NYU’s Casa Italiana presented a new Italian film, The Good Ground (La Terra Buona) on Monday, October 29th. The event was sold out, drawing over 200 people in one of the first showings abroad after being released in Italy in March, 2018. The film represents Italy at a crossroads—still a place of beauty, able to inspire and engage domestic and international audiences alike, is it able to recognize its own value and nurture those who seek to depict it?
The film is a fictional meeting of three real characters, all of whom the director, Emanuele Caruso, met in real life: a Benedictine monk, Padre Sergio, who lived in isolation for forty years, amassing an enormous library (featured in the film in its actuality), before disappearing four years ago; Gea, a young woman with terminal cancer; and Mastro (real name, Giuseppe Zora), a researcher forced to escape Italy because of his unconventional treatments for cancer patients. They meet on Monte Paradiso, set in Val Grande National Park in Piedmont, the largest wilderness area in Europe, each running from something (society at large, a cancer diagnosis, and the government, respectively), but also searching for some kind of discovery within themselves. This is why Caruso selected these characters as subjects – they all possess a spiritual dimension that provokes more questions than answers in the public.
The film follows a classic movie story structure: the characters are introduced as the plot is slowly pieced together, then a crisis hits, and the rest of the film concerns itself with its unfolding and resolution. Several Italian clichés, grounded in reality, are used, such as the small-minded attitudes of Italian villagers and the sarcastic scepticism of a young Roman urbanite towards his natural surroundings. The film is littered with comic relief of this kind.
But The Good Ground has a degree of genuineness that is hard to find in many new films. Part of the reason for this is practical: as Caruso mentioned in the Q&A following the screening, the film had to fare with an incredibly low budget of less than 200,000 euros (after a projected budget of 2 million euros). Almost half of this sum was collected via an Italian royalty-based crowd-funding platform called “produzionidalbasso” (productions from below), meaning that the “donators” are more like “investors” and receive a share of the box office profits once the film is released, ultimately in this case regaining all the money they spent. The Good Ground has been called a “small Italian miracle” due to its surprising success in Italy.
The low budget provoked the comparison, during the Q&A, between Caruso’s work and that of neorealist filmmakers (referencing a current exhibition at la Casa Italiana on neorealism) as the films produced during this cultural period in Italy, from about the mid-1930s to the 1960s, often did not have sophisticated means and frequently filmed on-site with non-professional actors. This degree of “authenticity”, if you will, is preserved in Caruso’s work, whether by design or necessity. As he asserted himself, due to the low stipends, he only worked with actors who had “married this film”, willing to spend two months in the mountains for low pay just to complete the story. The sparse equipment meant that only 3 lights were used throughout the entire film, so the crew had to rely more on natural light for shooting.
At one point in the movie there is an unlikely flying contraption consisting of a small automobile, a propeller and a parachute: Caruso assured us that even this machine was genuine and could really fly. He found it on Youtube and its inventors, also Italian, brought it up to the film set and allowed it to be used for free. The crew would not have been able to afford special effects. This brings to mind another Italian masterpiece, Visconti’s Gattopardo, in which the director required that even the chandeliers be genuine epochal pieces to maintain an authenticity that by that point was a pure principal, beyond the perception of the audience. Caruso might not share such a rigid philosophy, but his film reflects this truthfulness to materials and settings.
In a sense, the film can be seen as a triumph and celebration of the Italian community. On screen, the characters form strong bonds, despite their differences and without any internet; off screen, the project was funded by grassroots efforts and the 60 villagers of Capraga, the last village before the Val Grande, gave up their homes for two months so the cast and crew could lodge there for free.
But is this community enough, when among Italian producers, companies and funders ‘no one believed in this project,’ as Caruso claims? Dr. Zora had to run to Switzerland to continue to pursue his more unconventional research and Caruso has decided to pursue his next project abroad, outside of Italy, due to the difficulties in producing such works at home. The Good Ground, between the writing, organizing and shooting, was eight years in the making, in large part due to the continuous scramble to amass funds. HBO has bought the film, and Caruso sees this as a good omen for future projects.
It is time for the Italian cultural scene to ask itself if it wants to become an active cultural producer, or remain merely the muse for cultural production from elsewhere. Call Me by Your Name, an international hit, capitalized on the beauty in the Italian landscape, but it was a large and expensive international production. The Good Ground uses many beautiful shots of the Italian landscape, and more intimate ones of its people. Independent projects like this one, however, need more than genuineness from their crew and beauty from their environment to survive. They need a more daring cultural climate open to risks and ready to create out of the beauty surrounding them.