A not-so-real Italian Neorealism?

Artist reconsiders post-world war II poverty

Jessica Goethals
October 5, 2006

Afather carries his raggedly dressed child upon his shoulders as his wife hangs behind, guiding along their other son and lugging the family’s only suitcase. The father solemnly dresses the youngest boy, whose eyes see not the soiled linens hanging behind him but in-stead reveal an eagerness to run off and play. The children perch side-by-side on the ground, their bare feet digging into the dirt of the cave they now must call home. Their parents wrap their arms around one another, both figures dwarfed by the cave’s rocky opening.The series of 19 photographs recalls the 1940s Neorealist films of Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, or Vittorio De Sica. Were they shot in a deserted paese of southern Italy, thereby echoing these cinematographic forefathers in their strict adherence to the represen-tation of real people in their real environments? Hardly. The pieces in American photographer Nance Billington’s latest show, ‘The Cave’ (‘La Caverna’), were all shot at Franklin Canyon, just outside Hollywood, California.Billington, in collaboration with American artist Mario DiDonato, has recreated an atmosphere of Italian post-war poverty and loss from the shores of contemporary Los Angeles, picturing the story of a destitute family whose members, constrained by hardship, live their lives around the opening of the cave in which they now live. The photographs depict their disconsolate arrival, the necessity of estab-lishing a daily routine, the protectiveness of the parents and the resiliency of the children, the importance of love and faith, and the new beginning that follows a tragic ending.‘I prefer creating images that look as though they were from another era. I would like them to see that it can have a Mediterranean feel, the look of another time and place,’ says Billington. If asked what she would like Italians to see in her work, she responds, ‘The same thing.’ In this the photographer is already enjoying great success; the patrons and visitors of Giubbe Rosse (where the show celebrated its opening on Sept. 23 as part of the caffè’s Artisti e Autori series, curated by Tiziano Pecchioli) approach her with both specific guesses as to the shoot location as well as memories of their own regional landscapes. One visitor, for example, told Billington that she has a pic-ture from her youth in Calabria that uncannily resembles the terrain in the series’s penultimate photograph.Black and white film, carefully selected costumes, and a true family of four—DiDonato, his wife Tnah, and their children Domenico, six, and Paolo, four, were her models—are just some of the tools that Billington uses in her recreations. Although the series does evoke Ital-ian Neorealism, Billington and DiDonato are careful to specify that the subjects should not be labeled in terms of either nationality or class. While the artists intentionally invoke the desperation of the 1940s and cultivate a Mediterranean feel, they resist falling into all-too-typical patterns in the portrayal of poverty. The work endeavors to present the universality of both misfortune and human gracious-ness in the face of adversity. ‘A family is aborted from their reality, normalcy, and social standing. They are left wanderers, nameless and desolate,’ says DiDonato, ‘Do we see the obvious? Are they destitute, fallen aristocracy, or gypsies?’ The photographer purposefully seeks to allow for some ambiguity regarding the identity of the family. There are significant but easily-overlooked clues dispersed throughout the pieces that suggest that perhaps it would be too easy to brand the characters as archetypal. The aged undershirt of the father contrasts with the costly violin case at his feet, for example, just as the unexpected elegance of the suitcase is dissonant with the dusty corner of the cave entrance in which it has been left. ‘The Cave’ is Billington’s second show in Florence. Her first, ‘La Cena,’ shown at the FYR arte contemporanea gallery last summer, followed DiDonato as he prepared the dinner that he was never able to have with his mother, who died when he was ten months old. Like ‘The Cave,’ ‘La Cena’ was shot in Los Angeles, but Billington plans to begin her next project here. ‘I would like to recreate, as in La Terra Trema, the Italian fisherman community. I want to go to the South. I’ll shoot it in Puglia, I’ll shoot it in Sicily, but it will be in Italy.’‘La Caverna’ will be on exhibit at Giubbe Rosse until Oct. 20 and can be viewed during the caffè’s normal hours of operation.ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:Giubbe Rosse is located in Piazza della Repubblica, 13/14rFor more information on the Artisti e Autori series, visit:www.giubberosse.it .Jessica Goethals is a doctoral student of Italian Literature. She is residing in Florence this year while completing research at New York University’s Villa La Pietra.

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