“The Economics of a Film are the Politics of a Film”: Abel Ferrara’s PIAZZA VITTORIO

By James Kenney. Originally published at whatchareading.com in 2017

Abel Ferrara is back, thank God, with a short and sweet documentary, PIAZZA VITTORIO, named for the multi-cultural district Ferrara currently resides in.

Known for Rome’s biggest public square and historically for an open-air market (that’s no longer there), Piazza Vittorio was built in the 19th century around the ruins of the 3rd century Trofei di Mario. It is an ever more global hub of trade and lethargy, with recent immigrants from Africa joining Chinese and Egyptian emigrants in either finding work, or lying about the square drinking and sleeping.  Whether a positive or negative development, one thing inarguable is that these migrants have for thirty years been replacing the aging Italian population, who have ambivalent (but not necessarily hostile) feelings about the area’s evolution.


Done with Ferrara’s customary mischievous wit and acute, humanistic eye, PIAZZA VITTORIO also doesn’t shy away from images of squalor and addiction, not surprising as Ferrara is still most renowned for violent, heated fictions such as KING OF NEW YORK, BAD LIEUTENANT and DRILLER KILLER, even as those titles increasingly fade in the rear-view mirror.  Ferrara has always been a believer in human grace – what makes the endings to NEW YORK and LIEUTENANT so potent are Walken’s failure to redeem himself in the former and Kietel’s liberation-theology based redemption in the latter — and his recent conversion to Buddhism has only polished this perspective, so that even his recent, brilliant, end-of-the-world drama 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH is hopeful, dripping-wet in love and compassion.  PIAZZA VITTORIO is itself a brisk, optimistic review of a transformation unfolding in Rome that easily translates to current population makeovers happening all over the globe.

Speaking at the 55th New York Film Festival U.S. premiere of the film, Ferrara was rather unkindly contentious with the woman from the film society who was interviewing him, but he did pointedly say “the economics of a film are the politics of a film” and spoke about making the film on his “phone.”

Not precisely true, with some striking and communicative photography by Tommaso Borgstrom (who, Ferrara reported, passed away at 50 only a week before this screening), the film is nevertheless made by a recent immigrant to Rome, about immigrants to Rome, with a sympathetic perspective. It turns out Ferrara has married a Moldovan immigrant to the Piazza Vittorio and has had a daughter with her (they feature in the film), and recurrent Ferrara star Willem Dafoe also married a locale and relocated here from New York. Clearly they all are captivated by this expansive, untidy, quixotic locale, and Ferrara offers respect to both struggling immigrants and mistrustful Italians in his editing and presentation of their arguments and defenses.

Ferrara brings the Piazza Vittorio to pleasing life in this 75-minute documentary, presently without a  U.S. distributor.  Interestingly, much of Ferrara’s recent documentary work, such as CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS, NAPOLI, NAPOLI NAPOLI and MULBERRY ST., have received healthier distribution in the U.S., at least on DVD, than his 21st century fictional narratives.  MARY (with Juliette Binoche), and GO-GO TALES, and PASOLINI (both with Dafoe) have never received suitable theatrical OR home video releases in our country.  It’s not hard to understand why Ferrara has migrated to Italy (where his grandfather was born) “looking for work,” and he delivers a typically singular, absorbing, and thoughtful documentary.

In celebrating the evolution of his local community (warts and all, it’s hard to see Ferrara as an advocate of closed borders after viewing this), PIAZZA VITTORIO is an unconventional and lucid consideration of 21st century man’s uncertain standing in the cosmos, whether as a nomad or “to the manor born.”  Seek this out.

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