ILesson 8

Italian Cinema

"Ciao Professore"

by Lina Wertmuller


1. Introduction.
Lina Wertmuller's own introduction to her film Ciao Professore sets the stage for the pervading element that drives this production: the everlasting confrontational attitude between Northern and Southern Italy and the quintessential differences in their cultures. In the following quote Lina expresses her goals and mentions the book that inspired her in this cinematic creation:

"The book "I, Let's Hope I Make It" is a fascinating, allegoric and desperate image of what the children were feeling. The focal point for me was to create the confrontation between the teacher who comes from the north (of Italy) and the children who are living the reality of the culture of the south. Telling a story about Naples would have been easier to do because in a big city there is a lot of criminality. But one of our choices was to make a film in a small village without the violence."

- Lina Wertmuller, director, Ciao Professore

Ciao Professore is certainly not Lina's first attempt at showing the division and the differences between the two Italies. The wealthy Italy of the North and the tragically poor Italy of the South. In 1976 Lina produced and directed Swept Away, critically recognized as a cinematographic masterpiece. It conveyed a powerful, honest message that demonstrated the inherent separatist differences and the racial behaviors between the two Italies. The historical question is: how did Italy reach such a point of disunity which, seems to constantly worsen as indicated by the formation of a fairly new political party, Lega Nord, which advocates the geographical and political division of the Italian nation, in spite of all the patriots who died for the process of Unification of 1861?

2. Historical background.
Since the fall of the Roman Empire in the year 476, Italy has experienced a socio/political division that, in spite of the many efforts of unification by individuals such as Machiavelli, Garibaldi and even Mussolini, has continued to separate the Italian landscape into perennially feuding factions.
It all began with the creation of the feudal states in the Middle Ages. Eventually, the political development of the European nations throughout the Renaissance led, for the most part, to the creation of nationalistic states. This was a natural development of the feudal states. However, this process did not occur in Italy where the political scenario was quite different. There we witnessed the development of a system of territorial states, though these were less than national in scope, that grew, not by the centralization of feudalism, but rather by the transformation and expansion of urban communes, the City-States.
The states of Renaissance Italy were indeed different from those of the North, (France, England, etc.) because the past history of Italy was so different, and that difference was partly the result of two purely political facts: first, the fact that, from the tenth to the thirteenth century, Italy was annexed to the Holy Roman Empire and, second, that the Popes ruled a territorial state stretching right across the center of the peninsula. Both the Emperor and the Pope claimed universal authority, and the inevitable conflict between them furnished the central theme of medieval Italian history, filling the land with the sounds of battlefield. In particular, the temporal sovereignty of the Popes was to make the evolution of a national state in Italy impossible.
There was, however, an other important factor that contributed to the political fragmentation of the Italian peninsula. It was a purely economic fact: the extraordinary early and vigorous development of Italian commerce, a commerce built on the exchange of goods between the eastern Mediterranean and the lands of western Europe that was responsible for the growth of rich and populous cities in the tenth and eleventh centuries. And it was the cities which, in the last analysis, were the decisive factor in the political life of central and northern Italy. They were the primary cause for the early decline of Italian feudalism, for, as the cities grew in wealth and power, the nobles were drawn into them as though by a golden magnet. And they (the cities) were the real victors in the struggle between the Empire and the Papacy for, by playing off one against the other and exploiting the weaknesses of both, the cities were able to win for themselves a practically complete autonomy.
When imperial power in Italy was permanently broken in the second half of the thirteenth century, and when the Papacy was transferred to Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the political void was filled by dozens of quarrelsome little city-states, each ruling the land around it and each pressing against its neighbors for more land to feed its people or for the control of essential trade routes.
At first, these little city-states were self-governing communes with a republican form of government. This was a common medieval phenomenon. Except for the degree of their independence and the fact that they ruled the land around them, they were not very different in actual form of government from communes elsewhere in Europe. But just at the beginning of the Renaissance a vitally significant transformation was taking place in the majority of the communes, as republican government collapsed and was replaced by the rule of despots or, to use the less prejudiced Italian term, of Signori.
This change, which marks the first clear break between the medieval commune and the Renaissance state, is the outstanding fact in the political history of Italy in the fourteenth century, as many historians have recognized by calling this period the Age of the Despots. These were strong individuals that ruled largely because they were able to do so, which affords them a certain force of character and a considerable endowment of cunning. On the whole, the despots were colorful characters, patrons of the arts and much given to original sins, and they furnished inspiring material for those Romantic historians who like to think of the Renaissance as a wicked age, in which art and vice attained an equal degree of aesthetic refinement.
Once established, these Despots, Signori, scorning the base ascents by which they climbed, proceeded to obliterate as rapidly as possible all traces of the popular origin of their office. Then, as the richer and more enterprising of them conquered other cities and built up a territorial state, they purchased the more resounding titles of Marquis or Duke from the Emperor or the Pope. They were now Princes, with all the semblance of legitimate sovereignty and the undisputed authority of absolute monarchs. Such were the Visconti and Sforza Dukes of Milan, the Estensi Dukes of Ferrara, the Gonzaga Marquises of Mantua, and the famous Medici family of Florence. These proved to be all successful city-states led by intelligent leaders who promoted the arts, developed commerce and accumulated a tremendous wealth for themselves and their citizens. How could one demand that they renounce all of this for the sake of a united Italy? Sadly, the individual success of cities like Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Padua, Ferrara and a score of many others proved to be a detriment to the ideal of unification. The great individualistic genius so praised for its artistic accomplishments in the works of Italian artists and poets of the Renaissance proved to be a political disaster for Italy where everybody is individualistic and unwilling to conform to the common needs of society.
Finally, after centuries of feuding among these divisive City-States, the process of unification of one Italy as a sovereign nation occurred in 1861, the Risorgimento. But it all seems to be in vain. Racism and classist, social and economic differences are, more than ever, dividing the Italian nation and this is the message that Lina Wertmuller continues to present to her audience.

3. Ciao Professore.
Ciao Professore
relates the apparently simple story of Marco Sperelli, brilliantly played by Paolo Villaggio, a northern Italian teacher who, by bureaucratic error, is given a pedagogic assignment in the southern Italian town of Corzano as opposed to Corsano, a town in Northern Italy. Sperelli's first experience with the educational disaster of certain Southern Italian schools is that the school is run by an unscrupulous janitor. He determines the opening and closing schedule of the day, he meets with and gives the assignments to the new teachers, and he is the one who dispenses to students and teachers bare necessities such as chalk and toilet paper; necessities for which he charges money. There is a clear accusation here by Wertmuller of the corruption of the bureaucratic machinery that runs the government offices in Southern Italy. The janitor, who well portrays the nepotism that plagues Italy (his wife is the school cleaner) enjoys total control of the school. He also seems to have the approval and the support of a disinterested and, frequently absent school principal, (high rate of absenteeism is another problem with government employees in many parts of Southern Italy) who is more concerned with the virility of her husband than with the education of the children.
As Sperelli enters the classroom he is now faced with another major problem facing poor Southern Italian school districts: the absenteeism of the students. Only three of his fifteen students are in class, the others are working in coffee or barber shops, or, even worse, hustling black market goods, all trying to help their families' disastrous financial conditions. Slowly, Sperelli will discover the misery and the poverty that plagues Southern Italy which stands in total contrast to the wealthy Northern economy. At one point Sperelli (Wertmuller) will make an interesting comment by saying that for a region of Italy (the South) where, supposedly nobody works, everybody is actually always working. Here Lina, demonstrating the potential work ethics of the Southerners, is trying to attack the stereotypical myth of the "lazy Southern Italian" who, perhaps, given the appropriate working environment could be as productive as any other Northern Italian. So, taking matters into his own hands, Sperelli goes through the town to find his students. Once he finds them, the spectator will meet the true protagonists of this film: the children. Given the time constraints of keeping this film to a reasonable length, Wertmuller does a marvelous job with creating unique personalities for each of the children. With their fresh faces and spontaneous style, each captures the essence of the character Wertmuller has envisioned for them. They will all stand out as individuals and not as a collective class. Through careful vignettes we will learn, in a personal and intimate manner, all about these children.
From Tomasina that will say :""Mr. Sperelli, can I tell you something intimate and personal?" to the chubby boy, Nicola who must have his periodic brioche during the day, and who will share his diet secrets with Sperelli, to Gennarino, the little boy who sleeps in class because he works at night, to the poor girl who must care for her infant sibling because her father is always drunk, to Raffaele, the delinquent boy who is in trouble with the law just like his brothers, thus perpetuating an endless cycle of crime, and with whom Sperelli will develop a close relationship and, above all, from whom Sperelli will learn about the bureaucratic corruption of Southern Italy (scene at the Hospital).
The story of a teacher and students learning from one another is certainly a popular theme that many directors have explored. However, with Lina, this theme becomes the foundation of a deep socio-political criticism depicting the division between Northern and Southern Italy. Lina, who is a Northern Italian, demonstrates a tremendous degree of honesty in presenting her message and, once the humor and the cuteness of the children are removed, we are left to ponder about the sad reality of their daily existence. Horrific living conditions, dilapidated buildings, crime all around them and a very bleak future. Lina has dealt with these issues in her previous productions, particularly with her film Swept Away (1976). However, nearly twenty years later, instead of presenting the perennial North/South feud with themes like violence, hatred, sexuality, revenge and lack of hope in ever resolving this issue (Swept Away), Ciao Professore portrays the same problem with a sense of acceptance and resignation, without any hatred and, perhaps, with a message of hope. And hope, as expressed by Wertmuller, is not in the process of possibly changing the horrific situation of Southern Italy, but rather in the interaction between the Northern Italian teacher and the Southern Italian students who will develop a true loving relation more powerful than any artificial division created by socio-political differences. Love is thus seen as the healing and bonding element between the two cultures. Love, although different and of a sexual nature, was also the only hope to reconcile these two worlds in Swept Away, but there the process failed. Lina's final message in that controversial film was that once society has regained control of the individual's expected place in its social order, even the deepest and most sincere love could not succeed in breaking down those artificial barriers (Swept Away).
In addition to being rich in themes and socio-political criticism, Ciao Professore is also rich in humor. In reality, humor will be used by Lina to coat her message and, perhaps, to allow us to momentarily forget the atrocities of this racist behavior that plagues Italy. Most of the humor is caused by the raw language used by the children. And here, unfortunately, the use of subtitles detracts from the humor. It is impossible to reproduce the nuances of the Neapolitan dialect, which, in itself, is highly entertaining. Another element lost, with subtitles, is the direct contrast between the children's Neapolitan dialect and the teacher's Northern dialect, a contrast which Lina cleverly uses to further demonstrate their social differences. Even in the most serious circumstances, thanks to the clever use of humor, Wertmuller never allows this cinematic production to become melodramatic. There is, however, a sense of ironic criticism by the repeated use of the song "What a Wonderful World" that reverberates in an abject, real world.
Ciao Professore premiered to high acclaim on the international film festival circuit (where it was called by its original title, Me, Let's Hope I Make It). The film is based on a book "Io, speriamo che me la cavo" which translates "I, let's hope that I make it" and it is the conclusive sentence of Raffaele's composition given to his teacher on the day of his departure to go back North.
Lina's conclusion of Ciao Professore leaves me puzzled as I discern two possible messages. The ending of the film certainly touches our hearts. We see in the expressive children's faces a desire to succeed, to break out of the social mold that imprisons them and a need to be helped. They are all there, at the train station, saying good-bye to the teacher who became their friend and protector, who gave them hope and encouragement and, above all, who showed them that it is possible to change that vicious cycle that seems to control the social structure of the world they live in. In that perspective, the movie concludes with a feeling of hope. Hope for the children, just as we have seen in many previous neorealist productions. However, in sharp contrast, in the scene at the train station, Lina also includes the school principal, with her new baby, who is symbolic of the stifling status quo and who, unfortunately, as symbol of the old order, is still in charge of the future of the children. With that pessimistic metaphor, Lina, who has been trying to change the separatist behavior of Italy with her movies for the past 30 years, now, seems to almost accept the inevitable and fatal destiny of the horrific socio-economic conditions in Southern Italy that, in her vision, most likely, will never change.