Italian, Film, and Me

When I was in fourth grade, for some reason the gifted and talented program that I was placed in decided to hire a woman, two days a week, to teach us German. Why not Spanish or French? I have no idea. My best guess remains that the administrators simply couldn’t find an instructor in Northwest Indiana prepared to teach either of those languages to a roomful of nine year olds.

At any rate, Fraulein Leep was a delightful, energetic instructor auf Deutsch, and I took to the language immediately. I think at that age, I was probably just on the edge of that neural plasticity that allows children to become proficient in a second (or third, etc.) language much more effortlessly than adults. If it had been spoken around me more often than just two days a week, and/or presented as language immersion rather than dry grammar and vocabulary lessons, I probably would have achieved something close to fluency. Regardless, I had a natural affinity for the language and seriously studied it from then all the way through high school. I even declared German as my major as an incoming freshman at Indiana University, before abandoning it for English and Film Studies.

In high school, desperate to weasel out of math and science classes whenever I could, I eventually added French and then Spanish to my schedule. I’d convinced my guidance counselor it was OK because I would be going into international studies, hoping to become a translator or interpreter. I can no longer recall if I actually believed any of those arguments myself. But, I do know that I genuinely loved studying languages for the sake of themselves. I was also quite impressed with my newly invented identity as “language girl.”

So convinced I remained of my ability to pick up new languages with relative ease that, in the summer of 1999, I decided that I was going to teach myself Italian. Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful had recently been all the middlebrow rage, and I remembered a Mexican literature professor mentioning that he was able to get around Italy just fine, speaking Spanish, as long as he spoke slowly enough. I reasoned that the bits of Spanish and French I knew could only help my effort, so I procured a copy of Italian for Dummies to get me through the basics.

I was working that summer in the office of a small steel manufacturing company in Hammond, Indiana. I recall very little of whatever tedious tasks I was assigned to complete, only that there was barely enough to keep me busy for a full day. This was just before the Internet really took hold as a business necessity, so, instead of spending my downtime surfing the web, as I would were I in that position now, I somehow got away with reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels in chronological order and studying my Italian flashcards at my big metal desk in the corner.

Since I never had anyone to practice or converse with, though, very little of the Italian I managed to cram into my brain stuck with me. But, I developed something of a fixation on Italy itself. Still considering myself a nascent Woman of the World, I declared that the next foreign country I wanted to visit, after I spent the summer of 2000 studying abroad in London, was Italy. In proto-vision board style, I took home a clean paper placemat from some church fundraising spaghetti dinner to hang on my bedroom wall, simply because it had a map of Italy on it.

Life, as it tends to, intervened, though, and these past fifteen years I’ve been less the international playgirl than I thought I would one day be. A weekend trip to take precepts at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto in the summer of 2009 made Canada my next visit outside the U.S., followed by ten or so days in Ireland three years later. I still haven’t been to Italy and even question whether, as a woman in her mid-thirties in the post-Eat, Pray, Love era, that aspiration might even be an embarrassing cliché at this point.

So, as Italy remains a dream for me, it makes sense that I would adore the deliciously dreamlike film The Great Beauty. Chicago’s excessively cold temperatures were no match for its two hours and twenty minutes of beautiful people wandering around Rome, celebrating life and philosophizing about death. I’ve always been notoriously bad at parsing plotlines (something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy makes my brain numb), so I was grateful to this nearly stream-of-consciousness visual extravaganza, where nothing much happens anyway. I was freed to just revel in the endless dance party sequences, the golden light bathing the city’s architecture in a sensual glow, the impeccably fashionable clothing worn by even the minor characters, and the director’s loving meditations on the lines in lead actor Toni Servillo’s face.

With notions of failure, and regret, and loss, shading the edges of the revelry, though, main character Jep Gambardella finds himself questioning the choices he’s made with his life. Was it the right career? The right place? The right time? His friends and associates (and often strangers as well) repeatedly ask him why he never wrote a second novel after his first and only youthful success, as if there could be a satisfying answer to such a question.

Because I watched my own father fail, in ways both major and minor, for so many years, I’ve long had a soft spot for these kinds of stories about men reckoning with what they didn’t, and couldn’t, achieve in their lives. Now that he’s gone, and now that the passage of time has brought me to what, I suppose, counts as the beginning of the middle of my own story, I wasn’t sure if I was identifying with Jep’s aimlessness on behalf of my father, or on behalf of myself. Jep, though, does eventually find inspiration for his future in a key memory from his past. I have to believe there’s still plenty of time for me to not only find inspiration from my past but to actually allow it to remain in the past as I build a future for myself that’s better than any dream.

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