: I’m so sorry for being late.

That’s okay. Hi Luca.

Hi.

So we were just talking about your reasons for staying. I found it very interesting that you ended the film with a visit to a monastery. If a similar movie had been made in America, I’m not sure religion would have played a part -- at least not from the perspective of an average young person. So many young people in America are turned off by religion.

Gustav: Well, we are not Catholics. We are atheists. But we share the view of the Benedictine monk we met in Puglia, because he represents a different way of believing. The monks live in a very isolated place where it’s not about richness or power. It’s really about being with yourself and finding yourself. And so it was a very emotional moment, and a very beautiful moment. 

Luca: They were very kind with us. They said if you want to spend time with us, you’re more than welcome and you can have a room, you can have dinner, but you have to do what we do. So we wake up very early in the morning, sing the songs, share the moment together. We spent like, two and a half days there — very intense — and when we finally had the chance to interview that monk, he was so wise. He quoted, was it Saint Paul?

Gustav: It was Paul.

Luca: He quoted Saint Paul about bad times [2000 years ago], and he gave a metaphor, “A tree that falls makes more noise than a forest that grows.” And that was perfect. It was the perfect metaphor, because if we are so focused on problems — and we are always so negative, we always want to talk about the little problems — we won't be able to solve anything. We needed to change our attitude. And that was the perfect metaphor.

Gustav: I would add, I think the Christian values are wonderful values. And you don’t have to be a Catholic to share in them and to try to live them. And regarding young people and religion, one problem in Italy is that religion has been so marginalized by the [actions of the] Catholic Church. But that is changing with the new pope. For young people, Pope Francis is a guideline in a society where we don’t have so many values anymore. 

How do Italians understand the message of Pope Francis? Do you find that they are listening to what he’s saying, and internalizing that message, or is it more that they're just getting a good feeling from him?

Gustav: Well, they listen, but then they don’t always behave. 

Luca: That’s the usual problem.

Gustav: Especially with politicians. They always say that they’re Catholic, but then in their actions they are totally the opposite. Especially when we talk about immigration, for example, where the pope a very clear message of welcoming people. You have these conservative politicians who campaign against immigrants and then at the same time say, “Oh, this pope is so great!”

Luca: You know Italy, yea? So If you’ve been there you know that people pretend to be Catholic, but in reality they’re not. The churches are almost empty. But like Gustav said, with this new pope something is changing. Now there is a return to the ancient values of Christianity, which are amazing values, of course. Nobody can disagree. They are universal. And it’s important that after so long, we have a pope who is trying to refresh those values, because unfortunately during Pope Benedict, it was terrible. It was…so mean, in a way, it was pretty mean…

Gustav: For us, being a couple, with the other pope, we felt constantly attacked by the Catholic Church. Or by the bishops, who could say terrible things in the name of the Vatican. And that has also stopped with this pope.  

Talk to me about Nichi Vendola. I think Americans, Catholics in particular, should know more about Nichi Vendola, because as you say in the documentary, he’s gay, he’s progressive and he’s Catholic. 

Luca: Yeah, he is a very great guy. He’s openly gay in the south of Italy where, traditionally, it’s not easy to be gay. Well, in the north too...but he is the governor of PugliaThis is also true in Sicily. Last year, they voted for an openly gay governor. So the south of Italy has actually revealed itself to be very open minded, voting for openly gay governors.

Gustav: But that’s not the only thing that makes [Vendola] special. 

Luca: No, of course not. He has a vision. He has a vision of society. And he has totally transformed his region. Italians, really, they didn’t think about Puglia until a few years ago when he became governor. Now, Puglia is one of the most desirable places in Italy. Everybody wants to go there for vacation. 

Gustav: And it’s not only the image of Puglia that he has changed. He built up programs that helped young people leave Puglia to go study abroad with a grant. The grant said, “you get this money for your studies, and after four years of study, you have to return to Puglia with your knowledge.” Otherwise, you have to give back the money. So, many people got the chance to study. And they went back because they wanted to go back, because they had a chance to do something. So really, in a region that was quite conservative, he was able to bring new energy by working with young people. 

Luca: With us he was totally available, very generous. We spent two or three days with him during his campaign. He made several speeches around the region and we followed him, watching his energy. It was so real. He wasn’t pretending. It wasn’t the typical politics, changing the face in front of the camera, when the lights goes on, and so on. He was the same person with us as he was with groups, in the square, with other politicians.

Gustav: He was really honest. 

Do you think that is the answer? Honesty, acceptance, but also policies that help set people free, financially, socially? How do you tie it all together? 

Gustav: It’s a mix of everything. Your attitude. Wanting to participate in change. And also believing that things can change, and not just criticizing, but figuring out what to do next. 

Luca: Engage.

Gustav: Being engaged. That’s necessary, you know, in your daily life.

Luca: When we first decided to make the film, that was almost four years ago by now. Maybe you know, 2011 was the 150 year anniversary of the unification of Italy. We wanted to play with the idea of that anniversary, because nobody really cared. One hundred and fifty years, and we are not united at all. We are always fighting each other. We are always so local. In Italy, there is not a vision of the nation-state, there is always a regional vision. Always a regional city, you know. So we wanted to play with that theme: we have this anniversary, but we are not united. And in a moment when the boat was really sinking, we wanted to do something controversial. Something, very, when you swim against the stream, how do you say?

Against the current.

Luca: Right, and we wanted to give this message: let’s pull together again for our own country. If we want to change it, if we want to save the situation. There was a moment in 2011 when we really believed that this change was coming. And in a way the change actually has a arrived. It’s not the real change we were looking for. But there is a change. And its not just Berlusconi [being out of office]. The garbage, the toxic waste in Naples, now is a little bit better. And the situation with the female body on public television, that has definitely changed. Unfortunately, some problems remain. There are still Fiat workers who are unemployed, after three years…But we wanted to give a fresh message. All of our friends in the beginning of the film were moving abroad. And we were very sad about it. Because we thought, if everybody moves abroad, then what is left of this country?

Are you happy that you stayed?

Gustav: Yeah. I mean, of course there are days when I say, “what am i doing here?” But in the end, you know, I think it’s a pretty good place to be. And you know, it never gets boring.

Luca: You never get bored. It’s so alive. It’s so unpredictable. Every day you have a surprise. To think that in four years we’ve had four prime ministers, can you imagine? Four governments in four years. Can you imagine?

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrontodaro@ncronline.org.]


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