Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Pio's peeps

In 1966, John Lennon scandalously proclaimed the Fab Four were "more popular than Jesus". Some Italians today might be remarking, "Jesus, who?"

A new poll out today reveals that the big man the Italians pray to most -- to smite down a daughter's new marginally employed boyfriend or goose the lottery odds in their favor -- is the bearded monk Padre Pio, not the son of God. Mary doesn't fare much better. Some 31 percent of church-going Italians (when the pollsters ring, all Italians have a 100 percent attendance record) pray to Padre Pio first; just 9 percent turn to the Madonna and 2 percent to Jesus. In fact, Pio beats St. Anthony, the patron saint of flat tires, lost car keys and yes, the lottery.

Pio is clearly riding a Duomo-sized wave of positive PR. After witnessing the canonization of Pio just four years ago, the Committee to Elect Pio has not rested there. They are still an active force, distributing postcard-sized Pio images to delivery van drivers, shopkeepers and football fans. Pio's peeps are everywhere in Rome. If a driver pulls out blindly in traffic, endangering the lives of motorists, pedestrians and stunned onlookers, chances are there will be a Pio dangling from the rear-view mirror, explaining the unexplainable. If your dry cleaner mistakenly mixes up your order, giving your dress slacks to a 5-foot-1 Roman instead, don't expect to find an answer in that crumpled receipt you're clutching. Look instead into the soothing eyes of Pio above the cash register. You don't know suffering, silly straniero. Pio has a stigmata. What troubles do you have?

I am not the only one who finds Pio worship more than a bit disturbing. Father Tonino Lasconi, an expert on saints and religious teaching, told ANSA:

"Despite all their years of religious education our flock is extremely ignorant. They don't seem to realise Jesus and the Madonna are on a different plane".

I plan to use this line at the dry cleaner next time.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A day at the movies

I would like to take back my previous disparaging statements about contemporary Italian cinema. I've seen a lot of cinema lately, on the job and off. I've seen in the past few weeks, five Italian films, four of which were excellent, in fact, a few candidates for Il Sette Bello's "Best of 2006" designation. Sadly, there is not much demand for these films outside of Italy so you may have to wait until they come out on DVD, or check your art house listings.

They are (in no particular order):

La Stella che non c'e -- this one was shortlisted for the Golden Lion at The Venice Film Fest. Still, it's distribution outside of Italy is meager. It's a great tale about the creepy side of Globalization.

NuovoMondo - The New World. A Sicilian family, dirt poor and barely educated, strike off for America at the turn of the last century. Che magnifico! There are scenes I won't ever forget, including the creepiest marriage-arrangement scene on the grounds of Ellis Island. Extra props for the Nina Simone soundtrack.

Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio - A sweet documentary about the mixed-race community of Piazza Vittorio. The filmmaker and a musician assemble a group of African, South American and Asian musicians to form an orchestra. This is a low-budget doc, but the characters are brilliant and the music is really catchy. I particularly liked it as Rome seems, at times, to be the least multi-cultural city I've ever lived in.

N. Io e Napoleone. This one made a big splash at the RomeFilmFest, then fizzled at the box office. It's an historical pic about a mad chap from Elba obsessed with killing Napolean. Instead, he becomes the exiled dictator's personal secretary. Some great performances, great scenery and great story. And Monica Bellucci? Small role, but larger than life in person.

The Unknown ("La Sconosciuta") - Another FilmFest premiere, this one scored big reviews. I won't be so charitable. The cast is great, but director Guiseppe Tornatore (Malena, Cinema Paradiso)really has a problem with subtle suspense. The score was painful at times. This one though will likely get a good look from overseas distributors, but doesn't stand a chance in the ISB year-end "Best of" roundup. Sorry, Tornatore.

Sibillini at dusk

Here's a great photo courtesy of my mischievous neighbour Michael.

Six words or less

I'm teaching my students the art of brevity these days, no easy task to master, as is evident from this blog from time to time. Today, I came across this exercise in curtness, courtesy of Wired: construct a six-word story of your life. Nothing more, nothing less. 'Nuff said.

Mine might go something like this:
"Lost job. Misplaced priorities. Found paradise."

Friday, October 20, 2006

Italy: from chic to junk

Economists and bean-counters stole headlines from the celebs in the past day. The big news is not the FilmFest here, but instead the ingnominous position Italy finds itself in these days, credit-wise. S&P and Fitch, two of the big 3 credit agencies, cut their credit rating on Italy. Not good for a country with the third largest national debt on the planet. Italy's credit S&P rating is now A+, worse than Portugal, a country that was on the brink of 3rd world status 15 years ago.

The downgrade means Italy will have to pay out a higher interest rate to bond holders. But that's not exactly enough to motivate this G8 power to get its act together. Politicians instead prefer to point fingers at one another as to who's to blame. In a country of tax dodgers and cheats, the Finance Ministry has its work cut out.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Un bel blog, una bella Bellucci

There's a film fest in town. The biggest mass transit disaster in years hit Rome today. Why aren't I blogging this? Well, I've been a bit busy, covering the former for Variety and editing my students' blog about the former. Check out their work here:

Before I dash off again, I just want to leave this update: on Saturday, I dined with the most beautiful Italian (after Xtina, of course) in the world. One Monica Bellucci. It's difficult to breathe, let alone swallow porcini ravioli in her presence, but this reporter succeeded.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Sunday Times dining tip for Londoners: fly to Rome

This may be the strangest restaurant review I've ever read. The Sunday Times' AA Gill reviews a new restaurant in London's Mayfair by talking about, what else?, Gill's most recent dining experience in Rome. The Mews of Mayfair gets three stars (out of five). Hosteria del Pesce? *Five.

*we can only assume five, because, again, the assignment presumably was to review the place around the corner, not obsess about Roman cuisine for the preceding 12 paragraphs. But, Il Sette Bello agrees with *the grade.

(*correction: changed "her grade" in previous post to "the grade." Il Sette Bello regrets the error.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Benvenuti to the new-look Il Sette Bello

What do you think?

I've been playing with Blogger's new functionality. I like it. Do you? At the very least, it should clear up that silly problem with the spacing on the initial posting. Let's hope.

Tony Soprano v. Philip Roth

Yesterday, a package arrived. A gift, actually. It was a DVD for "The Sopranos", Series One. Grazie, Adam and Kelly. Xtina interrupted my we-got-a-new-DVD,-now-I-can-watch-famous-actors-
dance, with a stern pronouncement. "I have full veto power over this one", she informed. "I'm Italian. I know about these things. Americans don't know about these things".

It was creepy. It sounded just like a line out of "The Sopranos". I began to stake out a defence, sloppily. I informed her The Sopranos is the "most authentic treatment of contemporary America" (it's true; I used those exact words, gesturing at her with the DVD the way a preacher might wag at his congregation with a bible), then searching for a brilliant flourish, I summed up with: "ever!" Then continued: "It's more authentic than anything Philip Roth has written."

These are fighting words, and I knew it. Xtina considers Philip Roth to be her personal guide on all things America. Questioning his wisdom is an unforgiveable form of blasphemy in Xtina's mind.

And now, it's Xtina's turn at summation:

"That's BOO-shit!," she exclaimed. I stepped back. "They will be teaching Philip Roth in the schools in 1,000 years time. Where will your Sopranos be then? Heh?"

Xtina is a PhD. She knows about these things.

What's so interesting about men throwing balls at sticks?

This morning I woke to Xtina fussing about the bedroom, cursing the "damn metropolitane!" and agitating above me. Today is Friday, aka "strike day" or "lo sciopero" in Italy. The mass transit workers from toe to top, have planned a work action to paralyze the Italian machine of progress and force management back to the bargaining table. Ditto for the journalists. For good measure, Italian journalists are sitting out tomorrow too. In fact, this is the second straight weekend the Italian journalists have walked off the job, protesting the fact they are working under a lapsed contract. And so for today anyhow there will be no Italian tram drivers writing the news and no Italian journalists driving the trams. (All kidding aside, I have deep sympathy for the plight of Italian journalists. They work under difficult conditions, with or without a contract. But to strike on two straight Fridays and Saturdays? You're not earning too many sympathy points there, guys.)

I digress. It's this morning. Cristina. Agitating. Metropolitane!, she's complaining, now shaking me. It's not the tram drivers she's angry with. It's me. I woke this morning at 3:30 a.m. to catch the second half of the Mets game online. Xtina doesn't undertand why anybody would get up in the middle of the night to watch men throw a ball at a stick, as she says. She doesn't understand playoffs. She doesn't understand baseball. She doesn't understand my Mets rarely play a meaningful game in October. She doesn't even understand the term "Mets". "Metropolitans," I explained a few evenings prior. This is just after I casually mentioned I might be a bit sleep deprived come next week. "Come metropolitane," I explained, confusing myself now. Your favorite team is a commuter train, she wanted to know.

Italians don't understand our sports, nor our sport teams' name. Isn't the city enough? You need the city and a nickname?, they wonder. Excessive Americans. I don't want to hear it, of course. Since leaving the U.S., my big passion -- U.S. sports -- has been stifled. It's almost impossible, I find, to follow anything going on back home. Apparently, there's a scandal involving players taking performance-enhancing drugs. Phhhhhhhhhhhhht. Italians snicker at such child's play. Here, it's bribery, wire taps, match-fixing, suitcases full of cash exchanged in the middle of the night, coaches mysteriously falling off balconies to their death. And that's just the Vatican City intramural league. There are Italian kids, I'm told, who have posters of their favorite magistrates hanging on the wall, like the one who stripped the title from the mighty Juventus for paying off refs or relegated Napoli for cooking the books. (It must be noted that good ol' Ascoli plays fair, and thus they are doomed to mediocrity.)

But there's a bigger crisis at the moment. Xtina, with a big meeting today with other EU member states, couldn't fall back to sleep after the alarm sounded at 3:30. She tossed and turned all night, cursing the Metropolitane. She learned the phrase recently "on the rocks" and she's now using it liberally. At me. And my Metropolitans.

Mets in three, I predict. Otherwise, I'll be sleeping on the rocks.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A legend passes

I will get around to blogging about points closer to home in the coming days. God knows, I have some material. (My last trip to Le Marche, for instance, has my head spinning still; some bloggy therapy may be required to make sense of my trip to the cosmic world of black magic and country attorneys.) But alas, this is all for another day.

Today, I wanted to give a small, humble tribute to a journalist I never met, but have tremendous fondness for. Veteran NY Times reporter R.W. Apple died earlier this week at the age of 71. He had a truly fascinating career, parachuting in and out of war zones for four decades. In between, this gourmand would travel the world in search of the finest vintages and most sumptuous dishes. His death is a real loss. His very last article for The Times appeared today, a fitting tour de force in which Apple tells us his top ten favourite restaurants outside the U.S. (a few of which I hope to try out subito). Even better is a Washington Post homage to Apple, quoting friends, rival journalists, and admirers all.

Here's one gem of an anecdote from WashPo:

Jon Randal, author and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and New York Times, spent many overseas assignments with Apple:

I first met Johnny Apple in Sardi's in Manhattan in 1965 when to my horror I was informed out of the blue that I was assigned to the New York Times Saigon bureau to work under this exceedingly brash young man. Within weeks, I was won over by Johnny's energy, curiosity, speed and willingness to listen, occasionally even to me. He was a superb bureau chief, insistent on sharing the good stories with the other reporters in the bureau.

Over the next 40 years our paths often crossed. We became the best of friends. After I went to work for The Washington Post in 1969, that meant we sometimes competed on the same stories. He never let me or any other reporter forget how good he was. Johnny could sweep into Tehran in the last few weeks before the Iranian revolution in January 1979 and beat me on a story I'd been covering for a good year.

His passions were eclectic and his interests profound. He knew domestic politics as well as any reporter extant but also loved cricket, as well as professional football, baroque music, modern art and Venice, too -- and always the good life. For him that basically meant food and wine.

When we were younger, he would arrange week-long grand tours with two- and three-star restaurants for every lunch and dinner. In recent years, he relented a bit but still would enlist me during his regular Paris sojourns in, say, a three-day investigation of the mysteries of varied recipes for such simple fare as pot-au-feu .

And only last year we journeyed to northern Brittany, where within 24 hours he had us eating at the best fish place in St. Malo, then lunching at a one-star and dining at a three-star restaurant.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Newsroom reverie

It's been ten years now since I left the I-95 corridor of Central Jersey for what would be my first significant career decision: getting out of the New Jersey newspaper business. Ten years, three cities, and five-plus publications later, and I am struck at what fond memories I have for my first employer, The Home News (later to become the Home News Tribune, and now part of the Gannett empire.) The source of my warm feelings is Chuck Paolino, the best editor I've ever worked with. I've had many great editors, nimble with copy and sage with advice, but Chuck taught me valuable lessons about fairness and compassion and professionalism that go far beyond the newsroom. I have thought many times How would Chuck want me to handle this? while out reporting a story. Usually those words pop into my head as an adrenaline reflex when I'm seeing the worst side of human nature -- interviewing victims of a bus-bombing in Isreal a few years back, and a hostage crisis a few months later, are two episodes that come to mind.

Why this sudden bout of sentimentality? Because I just spotted today Chuck has a blog. If you were ever curious about what goes through the head of an assignment editor at a local paper: check out what he has to say. It's worldly and witty, compassionate, humorous and silly. Vintage Chuck.